Mark Twain in Oberlin   Leave a comment

This past Sunday, I gave a lecture at First Church in Oberlin on the topic of “Adult Education & the Meaning of Rivers.” Mark Twain had spoken at First Church, a point that I confirmed with my gracious host, Prof. Bob Longsworth, who added that there had been some controversy surrounding the performance.

Twain appeared at First Church in February 1885, not long after the publication of Life on the Mississippi & right around that of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with George Washington Cable. Tickets ranged from 50¢ to a dollar, &, according to the Oberlin newspaper review, members of the audience got their money’s worth: “Twain fully met the expectations of his many admiring readers, adding the peculiar force of his recitations to the unlimited humor of his own compositions.” Not all walked out into the “extreme cold” of that night fully satisfied, however, & one correspondent wrote to the editors of the newspaper that “I like to laugh, and no one enjoys a good laugh more than I do, but I’m provoked to think that so many of us laughed when there was really nothing to laugh at.”

It makes me merry to think of Twain “provoking” such a response, especially since I shared my ideas on “provocation” with First Church listeners on Sunday. Provocation, the act of provoking, commonly carries a sense of causing irritation, resentment, or annoyance, which is how Twain’s critic used the word. But provocation also has two other connotations: one has to do simply with “stirring up” an action or thought or feeling; the other has to do with the Latin roots of the word—pro (forth) and vocare (calling). The latter meanings connect with my thoughts on  education, which I’ve drawn in part from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emersonian provocation is a calling forth or bringing out of listeners & readers what is already there, as opposed to an “instruction” that tries to put something in the listener or reader that isn’t there already.

Twain can be a most provoking writer, as I discuss in the chapter “Overlooking the River,” nor was he a stranger to being provoked himself. In his autobiography, he recalls a letter written to an editor who had botched one of Twain’s own literary productions: “‘It is discouraging to try to penetrate a mind like yours,’” Twain remonstrated.  “‘You ought to get it out and dance on it.  That would take some of the rigidity out of it.  And you ought to use it sometimes; that would help.  If you had done this every now and then along through life, it would not have petrified.’” As I write in the book, readers & students can take a hopeful lesson away from Twain’s provoked provocation: “Meaning is possible, if you will but stomp some suppleness into your minds and keep them from hardening by occasional use.”

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Posted March 30, 2011 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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