Robert B. Simpson: No Twain cove?

May 24, 2014 

Some folks in Nevada recently tried, for the second time, to get state approval to name a cove on Lake Tahoe after Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. They said Twain visited the cove one time back in the 1860s and said some nice things about it. I have to think there must be some other reason, such as an effort to draw more tourists or something. Twain said some nice things about the Mississippi River, too, but I haven't heard of any move to name it after him.

In any case, the Washoe tribe of Native Americans, in Nevada and California, weighed in with objections. The area is part of the ancestral homelands of the Washoe, removed from their control by the westward rolling wave of non-Indian settlers who thought they could make better use of it. The emotional ties and understandable resentments still exist, and the Washoe take special exception to some racist remarks Twain made about them. For one thing, he referred to them in writing as "diggers," a derogatory term applied to Indian tribes that dug roots for food.

Nevada officials, wisely in my opinion, nixed the plan to name the cove for Twain. Having been dead for the last 104 years, Twain is unable to express an opinion on the proposed naming. Based on what we know of his personality and ability to spot humbug, I think it is a good guess that he would consider naming the cove for him nonsensical, or at least not all that great an honor. To the Washoe, though, I imagine it would be like having lost my mortgaged farm to foreclosure by a crooked banker who referred to me as a "redneck," only to have the farmland turned into a subdivision named after the banker.

This conflict has again brought up the subject of racism in Twain's books. Voices are raised again arguing that those books should either be modified in some way to eliminate the offending words or else removed from libraries and from school reading assignments. And while I side with the Washoe tribe on the matter of naming the cove after Twain, I strongly disagree with the arguments for changing or removing his books from use. In the first place, Twain was a product of his times, and we can deplore racist terms, ignoring our own possible guilt, without trying to rewrite history. Racism was rampant, and wiping the slate clean to remove the evidence changes nothing except our understanding of the wrongs that were done and a clearer appreciation of our spotted and inconsistent history. In the second place, some of Twain's use of racist language was a poke in the blind eyes of white society of the time, deliberately illustrating the irrational, unthinking racism they exhibited casually every day.

Some have argued within the past few days that such language teaches the young that the attitude it reflects is correct and acceptable. And that it is hurtful. I buy the latter point, but not the former one. I believe that the hurt is a cost of understanding something that will not be so clear if the wound is covered over and removed from sight. As for "correct" and "acceptable," neither Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" nor Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" is a correct and acceptable portrayal of the South in general or Georgia in particular. They are exaggerated, fictional portrayals of times past, written in the past, and it would be pointless to complain that they don't show us as we wish we had been or as we are now.

My opinion may appear inconsistent. Well, I try to avoid what Emerson called "a foolish consistency," emphasis on "foolish." What it boils down to is that I'm opposed to book burning, censorship, and whitewashing history, and I am simultaneously opposed to needlessly offending with new and gratuitous insults people who already suffered more than enough in the past.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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