Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and the Director of the American Studies Program at Stanford University. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and has won many awards including an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, a Fulbright, a Frank Luther Mott/Kappa Tau Alpha Award, and the Harry H. Ransom Teaching Excellence Award; she is also a Life Member of Clare Hall at Cambridge University. She has authored, edited, or co-edited over forty books as well as publishing over 100 articles. Some of her most outstanding books are From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices (Oxford University Press, 1993), Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1997), Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009), and the twenty-nine volume Oxford Mark Twain (Oxford University Press, 1996). She co-produced an adaptation of Mark Twain’s play Is He Dead?, which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in 2007. Her current work includes recovery of the experiences and voices of Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad as well as a forthcoming book Reading America: A Companion to Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (University of California Press).
When did you first know you would study and write about Twain? What attracted you to the man and his work?
I had a passing acquaintance with some of Twain’s entertaining short fiction as a child, but had never thought of him as a writer with serious things to say. During my junior year in high school, my teacher handed out copies of Huckleberry Finn and announced that we would be writing papers on “how Twain used irony to attack racism.” After I got over my surprise, I found the challenge of writing that paper exhilarating. Reading between the lines, probing what the author, as opposed to the narrator, was trying to do, was enormously stimulating. The book also gave me more insight into the dynamics of racism, American style, than anything on the evening news or the daily paper.
Writing that paper made me discover how much I liked writing about literature and made me decide to be an English major in college. But the Yale English department was obsessed with British - not American - literature in those days, and that obsession shaped the structure of the major. As an Intensive English Major at Yale, I had exactly one course in American literature. Twain wasn’t in it. In short, I forgot about Twain during college, despite the fact that he had prompted me to go into literary studies in the first place.
But I returned to him when I decided to get my Ph.D. in American Studies rather than English. He was one of five writers in my dissertation project and the book that came out of it: From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America.
My first wild adventure with Twain happened shortly before that book was published. I was infuriated by the efforts of a black educator named John Wallace to close down a production of Huck Finn at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and to take the book out of the nation’s schools, on the grounds that the novel and its author were racist. (He wanted to replace Twain’s book with his own edition of it - which, like the recent New South Books edition, replaced every use of the word “nigger” with “slave.”) I wrote an op-ed that the New York Times published on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Huck Finn in the U.S. I observed that Mark Twain had had to turn to satire in the first place because his direct exposés of racism (towards the Chinese in San Francisco) were censored; but now he faced the prospect of censorship once again because some readers couldn’t understand his irony. The day that op-ed appeared in the Times, I was awakened by a phone call. A woman said, “I don’t know you, but I just read your piece in the New York Times, and I’ve got to see you right away. I have a letter Mark Twain wrote that nobody knows about yet, and after reading your column, I know you’ll know what to do with it. Here’s what it says.” She read me the letter over the phone. A chill went through me as I realized that the letter contained the only direct, non-ironic condemnation of racism that we had from Twain during the period in which he published Huck Finn. Indeed, it was written the same year that Huck Finn was published. The woman who called me was an antiques dealer who had found it in an old desk. I authenticated the letter and I researched its context single-mindedly over the next few weeks, reconstructing a story that ended up intriguing others as much as it fascinated me: Warner T. McGuinn, the young black law student Twain wrote about in the letter, a young man whom he would end up funding through his own private “affirmative action” plan, went on to become a major civil rights lawyer who was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall. The story (which the New York Times ran on its front page) got huge national and international attention.
Your book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices made you an academic star. What are your reflections on the publication of the book and reception now?
The seeds for that book were planted when I heard the award-winning novelist David Bradley, author of The Chaneysville Incident (my candidate for the great American novel of our time) give a talk at a New England American Studies Association conference that he provocatively called “The First ‘Nigger’ Novel.” He said, "You folks know a lot about Sam Clemens. Sam Clemens was white. But who here among you has ever seen Mark Twain? Mark Twain was black." He then proceeded to make a case for Huckleberry Finn as a work which prefigured the fiction of black writers in the twentieth century - including his own. The audience, to put it mildly, was in shock. Some were outraged. Others were simply confused. My own response? He was definitely onto something…the seeds that were planted that night took six or seven years to germinate.
Black writers who admired Twain included Charles Chesnutt, who kept a bust of Twain in his library, and Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of whom paid eloquent homage to Twain in print. Through conversations and correspondence over the next few years, I found that Twain had been important to other contemporary black writers besides Bradley, including Toni Morrison, who returned to Twain when she was honing her craft as a writer. It was during an interview with Ralph Ellison in 1991 that my own variation on Bradley’s theory began to take shape. After showing me the photo of Twain that hung over his desk, Ellison spoke of Twain’s special appreciation of the vernacular and of the irony at the core of a nation founded on ideals of freedom that tolerated slavery and racism in its midst. Mark Twain, Ellison said, “made it possible for many of us to find our own voices.” Why had Twain played this empowering role for black writers? I wondered aloud. Could some of the things Ellison learned from Twain be things Twain himself had learned from the rhetorical performances of African Americans? Yes, Ellison told me, “I think it comes full circle.”
From that moment on, I began to systematically track all black speakers mentioned or quoted in Mark Twain’s work. One piece was an obscure article Twain had written in the New York Times in l874 about a ten-year-old black child named Jimmy who had impressed him as "the most artless, sociable, exhaustless talker" he had ever come across, someone to whom he had listened, "as one who receives a revelation." I found compelling evidence that black speakers had played a central role in the genesis not only of Twain’s black characters, but of his most famous white one: Huckleberry Finn.
I was bursting with excitement about this research and chose to speak about it when I was invited to give a talk at Princeton in early 1992. Toni Morrison, who was then in the process of writing Playing in the Dark, came to my talk and asked whether she could join those of us going to dinner afterwards. At dinner, she gave me my marching orders: drop whatever else you’re doing and write a book about this. This is more important than anything else you could do, she told me. I decided to take her advice.
But doing so was a little scary. If black speakers and oral traditions had played such an important role in shaping Twain's art, why hadn't anyone noticed it before, given the literally thousands of books and articles on Twain that had appeared? Soon I noticed a pattern: literary scholars had denied any African-American influence on mainstream American texts much as linguists had denied any African-American influence on Southern speech and American speech in general. All of them, I became increasingly convinced, were wrong. I mined published and unpublished fiction, nonfiction, and speeches by Twain and by black contemporaries; folklore and linguistic studies; history, newspapers, letters, manuscripts, and journals. I didn't come up for air all spring.
Decades earlier, Ellison had written that "the black man” was the "co-creator of the language Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence." But literary historians ignored him and continued to tell us that white writers came from white literary ancestors and black writers from black ones. I knew that story had to change if we wanted to do justice to the richness of our culture.
I’m delighted that my research and the book that resulted - Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices - helped make that change happen.
I was somewhat astonished by the ruckus it caused! Why should people have been so surprised by the idea that black and white writers and speakers had been shaping each other’s work throughout our nation’s history? Segregated lunch counters may have disappeared in the 1960s, but segregated syllabi were still alive and well in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, there were “American Literature” courses, which were populated almost completely by “white” writers, and there were “African-American Literature Courses” that focused on writers who were invariably “black.” My book challenged the usefulness - and accuracy - of those segregated silos.
I’ve just returned from a really exciting exploratory workshop at the Radcliffe Institute organized by Glenda Carpio, Jeffrey Ferguson, and Werner Sollors to brainstorm about a new anthology of American literature that will make breaking down these “silos” a central goal. I’m delighted to be a part of that project!
If I were to have the chance to write Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, again, I would do one thing differently: I would explain the title. It was a mistake to assume that everyone would know that my title was signifying on the “one-drop rule.” Some of my critics ridiculed my argument by charging me with denying that any white voices had shaped Huck’s voice in the book, which is preposterous. My title was simply playing with the idea that if we applied the “one-drop rule” to culture, and if Huck’s voice was shaped at least in part by black voices, then Huck was “black.” I should have said so.
So Twain was also a playwright.
Yes. And an eminently forgettable one, for the most part! I needed to check something in one of his plays, and when I went to find it at the Mark Twain Papers, I was amazed that there was an entire file-drawer full of them! Most were pretty awful. But I decided to eat my scholarly spinach and read through the whole damned mess. It was a really rough slog. (Typical, and probably, although not necessarily the worst, was a melodrama about Oliver Cromwell.)
But virtue was rewarded: the penultimate play in the drawer - an amanuensis copy of a manuscript that had never been transcribed - was Is He Dead? A Comedy in Three Acts. I burst into laughter several times as I read through it. It was totally unexpected: a wild, cross-dressing farce set in France about outwitting a mean and unremitting creditor that Twain began writing the week he learned that he had finally come out of bankruptcy.
I was not the first scholar to read Is He Dead?, but I was the first to see its potential. In my mind’s eye, I could see it on stage. I suspected it would be as much fun to watch as it was to read. There were some amazing scenes that reprised some comic gambits Twain had experimented with earlier but not fully realized until now. I was determined to get it published (that was the easy part – the University of California Press was happy to have me do that) - and to get it performed. That turned out to be harder. I sought permission from the Mark Twain Foundation (who owned the dramatization rights to the play) to get it produced. They agreed - and asked me to represent them, and Twain, in that process.
Tell us about your experience bringing Is He Dead? to the stage.
I went around asking everyone I knew if they knew how to get a play produced. Nobody did. Until I asked an old friend, Dan Werner, who was executive producer of the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and who had collaborated with my husband on a number of projects. Dan said that he knew someone who would know: Bob Boyett, a close friend of Jim Lehrer’s and a Broadway producer. Bob was willing to read the manuscript. A few months later, when I was visiting family on the East coast, Bob asked me to lunch. I figured he would recommend that I contact the artistic director of a good regional theatre. He shocked me by saying he wanted to produce it himself!
Bob knew that the play would need a good play-doctor. (Twain knew this, as well, and mused about trying to get a friend in New York to find him one. But he never did.) After all, the three acts needed to be pared down to two if it was to work on the stage today. And the play as Twain wrote it would have required thirty-five actors.
After a table reading with actors in Bob’s New York office, he came up with the perfect “collaborator” for Twain: playwright David Ives, who is renowned not only for his own comic brilliance as a playwright (All in the Timing, and many other plays), but for his ability to adapt classic musicals to contemporary tastes in the “Encore!” series in New York.
It was a little daunting to be the person “standing in for” Mark Twain over the next couple of years, as David Ives worked on the script. He brought extraordinary skill and élan to the venture, miraculously turning the play into one that eleven actors could perform (with some doubling). He “punched up” parts here and there, brought a scene onstage that Twain had offstage, added some jokes of his own, and generally made it a much better play.
I needed to approve every line that was changed from the original. Most of Ives’s ideas were inspired, but not all. Out of respect for Twain’s original choice, I wouldn’t go along with changing the artist at the center of the play from Jean-Francois Millet to someone better-known in the U.S. today, like Renoir or Van Gogh. I also wouldn't let him change the play’s title. And at times I felt like a card-carrying member of the anachronism police. But by and large, I was in awe of Ives’s gifted efforts to adapt Twain for the twenty-first century stage.
When Bob signed on the brilliant director Michael Blakemore (the only director to win Tonys for Best Play and Best Musical in one season), I was thrilled. Getting to be a Broadway producer was the ultimate “Walter Mitty” dream for a college professor like myself. I loved answering questions from the cast at some of the early rehearsals, getting to know an incredibly talented group of actors, learning behind the scenes about the details that go into securing historically-accurate props, holding talkbacks in the theatre after a number of the performances - even coping with the brutal economic realities of Broadway with my fellow producers on the show. And, of course, sharing the pleasure that the other producers, the cast, and the director felt when all those rave reviews came in.
During the four years since the show closed on Broadway, there have been well over 200 productions of Is He Dead? around the country and around the world. You can read quotes from the reviews and see the entire production history - including upcoming productions here:
I’ve seen professional productions of the play in the L.A. and Washington, DC areas (at the International City Theatre in Long Beach and the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland), a high school production in northern California, and a college production at Yale. It’s wonderful to see a play that Twain had so much fun writing getting audiences to laugh so much over a century after his death! I hated having to miss the performances mounted in Russia, Romania, and Sri Lanka.
We can’t leave Twain behind. Here, in the twenty-first century, audiences are still fascinated by his work. Why is this so? How does he remain so relevant in American culture a century or so later?
Twain wears well. His language remains fresh and lively, his subjects often seem ripped from today’s headlines, and he makes readers today laugh as much as he made readers laugh in his own day. But it’s more than that: there’s a keen moral sensibility underlying so much of what he wrote. Twain wrote that “humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.” His does both - with a subtlety and grace that is as inimitable as it is enviable. He also zeroed in on some of the fault lines in American culture with a sense of perfect pitch that none have equaled, before or after. He knew us “by the back” (to borrow an expression Jim used in Huck Finn); he claimed to be able to paint our flaws as convincingly as he did because he shared them. He still challenges us - to be our best selves, to live up to our ideals, to figure out exactly how his books have the effect on us that they have.
Where do you hope to go next in your Twain studies?
I’m intrigued by Twain as a global author. When I edited The Mark Twain Anthology for the Library of America recently, I was stunned to find a vast body of writing on Twain in languages other than English. (I ended up getting pieces by great writers from around the world translated for the book from Chinese, Danish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish.) I’ve become fascinated by understanding how a book like Huck Finn gets translated, and the cultural work that those translations do. I’m also fascinated by Twain as a citizen of the world - as Howells once put it, “Originally of Missouri…now of the universe.”
Tell us about your current book project.
I’m finishing a book called Reading America: A Companion to Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee that reads literature through place and place through literature. The University of California Press plans to publish it some time next year. Literature, E.L. Doctorow observed, “endows places with meaning” by connecting “the visible and the invisible” and finding “the hidden life in the observable life.” The literature I discuss in the book can help illuminate the physical, social, cultural, and historical landscape of the United States - and encountering that landscape, in turn, can help us gain new insight into the nuances and complexities of this literature. There are authors’ homes here, to be sure - but there are also streets, theaters, docks, plantations, immigration stations, and battlefields; a volcano, a chapel, a prison, library, a lake, a bicycle shop, a ship, a YMCA, an internment camp, a lighthouse, and an irrigation pumping station. There are some of the “usual suspects” - Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Douglass, Stowe, and Twain, for example - but also many writers who figure in new canons of American literature emerging in the twenty-first century such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Abraham Cahan, S. Alice Callahan, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nicholas Black Elk, Langston Hughes, Emma Lazarus, Américo Paredes, Ann Petry, Tomás Rivera, Morris Rosenfeld, and Anzia Yezierska - as well as living writers leaving their mark on American letters today, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Irena Klepfisz, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, N. Scott Momaday, Genny Lim, Lawson Fusao Inada, David Bradley, and Tino Villanueva. Reading literature through place and place through literature can illuminate both in fresh and fascinating ways.
Lastly, tell us about the Chinese laborer project.
When I moved to Stanford in 2003, I was immediately struck by the fact that although the labor of Chinese railroad workers had helped build the fortune with which Leland Stanford founded our university, their contribution was invisible here. I asked my colleague Gordon Chang why there was no letter from a Chinese railroad worker in the Stanford archive and was astonished to hear that there was no such letter in ANY archive in the U.S. The voices of these workers were basically missing from the historical record. I suspected that they might be found - if we looked hard enough - in China, or that we might find, at the very least, fragments that could help us reconstruct what their lives might have been like.
Well, from that moment on, I became somewhat obsessed with the challenge of what might be done to recover those voices. Starting in 2004, during my first trip to China, I spoke about this at the first American Studies Network conference in Shanghai and urged Chinese scholars to try to find such materials. But despite my having written about this in articles, and spoken about it in talks every year since, nothing surfaced.
About nine months ago, I realized that an important anniversary was approaching in 2015 - the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the United States of the first large group of Chinese who would help build the transcontinental railroad. Experience has taught me that anniversaries can be catalysts for focusing attention - in the academy and in the public at large - on neglected chapters of the past. I got in touch with my colleague Gordon Chang, and we began to discuss the possible scope of a transnational research project on the Chinese railroad workers. After brainstorming with historian Evelyn Hu-DeHart, a Stanford alumna and head of Ethnic Studies at Brown, and Dongfang Shao, then head of the East Asia Library at Stanford, now head of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress, we framed a request to the President of Stanford to provide seed money for this project. To our delight - and to his credit - John Etchemendy, Stanford’s provost who was Acting President last spring, agreed. His generosity allowed us to launch the project with a planning conference that recently took place at Stanford with scholars from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and across the United States.
We’d like the project to shed new light on the experience of the workers who built the transcontinental railroad, both by consolidating the existing scholarship, and by uncovering new archival materials in both English and Chinese. We’d like to gain insight into their lives before, during, and after they did that work, and the lives of their families. We’d like to get a sense of their place in the history of China and the United States, and also a sense of their place in cultural memory in both countries.
We’d like our efforts to culminate in several end products, including a bilingual digital archive that would be useful to the general public and to scholars; bilingual academic conferences in 2015 at Stanford and one in China that would also have events that would be of interest to the public; and a book that would collect new scholarship on this topic. All are long overdue. We’d love to hear from anyone interested in being involved in any aspect of the project. Email us at ChineseRailroadWorkers@Stanford.edu. For more on the project see
I view this project as an extension of my interest in transnational American Studies - the topic that was at the center of my Presidential Address when I was president of the American Studies Association, archived here:
This interest also prompted me to co-found an online, peer-reviewed, open-access journal devoted to transnational issues in the field, the Journal of Transnational American Studies at
If you’re working on transnational topics, do consider submitting your work to JTAS. It now has a truly global readership.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
Back to Top