Monday, November 22, 2010

"Road Scholars" and Mark Twain

I spent each morning last week meeting with a group of 26 "Road Scholars" -- it's an elderhostel program at the Watson Homestead Conference and Retreat Center (about a 40 minute drive from my home in Elmira).  I would meet the group early in the morning and then leave quickly to get back to campus so that I could meet my classes.  I have participated in the program each fall (and sometimes in the spring) for probably a decade.  It's always a pleasure because the participants are eager to learn and open with their questions and their appreciation (that last is a very important part of my motivation for continuing to participate).

This year the group was energetic and interested.  When I teach my usual course on Mark Twain to undergraduates, there is often a lag as they get comfortable with the material and with the atmosphere of the classroom.  Students often begin to participate more as the term goes along and as they realize that I want them to ask questions and that they will not be taken to task for interpretations and responses that might seem a bit off bubble.  These older students (very adult) have no such worries.  They are willing to interrupt with questions and are happy to get answers throughout our time together.  I tell them that their agenda is the main point and that they are welcome to talk at any time.  It's a little like walking a high wire without a net, but they are, in the end, appreciative of the time and attention.

The key discussion this time was about a rather unconventional reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that links the theology of Horace Bushnell and Clemens' uncertainty in his role as a parent and Huck's growing in an atmosphere that withholds moral teaching -- in the end a notion that the novel is about bad moral parenting rather than racial equality.  The final day's discussion of the autobiography (many of them had been primed by the publicity surrounding the publication of the first volume of the autobiographical material by the University of California Press) opened questions of Clemens' lack of self-reflection and the contrasts between Clemens' authorial audience and his (now) actual audience..  An older and experienced audience, I think, is more accepting of strong opinions and not bothered (really) when their earlier assumptions are challenged.  Several of the group mentioned at the end of the week that the discussion had pushed them to want to read Twain again.  Or a different Twain.  And that is a profoundly encouraging reaction no matter what form a "class" or a "discussion" takes.

In the end, I am more encouraged to continue developing my own interpretation of the Clemens/Twain relationship and my exploration of how domestic concerns affected Clemens' writing and our own approach to his writing.  Academic audiences are often reluctant to think beyond a conventional image.  These men and women were not only willing to have their ideas challenged but reinforced the need to reinterpret Samuel Clemens' life and writing.  Watching the group digest the image of Clemens as a writer working to come to terms with his own worries about family and his own self-indictment as a negligent parent (over the deaths of Langdon and Susy and Jean) has made me more sure that I am on a meaningful path in my scholarship.  That group gave me a gift of their attention and their questions.  And their understanding.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Re-reading A Connecticut Yankee: Twain, Defoe, Conrad, and Vonnegut

It's been a while since I last posted any comment.  The mid point of the semester is always hectic:  this year seems unusually stained. I am not sure why.  But I hope to get back into some small swing of my own work, even if I am still in the midst of reading student papers and navigating committee demands.  I guess it's more of the juggling I wrote about a few months ago. 

Anyway.  Last night I started to re-read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  I will teach the first 8 chapters to my freshman class this morning.  Coming back to the novel has presented an interesting challenge.  At first, I was going to be content reviewing the passages I had highlighted and emphasized in earlier readings.  As I started to read, though, I was drawn into the story and the style of Twain's telling.  So I read through these first chapters with an eye toward tying the novel to the other reading in the class, especially Robinson Crusoe and, just completed, The Heart of Darkness.  As a side trip, I also thought about my recent classes on Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. 

Hank Morgan (the protagonist in CY) is intimately related to his fellow adventurers Robinson, Marlowe, and Billy Pilgrim.  If we consider the novels within the larger tradition of realism, we can see how each is faced with the very real dangers of life.  What I find compelling this morning is the kinship at work among these creations.  Each faces a deep aloneness and has his world view fully challenged.  Robinson's isolation pushes him towards God and an ultimate evaluation of his place within a threatening European society that is often torn by religious competition.  His isolated island becomes the frontier of the empire as he works both to populate it and to assure a community's existence.  Marlowe faces a similar isolation, though his is a good deal more lethal.  His ultimate interest is in the affect of the work of imperialism, and he comes to a rather limiting understanding of the error of exploitation.  For Marlowe, and perhaps for Conrad, the European exploitation of Africa is bound with his notion of the danger to the white sensibility.  I think, in the end, Chinua Achebe is right to criticize our romanticizing of Conrad.  The focus is not on the crimes committed against aboriginals but about the impact on the white imperialist.  Kurtz and Marlowe are irrevocably changed by their African experience.  And the point seems to be that whites have it worse than the rebel or criminal or simply natural Africans who are run over by the imperial activity.

Twain is also, it seems to me, finds the hubris of the invader as a primary interest.  The realism of Hank's growing sense of exceptionalism and his increasing condescension and strong willed exploitation of all of Arthur's England is telling.  Hank has been dropped into an undeveloped land and has the professional and managerial skills to become "the Boss."  And he gloats in the easy victory.  It is so easy that he comes to think of himself as invincible and ultimately takes on the role of savior, a savior who is not embraced by a people (or ultimately by a church bent on maintaining power).  For me, though, Hank's opening chapters are telling in his repeated reference to an asylum.  I have written elsewhere about Morgan's insanity, and as I read these opening chapters, I am more convinced that I am right.  The aloneness that Hank feels is not the isolation of the ship wrecked or the first wave of the imperial machine.  It is the aloneness of the loss of family (this becomes clear at the end of the novel, but you see a good many hints of its inevitability along the way).

So.  What ties the characters and their creators together is a search for the redemption within human ties.  Robinson finds this is Friday.  Marlowe finds a perversion of it in his promise to Kurtz.  Billy (a post for another day) struggles to maintain some connection to a belief in charity and a human potential for redemption.  And Hank forces a whole world into being to come back to his connection with a wife and child.  The psychological realism in these texts is deep and abiding.  Masterful work.  And perhaps too often overlooked for quick interpretation of colonial excess.