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Mark Twain can still offend, enlighten

It turns out the rumors of a Lake Tahoe cove being named for Mark Twain were greatly exaggerated.

Earlier this month, the Nevada State Board of Geographic Names voted to indefinitely shelve a plan to rename a cove at the lake after the famous American writer, who got his publishing start at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, following a complaint from the Washoe Tribe. A representative of the Native Americans noted in a letter to the board that Twain some 150 or so years ago had referred to the tribe in terms now considered derogatory and racially insensitive. Which, frankly, seems like an awfully long time to carry a grudge.

In a missive to the board, tribal official Darrel Cruz wrote, “Samuel Clemens had racist views on the native people of this country and has captured those views in his literature. Therefore we cannot support the notion of giving a place name in Lake Tahoe to Samuel Clemens.”

Lining the shores of the lake with casinos, shopping centers, the mansions of billionaires and an endless snaking of exhaust-belching automobiles is one thing. Naming a small stretch of geography after the man William Dean Howells called “the Lincoln of our Literature,” well, that’s beyond the pale.

Wait until folks find out we named the state capital after legendary guide and prolific Indian killer Christopher “Kit” Carson. They’ll really be steamed.

While some people take offense at his writing today, it’s also true that Twain was politically incorrect during his lifetime. He took great delight in lampooning politicians, poseurs, self-righteous men of the cloth and puffed-up institutions of every stripe.

If you want to squint through the telescope of time and search for signs of offensive language in Twain’s writing, you won’t have to search long. In “Roughing It,” he seems disappointed in the general condition of Nevada’s native “digger tribe,” and the book also pokes great fun at the “Indians” of Niagara Falls who sell moccasins to gullible tourists. Those natives turn out to be Irishmen in costume.

If you really want something racially insensitive to crow about, “Roughing It” is a veritable Hallmark card compared to the name calling in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s one of the nation’s most important novels, but it has been criticized because its text includes references to the “N” word.

Twain climbs inside the head of the rebellious Huck, whose journey of discovery changes the way he sees the slave Jim. Huck eventually knows Jim in human terms and not those defined by Southern society.

UNLV English professor emeritus and Twain scholar Joseph McCullough is tempted to pull his hair out when he hears the writer labeled in racial terms. He reminds us that at one time or another Twain’s satire “offended everybody.”

“There’s such an overreaction here,” says McCullough, editor of “The Bible According to Mark Twain” and “Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express.”

Although Twain was largely ambivalent about Native Americans, McCullough says, one of his late short stories paints a positive portrait. In “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” the narrator observes that the celestial stomping ground includes far more red angels than white.

After navigating his way through the gates and having a mixed opinion of the place, Capt. Eli encounters an old “Pi Ute” friend from Earth: “He was powerful glad to see me, and you may make up your mind I was just as glad to see him, and feel that I was in the right kind of a heaven at last.”

Does that sound like the writing of some rabid racist?

Was Twain occasionally insensitive? Did he write using terms in the common vernacular of his day that today would be considered out of bounds?

Yes, and yes.

Twain was a man of his time, but also of all time.

The fact something he wrote still makes the thin-skinned fret and fidget after more than 150 years should send laughter through the heavens.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com.

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