LIGHTING OUT FOR THE TERRITORY
April 1, 1997
Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of American studies in English at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture.
JIM LEHRER: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of American studies in English at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Fishkin, thousands of Americans go every year to Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up to see all the sights. You went there as a scholar of Mark Twain and were angered by what you saw. Why?
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN, Author, "Lighting out for the Territory": Well, I thought that there was an opportunity being missed. There was a story which I find one of the most fascinating and compelling stories our culture has produced, and thatís a story of Mark Twain, himself. How did a young child who was the son of slaveholders, who grew up in a slaveholding community, who was taught that slavery was God ordained and right, become a man who believed that civilization began when slavery was abolished and become a writer who went on to write one of the greatest anti-racist novels by an American? This is an incredible story, and--
DAVID GERGEN: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Yes, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which is really a landmark work in American literature and this story was invisible in Hannibal.
DAVID GERGEN: And what you found in Hannibal was really a city that was dedicating itself to Tom Sawyer in some ways?
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Yes. Itís Tom Sawyerís town, and I donít mean to suggest that "Tom Sawyer" isnít a worthy book in its own right, but when I spoke with the head of the Tourist Bureau and asked her where one would go to find some evidence that Twain grew and changed and rejected some of the tenets of his childhood, she looked at me rather blankly and said, "Well, we only promote the boyhood years. We only promote the little boy who played with marbles and whitewashed fences. We donít promote the time when he was--when Huck was down the river with Jim. Weíre not really interested in what Twain did after he left Hannibal." Well, of course, Hannibal wouldnít be a Mecca for tourists if people didnít care about what Twain did after he left Hannibal, which is what Sam Clemens did after he left Hannibal, which is become Mark Twain. And "Tom Sawyer" was a book which celebrated childhood, which did allow some of the darker aspects of that childhood to seep through, but by and large ignored the really tough issues that Twain chose to grapple with in Huck Finn, which was how a society that considers itself civilized could deny the humanity of large numbers of people.
DAVID GERGEN: And why do think Hannibal and other parts of America prefer to remember Tom Sawyer and not Huck Finn in that way?
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Well, I think the legacies of slavery are still with us. We havenít eradicated the racism that Twain was writing about. Itís still a painful subject. And itís easier to bury it. Itís easier to pretend that it wasnít there. I went to a pageant called "Reflections of Mark Twain" which enacted scenes from--in Hannibal--scenes from "Tom Sawyer," from "Huck Finn," from "Life on the Mississippi." And there was no Jim in it. They took some of his lines and transposed it to conversations between Huck and Aunt Polly while Aunt Polly shells peas on the front porch, a completely ludicrous thing to do with that work, but there was not any reference in the pageant to the fact that Hannibal had been a slaveholding town, the fact that there were black people living there. There was a community of free blacks, as well as slaves. There was a very rich oral heritage, oral tradition that played a key role in turning Sam Clemens into the kind of writer that Mark Twain became, and none of this was there. I missed it.
DAVID GERGEN: And youíre saying, in effect, weíre in denial about the darker side of--
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: --experience--
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: I think that a book of fiction like "Huck Finn" gives a very human face to the betrayals and the hypocrisy and the racism of the past. And thatís very, very hard for a lot of people to deal with. Itís much easier to just pretend that itís not there, or to ignore the more combustible aspects of it.
DAVID GERGEN: I wonder if thereís another interpretation possible about Hannibal and elsewhere in America, and that is whether many Americans think that theyíre in some ways in shock to the degree to which the old culture has been lost, but they feel that thereís too much irreverence, thereís too much cynicism about Americaís past, and they would prefer some place, as in Hannibal, to remember the simpler and better things.
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: I think thatís interesting, and I think that Twain is actually available to them for all of those purposes. He trained a double vision on that world, and he idealized it and romanticized it occasionally, but he also saw through that idealization to its more troubling aspects, and itís a bit like the pilot and the passengersí views of whatís going on in the river. The passenger just sees a shimmer and danger and is just--finds it al wondrous, whereas, the pilot understands that that shimmer is caused by something that is about to crash your boat if you donít steer clear of it.
Twain retains the ability to be both the passenger and the pilot, and he gives us the chance to look at aspects of the past that are appealing but also to recognize that beneath that surface there is still danger. He probably celebrated America more than just about any other writer of his time, but he also had skepticism about the ultimate value of that kind of celebration. I mean, at one point he said, "I think thereís only one thing that can be called by the wider name American, one true specialty with us, and thatís the national devotion to ice water." He didnít take it too seriously but he also took it very seriously. What he took seriously was making those ideals that were on paper have bearing on the reality and pointing out the gap between the ideals and the reality, and he had tremendous hope for his country, a tremendous belief in his fellow citizens, but he also had great skepticism about their living up to those--those ideals, and didnít hesitate to point that out all the time.
DAVID GERGEN: Iím wondering if there is--if Twain isnít represented by both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: I think he is, and I think that part of him understood the ways in which Tom Sawyerís kind of play was very seductive and very appealing, but part of him also understood that it could be very dangerous. I think that the way in which Tom plays with Jimís dignity and Jimís humanity in the last part of "Huck Finn" was very parallel to the ways in which the nation played with the dignity and the humanity of the freed blacks after--after the Civil War in the 80's when Twain is writing.
DAVID GERGEN: One final question. Itís interesting. You called attention to the fact in your book that some black Americans have attacked the teaching of Huck Finn in your schools. How do you address that, those concerns?
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Well, I think that slavery and its legacies still pack an enormous punch. Theyíre very difficult subjects. In "Huckleberry Finn," the word "nigger" is used over 200 times. Twain understood that if youíre going to satirize racists, you have to let them speak the way they would have spoken. You have to show them convincingly to show whatís wrong with them. I think that Twain gives us an opportunity to keep those issues on the table. He comes in like a Trojan Horse, if you will, in the classroom. He enters--his book enters as a classic only to explode like a hand grenade with all of these combustible issues. And I think that thatís something that we should seize as an opportunity, rather than reject.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, thank you very much.
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN: Thank you for having me.