March 22, 2000. Today Johnny is twelve years old. I tried to prepare him for his birthday by having him read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, playing a lot of chess with him, and getting him his own motorcycle helmet. At age twelve life is good.
It so happened that this worked in well with the Ashbrook alumni retreat that took place a week ago. Some twenty former Ashbrook Scholars got together to talk. We had to choose a basis for the conversation, something that would re-engage all those lawyers,
politicians, as well as the decent folk, in what they no longer have enough time to do: read, think, and talk about something important.
So we chose Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for the common text. The discussion was ably lead by Professor David Foster of the political science department, with Professors Sikkenga, Moore, Mattie, Shankman, and your humble servant trying to keep up with the former Ashbrook Scholars.
We had a great time. We gave instructions that no one should be “cramped up and sivilized,” that we would act and think young again. So we were casual in our dress and loose in our thinking.
We wanted to follow Twain’s advice on reading: “Don’t explain your author, read him right and he explains himself.” So we followed Hank Morgan, that Yankee of the Yankees, practical and nearly barren of sentiment, as he returned by accident to sixth century England, from the end of the nineteenth. Modern America,
with principles of equality and liberty in mind and technology in hand, meets Camelot. It’s a fine story, both tragic and comic, rich and complex on the deeper levels, and a great read on any.
We talked about why “kings is mostly rapscallions,” and why the Connecticut Yankee—a grown up Huck Finn, really—who doesn’t amount to much in nineteenth century America, is “the Boss” in Arthurian England. And we contemplated why, by the end of the book, this seemed a tragedy.
Wanting to combine Johnny’s pleasure and my work for the meeting, I re-read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in the weeks preceding the meeting. My boy with the Tom Sawyer grin did the same, and we had a fine time talking about wart cures, playing hooky, Injun Joe, Becky Thatcher,
Tom’s “captivity at hard labor” and how he gets out of whitewashing the fence, and Tom Sawyer’s Gang. We also thought a lot about how it was that now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.
For many a day, Johnny and I pondered “why it was the case that there comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasures.” We didn’t bring Freud or the literary critics into our conversations, we didn’t need to.
We were just inspecting human beings directly without any theorizing. We talked about boys and men the way Twain says we should read a book.
Such assignments are hard on a man, but they are part of my work, and I mean to do my job well. So I skipped some respectable meetings with professors and college administrators—something I had really been looking forward to—to do something good and fun, and less respectable. Johnny and I studied boys living in small towns.
The stories take place in St. Petersburg, which turns out to be remarkably similar to Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Twain called Hannibal “a little democracy…full of liberty, equality, and the fourth of July.”
Living in small towns and studying people who live in small towns is different than studying people in cities. And that difference is critical for Mark Twain. He says this: “Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place. There you can know your man inside and out—in a city you can but
know his crust; and his crust is usually a lie.”
Well, most people just talk about the crust and are never able to get under it, but we got under. Me and Johnny contemplated Tom Sawyer’s military genius and why the rival general, Joe Harper, never quite won. It struck Johnny as a noble truth that Sid was not really the model boy of the village—always doing what he was told, always clean and dutiful,
never missed church—and that Tom was right in disliking him. For Johnny the model boy was Tom Sawyer himself. Tom was resourceful, a thinker and a reader. He was a leader who the other boys, including the other hero, Huckleberry Finn, consent to follow. Tom has the rightful authority to rule. Very democratic, this gang.
Johnny was amused by Aunt Polly’s inability to deal with Tom and her exasperation with him. Johnny kind of felt bad for Aunt Polly; as she was often taken advantage of by the boy-general. But he also knew that somehow that wasn’t so bad, and even Aunt Polly was impressed by the boy’s tricks. Aunt Polly: “He ‘pears to know just how long he can torment me
before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick.”
Aunt Polly (and all who take care of small boys) has a problem. She knows it, and this is her moral dilemma: “Every time I let him off my conscience does hurt me so; and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks. Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the Scripture says, and I reckon it’s so.”
Does it not speak well for human nature that small boys in the year 2000 (and their fathers) have a complete and comprehensive understanding of the problem? What Aunt Polly understands, we understand, as will those boys not yet born. The nature of things and boys and aunts do not change. This may also explain what Mark Twain meant when he said,
“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”
The writer William Dean Howells—whose first book was a biography of Abe Lincoln used for the campaign of 1860—said that Mark Twain was the “Lincoln of our literature.”
Lincoln and Twain were both southerners and Whigs. Both came from rustic provincial settings, living among common men with ordinary concerns, to become fully American. Their ears were tuned to the language of the people, which they mastered. They spoke in the same idiom, an idiom they discovered and created, one that did not exist before their noble attempts.
And, most important, this is the idiom that all Americans have spoken since.
This is not a small thing. The language of Twain and Lincoln make clear rather than becloud and attracts you to what is being discussed. Listen to Huck Finn introduce himself in the first paragraph of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.
Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book—which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.
This is powerful. It has the same power and cadence as the wonderfully amusing stories of Lincoln and his great speeches. In today’s cloudy language we can talk about interfacing instead of talking with, of having a relationship instead of loving, but these formulations are unattractive and vague. And they will not last. What will endure is the clear and the lovely.
When Tom Sawyer realizes that Becky is ill, Twain writes: “He no longer took an interest in war, or even in piracy. The charm of life was gone, there was nothing but dreariness left.”
As a response to those who argue that slavery is a good thing, Lincoln writes: “I never knew a man who wished to be himself a slave. Consider if you know any good thing, that no man desires for himself.”
That’s it. I’m done. Got to get back to work. But this reminds me of Twain writing in Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Did I say work? I meant play. I’m going to give Johnny his helmet, try to beat him at chess again, and then teach my class on Shakespeare and Rome. And then I’ll think some about the next alumni retreat.
Life is good at this age, and it’s not even my birthday.