Here is a post on an assignment for my Introduction to American Studies class in which I had to “consider another author and/or pivotal literary work that I considered to have entered American imagination, and raised thorny questions of representation, comparable to Fishkin’s argument for Mark Twain.” Any critiques are handy and welcome. Enjoy.
Reflections on Shelly Fisher Fishkin’s, Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, and Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird
Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s book, Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, is written as an analysis of who Mark Twain was and who he is today. Fishkin does this through an approach that discusses what we do with his legacy today through her dissection of the literature, history, and popular culture that surrounds Twain.
Mark Twain’s image in the American consciousness is best expressed through an excerpt from the book jacket, of Fishkin’s work:
Mark Twain has been called the American Cervantes, our Homer, our Tolstoy, our Shakespeare. Ernest Hemingway maintained that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the phrase “New Deal” from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Gilded Age gave an entire era its name. Twain is everywhere–in ads for Bass Ale, in episodes of “Star Trek,” as a greeter in Nevada’s Silver Legacy casino. Clearly, the reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated. Whether lending his name to a pizza parlor in Louisiana, a diner in Jackson Heights, New York, or an asteroid in outer space, whether making cameo appearances on “Cheers” and “Bonanza,” or turning up in novels as a detective or a love interest, Mark Twain’s presence in contemporary culture is pervasive and intriguing. Fishkin’s wide-ranging examination of that presence demonstrates how Twain and his work echo, ripple, and reverberate throughout our society. (Fishkin)
Mark Twain is not the only American author who has managed to capture the American imagination or to be seen as controversial.
Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been similarly influential on the American imagination just as Mark Twain’s literature has. Just like Mark Twain’s The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn, the book has often been criticized and, at times, banned due to its use of racial epithet’s and the depiction of black character’s within the novel. The book deals with serious themes of racial inequality and rape. At the same time, the book also analyzes the idea of gender roles in the American South, and wrestles with ideas about class, laws, and morality.
Like Mark Twain’s work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has also been put into film. Though the film contains differences from the book, it has served as another medium through which the themes of the book can be communicated. Also, the book has been adapted into play form. The film version, in particular, depicts Gregory Peck as the complex character of Atticus Finch, the model, honest lawyer and father. Peck’s depiction of Atticus Finch as a model honest lawyer who fights the good fight for the poor and downtrodden has been catapulted into the American imagination. Atticus Finch has become a folk hero of sorts. Further showing the importance of the movie within popular culture, is the fact that the film was voted number 1 in the courtroom drama category, by the American Film Institute as recently as 2008 (“AFI’s 10 Top 10”).
The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird, like Mark Twain’s The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn, continues to cause controversy and is still the subject of discussion today is evidence of its and Twain’s presence in the American literature and the American imagination.
“AFI’s 10 Top 10.” AFI’s 10 Top 10. 2008. American Film Institute, Web. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.afi.com/10top10/moviedetail.aspx?id=22363&thumb=1>.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.