“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” ― Heraclitus
Aside from the gender specific reference of the above quote, it is profoundly true. I like to revisit things. Places, people, music, films, ideas, books.
Recently, I have undertaken the task of Reading “The Unabridged Mark Twain”. Many of the stories are ones I read as a boy and/or as a younger man. One of the tales is “Huckleberry Finn” which is a sequel of “Tom Sawyer” which I have also re-read (as the tome is chronological and I started at the beginning). Immediately after publication, Huckleberry Finn was banned on the recommendation of public commissioners in Concord, Massachusetts, who described it as racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate, and mindless. It is none of these, but what more temptation would a young boy need but to read a book that was banned?
When I first read Huckleberry Finn I doubt if I was yet ten years old. It is quite a compelling story of an adventure down the Mississippi River on a raft by a young boy who was around my age at the time and his friend, a runaway slave. The narrative is written in a style that imitates the language of the people of the southern United States in the mid eighteen hundreds which is pre-Civil War. Being Canadian and raised in the 60’s, my models for this style of speech would have been from TV at that time. The Andy Griffith Show, Disney movies, Gomer Pyle, etc. Perhaps I had seen Gone With The Wind as well. The tropes of southern belles, country bumpkins, gamblers, grifters, southern preachers etc. would all have been modelled in Western Movies and shows like Roy Rogers, The Rifleman, etc.
The intention behind my reading books as a child was just to follow the story. To get to the end. It never struck me as odd or unnatural or unusual that black skinned people in this book were referred to with what we now call “the ‘n’ word”. I didn’t use it myself, I didn’t hear it except from time to time on the playground at school even though my elementary schooling was in a privileged and predominately white neighbourhood and the word was meant to disparage like “fag”, “Pepsi”, “retard”. Words meant to isolate, to demean, to destroy. Thinking about it now makes me realize how little I understood things. To me, those words were just sounds that did not apply to me because I was not black, gay, or French or intellectually challenged (my sister would argue the last point. Lol). I was truly naive.
The ‘n’ word did not make my skin crawl as it does now. The social order of the story was just a description, no more, no less. I did not question it. The matter- of-fact manner in which slaves appeared in the story lacked the ominous and oppressive weight that I understand now as an adult. I had heard about and read about slaves in Sunday School. Jews enslaved in Egypt, etc. Just Stories.
The interval since I first read Twain is 50 odd years. My education and personal growth and changes since then have been vast. I have held beliefs, reversed beliefs, been entirely skeptical, entirely optimistic. Ambivalence, it could be argued, is a Canadian trait. Yet I have always had a healthy disregard for authority, always questioned yet generally adhered to the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I have travelled. I have worked and played, loved and hated, fulfilled both dreams and nightmares.
The human body almost entirely replaces itself on a cellular level every 7 years. So At age 64, I am Ian Hanchet version 8.0. I have been regenerated roughly six and a half times since I read Huck Finn the first time. Who was that guy?
I have benefitted greatly from my White Privilege. Which I now know has been at the expense of others. I am a direct result of the colonial system living in a land that was stolen. I have been able to do things others could only dream of. It seems the world is in constant flux. Economic and Territorial powers are always in flux. I have the luxury of being able to think and not be worried where my next meal comes from. I am thankful and ashamed.
To revisit Huck after reading Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, is to uncover the degrees of subtlety that Twain infused into his writing. I googled “Twain and racism” to see if I should continue. It turns out that Twain was a champion of racial tolerance and critical social commentary and human rights. Did my world view come from him in the first place, the subliminal foundation on which I built me beliefs and non-beliefs throughout my life or am I just realizing now what has always been there? Every awakening I experience is like being freed from being a prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the cave.
Not just Huck, either. So far I have revisited: “The Innocents Abroad” which satirizes Amerocentric travellers and the revelations of places visited and the people in them as a huge hustle; “The Prince and The Pauper” where privilege and disenfranchisement trade places; At this writing, I am half way through “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” which is also a scathing yet subtle satire of aristocracy and power structure. I am at page 1,000 (about 3/4 of the way through)of the first of two tomes.
Some of the stories in here I will be encountering for the first time. Putting my feet into a new river. Early in my teaching career I remember taking a school band by bus on an excursion from Winnipeg to Minneapolis. The bus driver announced at some point that “to our right is the great Mississippi River!” I asked him rather excitedly to stop the bus as I wanted to dip my toe in this heralded river that bisects america, rich in history, down to the Delta which is Blues country and ends in New Orleans the birthplace of Jazz. I scrambled down the embankment with my students watching on as their Weirdo Music Teacher took off his shoes and waded into what turned out to be a very polluted part of the great Mississippi River. I remember that, rather than elation I was horrified that such a great natural wonder could be so mistreated. An environmentally conscious person was newly baptized. Part of my reverence was shattered. It was restored a decade later on a trip to St. Louis where the river was cleaner and better represented the images of my youth. The literary river I just waded through was like reading it for the first time with eyes wide open. I wish I could have gleaned from it way back when what I did this time. Alas, not the same man, not the same river.
The real richesse of retirement is the amount of time I have to reflect on things, assume a mantle of wisdom and to get to projects and books I could never make the time for on the treadmill. *ironic side note… I listened to “A People’s History of America” while exercising on an actual treadmill. Makes me feel less like a chubby hamster.
4 thoughts on “Mark Twain”
You are a wonderful writer. Thanks for taking me on your journey. I am curious about Kurt Vonnegut remarks. I finished high school 10 minutes outside Pittsburgh. We moved in the summer. I had time to explore the ravines leading to the Ohio River. One day I heard organ music in the wooded ravine. I followed the sound to the banks of the Ohio. To my surprise a large paddle boat with a calliope was going through the locks entering Pittsburgh. The calliope signal Delta Queen’s arrival. I have always wanted to take the river boat to New Orleans, viewing the abandoned industries and rural countryside. The Delta Queen might be still in service.
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Alex, I love Vonnegut, but i read my story and I don’t see the reference….my eyes do jump around, though. like my mind….full of grasshoppers.
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On the cover of the unabridged Mark Twain(right book cover) you published, it says there are remarks of Kurt. I have yet to read Slaughter House Five. I sense Mark and Kurt were kindred spirits.
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I have read almost all of his books, and YES they are indeed kindred spirits. Both brilliant, witty, and funny. Slaughterhouse Five is a great one. They all have merit, but Breakfast Of Champions and A Man Without A Country are faves.
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