Twain's Works Still Studied, 100 Years after his Death
By EILEEN FITZGERALD, The News-Times of Danbury
DANBURY, Conn. (AP) _ Mark Twain is front and center of the American literature program at New Milford High School where all juniors read, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
At Bethel High, the advanced students read “Huckleberry Finn,” Twain’s most famous work, while at Danbury High, teachers can choose to assign the novel.
On the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death and the release of his autobiography, students around the country continue to read his essays, short stories and novels.
In Connecticut, educators are grateful they can consider Twain a local author. Twain, who lived the final two years of his life in Redding, also resided in Hartford. His home there is now a museum.
“We call it taking a journey with Mark Twain,” said Kathleen DelMonico, chairman of the English department at New Milford High. “Our kids enjoy him and his humorous portrayal of society _ like people who say one thing and do another, the hypocrites. He doesn’t leave anyone unscathed.”
“Huck Finn” is good, DelMonico said, because it’s about friendships: “It brings in racial discussions, but the heart of the book is friendship and it brings the races together.”
In DelMonico’s classes, students role play with Twain’s works.
`We try to imitate his dialects. It’s hard. He was so in tune that you know the characters by the way they talk,” DelMonico said.
The National Council of Teachers of English advocates that text selection take place at the classroom and district level where schools can decide which texts are most suitable for their students.
Not surprisingly, Twain’s stories are included in course work all across the country.
With English and social studies often taught in tandem, Twain is more important than ever in the classroom, said Jocelyn Chadwick, a Twain scholar and former Harvard professor.
“Our (American) literature is generated by culture and politics, and in the 19th century, we had an amazing burst of letters and things going on politically that played out in the literature of the time,” Chadwick said.
“Twain was at the forefront of this, because at the time, we didn’t have a realistic picture of what slavery was like and what slave women’s lives were like.”
Before Twain, there weren’t American fiction writers who said, ‘Here’s the deal: I will create a scene and show you how this was wrong,”’ Chadwick said.
“His message is, ‘Let’s all confront what we see.’ That’s what literature is supposed to be, to help students learn critical thinking,” Chadwick said.
“From an English teacher’s perspective, you have to have Twain in the classroom,” she said. “He’s more relevant now than ever before. People feel it’s OK to say whatever is on their mind with no holds barred. Twain was about how language can hurt, how language has power.”
English classes that include Twain often start with his short stories in middle school, assign “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in ninth grade, and add the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 11th grade.
`By the time they are juniors, they (students) are honing skills as critical thinkers and you can take them amazing places with ‘Huck Finn,’ from the failure of slavery to the failure of reconstruction,” Chadwick said.
“You want juniors and seniors because they are not afraid to ask what happened _ not just to the African-Americans, but to the role of women and the struggle for the vote.”
Teachers who teach a certain book must help their students understand its relevancy.
“You have to guide the students and help them decode what they are reading,” Chadwick said.
New Fairfield High requires its advanced placement juniors, who usually number around 100, to read “Huckleberry Finn,” as part of the curriculum.
“It’s a seminal work for us and we have every intention of keeping it,” English department chairman James Rice said.
The New Fairfield Middle School is performing a short story by Twain this month called, “The $1 Million Pound Bank Note.” Enrichment teacher Susan Schenck selected the piece because Twain is familiar to the students and the story has a good message.
Danbury High English department chairman Ian Strever is not as committed to Twain these days as some of his peers.
“His influence is waning. It’s a lot more difficult to get kids interested in his writing,” Strever said. “Sometimes, it’s because it’s more satirical and less blunt humor than they hear today.”
In the high school’s new curriculum, teachers choose the titles for their unit on what a great classic is and what makes great writing.
“There are teachers who love ‘Huck Finn’ and teach it every year, but it’s not required,” Strever said. “Personally, I think it’s more important to understand him in the literary history of the United States, but not that important to know his work exactly.”
Strever said this is a different generation.
“We try to differentiate as much as possible and match the right book with the right student,” Strever said. “For many, ‘Huck Finn’ is difficult to understand and distant and irrelevant. I would anticipate that whose who think it’s important for them to read will read it.”
Strever said he didn’t think people realized that Twain was a “rock star” in his day.
“He’s absolutely an interesting character,” said Strever, who is looking forward to next month’s release of the first volume of Twain’s autobiography.
Bethel High assigns “Huck Finn” to junior honors and advanced placement classes.
“He’s such a great humorist. He uses humor to portray a very strong social message _ the horror of slavery and he does it through this voice of a young adolescent boy,” English department chair Mari Lerz said. “This is a boy who has a wonderful conscience. It’s wonderful to be on the journey with him.”
Lerz loves Twain’s writing.
“He provides local color and realism,” Lerz said. “He brings the whole society to life. It’s really brilliant.”
Like Strever, Lerz is also looking forward to Twain’s autobiography.
“It’s going to be really great to enrich our class with what he said about his life,” Lerz said.
Information from: The News-Times of Danbury, http://www.newstimes.com/
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)