Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, October 20, 2012


We visited Mark Twain on our honeymoon, sort of.  Before we married (20 December 1969), we decided we wanted to honeymoon in a place neither of us had ever been.  Our tiny income at the time prevented anything too adventursome; we'd have to use my car, a 1969 VW Fastback.  No airplanes--too expensive.

We settled on New Orleans, and we soared down I-71 that first night after the reception, spending our first night together (yes, you heard me: our first night together) in the Holiday Inn North in Columbus.  Romantic as all get-out, no?  The next night was Memphis, another Holiday Inn, this one overlooking the Mississippi--and perhaps that was the place where we, uh, conceived the idea to schedule a visit to Mark Twain on our Journey of Love.

I said in that last paragraph that we soared down I-71.  Crept is more like it.  Snow, ice, freezing rain--what the weather people now, delightfully, call a winter mix, as if it's some sort of peanutty snack you can munch while drinking eggnog at a Holiday party while talking with somebody you don't know and have immediately disliked.

Anyway, down in New Orleans we took a boat cruise up the river into bayou country (Joyce was already at work on Kate Chopin), heard lots of jazz, saw a James Bond movie (really--and that is probably the first time Joyce knew she'd made a mistake: a Bond movie on a honeymoon! and worse: this one, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, features, at the end, the murder of a bride), walked around the French Quarter, and felt giddy and wonderful the entire time.
Twain's boyhood home,
Hannibal, MO

I didn't have to return to Aurora to teach until after New Year's, so we thought, why not drive up the Mississippi?  Take the slow way home?  And so we did, and so we stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of Sam Clemens, born in nearby Florida, Mo., in 1835.

As usual, I've gotten off the subject.  More about Hannibal later.

Satterfield Hall, KSU,
where I taught Freshman English
Now ... back to where I left off yesterday--entering that Freshman English class at KSU in the fall of 1981, copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my hand, and facing a class of twenty-five eager (?) frosh, a half-dozen or so of whom were African American.  And I was about to teach a book that featured the word nigger a couple of hundred times.  I don't know why I had not considered the possible racial make-up of my class, but I hadn't.  I was just happy to have a job, even though the pay was a pittance (I think it was $2500 a course).

What to do?

I decided to do what I'd always done--prepare students for what they were going to read, whether it was Shakespeare or silliness.  And so I talked about Twain, about the novel, about the post-Civil War era.  I talked about the word itself.  I asked the students to notice who in the book used the word--and why.  I talked about the controversies surrounding the novel (controversies that began when it was published in the 1880s and have continued into our day).  I spoke about the reputation of the novel--e.g., Hemingway's famous comment in The Green Hills of Africa ("All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.  It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since").  That sort of thing.

But as we all know, that potent word nigger has enormous emotional content; it's not just something to explain--then dismiss.  Many (Most?) white people in this country have nothing that's equivalent--no word applied to us that has the history, the ability to wound, the capacity to trigger emotion.  Nothing is even remotely close.  And rationality melts quite rapidly in the fire of passion.

But here's the damnedest thing.  I had absolutely no problems with the book.  The students loved it--those who read it, those who came to class (which was most of them).  The humor of Twain, the innocent intelligence of Huck, the vastness of Jim's heart and courage, the adventures on the river--all these things ensnared the students, and I just had the best old time going through that novel with them.

And oh did we laugh.  Here's one.  Near the end of the Grangerford-Shepherdson section (remember?), on a Sunday afternoon, Miss Sophia sends Huck back to the church to retrieve a book: "she'd forgot her Testament."  She wants Huck to tell no one.  So back he goes and finds in it a note from her secret lover.  But what always tickles me is this from Huck, who's telling about his trip back to the church:

So I slid out and slipped off up the road, and there warn't anybody at the church, except maybe a hog or two, for there warn't any lock on the door, and hogs likes a puncheon floor in summertime because it's cool.  If you notice, most folks don't go to church only when they've got to; but a hog is different.

A hog is different.  Always loved that.

TOMORROW: Teaching Huck Finn later on ...

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