(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

. . . if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.—Huck’s final words,Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

“It is our nature to conform,” Mark Twain once wrote, “it is a force which not many can successfully resist.” That truth is evident in the modern marketplace, where hunger for conformity is imposed even on books. Publishers routinely label their products with the literary genres to which they presumably belong, evidently to spare retailers and buyers the trouble of making their own judgments. It is not the sort of literary world in which Mark Twain would flourish, for he never much respected literary genres. Many of his books casually mixed fact and fiction, the relevant and the irrelevant, and objectivity and personal tirades. Were he alive and writing similar books today, publishers would not know how to market them and librarians would have fits trying to catalog them. Mark Twain successfully resisted conformity, but few modern writers—particularly scholars—are bold enough to venture beyond recognized genres.

Fortunately, bold scholars do exist, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin is clearly one of them. In 1993, she published Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, an extended essay on race and literature that risked offending almost everyone. That book dared suggest that the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—which many African Americans revile because its white narrator spews the unforgivable “N-word” like a Vesuvius—was so deeply indebted to African American culture that his hero, Huck, spoke with a voice that was partly shaped by African American speakers and rhetorical traditions. Further, Fishkin argued that not only is Huckleberry Finn not a racist book, it is a brilliant satire on slavery and racism that ranks among the most powerful anti-racist works in American literature. It thus is not a book to be banned, but one demanding to be read and understood. Unfortunately, the irony of Fishkin’s thesis—like that ofHuckleberry Finn itself—seems to have escaped many readers, leaving them uncertain about the nonracist credentials of the novel’s author. Moreover, the title of Was Huck Black? made more than a few white Americans squirm because of their mistaken inference that Fishkin was claiming that Huck was literally black. What her ironic title actually implied was that if one applied America’s “one-drop” rule of racial classification to culture, then Huck’s voice would be considered black if it had any black roots.

Despite the national attention that Was Huck Black? focused on Huckleberry Finn, calls for removing Mark Twain’s novel from libraries and classrooms because of its alleged racism have not abated. This would not surprise Mark Twain, however, for he saw custom and stodgy thinking as forms of petrification that “nothing but dynamite can dislodge.” Fishkin’s Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture now supplies that dynamite. Her new book carries her spirited defense of Mark Twain to a new level, and one that may offend still more people. In moving her focus from Mark Twain’s time to our own, she flouts conventional scholarly and literary genres by weaving together literary criticism, scholarly research, revisionist history, intimate first- person memoirs, and constant thinking out loud in ways certain to vex literary purists. Moreover, her book probes the most sensitive places where Mark Twain’s legacy is maintained and does not flinch when it touches raw spots. Easily the most courageous work on Mark Twain in recent memory, Lighting Out for the Territory is the kind of book that Mark Twain himself would have loved: It boils over with facts, wisdom, opinions, and speculations and fits no known literary genre.

With thousands of articles and hundreds of books already published on Mark Twain, it is fair to ask what remains to be said about him and America. One eloquent answer emerges from the pages of his own writing. In the course of her research, Fishkin asked the Reverend Robert Tabscott, a Missourian who gave up his ministry in order to study black history, what he thought was peculiarly American about Mark Twain. Tabscott pointed to Mark Twain’s “ability to look at us and to depict the foibles, the romance, and the potential, all woven around the river which is always changing.” He then called attention to the image of Mark Twain as an apprentice steamboat pilot in Life on the Mississippi (1883). As a cub pilot, he struggled mightily to memorize the Mississippi River’s endless details. Each time he thought he had mastered all he needed to know, he discovered he had to learn the river all over again—in order to take boats upriver and down, in daylight and dark, on low water and high. To Tabscott, the cub’s unending education is a metaphor for what it means to be American, namely that “you’ve got to learn it all over again.”

The river metaphor applies equally to learning Mark Twain all over again—which is precisely what Fishkin aims for in Lighting Out for the Territory. Mark Twain’s writings, she argues, contain “something for everyone . . . moral outrage, scintillating silliness, materialism, antimaterialism, nostalgia, antinostalgia, conformity, iconoclasm, technophilia, technophobia, exuberance, and bleak despair.” Thus, “the Twain we claim as our own reveals much about who we think we are—and who we want to be.” If this is true,...

(The entire section is 2360 words.)