The following review appeared 16 July 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
David Barber <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Idaho
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom is the third book on teaching Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to appear in the past three years. In 1997 Jonathan Arac argued, in Huckleberry Finn As Idol and Target, that since the book is neither "quintessentially American" nor useful in combating racism, and since it is racially offensive to many African Americans, to require it in American secondary schools is counterproductive. In 1998 Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua's The Jim Dilemma defended Huck's inclusion in the curriculum, seeing Jim as a heroic character who guides Huck to a high level of racial understanding. African American herself, Chadwick-Joshua worked to convince black parents, in particular, that Twain's novel provides a window into the past which their children need to look through, however unpleasant the picture may be.
Now in 1999 James S. Leonard, co-editor of the groundbreaking Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (1992), has assembled twenty-one essays, by as many writers, plus his own introduction, on how (not, in most cases, whether) to teach Twain. Thirteen of the essays focus on Huck. Most of them speak primarily to teachers of undergraduates, but high school teachers will find the book nearly as valuable. Anyone who teaches Huck at any level ought to own it. Teachers of The Innocents Abroad (subject of two essays), A Connecticut Yankee (two essays), Joan of Arc (one), and Twain in general (three) should at least borrow it. Many essays in this book provide the kinds of insight, information, and personal passion for teaching, and for Twain, that can dramatically advance one's understanding and enhance one's teaching.
Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom (a delightful title, by the way, once you start wondering what Twain would have said about it) disappoints in only one way. With three books on teaching Twain/Huck in three years, you would think that a more direct dialogue would be developing on "what works," as Arac put it, "against racism in the classroom" (Idol and Target 10). When I began Chadwick-Joshua's book, I expected that she would respond to him directly. But Arac's name never appeared. Probably her book was in press when his came out, which is too bad, since her argument would have been stronger had she confronted his.
In any case, by 1999, Arac's effort to stimulate debate should have begun to draw a response. But Leonard's collection contains no mention of Arac, either. Again, the slow pace of publication looks like the culprit. Making Twain Work is really a 1997 book, as the various "works cited" lists indicate: only once does any contributor cite a text as recent as 1997 (Shelley Fisher Fishkin citing her own book). Arac's book was evidently not available when they wrote their essays. But the "Contributors" section does refer to Chadwick-Joshua's 1998 The Jim Dilemma, and I wonder why, if Leonard could insert this item, he could not have cited Huckleberry Finn As Idol and Target in the "Racial Issues" section of his annotated bibliography, to acknowledge Arac's challenge to many assumptions of his contributors.
Still, several essays in Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom advance the debate on Huck, and this is only one aspect of the book's contribution. It begins with Leonard's introduction, "Who's Teaching Mark Twain and How?" A useful survey of pedagogical attitudes, methods, and resources, it is based on a survey Leonard took in 1993 (and is therefore somewhat dated), though the sources are as recent as 1996. This introduction serves the same purpose as the "Materials" section of the MLA's Approaches to Teaching . . . series.
The first of the book's three sections, "Discovering Mark Twain," contains three general essays and four on texts other than Huck. It leads with Dennis W. Eddings's "From Innocence to Death: An Approach to Teaching Twain," which presents four stages of Twain's career as a useful frame for teaching him: (1) developing the persona of the Innocent, (2) drawing inspiration from his boyhood and creating boy characters who seek freedom, (3) creating a fictional world in which Tom and Huck are transformed into adults like Hank Morgan and Pudd'nhead Wilson, and (4) creating a dream world in which freedom is more illusory than ever.
S. D. Kapoor, "Race and Mark Twain," argues that Twain, even though affected by dominant racial attitudes of his time, went beyond even Frederick Douglass's narratives by more fully dramatizing race relations and revealing their "human aspect" (50). Even the stereotyped characterization of Jim in the Phelps farm episode of Huck is part of Twain's successful presentation, Kapoor argues, since it dramatizes whites' inability to consistently see black people as equal. This is not the only essay in the book to argue that the ending of Huck succeeds by criticizing white attitudes toward African Americans.
Victoria Thorpe Miller, "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in Today's Classroom," argues that Joan deserves a fresh reading unbiased by its current low reputation. With its complexities of narrative voice, the novel can be an instrument with which to involve students more actively, as Miller demonstrates with a class-by-class account of her own approach. James E. Caron, "Parody and Satire as Explorations of Culture in The Innocents Abroad," explains Twain's parodic techniques and the cultural attitudes behind his satire: Americans' (1) sense of inferiority in relation to Europe, (2) sense of superiority and fear of losing the American identity by too close contact with Europe, and (3) chauvinism.
Lawrence I. Berkove, "Connecticut Yankee: Twain's Other Masterpiece," presents a formalist interpretation of Yankee as unified by Twain's view of a deterministic world. Arguing that the inconsistencies (as commonly perceived) in plot and tone are really elements of a tightly built structure, Berkove is not always convincing, but is often enlightening--as in comparing Hank's cave, encircled by a series of electrified fences, to Dante's Hell. The benefit he sees for students in his approach is partly the revelation of form, partly the possibilities for mind-opening discussion of freedom and determinism.
If you don't like Berkove's perspective, try Leonard's postmodern approach in "A Connecticut Yankee in the Classroom," which sees not an author pulling everything together into a unified whole but rather one "grappling with problems of textual logic, narrative technique, and both desired and undesired thematization" (114). Leonard wants students to observe how evident oppositions (sixth/nineteenth centuries, monarchy/democracy, and such) "slip into confusion or sameness" (114).
Ending this section, Louis J. Budd's "Opportunity Keeps Knocking: Mark Twain Scholarship for the Classroom" connects two problems: first, that English departments face declining enrollment in elective courses, and second, that many faculty underestimate Mark Twain. Budd suggests that faculty tap into Twain's continuing popularity by offering more courses on Twain and thereby increasing student enrollment. What makes this essay especially interesting, however, is not Budd's plan to save English departments, but his approach to teaching Twain. He advocates introducing students to scholarship; by this he does not mean critical controversies, whose appeal to students, he believes, is overrated. He means primary sources, i.e., the writings of Twain (plus some biography), and he guides us through Twain texts that he has found to appeal to students, and the editions that are most useful to teachers. The teacher's goal should be to "guide students toward finding their personal Mark Twain" (123).
The middle section is entitled "Rediscovering Huckleberry Finn." Everett Carter begins with "Huckleberry Fun," in which he sees Huck as a comic book--not a tragic one--whose satire is based on well established moral norms. It is part of the satire that Huck progresses only so far, that "his discovery of Jim's humanity has not been translated into a general truth about slaves and slavery" (137). Quoting the notorious "'Anybody hurt?' 'No'm. Killed a nigger'" scene, Carter asserts that Huck and Aunt Sally see eye to eye on the difference between "anybody" and a "nigger," while the author and the reader observe their racism.
David E. E. Sloane's ultimately enlightening essay, "Huck's Helplessness: A Reader's Response to Stupefied Humanity," gets off to a bad start. Sloane sneers at critics who "somehow" find fault with the novel's ending and other flaws. All such critics are "recklessly perverse," he asserts, to subject a "great world classic" to such indignities. In reader-response, Sloane asks: "What does the novel make a typical reader feel?" (140-41). But hold on! Surely the controversy over Huck has established that there is no such thing even as a typical white or a typical black reader, to say nothing of a typical reader. It does not help that he goes on to talk about "our" responses as though "we" all agree.
Eventually, however, Sloane develops a persuasive interpretation of the novel as accurately representing antebellum America and dramatizing Twain's belief that "humans do not change and society does not progress" (152). Not even Huck is capable of lasting change, and so he, once reabsorbed into society on the Phelps farm, behaves badly. Twain wants us to feel frustrated, Sloane believes, at human inadequacy and racial insensitivity--including our own. This is an intriguing response to Arac's charge that Twain's novel makes us complacent about race relations.
Through Leonard's editorial counterpointing, Sloane's interpretation of the ending is followed by the late Pascal Covici Jr.'s assertion, in "The Uses of the Last Twelve Chapters," that those who read the book for fun usually find the ending satisfying. For those who study the novel in class, however, he insists that the problems of the ending cannot be ignored. Still, Covici argues that they can be largely solved by focusing on the many connections between the last twelve chapters and the rest of the novel. The ending is seamlessly linked to the whole novel, whose ultimate message is that human freedom is severely limited at best. This is a gentler version of Sloane's thesis. Covici's pedagogical emphasis is on creating class situations in which students will think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.
Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua's "'Blame de pint! I reck'n I knows what I knows': Ebonics, Jim, and New Approaches to Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" focuses on language issues in Huck. If students can survive Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur (her examples), why do parents worry about their exposure to Huck and Jim's language? How can educators be pushing ebonics in schools while rejecting Huck? Chadwick-Joshua willfully seems to ignore the massive reaction against teaching ebonics in the schools. But the question of how we should react to Jim's language in particular is important, and she forcefully argues that we must teach students to hear and understand Jim's voice.
Her essay emphasizes that teachers need to re-examine the motives for teaching Huck and develop new methods for reaching contemporary students. In this discussion she performs a valuable service. As in her book, however, when Chadwick-Joshua argues for teaching the book, she maintains a rigid we vs. they attitude. This is not constructive. One of her favorite theys is the ubiquitous John Wallace (of "racist trash" fame), who is surely among Twain critics the easiest target since Louisa May Alcott. But the primary they are parents, and here it seems to me she is way off the mark. Many students all across "the socioeconomic spectrum," she claims,
have in common . . . in the midst of all this diversity . . . their parents' initial and common abhorrence of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The students consequently meet Jim and label him a man with a "wimp factor" and Huck as some kind of "guy" with whom they have nothing in common. (176)She believes that if teachers can get around the alleged parent problem, however, students will find that
Huck and Jim are the only viable and logical vehicles who have, like Virgil and Beatrice in Dante's Divine Comedy, the imagination and vision to lead the audience into the essential dialectic that must occur if [social] reform is the goal. (179)This may be the strongest claim ever made for Huck and Jim.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "The Challenge of Teaching Huckleberry Finn" identifies two major obstacles to teaching Huck effectively: students' difficulty with irony and their lack of historical and literary perspective. How to help students to distinguish between Twain and Huck, so they can get the irony? For starters, she demonstrates how the author has reminded readers of his own presence four times by the first paragraph of the first chapter. Then she shows how to track for students the development of Twain's racial attitudes. Fishkin concludes by recommending other texts, by Twain and others, which will help students understand the historical contexts. "If we want to teach Huck Finn," she insists, "we have to be willing to teach other texts before it and alongside it" (190). This point is stressed by several other contributors also.
Anthony J. Berret, S. J., "Huck Finn's Library: Reading, Writing, and Intertextuality," details the many uses of books in Huck. Some books serve for burlesque (such as the novels that Tom Sawyer reads), some as paradigms (when their plot provides a model for a part of Huck), and others as simple sources (directly from Huck's reading and indirectly from Twain's). Berret suggests various student exercises designed to bring out all this intertextuality, which will have the effect, among others, of stressing that Twain's book is only a book and not an objective window on reality.
There follow three technical and quite usable essays. Beverly R. David, "The Relationship of Kemble's Illustrations to Mark Twain's Text: Using Pictures to Teach Huck Finn," explains various uses of the Kemble illustrations, emphasizing fashion in clothes, sexual innuendo, and race relations. Wesley Britton's "Using Audiovisual Media to Teach Huckleberry Finn" evaluates various film versions of Huck and other films and videos about Twain. Having seen most of the films that he mentions, I agree almost entirely with his judgments on their quality and teaching usefulness. In one happy respect Britton is out of date: a video of Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain Tonight is now available, and what a difference it makes being able to see and not just hear Holbrook on LP's! David Tomlinson, "High- Tech Huck: Teaching Undergraduates by Traditional Methods and with Computers," discusses a software program called Exploring the Novel (which he offers free to anyone interested) that he uses at the U. S. Naval Academy, where all students are required to own computers. The "traditional methods" include having the students produce news stories or editorials based on the novel's events, and then creating a newspaper with desktop publishing equipment.
The book's final section, "Playing to the Audience," explores ways of teaching Twain in various college contexts. (It is unfortunate that high school students are not included in the audiences discussed.) Tom Reigstad's "The Innocents Abroad Travels to Freshman Composition" shows how to use Innocents to have students critique and imitate Twain's writing, and--by comparing Twain's early newspaper-letter accounts to those in the book--to examine the revision process. In the process of describing a unit on Huck, Victor Doyno, "On Teaching Huck in the Sophomore Survey," reveals classroom methods designed to get students closer to the text, such as passing around a "question bag" for anonymous student questions, and having students write, "for their eyes only," on personal subjects related to Huck's situation. Joseph A. Alvarez, "To Justify the Ways of Twain to Students: Teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Culturally Diverse Students in an Urban Southern Community College," explores the difficulties involved in discussing race relations and Twain's religious satire. Alvarez gives a useful if standard list of sources, but more interesting are the student responses he quotes regarding racial issues.
For me, Stan Poole's essay, "'Pretty Ornery Preaching': Huckleberry Finn in the Church-Related College," is the most enlightening in the book. He describes the development then failure of the anti-slavery movement in early nineteenth-century Southern evangelicalism, as the evangelicals, submitting to social pressure, diverted their energy from societal progress to individual holiness. Poole then relates this development to Huck's moral debate in the "You can't pray a lie" chapter, in the process of which he resurrects the Widow Douglas's moral reputation.
Huck's rejection of a single-minded preoccupation with personal holiness realizes the possibility of moral heroism implicit in evangelicalism before it capitulated to the ideology of slavery. Twain thus affirms the moral imperatives at the heart of evangelical Christianity--the humility, self-sacrifice, and concern for others expressed by the widow Douglas--in repudiating its practices. (289)This perspective in effect responds to Arac's argument that Huck's famous decision to go to Hell "defines no place where citizens can work together in resistance" (Idol and Target 61), and its interest surely extends well beyond the church-related college.
Perhaps the most powerful of the several essays that emphasize the personal experience of teaching Twain is the last in the collection: Michael J. Kiskis's "'When I read this book as a child . . . the ugliness was pushed aside': Adult Students Read and Respond to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Kiskis describes a course devoted largely to Huck, which he taught to ten nontraditional students: "all mid-level managers in New York state corporations" (296). Kiskis presents the challenges of the course, to him and to the students, and quotes several of their provocative comments. The essay's main message, for me anyway, is "how life experience infuses our reading with an unexpected power" (304).
This essay collection has great value for anyone interested in Twain, and especially, of course, for teachers. One of its strengths is the diversity of views expressed. It is a worthy addition to recent studies of Twain, and particularly of Huck, by Fishkin, Arac, Chadwick-Joshua, and others.