Last September, while the Wildcat world welcomed the Class of 2015, Medill professor Loren Ghiglione packed a rented black Dodge Grand Caravan full of cameras, computers and enough clothes to last him through the new year.
His mission? Retrace Mark Twain’s travels as a young man through the 1850s and 1860s, town by town by town, to explore the country the 19th century author came to embody. Three months, 125 interviews and 14,063 miles later, he and his two student sidekicks had collected hundreds of unique American stories.
“Mark Twain is a special figure not only in American literature, but in the American imagination … He grew up a racist and a nativist, but as he grew older and traveled around the country, he reformed his views,” Ghiglione says. “So we wanted to follow not only his path, but his transformation as a person, focusing on hot-button identity issues in America.”
After personally obtaining $30,000 in grants and donations to fund the cross-country endeavor, Ghiglione selected two Medill students to come along for the journey: 2011 graduate Alyssa Karas, who managed a blog and helped conduct interviews, and senior Dan Tham, who filmed and photographed the experience.
The trio began at Twain’s birthplace in central Missouri, then journeyed east to St. Louis and through Philadelphia, where Twain worked as a printer. After stopping to interview Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zucotti Park in New York City, they drove along the Mississippi River to New Orleans, tracing the area where Twain worked as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s. The trip then took them to the West, following Twain’s short career as a gold prospector in Nevada and his long career as a journalist in San Francisco.
The stories they gathered along the way, some planned and some by fortuitous accident, were as varied as their stops across the country.
“The diversity of experiences we had is just so hard to describe … but the whole trip opened my eyes to this world I hadn’t seen or even given any thought to,” Karas says. “It was like collecting a bunch of puzzle pieces—we met so many people doing so many things on a small scale just to make a difference.”
The issue of identity surfaced in every encounter, whether it was with an immigrant in a big city or a local politician in a rural town.
This led the group to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an institution that records all of its 5,000 inmates as “black” or “white,” where Ghiglione, Karas and Tham interviewed those who didn’t fit the racial binary.
“A lot of them talked about feeling alienated in prison … in a big way it’s like they were total outliers in this community,” says Tham, who used his knowledge of Vietnamese to interview a Vietnamese-American nicknamed “Hop Sing” serving a life sentence. “If I live in a white community I can move, but these guys have no choice—they’re forced to make friends with guys they may not like. It doesn’t get more surreal or intense than that.”
Other stops included a mostly Hispanic town in the white-dominated state of Nebraska, a former slave plantation in Tennessee and a self-governed homeless encampment near downtown St. Louis.
But despite troubling, sometimes disturbing experiences, Ghiglione and his students say they were inspired by the people they encountered.
“There are some absolutely terrible things still going on in this country in the way of discrimination and hatred, but [the trip] really showed me that America is a place where anything can happen,” Karas says. “It’s this wild and beautiful place where, when people work together closely in their communities, they can accomplish anything.”