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Mark Twain, Charles Ives, and Race

In the current issue the quarterly review Raritan, I write that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2 “are twin American cultural landmarks, comparable in method and achievement.”  They both transform a hallowed Old World genre – the novel, the symphony — through recourse to New World vernacular speech.

To read the whole piece, click here.

It bears mentioning that Ives and Mark Twain knew one another via the Reverend Joseph Twitchell. Twitchell was for forty years Samuel Clemens’s closest friend. His daughter Harmony married Charlie Ives in 1908.

Crucially, both Twain’s novel and Ives’s symphony deal with the inescapable American self-affliction: slavery. At the heart of Huck’s story is his moral epiphany on the raft with Jim: Huck’s precocious early manhood is confirmed by a dawning realization that laws of the heart trump human laws such as those dictating that black men may be enslaved, and that slaves who escape be returned to their “masters.”

As for Ives: we know from a 1943 letter to the conductor Artur Rodzinski that he linked his symphony with the “fret and storm and stress of liberty” of the Civil War. Its movement two sonata form adapts for its main theme an Abolitionist song: “Wake Nicodemus.” Where the marches and dances of the finale abate for a plaintive horn tune citing Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” Ives (as he told Rodzinski) finds inspiration in Foster’s “sadness for the slaves.” The passage in question is the symphony’s lyric pinnacle.

Like Mark Twain’s America, Ives’s America embraced the tragedy and turmoil of slavery and race.

an ArtsJournal blog