Narritive for Virtual Scrapbook, Reflective Tag and Bibliography
Welcome to “The Culture of the South”, a look into southern opinion on slavery through the literary works of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass. Written and narrated by Andrew Gazzillo, Virginia Military Institute class of 2017.
History is the record of our human culture. However, not all of our history is written as statistics or word for word. Most of our heritage is passed in the form of literature. Whether fictional or non-fictional, realistic or unrealistic, serious or satirical, it is the work of authors that reveal the true nature of our history. This of course includes the great nineteenth century American writers Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass.
Mark Twain was born in early nineteenth century Missouri during the peak of slavery in the southern United States. Twains most iconic work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a realistic, fictional work of satire that tells the story of a young boy and a runaway slave on a journey down the Mississippi river.
Now what does this work reveal about slavery? I feel Twain’s work completely contradicts the stereotypical outlook on the issue. Twain’s work has been criticized for its vernacular however had he not used such particular diction, there is no way Twain could of portrayed the setting to match the surroundings he was so familiar with. In Twain’s era, a child, such as himself and Huck, would certainly be exposed to the mannerisms and expectations concerning slavery and African Americans. During the tale Huck experiences an epiphany in terms of his outlook on African Americans. Twain reveals that Huck comes to grips with his conscious and chooses to help Jim even though it goes against everything he was ever taught. Not everyone in the south supported slavery, and not everyone could possibly have been kept from questioning the morals they had been taught. Through his story, Twain is arguing against the stereotype that all southerners were evil slave hoarders. His use of satire and seemingly dark humor serves a purpose through Huck and Jims friendship which pokes fun at this idea of southern resentment to black/white relationships.
On the other hand, Frederic Douglass definitely took a much more serious stance in his writing. Frederick Douglass’ work, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, unlike Twain’s is a non-fiction, autobiography. Douglass’ account does not contain the humor and light-heartedness of Huckleberry Finn. He dives into the very dark and saddening reality of being a slave in the south from his own account as a man in chains. When reading Douglass, you are not visualizing a character that fits the typical persona of a slave in the south. You are unveiling the story of a very educated man who had experienced the sting of the whip first hand. The author explains the true story of slavery, where men were whipped, killed, separated from loved ones, and stripped of the basic rights we take for granted every day. He does mention instances where many southern whites such as Sophia Auld looked to aid him and expressed a kind-hearted soul to slaves. However he also mentions how she had a change of heart, most likely after being influenced by her husband. Now where does work stand on the southern outlook of slavery? Clearly Douglass despite his predicament searched for the good in all people and found it in many whites he encountered, however the poison of racism overtook the minds of many not because their own morals changes rather the culture surrounding them proved the defining influence.
What can we learn about culture, particularly the southern opinion of slavery from two very different pieces of literature? Well together the two authors elaborate on two perspectives, one being a first-hand account of a black slave and the other that of a fictional white boy growing up in the deep south. Douglass’ work emphasized the true nature of slavery first hand whereas Huck’s character provides an outside look of the issue. Culturally the two works reveal the dark side of the south, but also provides the less common understanding that a shift in feelings toward slavery. Douglass believed there truly was good in all peoples, and was a main organizer of abolitionist movements and equal opportunity. Huck proves that anyone, despite their background, can overcome the grips of slavery’s influence after realizing his friendship with Jim. Stories of literature take our imaginations beyond that of what we can read in a textbook. Whether it’s the gripping tale of a runaway slave or a humorous story of two friends trying to survive on the Mississippi, there is always a hidden message in the lines and history that cannot be overlooked. The characters, emotion, and setting created by authors like Twain and Douglass give readers an aspect of culture that cannot simply be taught. Thank you.
In completing this assignment I learned how much of an influence literature can have on history. I feel that generally the knowledge gained from standard history classes and textbooks can only provide a limited grasp of the understanding of a particular era. However, through literature like Twain and Douglass a new world is opened up. Now we were not being told how the south was, rather we are experiencing it through Douglass’ own experience and Twains character. This perfectly coincides with what we our class is all about. By reading the literature we gain not only lessons in history but lessons in culture. The way people spoke, their vernacular, opinions, and mannerisms cannot be portrayed in a textbook the way they are presented in works we have studied in class. For example, I cannot believe how any slave like Douglass could find the good in the very people that enslaved him. Also it amazes me the fear in people to stick up for what they believed was right. Huck would never had been able to come to grips with the reality of his friendship with Jim had he still been under the influence of his guardians. The same goes for Mrs. Auld, who had she not been directed by her husband would most likely had continued educating the slaves. In a world today where everyone seems eager to state their opinion it shows how culture clearly changes overtime, even if it’s as small as a boys realization of a treasured friendship.
Douglass, Frederick, and Robert B. Stepto. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2009. Print.
Quirk, Tom. Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri, 1993. Print.
Twain, Mark, and Thomas Cooley. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.