On keeping our literary heritage alight

Like a great many writers under the age of forty, I’m an adjunct professor applying, vying, praying for the tenure track. Ours is a generation of indentured scholars.

Like a great many writers under the age of forty, I’m an adjunct professor applying, vying, praying for the tenure track. Ours is a generation of indentured scholars.

It recently came to my attention that all of the students in my American literature class that started last week (covering works from 1865 to present) have never read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In their educations thus far, it was never assigned. One student remembers his grandfather, who loved the book, trying to draw him into it when he was perhaps a bit too young for it to stick. I don’t know that grandfather but I love him for that. As it goes, the first writing by Mark Twain any of my students have read has been in our class.

I’d assumed Twain was old hat to this crowd, so I had them read some things I wagered they hadn’t seen before: “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed,” and “The War Prayer.”

What a vastly different introduction they are getting to Twain from the one I received, which I don’t actually remember. Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were real people to me when I was a child. My parents took my sister and I to Hannibal, Missouri, for summer vacation in 1987. I was seven; my sister was nearly five. I remember touring his boyhood home there, with its famously whitewashed fence, and the cave where Injun Joe is found dead.

Years later, as a teenager, I would find out that one of Dad’s great aunts, Aunt Byrdie, met Mark Twain when he returned to Hannibal as an old man. Whenever he came up in conversation, she would say, “Samuel Clemens was the damnedest liar I ever met.”

It was Rick Pfander, a U.S. Marine and career public educator, who led me and our class through Huckleberry Finn in tenth grade—one of many blessings he granted me.

What a different Twain I’ve known—for more than thirty years—compared to the bitterly critical one I unwittingly just introduced to my students.

This all has me wondering a lot of things. For instance, what is a literary heritage? Who can claim it? And how is it bestowed?

In 1935, Ernest Hemingway made a bold statement: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” It’s the kind of declaration I encourage students to interrogate. At the same time, its hyperbole does not arise without cause.

Huck Finn, or Fuck Hinn (as one of my mom’s colleagues once honest-to-goodness introduced it to her students), delivers to us uncomfortable (for they are shameful) problems in our country and a story that simply would not make sense if it were told on any river in the world other than the Mississippi.

It also advanced American colloquialism to artful ends. I was once the youngest student in the Creative Writing master’s program at Lancaster University in England. When the eldest student in our cohort, an Englishman in his fifties, declared in a workshop, “Well, if it’s first-person, it can’t be literary,” I piped up: “If the voice of Huckleberry Finn ain’t literary, what is!?”

My students have heretofore missed out on a keystone of American artistic achievement. This is no fault of their own, of course. They are a tenacious bunch—I am fortunate to know most of them from previous classes and lucky to meet the new faces—and they already show signs of gobbling up what this smorgasbord of a survey course has to offer. They’re the ones who signed up to study American literature, after all. And their perspectives on the Twain they just encountered came out vibrantly, pondering the privilege in his phonetic representation of the speech of a woman who’d been a slave, discovering a sobering pronouncement of regret and remorse at having partaken in the killing of a mistaken enemy, drawing together the spoken and unspoken aspects of a prayer for victory by a nation manically plunging into war.

Our collective literature in the United States is one of our finest gifts to humanity. American literature is something to be proud of, a solid footing of diverse voices and traditions we can claim and celebrate in a time a lot of people are ranking as pretty crummy.

I guess what I am learning right now is that with literacy comes responsibility. This flame is not eternal. My plan is to guard it by trying to spread it to others—see how many of these keen students I can pass the fire on to—and then they might, someday soon or long from now, ignite others. Which is, of course, how the pride in our literature was lit in me.