“It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The 2017 season at the Robbins Hunter Museum opens April 5 with an exhibit and programs on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The story of a precocious red headed boy who floated down the Mississippi River commenting on life as he saw and lived it has taken on timeless legend since its publication in 1884. And that legend has taken extraordinary turns over the years since.
Tom Wortham, local resident, RHM board member, and emeritus professor of English at UCLA, presents The Mark Twain Nobody Knows: Reading Between the Lines, April 5 thru September 9. An exhibit of memorabilia will be in the Robbins Hunter room, and Wortham will deliver an opening lecture on Thursday, April 6, with a full discussion of the book on Wednesday, May 3. Both programs are free to members, $10 to non-members and for both programs, $15. Register online for either or both of these programs.
Selections from Wortham’s personal collection of memorabilia will be on display. The story of Twain’s river boy reached mythological status and controversial heights in the decades following the book’s publication. That notoriety, and with the help of Twain who knew a thing or two about creating buzz, led to a sustained and often heated level of commercialization that Wortham says has unfortunately – if not unintentionally – clouded the literary merit of the book. Inside the folksy vernacular of Twain’s storytelling lies serious commentary on the social and political issues of the time, Wortham says.
“We need to back off the Disney image,” he adds, “and realize how sophisticated the book really is for its time. This is not a kid’s book. I want to make people set aside the commercial images and read the book as serious literature. This is fantastic prose.”
And the Disney image, as Wortham dubs it, is enormous, even outrageous. A pudgy overstuffed Huck sits on a shelf as a Cabbage Patch collectible doll, or as red headed freckled statuettes of all sizes and interpretations. Jim, the wise mild-mannered black slave in the story, even shows up as a white boy on a poster. (no kidding!) And finally, Twain, always dressed in white, poses as a solemn faced gentleman. These make up just a sampling of the hundreds of likenesses and often wild interpretations that fill the third story of Wortham’s Buckeye Lake home. Those depictions, in addition to boxes upon boxes of printed materials, make up a collection that Wortham says exceeds a thousand pieces.
Wortham has a personal interest and a respected academic reputation regarding Mark Twain. His talk on April 6 is one he has shared before, most aptly perhaps on the American Queen riverboat as it chugged along the waters of the wide Mississippi as Huck would have on his raft. Wortham will explain how the commercialization of a red headed, freckled kid and his black traveling companion clouded the deeper and more socially troublesome political issues of the day, to note, slavery. Twain’s liberal and unapologetic use of the “N” word has prompted argument, banning, or defending by schools and libraries over the decades, which added substantially to its enduring commercialization. The story of Huck Finn certainly has not receded into history.
The second program on May 3 is a discussion of the book with those who attend. Wortham will invite all who would like to read the book again, or for the first time, to join him to talk about the story and discover its layers of social and political commentary.
“I want people to read the book on its own terms without modifications,” he concludes.
Robbins Hunter Museum
April 5 – October 31, 2017
The Mark Twain Nobody Knows:
Reading Between the Lines
In four parts -
Part I – Mark Twain, Inc. The commercialization of Twain.
Part II – The Innocent at Large: Huck Finn as a book about boys, not a boy’s book.
Part III – Huckleberry Finn: “Only a Language Experiment.”
Part IV – Dark Twain: The late pessimistic Mark Twain.