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The following review appeared 29 July 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Any Mark Twain Forum members, and others, attending the inaugural Mark Twain's Hannibal: The Clemens Conference, August 11-13, 2011, sponsored by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, are in for a treat. Award-winning master storyteller Gladys Caines Coggswell's dramatic performance of Mark Twain's "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It," scheduled for Friday, August 12, will be a highlight. Coggswell's performances are recommend highly and often, as is her 2009 book, Stories from the Heart: Missouri's African American Heritage.
Gladys Caines Coggswell is described as an inspirational speaker nationally known for expertise in areas of inner-healing, humor and story-based seminars. Coggswell's reading of Mark Twain's "A True Story" is presented at the Hannibal Mark Twain museum several times per week now as the museum strives to further awareness of northeast Missouri's slave-holding history.
Much knowledge is imparted through the medium of storytelling: "Stories are entertainment, but they can also be history, life lessons, oral literature, and myth" (125). Coggswell provides some interesting details of her own life and background and those of her family members. For instance:
Uncle Pete often boasted about the Indian and African blood that flowed through his veins. I was proud to know of that and dreamed of one day visiting Africa. He never delved deeply into his heritage. He just wanted the world and anybody in the world who would listen to know that he knew who and what he was (8).
Many of the Stories from the Heart unfold right in Mark Twain's backyard--not only in Missouri, but elsewhere. The grandfather of Coggswell's husband was born in 1867 in Kent, Connecticut, about 50 miles from Mark Twain's Nook Farm estate in West Hartford. Coggswell's grandfather was subsequently "raised on the Schaghticoke Indian Reservation about fifteen miles north of New Milford" (9-10), and her husband, Truman, was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut (9). These cities are approximately 22 miles and 15 miles, respectively, from Mark Twain's Redding, Connecticut.
Stories from the Heart contains eight major sections designated by number, but the non-numbered sections contain valuable information as well. Most of the major sections correspond to a geographical place or region of Missouri: Frankford (13 pages), Hannibal (16 pages), Bowling Green (9 pages), St. Louis (20 pages), the Bootheel area (25 pages), "Country Schools, City Schools" (15 pages of St. Louis reminiscences), "Why We Tell Stories" (12 pages), and "Change and Continuity in Missouri Storytelling" (5 pages).
The eloquent Foreword by Lisa L. Higgins, Director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program, gives us insights into the motivations and intentions of the compiler of these oral histories:
In the early 1990s Gladys emerged as a fully bloomed storyteller, with strong and well-established roots in the oral tradition. A true griot, she does not simply access a catalogue of stories for performances. She has that unerring knack for picking the most relevant piece for any occasion. She excels when she uses stories to teach, to heal, and to enlighten. She is now one of Missouri's foremost storytellers, teaching artists, and community scholars. She has worked tirelessly to preserve, document, teach, and present the artistic, historical, and contemporary cultural significance of the African American story in Missouri (xiii).
("Griot" is the term used to designate African American storytellers and oral historians.)
The stories compiled in Coggswell's book run the gamut of emotion--from the serious account of the "terrible time" of school integration (87) to the amusing description of the odiferous, medicinal "asfidity bag" (47)--but all are compelling. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Coggswell's own writings in Stories from the Heart contain flashes of Twainy wit:
My memories of my own family's storytelling reach back to my great-grandparents. Both told me many stories. My great-grandmother Marie Wallace Cofer disciplined me with stories. If I behaved in a manner that was unacceptable to God and to her, she had a story about a sinful person (or sometimes it was an animal) that had behaved in the same dastardly way I had, and who, of course, came to an extremely bad end. I did not want to come to a bad end, so there were times when I tried very hard to behave (1).
In a line two pages later, after Coggswell was told an allegory against the sin of not telling the truth (the word "lie" was forbidden in the household), again shades of Mark Twain:
I was so afraid my head might turn to stone that I told the truth for a long time after that--at least a week. I still try to tell the truth most of the time" (3).
Here, a different Twainy parallel:
Unlike my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather wasn't religious and didn't tell us stories to discipline us. His stories were very entertaining, but in the process of being entertained I learned many lessons from the man who, I believed, knew all there was to know about everything (6).
For omniscience, Coggswell had her great-grandfather; Mark Twain had Rudyard Kipling.
On p. 123 of Stories from the Heart is an image of Coggswell and her family posed in Hannibal with the Mark Twain Riverboat's "Welcome Aboard" lifesaving ring, a device familiar to tourists who have taken the cruise and seen this arrangement. "When Hannibal emerged as a destination for tourism in the late 1940s, the central historical symbol in local tourism sites, and until recently public memorials, centered on the life of Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, who lived in Hannibal as a boy" (29).
Hannibal has since grown to boast another center: African American history. The Coggswell family photo neatly illustrates both loci. Those who visited Hannibal in the past may have missed hearing or seeing the museum's new programs related to slavery or racism. A return visit is warranted.
According to the Museum's website, its role in preserving Mark Twain's legacy includes explaining how a boy from a slave-holding home and community could "unlearn" beliefs instilled during childhood and grow up to write Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain's anti-racism, anti-slavery treatise and generally regarded as his masterpiece.
Mark Twain has done us a service by opening that dialogue, and Stories from the Heart furthers that dialogue through the powerful, one-on-one engagement of oral history.
As generations have found, stories validate our experience, preserve our history, teach valuable life lessons, nurture us, and enrich our creative vision ... All those whose stories are recorded here are African Americans, and their stories reflect not only the struggles endured but the resilience, creative spirit, mother wit, strong sense of family and tradition, hard-won wisdom, and humor in both victory and defeat that distinguish their people (xvi).
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S., is a writer/editor/communications
professional whose Hannibal-centered Master's thesis involved tourism, marketing,
business and economic development, and world cultures. This is her tenth review
for the Mark Twain Forum.