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Tracing Mark Twain's Footsteps

Medill professor, alumna and student follow a literary hero’s journeys in search of America

November 7, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In mid-September, a Northwestern University professor, a 2011 alumna and a third-year journalism student climbed into a black Dodge Grand Caravan and set off on a three-month, 12,000 mile cross-country journey inspired by the travels of American author and humorist Mark Twain some 150 years ago. 

Starting in Florida, Mo., Twain’s birthplace, the Medill team has been talking with people across the nation on what Medill Professor Loren Ghilgione calls “three hot-button issues” -- race, immigration and sexual orientation. At the end of each day, they post their observations in photographs, videos and essays on a website dubbed  “Traveling with Twain: In Search of America’s Identity.”

“The trip has made me a better reporter, planner, driver, conversationalist, energy conscious sleeper and person overall,” says Medill junior Dan Tham, adding he sometimes feels Twain’s ghost is following the trio. In a restaurant, they happened upon a quote of Twain’s scrawled on a napkin. “It wasn’t attributed to him, but being the Twainiacs we’ve become, we knew right away.”

Among the goals of the Northwestern trio is to see for themselves how travel enlightened Twain, who was the son of a family from a slave holding state and with a honed bias against blacks, Catholics, Jews and other “others.”

Checking out history-in-the-making at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, they spotted a man with a sign that read “Virtue has never been as respectable in society as money.” Recognizing the words as Twain’s, they interviewed the protester on the spot.

Their interviews are half impromptu and half scheduled. They made a detour to visit Marion, Ind., where they spoke with a historian and two local high school students about the 1930 lynchings there that were immortalized in an iconic photo. In Elmira, N.Y., they met the superintendent of the Elmira Corrections Facility, where Twain used to try out his lectures on a truly captive audience.

In Cambridge, Mass., they talked with famed Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates about the growing divide between middle class and poor African Americans. In St. Louis, they found Hopeville, a homeless camp between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi River floodwall. There they interviewed Big Mama, the community’s unofficial mayor. 

“The Twain lens helps to put a lot of things in perspective,” said Ghiglione from Washington, D.C.

At Yale Law School, he and his fellow travelers talked with the dean about efforts to diversify the law school. In his travels, Twain met and later helped support one of that school’s first African American students. The student became a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.

In “The Innocents Abroad,” Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” With half the trip still ahead of them, the Northwestern threesome heartily agrees. “Just walking on different soil, it changes you,” says Medill grad Alyssa Karas.