Saturday, May 23, 2020

Mark Twain and the generative power of difficult men

As I was reading Susan Harris's new book Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the Equator, Then and Now (2020), I couldn't help but think of the research that I done for my own book Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers. Although my book focuses on how black writers are inspired by bad black men figures, I began my work by thinking about the idea of difficult, not just bad, black and white men and how they motivate a range of feedback from audiences and remarkable productions from creators.

[Related: An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain]

As I read Harris's take on Twain, I realized that he was a generative and difficult figure. His difficulty may have faciliated expansive responses. Twain's positive gifts and troubling positions combined to give Harris quite a bit to consider. There are aspects of Twain's work, Harris explains, "that upset and anger me, places where Twain attachs rather than explores the cultures he visits, place where he bares his prejudices in ways that I wish he wouldn't" (14).

Later, she's discussing additional troubling sections of Twain's book Following the Equator. "These chapters," she notes, "offend Hindus and frustrate Twain scholars like me who want to promote Twain's better side." She goes further pointing out that "This is another of the places where my relationship to Twain gets edgy--there are thimes when being a Mark Twain scholar is a lot like having an uncle with a penchant for politically incorrect jokes. You love him but avoid introducing him to your friends because you're afraid he will say something really insulting" (24).

Twain's problems and badness end up, I think, benefitting the overall creativity of Harris's thinking and writing. Her mindfulness that Twain missed things and wrote with a troubling sense of white superiority leads her to look well beyond him and constantly question what he may have overlooked in his travels around the world.

What Harris is exploring with Twain is useful for me, a scholar of African American literature. I sometimes worry that folks in our field downplay difficult or less pleasant sides of our favorite black writers. I understand why: we are sometimes nervous that we could open our subjects to unnecessary criticism in a world where black subjects are already under-valued.

So that all makes sense. Still, reading Harris expressing admiration and frustration with Twain reminded me why dealing with bad or difficult men leads to the production of really creative works. The multiple questions that we raise or the problem finding that we do in relation to cultural figures that have problems lead us in all kinds of  uncahrted territories, which in turns empowers us to produce original works. 

Susan Harris's recruitment letter: How I got to Penn State
An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain

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