December 7, 2015
Stanford professor connects American authors to the places that inspired them
From Minnesota to Texas, Frederick Douglass to Walt Whitman, Stanford English Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin guides readers through the sites that shaped our greatest writers.
By Nate Sloan
The Welshman's House, mentioned in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is one of the literary landmarks featured in Shelley Fisher Fishkin's new book. The building in Hannibal, Missouri, now houses Jim's Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center Museum. (Photo: Mary Lou Montgomery)
One might not expect a book by an English scholar to stir in its readers an impetuous desire to drop everything and take a road trip.
But a new atlas of American letters by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and director of the American Studies Program at Stanford, should see many people throwing a stack of novels in the backseat and hitting the highway.
Fishkin undertook an unprecedented study to explore more than 150 historical sites in the continental United States and assess how they have been reflected in the works of some 200 American authors.
Fishkin – one of the foremost scholars on Mark Twain and also known for her polymath work on journalism and fiction, literature and racism, and theater history – said her goal was to map the "physical places that shaped the lives and the art of authors who had a major impact on American literary history."
The fruits of that labor are contained in Fishkin's new book, Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (Rutgers University Press), nearly two decades and countless drives and flights in the making. Each chapter of Writing America focuses on a different constellation of authors, places and literary themes, introduced through images and excerpts from the writers discussed.
Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities at Stanford, offers nuanced interpretations in her book that connect the physical place and the written word in each case. When landscape and literature meet in Writing America, the life and work of great authors light up as in vivid Technicolor.
Take Hannibal, Missouri, the small town where Mark Twain was raised, whose economy now "runs on Twain tourism." Visitors to the Mark Twain Historic District not armed with Writing America might come and go unaware of the debates over how to represent the legacy of slavery in Hannibal.
Fishkin highlights the Welshman's House, mentioned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which now houses Jim's Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center, which confronts the erasure of Hannibal's slave-holding past and the century of segregation after slavery was abolished.
Thus, a humble building becomes a pivot point for readers to understand in a new light the fierce and complex debates around race and nation that continue to be stirred up by Twain's novels.
Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act, Fishkin's book comes at a particularly valuable time, she says, for "a renewed appreciation of both the rich diversity of the works American writers have produced, and the value of historic preservation."
Canonical authors are far from the only figures profiled in Fishkin's study; a desire to engage the diversity of voices heard in American literature in the 20th and 21st centuries motivated her selection of sites and authors.
For example, Fishkin says literature can help us to "comprehend what being held, for often seemingly interminable periods, at the Angel Island Immigration Station" meant to so many would-be immigrants from China in the early 20th century.
Whether "through the lens of Maxine Hong Kingston's prose in China Men" or "Genny Lim's drama in Paper Angels," and even in "the poetry that the aspiring immigrants themselves carved on the barracks' walls," literature helps us understand the lasting resonance of that place, she said.
"If we want the past to live and breathe and if we want to understand the ways in which it continues to suffuse the present, we must read it through the powerful and luminous poetry and prose of imaginative writers," said Fishkin.
Fishkin presses into the service of literature sites that are on the National Register for their place in the history of technology and or business history. For example, Fishkin connects for the first time a historic irrigation pump house in the Lower Rio Grande Valley with the work of a leading Chicano poet and essayist. And she demonstrates that a North Carolina house that was once home to the inventor of Pepsi-Cola is also an important hitherto unknown link to a key work by Mark Twain.
Fishkin did not have to leave home for all her research. At Stanford, she said, "Green Library yielded a treasure trove of materials for me, from a beautifully illustrated German edition of Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld's poems about working in the sweatshops of New York's Lower East Side" to "a first edition of Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass to Lawson Fusao Inada's poems about the Japanese internment experience, Legends from Camp."
The book includes research Fishkin conducted for her earlier books on race and racism in American literature, gender issues and ethnic identity, as well as her experience as a faculty fellow of the Clayman Institute and as an affiliated faculty member of Jewish Studies, African and African American Studies, and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.
Fishkin also noted that discussions with students in classes she taught at Stanford, such as Race and American Memory; Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the Turn of the Century; Transnational American Studies; Feminism and American Literature; The American West; and Mark Twain and American Culture, sharpened her thinking about issues of race, American identity, slavery and American memory.
In Writing America, Fishkin hopes readers will gain a sense of "how literature can enrich our understanding of history and of places where historical events took place."