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Twain Must Have Had Nights Like This

Written by By John Bird, Winthrop University Professor of English

Panelists for the April 2009 Mark Twain lecture included, from left, NPR's Peter Sagal, Amy Holmes of CNN, Professor John Bird, and comedian Mo Rocca. Photo by Brendan O'Hara

He must have felt this way sometimes, I thought. I was standing alone on the porch of the Alumni House at St. Mary's College, smoking a cigar, sipping a bit of single-malt Scotch. The crowd gone, the night’s lecture over, the heady feeling of reaching the audience just as you had hoped you would, and now the quiet but exhilarating aftermath, with laughter and applause still ringing in your ears. He must have had nights like this in his endless string of times spent on the lecture stage. But nights like these are rare for me, a mere English professor, and I wanted to savor the experience and the feeling.

“He,” of course, is Mark Twain. My interest in America’s great writer and humorist had brought me the summer before to Elmira College, to the sixth Quadrennial Conference on the State of Mark Studies. I have been to all six, but this time, I made a new friend. I always take my mandolin to the conference, and I have a few fellow Twain scholars I make music with, sometimes far into the night. A friend said, “You must meet Ben Click. He plays the piano.” Does he ever! Ben had commandeered an old piano in one of the dormitory sitting rooms, and when I met him, he was banging out the Blues. Very soon, I had joined him on the mandolin, and I knew that I had met a kindred spirit.

After a few days of listening to Twain papers and playing more music together, Ben asked if I would like to come to his college as part of a lecture series. “We do this every year,” he said, “but next year is going to be a big one, for the centennial of Mark Twain’s death.” And then he dropped the big shocker: “I’m going to have some pretty big names, people from NPR and CNN, and I’m hoping to get Mo Rocca, the comedian. And I want you to be the emcee.” Me? Me? For some reason, Ben thought I would be good in that role, and despite some doubts, I agreed. After all, April 2010 was a long way away.

As the program was being developed, Ben managed to get an actual emcee, Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!," and he asked if I would agree to be a panelist instead. With relief, I agreed enthusiastically, and then Ben and I began to exchange e-mails with possible questions for Peter to pose to the panel, questions on Mark Twain and race, religion, and politics. I didn’t mind cheating a bit by knowing what the questions might look like. The ones I submitted were mainly Twain quotations on these controversial and timely topics, with questions about how what he said over 100 years ago related to today. I was a bit leery of performing in front of a large crowd, alongside professional entertainers and journalists, but as the only Mark Twain scholar on the stage, I knew I would have an advantage the big names didn’t have. And it didn’t hurt to have a hand in the questions, either: I could have, as Twain once said, the confidence of a Christian with four aces.

I have been to Maryland many times, but never anywhere near St. Mary’s. I was blown away by the beauty of the campus and its setting: the views of the St. Mary’s River, the historic campus buildings, and the even more historic buildings of the restored old city. Here this place had been all these years, and I had no idea! “You are teaching on the most lovely campus in America,” I told Ben. He just smiled and laughed.

I had visions of crab cakes for dinner the day before the event, and I had read in a guidebook about a curious local delicacy called stuffed ham–but dinner was going to be provided at Ben’s house, a barbecue with his family. How perfect, and how much like family I felt as we had cocktails, as Ben and his brother-in-law grilled some salmon, as Ben’s wife Anne finished up making dishes in the kitchen, and as Ben’s two beautiful daughters, Rosie and Lizzie, listened to me play my mandolin. Scenes like that happened to Mark Twain as he was out lecturing: evenings spent at the homes of friends instead of in lonely hotel rooms, evenings of good food and drink and laughter and music.

As I am sure Twain had done, I spent the day anxiously waiting for the big performance. I gradually realized, with a bit of horror, what a big deal this was going to be! My first glimpse of the massive tent for the dinner that preceded the event told me that I would be dealing with a crowd, and then I saw the elaborate poster, with smiling pictures of Peter Sagal of NPR, Amy Holmes of CNN, comedian Mo Rocca – and me!

As we entered the St. Mary’s gym, I saw the NCAA basketball banner, and I thought, “Oh! THAT St. Mary’s!” I peeked around the curtain at the crowd and all my feelings of being in over my head doubled, tripled. There must have been over 1,000 people packed into that gym! But the show must go on, and we mounted the stage.

I only had a few goals for the night. First, I wanted to make it look like I belonged up there with the professionals. Second, I wanted to make sure that I honestly represented Mark Twain. Third, I wanted to make sure that I not only represented Twain, but that I did it in an interesting way. And last – and I find it hard to confess this, but honesty compels me to – I wanted, at some point in the evening, to get a bigger laugh than Mo Rocca. And I saw now that I would have to do that without the benefit of pink pants.

As I stood later that night on the porch in the Alumni House, all alone, waiting for Ben, I knew that I had achieved all my goals: the most important one, of course, the reason I was there, to be an “expert” on Mark Twain, but even that last, selfish one, courtesy of a comment about the Tea Party that had come to me on the drive down from Baltimore. It was the “snapper” that Twain was such a master of, a wry observation and a bit of comic timing, my supposed channeling of Twain when Peter asked what Twain would have thought of the Tea Party: “I always thought,” I drawled in my imitation of the man, “that a tea party was when my little girls dressed up in outlandish costumes and lived in a land of make-believe.”

The audience had roared at that line, which gave me great satisfaction, but as I looked back on the night, the more important feeling I had was doing my bit in a great and memorable evening. I got that glimpse of what Mark Twain felt almost every night on the stage – but I also know that he realized too he was never really the center, but only a part in a greater and bigger show. I finished my cigar and waited for Ben, eager to talk to him about just what had happened in St. Mary’s, for that night the center of the Mark Twain world.