The following review appeared 2 February 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Grayson County College
On one level, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's most recent excursion seems to be misnamed, but one suspects that's because the more obvious titles have already been used: Howells' My Mark Twain, Budd's Our Mark Twain, and Disney's Mark Twain and Me. On another level, Lighting Out reads like a companion volume to a PBS television series in which learned experts take the audience on a pictorial road trip pointing out landmarks about their respective subjects, accompanied by detailed commentary that reveal as much about the commentator as the ostensible central figure. On a third level, Lighting Out can be seen as a sequel to Was Huck Black? as Fishkin now personalizes her twin interests in Twain and black history, using each to mirror the other in the past and the present.
For Twainians, Fishkin's road trip merges history with the author's unique view of the American tableau, and the resulting volume is both pleasurable and illuminating, and most of us will inevitably compare our own internal Twain mindscapes with that of Fishkin. For example, while reading the opening chapters on Hannibal, I found myself flooded with images of my own 1985 trip to Twain's hometown, sharing similar impressions with Shelley's later visit, and how I then too observed the small-town ambiance building a whitewashed image of Twain that is more tourist-friendly than historically honest. In Shelley's case, one would expect her interest in racial history to have a central role in this personal look into modern America's Mark Twain. Predictably, from the outset of this book, Shelley's journalistic study quickly points to the Hannibal few inhabitants know or wish to recall. Drawing from interviews with current residents and local papers showing how this microcosm of America prefers to mythologize itself, as well as its favorite son, Hannibal erases the presence of black culture while not even reading the books of the man that provides the town industry.
I confess I found myself thinking of Was Huck Black? when Fishkin discussed the background of the historic "Indian Joe" and how he had been unjustly square-pegged into the round hole of Twain's fictional murderer by town mythmakers; scholars too often have a propensity for enthusiastically branding people such as "Sociable Jimmy" as literary models as much from a speculative thesis as from reliable evidence. Still, Fishkin's unearthing of black perspectives on Hannibal history is sadly eye-opening, a mirror of local histories throughout America.
Logically, Fishkin's next stop is Elmira, New York, where she draws connections between the "matter of Hannibal" and "the black question," exploring the influence of the abolitionist Langdon family on Twain's development as a writer and social thinker. She begins by showing how Elmira's "Aunt Rachel" (Mary Ann Cord) inspired "A True Story," which led to Twain's impassioned cries against the inhumanity of slavery in Huckleberry Finn. Then, Fishkin connects the literary past with the scholarly present. She relates her search for a living descendent of Mary Ann Cord, as well as the discovery of the now famous letter written to the Yale law school in which Mark Twain unequivocally showed he was not the racist portrayed by John Wallace and other black advocates of banning Huck. This behind-the-scenes look at important new directions in Twain scholarship both reveals the joys of discovery and justification of long-known truths about Twain and his influences. Like no other book I can think of, it blows the dust and MLA stodginess out of what we academics sometimes forget--our individual, very human and personal quests for knowledge and understanding that brought us to this game in the first place.
This book may be one not often quoted in brown-bound journals but will be read by thinkers who share Fishkin's drives and pursuits with equal passion and commitment for something beyond dry tenure-tracking publications. It is this section of the book Publishers Weekly must have had in mind when their reviewer observed:
Fishkin's book is a call to arms that we not forget America's history of racism by banning from our classrooms one of the few authors who wrote about it with honesty and clarity.
(Publisher's Weekly, 18 November 1996, pp. 54-55)
It is throughout the first two sections of Lighting Out that Fishkin adds her eloquence and insight to defend the continually embattled Huck Finn. She demonstrates the need for understanding black history alongside understanding the irony of Twain, bringing together two lines of discourse that are more unified than some care to admit. Her discussions on Huck are worthy of extraction into new, inevitable anthologies on this inexhaustible subject.
In the third, extended section, Shelley moves well beyond racial issues. Her vista becomes largely contemporary, exploring Our Mark Twain in public debates, the classroom (a most useful section for teachers in the humanities), the commercial marketplace in Hartford, Dallas, Austin, and throughout Our America, calling attention to Twain as a ubiquitous presence that no single scholar, no single academic or community entity can fully grasp or define.
While her encyclopedic litany covers much familiar ground here, both general readers and specialists will find new information on Twain media, Twain technology, Twain impersonators, and even Twain's influence on "Roadrunner" cartoons. I must admit her media section is an excellent update of my own "Media Interpretations" Mark Twain Encyclopedia entry (which, with modest footnoted-understatement, Shelley acknowledges as being somewhat useful), but she is probably in a minority in finding praise for Paul Rodriguez's A Million to Juan. She lists international Twain productions not easily found in other sources, and extensively reviews Twain's presence in literary efforts by twentieth century mystery writers, psychic frauds, and Twain sequelists and copyists such as Greg Matthews. It is this section that makes Lighting Out useful for reference sections in libraries, making the volume more than a collection of miscellaneous essays geared for Twain enthusiasts. This section can be considered a helpful update to Louis Budd's Our Mark Twain, expanding Budd's purview to the advent of the twenty-first century.
Fishkin ends the main body of Lighting Out by exploring Twain in hyperspace, and, Ye, even into the realm of this very Forum. While this might seem the logical stopping point, she adds a lengthy epilogue bringing together her various themes, returning to the importance of Huckleberry Finn, responding to the criticism of Jane Smiley by reiterating the points-of-view most of us now are all too intimately familiar with and sadly forced to restate again and again. One would like to think this discussion might be the last word on the subject, but there is certainly no last word on Huck, race, and loaded language. And that is one of Shelley's important themes--that Huck should never be pushed outside of the racial discourse in America's schools.
While Lighting Out for the Territory is not an essential addition to Twain studies (or American Studies in general), it is very much a useful and valuable read for scholars and general readers alike, a book many students should find understandable and perhaps even moving because of its lack of scholarly apparatus and emphasis on the personal road to new perspectives. For me, it's one of the few books by an academic on an academic subject I'd like autographed--a personal touch for a personal book.
Note: I feel I should comment on my earlier allusion to Shelley's "Sociable Jimmy" theory. I'm reminded of the George Carlin routine in which he says if you put four black guys and four white guys in the same room for twenty-four hours, after they come out the black guys aren't saying "Hi, how are ya, good to see you, have a nice day." Instead, the white guys are saying "Hey, what's happening brother, git down," etc. In other words, I have no question that African-American speech patterns, diction, and voicings are part-and-parcel of Huck and elsewhere. I buy the general theory but am not convinced of Jimmy's importance in particular. Any comments on this from the rest of the Forum? While this subject may be well-trodden ground by now, Shelley implies in Lighting Out that her theory is now generally accepted by the academic community but, judging from conversations I've had with some of y'all, I'm not sure that is so.