Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture , by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
In Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Lighting Out for the Territory, the author uses descriptions of her own journeys in Twain's footsteps to make commentaries about Twain's own life journey and then goes on to write about the many ways in which Twain continues to pervade American culture and our daily lives. This book is centered around the visits that she made to Hannibal, Hartford, and Elmira (and everywhere in between) during the course of lecturing on Twain. With this bland description, it is hard to imagine that Fishkin's book would have any relevance to the main thrust of our class, yet these visits merely provide the backdrop for a wonderful story in which Fishkin intricately weaves her own narrative with that of Samuel Clemens's life.
In Fishkin's first chapter, the author finds herself in Mark Twain's hometown and is saddened and upset by what she sees. Like Tom Sawyer's fence, the whole town has been "whitewashed," and "preservation" has only left behind what is considered happy and uncomplicated. Some aspects of the past are commemorated, while others are completely ignored. Hannibal's gift stores sell black figurines eating watermelon, but it is almost impossible to find any African-American buildings preserved or any reference to slavery in any signpost or town production. When Fishkin went to a local theatrical production entitled "Reflections on Mark Twain," there was not a single black actor in the cast and there was no Jim. Just as it is impossible to capture the power of Huckleberry Finn without one of its central characters, recreating a slavery-free and idyllic Hannibal makes it impossible to understand Twain. Without this complicated upbringing, where beating slaves to death was considered to be morally permissible, Twain would never have been able to write Huckleberry Finn.
When I first read Huckleberry Finn described as "the greatest antiracist novel by an American," I thought that Fishkin was trying to appropriate my beloved Mark Twain for her own anti-racism platform and trying to make the book into something that it was not (23). I thought she had already decided what she wanted the book to be about and had, therefore, been able to find "proof" to back up this assumption. I had always heard of this book being described as a racist and offensive novel and was therefore very incredulous to hear her label it as the complete opposite. In Chapter Two, Fishkin seeks to directly attack this widespread misconception that Twain was a racist and that Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel. Fishkin does this through close research of Twain's personal writings. The fatal blow to this misperception was delivered when the author was shown a previously undiscovered letter in which Twain wrote to the president of Yale that: "We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it" (101). Twain did not look to try and recreate or glorify the "Slave South," instead he meant to condemn the fact that racism continued to stubbornly outlive slavery. Twain satirizes racism by portraying its perpetuators' thoughts, words, and actions as ridiculous. Fishkin argues that Huckleberry Finn completely loses it power and message if you remove the "N word" and racist speech. If one does not show racism, how can one satirize it and make it look ridiculous? If you remove Huckleberry Finn from schools or remove the painful memory of slavery from Hannibal and the history books, then you lose a crucial part of history and the current day becomes impossible to comprehend.
The last chapter is all about Mark Twain and his legacy on American literature and pop culture. This chapter is entertaining and informative, but not as pertinent to the class as a whole. I enjoyed reading it, but, unlike the previous chapters, it did not fundamentally change the way in which I understand Samuel Clemens and his writing.
This book is amazingly well researched, well written, and full of insight. By writing about her own quest to better understand Twain, Fishkin reveals much about Twain that I had never even heard before and has radically altered the way in which I view Twain and the way in which I will read Huckleberry Finn. I think that this book is an excellent companion in a quest to understand what led Mark Twain to write his most famous, powerful, and influential book, and, therefore, a great companion for this course.