Thursday, October 14, 2010

Costly Lessons -- Defoe, Twain, and Other Considerations

I happen to be teaching Robinson Crusoe this week as part of our Freshman Studies sequence of courses.  The book was chosen partly in the hope of getting our president to give a common lecture to first year students -- he did a scholarly work on Defoe decades ago and is in favor of teaching "the Great Books" both as part of the Freshman Studies course and our (somewhat confused and confusing) Freshman Writing Program.  He declined the invitation to give the talk.

Anyway.  I am working through the novel, essentially reading right along with my students. It has been about 30 years since I first read the book.  This time through it's a totally new experience.  At the end of his chapter titled "The Journal:  Of Pots and Canoes," Defoe (in the guise of Crusoe) writes:  "This [failure to dig and then move a canoe to the sea] grieved me heartily, and now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost and before we judge rightly our own strength to go through with it."  It's a lesson too often neglected.  And often costly in money, time, and reputation.  Mark Twain knew that all too well, though it didn't stop him from bad investments and schemes through the end of his life.  We haven't learned from either man as we continue projects too costly for our meager selves.

Case in point -- Mark Twain's autobiography.  Volume one of a three volume edition is due out on November 30 though you can get copies today from the University of California Press or -- more cheaply -- from -- the Press seems unwilling even to offer review copies of the book unless you are willing to pay for the privilege (I asked for a review copy for a review essay I write for the annual American Literary Scholarship -- I was told I could buy one, thank you).  More to the point, I think is the notion that general readers will flock to buy the volumes.  The Press has invested a huge amount in the project (and the editors of the Mark Twain Project have invested countless hours to develop a new methodology for deciphering the texts, hand written manuscripts and typescripts and even pieces of newspaper clippings) in the hope to bring readers once again to the altar of Twain.  I think that they will succeed with volume one.  I just bought my own copy after all.  But once the general reader begins to slog through the material, I think that even Twain's optimism and ego will deflate as contemporary readers (and here I am not thinking of Twain scholars and maniacs each of whom has their own lust for all things Twain) realize that the material is not as groundbreaking and awe inspiring and confessional as they want.  Our culture's interest in pathography and tell-all, self-revelatory autobiography (from tales of incest to drug use to the struggle with fame) will not sustain interest in Twain's decidedly Victorian attempt to burnish his own image and burn those he believes were or are his enemies.  A recent revelation that Twain relished the idea of crushing James Paige's "nuts" because of the scam of the typesetting machine sent at least one scholar scurrying to buy a copy to see what other nuggets (pardon the pun) could be had.  But the general reader, I think, will be bored.  Maybe I will be proven wrong. 

The point here is that the whole project of putting together Twain's text may have been undertaken before there was a real plan to get that heavy and huge canoe of ideas and reactions to the sea of public demand.  Twain thought all of his works were water and, therefore, were attractive to a range of readers.  He also thought his autobiography would be large enough to fill a state.  And a collection that large won't float.  And it's hell to get it to the steam. 

In the end, it's all about planning and recognizing not limitations but the timeliness of opportunity.  Just as we try to push students to read Defoe and Twain and suggest that reading the canon will improve their lives, they are treated to the reality of economic life and the realization that a strict diet of literary texts and writing assignments based on those texts won't prepare them for the broader writing needs of college-level or professional work.  Just as we decide Twain's architecturally complex autobiography should be part of his legacy, the reality that he wasn't really up to deep and abiding reflection comes along to chasten our plans for aggrandizement.  Like Crusoe, we have created a stunning canoe.  But the damn thing is land-bound and won't float.

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