Michael D. Sollars, Ph.D., teaches literature and writing at Texas Southern University. He has published widely including the books Twentieth Century World Novel and Encyclopedia of Literary Characters. His research includes the generative nature of reading and writing on individual growth and the realization of personal goals.
Reading and writing are pursuits that have transformed my life in simple and complex ways. I teach literature and writing at a major U.S. university where I share with my students what I know from literature and the real world, as these two worlds often influence and explain each other.
Reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a youth produced a longing for adventure and memories that have remained with me. I gained a quick affinity for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real name of the author. Twain and I are from the same state of Missouri, he on the Mississippi River side to the east, and I on the Missouri River side to the west of the state. These two books, written with Twain’s “pen warmed up in hell,” acted as one of the catalysts that urged me and a friend, two 16-year-old youths, to float alone down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. But even the best plans encounter trouble. On the morning we were to leave, my friend backed out, jumped ship. To this day I can still hear his mother’s stinging words on the telephone that he was not going.
I was left to journey alone from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Kansas City, to St. Louis, and then on and on to New Orleans, over a 50-day ordeal. I crossed thousands of hot summer river miles in my 10-foot wooden boat, encountering many travails like sorties of attacking fist-sized flies and marauding mosquitoes, river pirates, threatening town folk, whirlpools, isolation, stints of boredom, night phantoms, loneliness, often sleeping in deserted all-night laundromats, and then near drowning, all thanks to Mark Twain and his fiction. But I learned much. I was living literature, and literature was living in me. I was a Mark Twain and Huckleberry of the twentieth century, making for ports along the famous river routes. I stopped at numerous other celebrated cities like Memphis and Natchez in completing my quest to the legendary Crescent City.
The romance of literature certainly also ignited the burn of harsh reality. One incident in particular occurred when I eventually floated into Louisiana. A guard from the infamous Angola prison patrolling near the river spotted me, a possible runaway. He briefly interrogated me, but after he was satisfied with the veracity of my answers, he soon befriended this hungry, lost, and near-penniless river rat. This benefactor took me to prison.
I spent one night in Angola, locked behind the formidable prison walls bejeweled with towers and spotlights. I ate dried peanut butter on hard bread and slept on a vinyl couch. Within the brig’s walls I glimpsed the perpetual isolation and dread staining the faces of the inmates. This picture remains etched in memory. My “incarceration” was for one brief night, a tale filled with such irony that even the witty Mark Twain would smile at with approval; the celled men were enduring an eternity of marked time like those in Shawshank Redemption. I recalled Huck saying: “What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” His words, while witty, seemed hollow at the moment.
I made the river trip alone, but my solo ordeal was not without recompense. Since that long-ago summer my high school buddy has confessed that he was wrong in not following through in our adventure, as that he has since found it too easy to back out of difficult situations and not thrust forward in life. I have lived the other life.
We are constantly traveling a road to self-discovery. Who am I? Why am I here? How long will I be here? What is life’s purpose? Captain Ahab encounters this in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. For some the road is long, labyrinthian like a meandering river, oval like a runner’s track, elliptical like a comet’s trajectory, and seemingly endless and repetitive like that for Albert Camus’ Sisyphus or Franz Kafka’s Joseph K. in The Trial. For others, the path is an easy bus ride across town, the shortest distance between two points—a straight line. These latter people are those I envy, for my path has been the former, the wandering about sort. Like some of you, I have worn out numerous pairs of cushioned soles traversing these marathon routes. This object or destination of discovery may already lie within us, but hidden like a treasure. We have scant maps for our purpose or pursuit, so often we go about life blindly choosing between roads well traveled or, as Robert Frost described, the road “less traveled.”
Reading literature can offer the needed map to self-discovery. I tell students every day that through reading and writing they will arrive at a closer personal understanding of themselves. Of course, there is no easy “X marks the spot” to find the well-hidden treasure. Literature leads us to the threshold, but never offers the final answer. It’s not a cookbook. Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
Today, I am much closer along the path of self-realization, though I admit that I still have a long way to go and I will not be traveling alone. Fortunately, there are many more books to read.