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WVU Honors College students study the works of Mark Twain

MORGANTOWN — Standing in front of a classroom Tuesday was a legend of American literature.

“I consider introductions to be unnecessary, but if it is the custom, I prefer to do the act myself so I can rely upon getting all the facts,” he said.

That was Doug Riley, in character as Mark Twain.

On Tuesday, students from the WVU Honors College were lectured by one of the greatest American novelists through the “History Alive!” program, presented by the West Virginia Humanities Council and with funding from Read Aloud West Virginia of Monongalia County.

The students, who are members of a book club, are studying the work of Twain, primarily “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

As Twain, Riley defined satire and read a piece of Twain’s “Advice to Youth,” a staple in Twain’s literature of satirical work and brand of humor from the 1800s. Twain is often pegged America’s first humorist because of his use of comedy to bring light to political  issues of the time.

“I can speak more truth to power by using humor than I could if I rubbed their nose in the truth,” Twain said.

Riley offered an animated portrayal of characters from Twain’s novel, including the main character,  Huckleberry Finn, and Pap Finn, his drunk and disorderly father who raises many moral questions in the story and to the reader.

Following his enactments, Riley (as Twain) held a Q&A with the students, discussing the audience of Twain’s work and other literary devices.

Riley eventually broke character from influential novelist to retired educator and military man, telling the students  what happened in the past is important to note for the future — such as censoring a book like “Huckleberry Finn.”

“If you eliminate any semblance of history, there’s no need to talk about it any longer. There’s no longer a need to see its defects, and therefore it’s no longer an issue for us to have to deal with,” he told the students shortly before the program ended.

Riley, a self-proclaimed history teacher at heart, wants people to question why history is important to our everyday lives and see that it carries into contemporary issues today.

“I just want people today to get down and say, ‘Look, things are not just black and white, they’re all sorts of gray, and we’ve got to set our minds.’ Can we look back in history and see any examples?” he asked.

The objective for much of the message of his program is to make people think and see how history can relate to them. It’s a way to show how Twain used humor to help “rub our noses in American society” and how laughing about social issues can help open a dialogue.