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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

March 8, 2017: AmericanStudies Events: Twain as Public Intellectual at the Twain House



[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of interesting AmericanStudies conversations, each hosted by a unique and significant organization or space. So this week I wanted to follow up those events with some further thoughts and reflections, leading up to a weekend post looking ahead to the NeMLA Convention later this month!]
On three inspiring layers to one of my favorite talks of my career to date.
First, rather than repeat everything I wrote in it, I’ll direct you to check out if you would this Facebook post I shared the morning after my March 2nd talk. To quote the beautiful Counting Crows song “A Long December,” “I can't remember all the times I’ve tried to tell myself/To hold on to these moments as they pass.” Well, last Thursday, from its beginning in my son’s classroom to its ending at the Twain House, is one of the moments I am absolutely going to hold onto.
Second, I need to say a bit more about the Mark Twain House & Museum itself. I had the chance to work with the Twain House at length for last spring’s NeMLA conference, as we featured a wonderful day of public scholarly sessions (culminating in Jelani Cobb’s keynote address, an amazing moment I tried very hard not to think too much about as I spoke from the same stage on Thursday) at the house. Both then and now, I was struck by the incredible dedication, passion, and talent of the museum’s staff, most especially in my experiences with the wonderful Director of Education Dr. James Golden but really in every staff member I’ve had the chance to meet. You might think that a site consistently named one of the top ten historic houses in the world would be amply supported and funded, but in truth the non-profit Twain House gets more than 50% of its operating budget from ticket sales, meaning that this unique and vital American space (and a true model for how a historic site and museum should feel and work) very much needs our continued investment. Before writing this post I donated to the house, and I very much encourage you to do the same—and of course to visit if you’re ever in Hartford! Again, the chance to give a talk in the Mark Twain House and Museum was and I’m sure will remain a career highlight for me.
Third, one particular takeaway I’d highlight from my attempt to trace a thread of public intellectual engagement across a few stages (local color sketches and humor, autobiographical pieces, and humorous and satirical novels) of Twain’s long and multi-part career (culminating in his most overtly public intellectual pieces, the published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and unpublished “United States of Lyncherdom,” both from 1901). Too often in America, it seems to me, we think of public intellectual activity as something separate from creative writing, or popular culture, or mainstream society; as the province of an elite community commenting on those and other aspects of America from a sort of distance and remove. That might be one strain of public intellectual work, but I don’t believe it’s the only nor the main version: instead, I’d say that our best and most inspiring public intellectuals have consistently been in the trenches of society and culture, wedding their civic engagement to popular art and culture in complex and at times contradictory but also accessible and important ways. That’s the case for Jack London as public intellectual that Cecelia Tichi made in her recent book, and it’s the case for Twain as public intellectual I tried to make last week. Reframing Twain in this way doesn’t just mean adding a new layer to our memories of a legendary icon, then—it would mean changing our ideas of public intellectual activity, in I hope both democratic and still very relevant ways.
Next reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this conversation? Conversations or events you’d share?

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