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Scott Holmes <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 20 May 1994 17:52:13 -0700
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  I thought I would try to summarize my views on this subject in
relation to the recent posts.  I doubt that anyone at all familiar with
Mark Twain consider him to be racist or politically incorrect.  But then
again the vast majority of Americans (in my opinion) are not familiar with
any form of literature at all.  As with all book burners, censors and
assorted bigots, the main source of fuel is stupidity and enforced
There is a section early in Twain's autobiography that, I think, pretty much
sums up his personal feelings on the matter of slavery:

    "  There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days
  which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to
  me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid
  and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years.  We had a little
  slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal.  He
  was from the eastern shore of Maryland and had been brought away from
  his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold.
  He was a cheery spitrit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature
  that ever was, perhaps.  All day long he was singing whistling, yelling,
  whooping, laughing -- it was maddening, devastating, unendurable.
  At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother and
  said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break and I
  couldn't stand it and wouldn't she please shut him up.  The tears came
  into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:

    `Poor thing, when he sings it shows that he is not remembering and
  that comforts me; but when he is still I am afraid he is thinking and
  cannot bear it.  He will never see his mother again; if he can sing I
  must not hinder it, but be thankful for it.  If you were older you
  would understand me; then that friendless child's noise would make you

    It was a simple speech and made up of small words but it went home,
  and Sandy's noise was not a trouble to me any more.  She never used
  large words but she had a natural gift for making small ones do
  effective work.  She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years
  and was capable  with her tongue to the last -- especially when a
  meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.  She has come handy to me
  several times in my books, where she figures as Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly.
  I fitted her out with a dialect and tried to think up other improvements
  for her but did not find any.  I used Sandy once, also; it was in
  _Tom Sawyer_.  I tried to get him to whitewash the fence but it did not
  work.  I don't not remember what name I called him by in the book."

  The history of distain and rejection of Huck Finn is apparently more
complex than I had originally thought.  Beth Regish sent me a private post
mentioning several interesting points.  The first of which was that
initially Huck was banned because of his bad grammar and was not "racially"
motivated at all.  Unfortunately, and in all too many instances a simple and
relatively unimportant point has the greatest impact on the greatest number
of people.  The use of the word "nigger" has become the single most
significant thing about this book.  It is the thing that I've heard most
remarked on in any discussions I've had regarding the book.  It is the thing
that prevents Henry Chapin from reading either Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer to
children.  It is a thing that I doubt Samuel Clemens would ever have
to be the all important point of any of his writings.

  In regards to young children, I don't pretend to have an answer.  I do
that sooner or later the issue will need to broached.  When is the proper
and context?  I can't say.  When does an adoptive parent tell a child that
have in fact been adopted?   When is the best time to teach about sex?  What
level of protection is necessary or even desirable.

  Is it appropriate to teach Mark Twain in schools, of course.  Is it
worthwhile?  Another point altogether.  It seems that in this day that
teaching anything at all is a frustrating and often a futile venture.  I've
heard it reported that the current generation of school kids is the most
ignorant in America's history.

  Is it important that an historical perspective exist before Twain's work
can be understood or appreciated.  Absolutely, however, I think that
to his writings can go a long way in providing that perspective.  Assigning
readings from his vast collection of works in the course of teaching
history would provide fresh insight into those times.  After all, the
greatest portion of his work is as a travelling journalist reporting on what
he'd seen and experienced on a world wide scale.  I don't recall any real
use of his materials when I was in school and I'm sure there is even less
of it now. In fact, I really can't recall how I ever became exposed to
Mark Twain's writings.

  In regards to Hal Holbrook, I'd noted in some earlier posts interest in
Holbrook tapes and such.  So, there must be some acceptance of his
performance as a valid representation of Twain.  It would be a shame if
that remained the only perception of Twain to remain in the American
consciousness but it may be better than nothing.  At least it's not false
(merely incomplete), like so much of what passes for history in today's
docu-dramas (no emphasis on the docu).  Given today's TV Guide level of
comprehension of the general population, it may be the best we can hope for.
I'm not worried that Mark Twain will disappear, I just think it's a real
shame that the general level of intelligence in this nation's population
has made this series of posts necessary.

  Robert Champ has proved me with a fresh perspective into the closing
portion of Huck Finn.  His comments on Tom Sawyer's "romantic" nature ring
true and Sawyer's behaviour is certainly consistent with that in his own
However, my impression had been close to Ted Ficklen's remark that
" looks to the uneducated eye like he just got lost. And it seems that
for awhile there Huck and Tom have an awful lot of fun at poor Jim's
But then again, that's not at all contrary to Robert's statement.

  Anyway, thank you all for posting in response to mine.  This is my first
attempt at real discussion on the Net and the first time in over a decade
that I've tried to do any kind of analytical writing.  I hope I've covered
the salient points brought up and not taken up unnecessary band-width.

Scott Holmes