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.