Tuesday, December 12, 2017
December 12, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Mark Twain Seminar
[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On reading and thinking about a long-past author as a contemporary commentator.
I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought at all yet about the syllabus or specifics for my Major Author: Mark Twain senior seminar when I gave last March’s talk at the Twain House on the topic of “Twain as Public Intellectual.” (Perhaps that’s a bit more inside baseball than you’d like if you’re a non-higher ed reader, but it’s a general truth, if not indeed a fact universally acknowledged, that as of March 3rd we don’t often have any real sense of our Fall classes, beyond their basic existence.) I’d even go further, and say that when I put in my idea to focus this third iteration of mine for the course (after ones on Henry James and W.E.B. Du Bois) on Twain, I did so much more because of the breadth and diversity of his career and works than because of any particular thought about contemporary connections he might offer. I knew that toward the end of his career Twain wrote a number of pieces that engaged very fully with his contemporary society (in ways that would also resonate with our own), but generally saw that as one of many stages in that long and multi-faceted career.
Well, I was wrong—or at least severely understating the case—on two distinct but interconnected levels. For one thing, I discovered in one of those late-career texts, 1905’s “As Regards Patriotism” (that’s not the whole piece, which also includes some engagement with the U.S. occupation of the Philippines that had pushed Twain so fully into the political realm, but it gives you a good sense of it at least), perhaps the most relevant historical source for our contemporary debates over the NFL anthem protests that I’ve yet encountered. And for another, even more unexpected thing, I likewise discovered a very early-career piece of Twain’s, 1866’s “What Have the Police Been Doing?,” that resonates quite closely and stunningly with the current debates over police brutality that are so intimately linked to those anthem protests and many other contemporary conversations. Which is to say, across the whole arc of his long career Twain not only engaged with aspects of his contemporary society, but did so in ways that also offer specific and important contexts and lessons for ongoing issues and debates in 21st century America.
That last clause is a tricky one, though. The latest of these Twain pieces were written well more than 100 years ago, and the police piece more than 150. Obviously the whole of my public scholarly career is dedicated to the idea that learning about the past can and should affect us in the present in a variety of ways, but is it really possible—or desirable—to see particular pieces from 100 to 150 years ago as direct and relevant commentaries on our contemporary moment and society? Shouldn’t we instead take both them and their historical and social contexts on their own terms, complex as they already were? I would agree that that’s a primary move, and hope and believe that we began and dwelled in that specific analytical space for many of our class conversations. But it’s not either-or, and we also consistently (in our shared work and in individual student responses and papers) linked both specific pieces like the ones above and overarching aspects of Twain’s writing and genres, career and perspective, society and contexts, to debates, issues, cultural works, and ideas in 2017. Speaking for myself, I learned a great deal about both Twain and us through those contemporary links, and wish that many more Americans had the chance to read these pieces and consider what Twain can tell and offer us.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?