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by Jessica Brophy
“‘Mark twain’ is what people would yell out when the river was deep enough,” said Huckleberry Finn to students in grades 3 to 8 at the Reach Performing Arts Center on January 17. “It meant the river was deep enough. Sam liked the sound of it, and so he used that name.”
The “Sam” Huck is referring to is none other than Samuel Clemens, the real name of the famous author Mark Twain who wrote such memorable characters as Tom Sawyer, Huck, and Jim. Huck Finn—performed by eighth grader Marvin Merritt—shared some of the details of Clemens’ life.
Merritt’s performance was followed by a presentation by Barbara Snedecor, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. The event is the kick-off for the Big Read program, a five-week adventure in literature focused on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest that aims to reinvigorate reading as part of American culture. To that end, all participants received a free copy of the chosen book.
Island Readers & Writers, a Mount Desert Island-based nonprofit, received an NEA grant for The Big Read program. Jan Coates, Executive Director of IRW, said the program will take place not only on Deer Isle, but also on Mount Desert Island, Isle au Haut, Little Cranberry, Frenchboro and Swans Island.
Snedecor shared with students and members of the public that Clemens was born in 1835 as Haley’s Comet trailed in the sky, and died 75 years later, again when Haley’s Comet was in the sky.
“The Mississippi River had a huge impact on Samuel,” said Snedecor. As a youth, Samuel Clemens rescued a friend who fell through the ice one winter, and had to be rescued by a slave himself after getting caught in a current while swimming one summer. After working as a typesetter as a teenager, Clemens set off working the riverboats up and down the Mississippi, which would later be the setting for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Snedecor expanded upon the origin of Clemens’ pen name of Mark Twain. “In the front of the steamboat was a man, called the leadsman, who would throw a lead-weighted rope out in front and measure the depth of the river. Mark ike meant six feet deep, or one fathom, and to go slow. Mark twain meant 12 feet, or two fathoms, and there was plenty of depth,” said Snedecor. Clemens liked the sound of Mark Twain so much he published his major works under that name.
Snedecor also shared details of Clemens’ life in Connecticut, his three daughters and the summers spent in Elmira, N.Y., where Clemens wrote Tom Sawyer.
Future events for the Big Read program include a presentation at Winterfest, a book discussion at the Stonington Public Library Saturday, January 28, at 11 a.m. and a book discussion at Chase Memorial Library at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 4, and a talk titled “Injun Joe and Native American Stereotypes” by Raney Bench, curator at the Abbe Museum, also on February 4 at 10:30 a.m. at the Reach. For a full schedule of events related to Big Read and Tom Sawyer, visit islandreadersandwriters.org.