Twain's essay defending poor Harriet Westbrook Shelley was in a set of Twain's works one of my grandfathers had owned.
I’m not sure why G. Edwin Osborn bought those books. My uncle Ronald (G. Edwin’s son) once told me that he’d bought them from a traveling salesman and that he (Ronald) could remember hearing my grandfather laughing from his bedroom late in the night.
When my grandmother died in 1978 (he had died in 1965), the books—little green volumes,
I “read” my first Twain in fourth grade. I placed read in quotation marks because I actually listened to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which my wonderful fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stella Rockwell (Adams Elementary School; Enid, Oklahoma), read aloud to us every day after recess—if we were “good,” that is. Mrs. Rockwell had asked our class to bring in books for her to read, and we owned a little pair of books—Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—that had been published together. One was red (Tom?), the other green. I brought in Tom; she agreed to read it.
When we finished Tom Sawyer, I swiftly brought in Huck Finn, which she also read to us—and which I adored. Years later, of course, reading it on my own, I discovered that careful Mrs. Rockwell had bowdlerized the text for her nine-year-old students. No nigger (even in racially segregated Enid in the early 1950s, Mrs. Rockwell tolerated no racism in her class), reduced brutality (I was horrified, later, at the scene when Pap Finn, supremely drunk, chases Huck around the cabin trying to kill his own son), and so on—but I remember most of all that voice, the voice of Huck Finn that, as Hemingway later commented, changed American literature. The voice that I first heard in the soft Oklahoma drawl of one of the best teachers I ever had, kindergarten through graduate school.
Later, a teacher myself, I used Twain now and then with my middle school students, but it wasn’t until near the end of my career—when I began teaching high school juniors at Western Reserve Academy—that I became a certifiable Twain freak. I taught Huck Finn every spring my final ten years, and throughout those years I was visiting and photographing all the Twain sites I could, reading all the biographies of him, reading his complete works—which takes some doing.
I had actually been to Hannibal, Missouri (his boyhood home), many years earlier: My wife and I—on our honeymoon—stopped there on our way home from New Orleans. Christmas time. 1969. Not much was open, but we saw some of the sites. The house. And, especially, the Mississippi River, still flowing by, dominating all.
I went back to Hannibal any number of times, too. One of my favorite visits was in July 2004—to the Mark Twain Cave, setting for those creepy scenes with Tom and Becky and the murderous Injun Joe, the scenes that frightened me beyond words (with words) back in the 1953-1954 school year when I sat, sweating from a fierce recess, trying passionately to be “good” so that Mrs. Rockwell would read to us, then, when she began, being absolutely transfixed by the adventures of that clever boy from that little river town, that clever boy whose even more interesting friend, Huck Finn, would in some fundamental ways change my life.