Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
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Shelley Fisher Fishkin
"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
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 of "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