Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter, The American Adam, and the "Re-birth" of Mark Twain

It's Easter, which is the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection, which is also an adaption of the standard spring fertility celebrations of countless pagan cultures that worshiped the miracle of spring. That concept of re-birth has been sacrosanct for many cultures, but the idea of re-birth and re-invention has always been a foundational part of the American consciousness. America was built on the idea of rebirth and renewal and reinvention coming out of the corruption and decay that had taken over Old World Europe. This renewal idea is grounded in all American literature, and R.W. Lewis called it "The American Adam." It was articulated by Huck Finn's plans to "light out for the territory" and it was symbolized by Gatsby's "green light."

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn always held a special fascination for me. Yet, I never really discovered the book on its deeper levels until I read it for a survey course in American Literature during my sophomore year of college. That, of course, makes sense because it is anything but a children's book. It is, truly, the place "where all American literature begins." Thus, when I was finishing up my MA in English and considering thesis topics, I was intrigued by Lewis' ideas of the American Adam, and I strongly considered it and Twain for my research.  During graduate school, I had encountered the book again in a course on Twain and the "Rise of Realism." My focus would have been the "American Adam" concept and the book's ideas about our never ending search for renewal and redemption. Alas, like many scholars, I accepted the conclusion that "pretty much everything has been said" about the novel, and nothing new could be offered. So, I turned my attention to a contemporary Canadian novelist, Douglas Coupland, and produced a reasonably respectable bit of criticism.

Now, with the arrival of spring and the publication of two new works on Twain, my attention has been brought back to Huck and the concept of the American Adam. For one, it appears a scholar has found something to add to the discussion about Twain's most endearing - and complicated - character, Huck. Butler professor Andrew Levy recently published to positive reviews a fresh look at Huck Finn's America, by focusing on the role of minstrel shows and violence in childhood that so informed Mark Twain's view of American society, and subsequently the role of race relations. That is certainly new and fresh and exciting. And, to add to that, a new biography of Twain has surfaced that has the potential to ignite some renewed interest in America's Bard. Scholar Roy Morris, Jr. has published American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad, an analysis of Twain's early work Innocents Abroad. Thus, Mark Twain lives again, and the American Adam concept continues to thrive as the story of America's unique relationship with spring, rebirth, and renewal.

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