The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Shelley Fisher
Dempsey, Terrell. _Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World_.
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. 316pp. $24.95. ISBN
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Copyright (c) 2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
"Curiously, earnestly, anxiously we peer into the dark, and wish even for
the blinding flash, or the light of northern skies to reveal him. But alas!
he is still enveloped in darkness, and we return from the pursuit like a
wearied and disheartened mother, (after a tedious and unsuccessful search
for a lost child,) who returns weighed down with disappointment and sorrow.
Speaking of marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities, we come before our
readers." Frederick Douglass, "The Heroic Slave" (1853).
Frederick Douglass wrote these words when he tried to research the life of
one particularly admirable slave. The paper trail simply wasn't there. The
slave remained "still enveloped in darkness." If the failure of his search
left him "weighed down with disappointment and sorrow," Douglass decided
that he could at least imagine him for his reader. And that is exactly what
he did in his one venture into fiction, the 1853 novella, "The Heroic
Slave," where, "speaking of marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities,"
Douglass came before his readers.
These words would undoubtedly resonate with Terrell Dempsey, author of
_Searching For Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World_, who found, as Douglass
had, that the historical record was riddled with frustrating gaps. But,
like Douglass, Dempsey refused to meet absence with silence. Likening
himself to "an archaeologist sifting through the soil for physical remnants
of a culture," Dempsey painstakingly shares with his readers the "marks,
traces, possibles, and probabilities" suggestive of the kind of life that a
slave like the character Mark Twain calls Jim in his novel _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_ might have lived.
This remarkable book should be required reading for anyone interested in
Twain, and for anyone teaching Twain. And it should once and for all shame
the tourist mecca of Hannibal, Missouri into replacing its neglect of its
slave past with an accurate and respectful acknowledgment of this painful
chapter of history--a chapter of history that made an indelible impression
on the child who became Mark Twain.
As Dempsey notes in his preface, in "America's Home Town" (as Hannibal
calls itself) "the visitors and convention bureau and the Mark Twain
Boyhood Home (never Sam Clemens) have cleaned up local history to match the
Norman Rockwell-sanitized version of the town as a childhood paradise. It
is a world where little freckle-faced white boys and blond pigtailed white
girls frolic freely. It is a world of perpetually carefree youth." If
Dempsey's book is taken to heart--as it should be--by his neighbors
(Dempsey is an attorney practicing in Hannibal), then those airbrushed
images "carefree youth" will be offset by some of the disturbing images he
gives us of the care-filled youths of Hannibal's slaves.
Dempsey ably absorbed all of the familiar primary and secondary sources
about the area in which Sam Clemens grew up, and, when necessary,
challenged their accuracy (sometimes countering Clemens's own
characterizations of that world). He then painstakingly combed all of the
microfilm files of local newspapers that he found in the Hannibal library,
as well as public records, county newspaper files, personal archives,
photography collections, and other sources, to piece together a rich and
illuminating book about slave life in the region.
He has culled (and reproduced) newspaper advertisements for slaves the age
of Huck and Tom and younger that should be circulated in every classroom
where Twain's work is taught. His investigation of the business of slave
"rentals" demonstrates that the term "slave-owner" embraces too limited a
view of the role of slavery in supposedly non-slave-owning households. He
provides new insight into the role of Hannibal churches in slave culture,
and the role of the abolition movement as well as the emancipation and
colonization movements in the region. He has new things to tell us about
the career of John Marshall Clemens, the lives of young slaves in Hannibal
homes, the experiences of runaway slaves and would-be runaways, crimes
committed by slaves, the fears of slave-owners, Sam Clemens's activities
during the Civil War, and the nature of the slave trade in Hannibal.
All this would be enough for a fascinating volume. But one of the most
unexpected and interesting dimensions of this book is Dempsey's discovery
of racist dialect tales that appeared in newspapers for which Sam Clemens
worked and which, in some cases, Clemens himself may have set in type,
learning, on a physical level at least, how difficult it was to set dialect
on the page.
Dempsey sets the record straight on a number of points that have long been
garbled by scholars, including what Sam Clemens did during the Civil War
(he was an irregular with the Missouri State Guard--not a Confederate
irregular, since Missouri was not part of the Confederacy). He paints an
indelible picture of slavery in the world in which Sam Clemens grew up, and
provides a level of detail about slaves, slave-owners, slave-renters, and
other aspects of life in ante-bellum Marion County that has never before
been available to readers in one place.
Wanting to share with his readers the excitement of discovery, and
recognizing, perhaps, that different readers will find different aspects of
these recondite primary sources useful, Dempsey usually reprints relatively
brief newspaper squibs in their entirety, sometimes making the book read
more like a sourcebook than a monograph. Since this rich body of primary
materials is not available anywhere else, Dempsey's generosity in sharing
so much of it with the reader is, in my view, a strength of the book. Some
readers, however, may find the disconnected quality that results a bit
jarring, and might miss a more sustained and consistent analysis. In place
of theoretical synthesis one gets a rich montage of primary sources that
scholars will undoubtedly draw on for decades as they spin their own
theories about what it all means.
The rather disjointed quality of some of the book's short self-contained
sections harkens back to a genre of local history texts to which this book
is not unrelated--useful books like R.I. Holcomb's _History of Marion
County_ (1884) and more recently Hurley and Roberta Hagood's _The Story of
Hannibal_ (1976), _Hannibal, Too: Historical Sketches of Hannibal and Its
Neighbor_ (1986), and _Hannibal Yesterdays: Historic Stories of Events,
People, Landmarks and Happenings In and Near Hannibal_ (1992). But despite
some surface resemblance to these earlier books, Dempsey's ambitious volume
goes miles beyond them, embracing documents these earlier works ignored,
and asking questions that probably never occurred to their authors.
Dempsey's careful attention to the links between Mark Twain's fiction and
the history that informed the world of his boyhood makes _Searching for
Jim_ more an amalgam of this first genre and more narrative-driven
biographical/critical volumes like Dixon Wecter's _Sam Clemens of Hannibal_
(1961) or Ron Powers's eloquent _Dangerous Water_ (1999).
The reader of _Searching for Jim_ gains more useful insight into the world
of Sam Clemens's childhood than the reader of any biography of Clemens that
has yet appeared. And if the book is indispensable to Twain scholars and
teachers of Twain's work, it is also likely to be extremely useful to
scholars and teachers of American history, given the adept way in which
Dempsey interweaves so much of the broader history with which this
particular story intersects.
"Researching and writing this book has been a wonderful, yet frustrating
experience," Dempsey writes in his Postscript. "Letters, diaries, ledgers,
and notes are the things of historians' dreams. Through these the historian
glimpses the unpolished ideas of the people he studies. Jim could write
none of these. But Samuel Clemens could. It is ironic that I find myself
back where I began this journey. I began looking for Jim by reading
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. In the end, that is where I find him,
fully fitted with heart and soul."
I, for one, am glad that Terrell Dempsey peered "curiously, earnestly,
anxiously" (as Frederick Douglass had) into a chapter of America's slave
past and emerged "after a tedious and unsuccessful search" somewhat
"wearied and disheartened," but nonetheless undaunted. For the result is
the 2lst century's most interesting book to date about Mark Twain:
_Searching for Jim_.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University