Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent):
This month marks the centenary of the death of Mark Twain, who has been called “the father of American literature.” To honour the event, we visited the house in Hartford, Connecticut which Twain (whose real name was Samuel Longhorne Clemens) and his family called home for 17 years. There we met with the house’s curator, Craig Hotchkiss. In addition to his literary merits, Twain is also remembered for his great sense of humour. Craig Hotchkiss also emphasised Twain's political progressiveness:
Craig Hotchkiss (Standard American accent):
He was way ahead of the envelope on many, many social reforming issues. He was an early supporter of women’s right to vote. He was an anti-imperialist, which ran against the grain of our country at the turn of the century, but probably his most important legacy is the seeds that he sowed with regard to getting Americans to think differently about race.
At a time when we were at a nadir of race relations in America, in particular in the South, where Jim Crow segregation had set in: mob violence, lynching, was rampant, essentially enforcing white supremacy through terror. He watched that section of the country, which was his! His family had owned slaves and he had grown up understanding slavery to be just a normal part of life. He realised that it was America’s great albatross that it had to bear. And he wanted to get Americans to think differently about race, and specifically about African-Americans, that they were something more than the un-human beings, as they were being treated.
So he writes a sneaky little book called Huckleberry Finn, which many people still think is a nice little tale about a boy and a man that go down a raft on the Missisippi, and it’s high adventure; and indeed many youth read that book, not realising that there’s a hidden message in it. And it’s a book written to humanise – and thereby make equal – Jim, the runaway African-American slave.
And Craig Hotchkiss had more to say on the subject:
It’s a realistic portrayal of slavery at a time when slavery is being romanticised, when the Confederacy is being rehabilitated in cultural settings. Movies like Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffiths' famous film was released in 1915, five years after Twain's death – ed) are glorifying Jim Crow viciousness.
And he writes a book that shows that for what it is and asks, just like the little boy Huck, might we think about our situation a little bit differently? So I think it’s one of the first seeds to lead to more progressive race relations. I mean, we certainly have a lot of work to do, but without Huck Finn, I think we’d be much further back in the evolution of our racial engagement.
And Hotchkiss believes that Twain’s sense of humour had a serious purpose:
He once said: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” And I think that’s the best way to think of Mark Twain, who immediately is known to people as someone who is funny, and indeed that’s true, but all of his humour had a point. He’s much more accurately a humorist, and even more specifically, a satirist. He takes American life, portrays it realistically and then pokes fun at it. Of course, that kind of humour can have a sting to it, but because he was so effective with the humour, people could honestly take a look at both the good and the bad of American culture and see it for what it is, and hopefully, get them at least, if not to act upon it, to at least think about it more critically and maybe improve things as time went on.
(Craig Hotchkiss was talking to Kathleen Becker)
For more on the Mark Twain House & Museum, visit: http://www.marktwainhouse.org/