Archive for February 9th, 2016

The “future of the past” – and a small victory in Hannibal, Missouri

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
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fisherfishkinTwo months ago, I wrote about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s newest book, Writing America, and her presentation at the Stanford University Libraries. Read about it here. She gave a great talk, and she revisits many of the same themes in “The Future of the Past,” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The Twain scholar makes a passionate argument for literature as a doorway to the past, and the necessity of understanding the past in the first place (not to be assumed as a “given,” nowadays).

An excerpt:

In hindsight, history often looks inevitable. But it rarely is. It is shaped by the choices individuals make as events are unfolding, by their distinctive perspectives and understandings of their world. Literature can help us enter into those moments when choices must be made and can help us grasp the consequences of those choices. Coming to terms with a past shaped by human actors, in all their messy complexity, can influence how our own words and actions shape the future.

And she returns to the subject of her talk in December, centering on Hannibal, Missouri, and her beloved Mark Twain:

huck_finn“An assignment I was given in high school prompted me to re-examine the past myself, and it changed my life: Write a paper on how  used irony to attack racism in Huckleberry Finn. That paper ignited a lifelong engagement with issues of race and racism in America’s past as well as with the work of Mark Twain.

“It led me, in Lighting Out for the Territory, to excoriate the powers-that-be in Hannibal, Mo., a town that runs on Twain tourism, for its failure to acknowledge the role of slavery and racism in its past and in Twain’s work, and for its erasure of African-American life in Hannibal during the century and a half after emancipation. Hannibal may have been keen about historic preservation, but the history it chose to preserve involved little white boys playing marbles, not little black boys sold from their mothers.

huckjim“Faye Dant, a fifth-generation Hannibal resident whose ancestors had been enslaved there, said that book, and my earlier book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, had inspired her to work to recover and preserve for future generations the history that the town had ignored. Her efforts culminated, in September 2013, with the grand opening of Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. The black-history museum is now the first building visitors encounter when they turn off the highway en route to the Mark Twain Historic District.”

 

Read the whole thing here.