Saturday, May 23, 2020

An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain

I enjoyed reading Susan K. Harris's book Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the Equator, Then and Now (2020). It's a combination of literary criticism, cultural history, travel writing, and memoir. Those combinations, not to mention the good writing, make the book a rewarding read.

From the beginning, Harris's book is really inspiring. She abandons her initial plan to pursue conventional archival work in favor of worldly explorations. "Suddenly library research looked tiresome," she wrote. "I didn't want to spend my three weeks in musty archives. I was in Australia; I wanted to learn about the country, not about a few individuals' conversations with an American visitor a hundred years ago" (2). From there, we're off following Harris as she follows Twain to Australia, India, and South Africa.

Quick background on how I arrived at this book.

Some years back, one of my former professors, William J. Harris, posted photos on Facebook from far-flung places he was traveling to with his wife, Susan. People would ask what he was doing in India and South Africa, and he mentioned that he was tagging along with Susan Harris as she worked on a project on Mark Twain, who had done a world lecture tour in 1895-1896.

I've usually thought of Susan Harris as writing in a much different area of literary study than me, but the photos from around the globe intrigued me. The idea of an American literary scholar tracing someone's steps across multiple countries piqued my curiosity. So in 2019, when I saw announcements that the book would be released in 2020, I put it on my list of books to read.

Harris opens her book in Sydney, Australia. Then, she provides chapters as she moves around India, sometimes with William Harris joining her. After that, she discusses her travels in Tasmania. Later, she ends in South Africa.

Throughout the chapters, she retraces Twain's steps and writing. He traveled down the Ganges river. So does Harris. He visited the Tasmanian Museum. So does she. Twain closely observed animals during his trip. Harris does too. And so forth. She considers the ways that the countries and sites within changed since Twain's time over during the late nineteenth century.

The book motivates me to think about new possibilities for pursuing work in the field of literature. What if literary criticism involves going way out there in the world? What if it means paying closer attention to museums as Harris does in her book? She also confirms the importance of studying following an author over the course of more than three decades.

Harris is a Twain Scholar, and she remains cognizant of the author's shortcomings throughout the book. "Twain believed he wasn't a racist," Harris points out at one moment, "but his public and private writings all demonstrate that he held a set of racial and ethnic preconceptions that color his writings about most of the nonwhite peoples he encountered" (57). Her willingness to engage with the good and bad, the commendable and deplorable, the very difficulty of aspects of Twain's writing and thought processes give the book its complexity.

The endeavor of following Twain also leads Harris to new areas of study. "I not only had to the traveling," she writes, "but also had to learn how to think about animal venues, their histories, ownerships, and missions, and later to teach myselg something about the history of hunting and of conservation theory and to read the literature about animals and the human gaze" (99).For Harris, following is this engaging, intellectual, learning, immersive, and worldly endeavor.

When I say the book is inspiring, I'm noting that it's prompts you to want to go out traveling and observing like she does. She'll encourage you to think about palces as they are now and how they were hundred years ago.

Mark Twain and the generative power of difficult men
Susan Harris's recruitment letter: How I got to Penn State

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