Trip tracks Mark Twain’s journey across the country

Joseph Diebold

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A Medill professor, an alumna and a student are retracing a journey this fall that a young Mark Twain took across America in the 1850s and 1860s.

Prof. Loren Ghiglione, junior Dan Tham and Alyssa Karas (Medill ‘11) will span 9000 miles on their trip from Sept. 18 to Dec. 11.

They started in Twain’s hometown of Florida, Mo., and traveled east, including stops in St. Louis, Chicago and Cleveland. They will continue south along the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then head west, finishing in San Francisco.

The trio hopes to answer questions about modern American identity through the writings and experiences of Twain, according to their website.

“He’s somebody who captures the American imagination,” Ghiglione said. “If we could somehow engage the public over Twain, we might have a broader audience for these sorts of subjects than we might ordinarily have.”

Karas and Tham both learned about the trip last spring from an email that Ghiglione sent out to the Medill community.

“I’ve always been really infatuated by the notion of road trip and discovering America that’s hallowed in American literature and American consciousness,” said Tham, a former Daily staffer. “I thought this was a good opportunity for that, and one that probably wouldn’t come my way again in my lifetime.”

The group is focusing on three main issues of American identity: race, sexual orientation and immigration. They are attempting to weave Twain’s own experiences with the experiences of Americans today, as well as those of Ghiglione’s family, who emigrated from Italy to America in the 1870s.

They are interviewing community members at each stop, ranging from Mark Grisanti, one of four Republicans who voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the New York Senate, to “Big Mama,” the mayor of one of St. Louis’ largest homeless camps.

“We’re consciously trying to interview people from a variety of incomes and age groups,” Ghiglione said. “I’ll bring more experience to the classroom and probably stimulate people to turn the page in their communities beyond what they normally engage with.”

Each of the three is also utilizing their own specific talents. Karas is the primary writer and designer for the website,, where readers can follow the group’s adventures. Tham is shooting video at every stop in hopes of turning the experience into a documentary, and Ghiglione plans to write a book documenting the trip.

The trio’s scheduled stop in New York City coincided with the recent “Occupy Wall Street” protests. All three emphasized the importance of the movement in the context of the identity questions they are trying to answer.

“It’s a big thing that’s happening, especially because so many people are gathered in one place,” Karas said. “A lot of discussion and change these days happens on the Internet so it’s kind of powerful when you see a lot of people gathered together in a physical space.”

Ghiglione noted the new perspective the “Occupy” movement has added to the trip.

“The economic issues are exceedingly important and we probably need to emphasize that more in terms of the identity issues we have listed,” Ghiglione said. “A lot of them end up being about socioeconomic factors.”

Tham encouraged the NU community to follow the trip online as it progresses.

“Given the nature of the trip and the various issues that we explore and that we talk about, I think that any Northwestern student would find it interesting and pertinent to their lives,” Tham said.

Karas agreed the trip is uncovering important topics of discussion for the NU community.

“There’s a lot of things that we’re learning that can be conversation starters for people who are looking for anything to do with diversity or America,” she said.