From September 18 to December 11, a Northwestern journalism student, a 2011 journalism graduate and I will undertake a 13,500-mile odyssey, “Traveling with Twain in Search of America’s Identity.” The drive will follow trips taken around the United States by Mark Twain in the 1850s and 1860s. Our journey will attempt to weave together three stories about identity in America.
First, it will tell the story of how Twain’s ideas about identity evolved. A small-town slave-state nativist biased against blacks, Catholics, Jews, Indians, the Irish and other ethnic groups, he was enlightened by his experiences as he traveled by boat, train and stagecoach.
A map of all stops planned for the trip (Enlarge).
He first went east at age 17 to New York, Philadelphia and other cities in 1853, then south in 1857-1861 along the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then west by stagecoach to the Nevada Territory and California, first to prospect, then to report for newspapers in Virginia City and San Francisco.
Second, the trip will explore the story of the Ghigliones—including my great-grandmother seamstress and my great-grandfather indentured pasta maker of the 1870s and carrying through to my own time—as a way of talking about a representative immigrant family’s experience over the past 140 years in America.
Third, the trip will involve interviewing a wide variety of Americans about identity issues today, including three controversial, high-profile issues—race, immigration and sexual orientation. President Obama, who describes himself as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, chooses to celebrate multicultural America as a rainbow nation: “This nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.”
But how do other Americans feel? We encourage you to share your thoughts with us. Please comment on this website or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.