—Creator of the Wildly Popular Twain Lecture Series Ben Click Reflects on the Success of the Series and the Guiding Inspiration of Mark Twain—
I have had the honor of directing the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture at St. Mary’s College of Maryland since 2007. In that time I have witnessed the Series’ transformation from a cozy campus lecture into one of the biggest events in Southern Maryland. What started out as an event that drew a respectable 200 people from the college and local community now routinely attracts well over 1000 people from across the region. At 7:30 p.m. on April 24, the Twain Lecture Series will host its ninth annual lecture, “An Evening with Aasif Mandvi.” Best known as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Mandvi also recently published a collection of humorous personal essays, and we expect his lecture to be one of our best-attended events to date.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why people support a lecture series like this one. Our events are free and open to the public and have featured acclaimed authors, actors, and humorists like David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman, Larry Wilmore, and Mo Rocca. In other words, the Series succeeded through a combination of accessibility and relevance—the same qualities that made Mark Twain’s work successful.
And yet, as the event approaches each year, I always get the question: “So, why do you like Twain?” I’m the director of the Twain Lecture Series, and I’ve been teaching Mark Twain in academia for years. But, the question still seems to catch me off-guard. In the moment, I feel like the psychiatrist whose patient turns the couch on the good doctor and snaps back, “Well how do you feel about your mother?” Even though the question surprises me, I always come back to the same answer.
I begin to think of Twain’s riverboat mentor, Mr. Bixby, grilling the young Twain on navigating the Mississippi. Bixby asks Twain a series of questions about the river, and the young cub continually stammers, “I—I—don’t know.” Bixby lays into him: “You’re the stupidest dunderhead I ever heard of, so help me Moses! . . . Why, you don’t know enough to pilot a cow down a lane.” Bixby ultimately tells Twain that to be a riverboat pilot, you have to “know” the river.
Most of the time I’m no dunderhead. Like the pilot knowing the mighty Mississippi, I know why I like the mighty Twain: he don’t shoot no blank cartridges.
In other words, he’s honest, or as Huck says of Mr. Twain at the start of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: “He told the truth, mainly.” And there it is. It’s in Twain’s telling that the truth emerges—emerges in a healthy, irreverent, and cynical look at the “damned human race.”
Yet, Twain’s eye seldom fails to see the good that a human can produce. And Twain’s pen seldom fails to illuminate that good. It’s how he can create a character like Huck who can utter, “Allright then I’ll go to hell,” as he decides not to write a letter that would make Jim a slave till death.
The aphorisms that Twain so loved to pen succinctly illustrate his irreverent eye: “Be good and you will be lonesome.” “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will never again bite you. That is the principal difference between a man and a dog.” “When you get to Heaven, leave your dog at the gate. Heaven goes by favor, not merit. Otherwise, your dog would go in and you would stay out.”
Although these aphorisms place human nature below the nature of our canine superiors, others exalt us to what we might be in a world of woe: “Grief can take care of itself; but to get the full value of a joy you must have someone to divide it with.” “Courage is the mastery of fear, the resistance to fear—not the absence of fear.” “Let us so live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
I like him for these thoughts, but if Twain is reduced to only short sayings, humorous tall tales, and burlesques, he never rises above his titles of “Moralist of the Main,” or “The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope”—and he certainly wouldn’t deserve to have a lecture series named after him. But he did write more, and more deeply—about racism, about individuality, about morality, about imperialism, about us humans.
One clue as to why he wrote with such depth and so compellingly lies in his ambitions in life: one was to be a pilot, and the other a preacher of the gospel. He accomplished one (he was indeed a riverboat pilot), but the other he avoided, claiming he couldn’t “supply himself with the necessary stock in trade—i.e., religion.” Instead, he turned his attention to “seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor pitiful business.” Thus, in being a scribbler of 30 books, thousands of letters, and hundreds of short sketches and newspaper pieces, he perfected the art of telling a story and helped shape a uniquely American style of humor.
Twain understood that the humorous story depends for its effect upon the “manner of the telling,” not the “matter.” Stories may seem rambling and disjointed, but the teller relates them with no pretense. In fact, his story may seemingly be about nothing at all. For example, in “Jim Blaine’s Grandfather’s Ram,” Blaine, when drunk enough, is persuaded to tell the tale of his grandfather’s ram. The humor lies in the fact that Blaine never gets to the promised story of the ram, but rather rambles from story to story to story—each one shedding some truth on the “damned human race.”
In one of his digressions, Blaine tells of a missionary who is “biled” (boiled) and “et up by savages.” The man’s friends go into the jungle to bring back his personal effects only to discover that it wasn’t the custom of the savages to boil and eat missionaries and that they had tried (to eat) them in every other way, but “never could get any good out of ’em.” The missionary’s friends are annoyed to “find out that that man’s life was fooled away just out of a dern’d experiment, so to speak.”
Here Twain lets the drunken Blaine offer an ironic truth about the notion of converting savages to Christianity: “Everything that people can’t understand and don’t see the reason of does good if you only hold on an give it a fair shake; Prov’dence don’t shoot no blank ca’tridges boys. That there missionary’s substance, unbeknowest to himself, actu’ly converted every last one of them heathens that took a chance at the barbecue. Nothing ever fetched them but that.”
So, while you might feel like Twain has shot blank cartridges, read again, read out loud; you might just hear the report of your own voice ringing through his words, even in a story where a missionary is “et up by savages.”
Why do I like Twain? I think . . . no, I know I like him because he tells the truth about human nature, and he tells it in voices that I know are real, whether they come out of a 14-year-old orphan helping a slave gain freedom or a sociably drunk ringtailed roarer telling of a naïve missionary and the savages he wished to convert. Likewise, the Twain Lecture Series seeks to present voices that are not just entertaining but also real, whether it’s Sarah Vowell pointing out that Maryland’s state song and John Wilkes Booth share a slogan or John Hodgman attempting to make a joke about the loud colors of the Maryland flag—only to get physically tangled in the flag itself.
Human nature. It’s like Huck describing how he eats in the non-civilized world—where things are real: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.” In telling the truth, Twain mixes it up and swaps the juices around. When I read him, “things go better.” And when I organize events inspired by him, I hope we shoot no blank cartridges and that our audience continues to fill the seats.
Ben Click is a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and director of the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture. The ninth annual Twain Lecture is Friday, April 24, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The lecture, entitled “An Evening with Aasif Mandvi,” will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center and will feature a reading and storytelling from Mandvi, followed by an audience question and answer period and book signing. The event is free and open to the public.