restricted access Rediscovering Twain: Beyond Huck Finn and the Tall Tale
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Rediscovering Twain:
Beyond Huck Finn and the Tall Tale

I was not a “Twainiac,” as many of my cohorts came to call themselves, during the summer of 2011. Yet I understood and valued Twain’s contribution to the American literary canon and had looked forward to attending the NEH Summer Institute “Twain and the Culture of Progress” with the hope that I would gain a fresh perspective. Facilitated by Kerry Driscoll and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, the institute was a three-week-long intensive study of Twain’s formative experiences in Virginia City, Nevada, as well as in Hartford, Connecticut. We spent time in Virginia City tracing Clemens’s emergence as a writer capable of rendering the nuances of regionalism and humor during westward expansion, and then we studied at the Twain House in Hartford where Samuel Clemens lived the life of Mark Twain.

I began my career as a public high school English teacher, so my experiences with Mark Twain had been limited to the requisite teaching of the canonical titles and tales, and in many ways, I had grown tired of it. It had become harder for me to make the text relevant for my students—I had read and taught it so many times that I could anticipate almost all of my students’ questions and responses. I was tired of reading (and trying to explain to sixteen-year-olds) the “duke and the dauphin” chapters and I just needed a break. When I began teaching at the Community School of Naples a few years ago, I vowed, “Never again.” I said to anyone who would listen that I would no longer teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my classroom. Ever. For the last several years, I have adhered to this admonition. However, after spending those few weeks participating in the institute I was ready to invite Sam (I became more intrigued with the man than the myth) and some of his lesser-known characters into my classroom. And while I don’t know if I will ever invite Huck back, I have shifted into using Twain primarily to teach the technicalities of style, satire, and humor in my classes. Certainly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a place in the American literary tradition because it is a rich text full of all of the literary devices and tropes of American realism. Yet, too often, teachers are limited—either by their departments or districts or by themselves—in their teaching of this text. They gloss over the moral wrangling that Huck goes through and often work to make everything “come out alright” in the end, but in doing so I think they ultimately do a disservice to their students and the text. Huck’s pivotal decision to face damnation for the man who has now become his friend is complex, and many [End Page 118] teachers are unwilling to address these sensitive but necessary issues. Notions of race, class, and “otherness” remain a part of national and global conversations that students must learn to navigate. Huck and Jim’s relationship can serve as a way to invite students into these conversations and address the nuances of human relationships beyond Twain’s historical rendering of American slavery. Although it remains a novel anchored in a particular place and time, its themes need not be.

Alternately, teachers force Twain into students’ lives with overly anthologized pieces such as “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” or “Corn Pone Opinions.” Now, these are funny pieces to be sure, but much of Twain’s humor has lost its context and, therefore, relevance. And while adults might be able to grasp the humor despite the anachronistic references, contemporary students will struggle. However, with proper framing and thoughtful selection of shorter pieces, teachers can use Twain to teach students the craft of writing humor rather than insisting that students find meaning in humor for which they have little interest. Teachers should also remember that he is a master of the art of satire. This kind of humor surrounds our students in the digital landscape that is increasingly their natural habitat, yet they often have a difficult time recognizing and writing...