a literary review
For seven years, I lived and worked in Elmira, New York, the site of Sam Clemens’s grave—which is near those of his own family and his significant mid-state in-laws, the Langdons. Some days I rode my bicycle from Elmira College to Woodlawn Cemetery to eat lunch at the Clemens/Langdon gravesites and consider my problems and my place on the vector of all that history, personal and public—or to take in the enormity of it all, which was considerable. A wandering buckeye, I was bound for a little history lesson: personal, literary, upstate.
Woodlawn is about as pretty a place as we can imagine: passive, towering oaks and royal elms offering formidable shade; a lovely greensward with elegant looping paths of fine gravel or leached asphalt; roots arching upward in their growth like firm deciduous waves. A spooky kind of quiet, not quite scary but not exactly informal either. I liked it very much.
Nearby was a stone bench to sit on, and my bike on its kickstand looked awkward in that natural artistry. Not a native New Yorker, I felt a little that way too. My home is Cleveland, where my relatives are interred in Lakeview Cemetery near James Garfield’s impressive tomb—so I wasn’t that far out of my element. Still, part of the awe was Clemens and his family—Livy, Langdon, Susy, Clara, and Jean. Elmira was and is a marvelous intersection of people and ideas. Not far from where I sat that day, Clemens met Harriet Beecher Stowe; Frederick Douglass; and his longtime friend, the utopian socialist William Dean Howells. New England in the nineteenth century was an interesting place. As a lifelong student of literature, I was in heaven.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
Around the time of my graveside lunches, my new friend, Vic Doyno of the State University of New York at Buffalo, was leading a two-week seminar in how to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vic was at that time perhaps the most esteemed Twain scholar in the US. When a handwritten draft of the first half of Twain’s novel was miraculously discovered in an attic in California in 1990, possibly amid the possessions of a distant relative of Clemens’s, the draft was sent to Vic Doyno at SUNY Buffalo for analysis. The seminar was being held at Quarry Farm, the hillside estate built for Sam and Livy by the Langdon’s just outside of Elmira, overlooking the Chemung River Valley—a picturesque New England overview expanding outward before the flagstone terrace of a large New England home and a generous front porch. During our lunches together, Vic Doyno would sometimes weep when talking about the treatment of black- and brown-skinned people in the South immediately following the Civil War. He described local indigency laws in the South that were sometimes so strict freed slaves would begin walking north only to be arrested (for indigency) a few miles up the road. And the punishment was months of labor in the cotton fields in order to work off their crime. The cruelty of these laws was too much for Doyno to bear.
During one of our seminar discussions, Doyno asked whether we thought Huckleberry Finn’s character changes from the beginning of the novel to its end—if Huck’s adventures had any effect on his personality, his worldview, and his thinking. Most in the seminar expressed that Huck doesn’t change at all. As evidence they cited his willingness to go along with Tom Sawyer’s reckless plan. Near the end of the novel, Tom aims to “enhance” Jim’s liberation from capture by making it more dangerous and therefore, according to Tom, more romantic. A character capable of going along with a plan that puts Jim in real danger has apparently not transformed or matured, so the argument went—that Huck was too young and abused to learn much from his adventures. I was the lone voice arguing for another point of view: I felt the first perspective diminished Huck as a character and may have oversimplified his case. He was, after all the child of a physically abusive, alcoholic father, Pap Finn, who forces Huck to live with him at the beginning of the novel. Huck saw himself as less than Tom Sawyer, both socially and personally, but despite this he demonstrates that he is willing to trade his life and reputation for Jim’s safety. Unlike Tom, Huck’s character knows about suffering intimately and is willing to do something about it, even at his own expense. Following Tom’s lead in the adventure is indeed a mistake, but one we could easily expect of a child with a bad self-image.
In the story’s finale, Huck announces that he had better “light out for the Territory” because Aunt Sally plans to adopt and “sivilize” him. Apparently referring to “civilization” in the last two sentences of the book, he states, “[…] I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Huck’s dismissal of Mississippi River culture is both boyish and impressive, and probably a signal that his character has indeed changed. It’s a plausible view, that, for me, makes the novel richer, since Huck’s transformation, which is for the better, comes at great personal cost, despite the fact that he’s too young to fully process it. It’s a small argument perhaps, a literary discussion and nothing more, but it seemed to matter to me for reasons I did not fully understand at the time. I had too much in common with him.
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of it.
Here I was in the middle of my own microcosmic journey—to upstate New York from, among other places, Newfoundland, Canada, and the Ohio towns of Athens and Yellow Springs, both of which had significant roles in the story of The Underground Railroad. When I stand near the Ohio River today (it can be viewed from my wife’s office window in Portsmouth), all I can think of is the courage it took on the part of those people who escaped to cross it, often in winter, in the nineteenth century. Many died trying to do so; more were simply recaptured by slave catchers and returned to their enslavement from places like Cincinnati and Dayton.
For Twain, life’s journeys famously came down to water—the Mississippi, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Finger Lakes, the Great Lakes. Late in life and sick, he undertook a world tour across the Pacific to pay off creditors following some bad investments, though he was not obligated to do so. It was hard living inside Twain’s diverse and travelled history and not think of his own courage in the face of death. The Clemens’s son Langdon died at nineteen months, their daughter Susy at twenty-four years old, and daughter Jean at twenty-nine. Only Clara survived her parents. She died in California in 1962. One of the most remarkable things about Sam Clemens was how all that humor could come from a life filled with personal tragedy, and from someone acutely aware of suffering on a universal scale as well.
When I rode my bicycle to lunch at his graveside, and those of his wife and children, I did so to absorb something of their character, perhaps because I needed it myself. As Twain himself suggested, courage isn’t always the obvious or pure thing we imagine it to be. Facing my own abuse as a child was easier somehow under those trees and among those paths at Woodlawn Cemetery. It’s hard to describe child abuse, in all of its degrees and permutations, from an adult perspective. There is something of the frozen in it, I suppose. We are held in place like blind snow people, standing in the spot of the greatest harm. Yet children can be remarkable survivors. They/we are blessed with this gift of retreat and fantasy, idealization sometimes of ourselves and others, a kind of current on which we float in order to stay above water and avoid what happens when and if we go under. I was like that, floating on a raft of my own making, and it kept me moving and allowed me to live. Coping mechanisms are like logs in the water. When I had to leave that raft and make my way on land, things got much harder. I struggled and was lost for a time down strange, leaf-strewn paths, sometimes overgrown and forlorn. Depression is like this too.
Psychological abuse can be described perhaps as the power of words and strong emotions to inflict harm on minds not able to manage or deflect them. In fact, we know that children are something like a sponge: they absorb what we throw at them and hold on to it. On the one hand, a child’s heart may be like stone: with enough heat it can break. In my case, and like Huck, I saw eventually that it is not enough to float beyond our troubles. We have to learn to steer—I had to do that—and make our way through rapids, to rise when the strong currents take us under. Then miraculously we are up again and breathing the air of a gentler pace. If we are lucky, sometimes a friend is with us there—older, wiser. Someone who has suffered too and learned from it. The bitter or glorious irony of it is that we learn things in our sufferings that we cannot learn anywhere else. These are our deepest and our best teachers, lifelines thrown at need. Twain taught me much of this: stories of victories great and small, of suffering and accomplishment in spite of it, of character and courage, and its surprising tool and vehicle—humor.
Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
—Common paraphrase of a quote by Mark Twain
One of the things I love about Buddhism is the idea of reincarnation. I talk with my literature students sometimes about the difference between salvation and enlightenment. I tell them that good Buddhists do not fear death, because they know they are coming back. Instead, they fear coming back as an ant or a slug because they have not lived well enough to evolve. In this way, rumors of their deaths or permanent endings may, I suppose, be exaggerated. Twain was both skeptical and critical of religion, particularly Western religion which he excoriates in a number of his writings, including the essay titled, “Reflections on Religion.” Clemens’s daughter Clara asked that the essay be withheld from the public for many years after her father’s demise, partly because of its content and the support it might give, for example, to the Soviet Union, appropriating its content for orthodoxies of their own.
The idea that rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated is comedic genius, especially when the actor portraying Mark Twain in any number of one-man shows bearing his name across the country is speaking these lines in front of a live audience. But its hilarity is equaled by its ideation. It is perhaps hope disguised—as strange as that may sound. Shakespeare, someone who was also a victim of Twain’s wit from time to time, taught us that comedy and humor are ways of dealing with truth, of expressing it and of managing it under very difficult circumstances. Clearly, this may have been the strategy in terms of Twain’s life. I know that humor was essential to my own survival. I have always laughed loudly and heartily. I have memorized humorous scenes from dozens of films and tried my best to mimic the voices and physical comedy I have found there. And like Mark Twain, I have hidden my sorrows well, so much so that friends are often surprised to learn about them. I find Twain’s choices as a humorist and a survivor of personal tragedy quintessentially American, part of what I was looking for in meditations at Woodlawn—something enduring, resuscitative, a lung full of air in spite of it all. Some graveyards are sad; most are beautiful. Like many of us, I’ve spent a lot of time in them. There is something marvelous about a living person among the dead, some quality of love and survival, of life ongoing and hopeful.
Though I live in Ohio, now closer to the river, sometimes I am back at Woodlawn among the gravestones. The wind is high in the trees and the sun warms the coolness of shade and shadows. I can hear the wind’s untranslatable whisper. And there are the names before us, so many of them, these few that have their carapace of granite around them. Twain knew that in our hearts there was something worth caretaking in stone and words. He knew the value and importance of children as well as any writer in history. He knew that they must be protected, and that at times they could not be. But even so, we are knowable in some ways, learnable through time and books. The whole point of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be to convey this. A man’s or a woman’s or child’s life may be brief or long, but it matters and it endures—somehow, somewhere—before we light out for that Territory we can only see at the end.
Scott Minar’s poems and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry International, Ninth Letter, Crazyhorse, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere in the US, Canada, the Middle East, England, Sweden, and Australia. He is also a musician and singer/songwriter. He can be found online at scottminar.com.