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Twain's River Holds Depths For Exploring

FOR Mark Twain it was an experience that gave him knowledge, a profession, and an important lesson as well. For a college English professor the experience provided both an example to give to students and one to make a part of his own.

Teaching American literature, I try to encourage young people to want to read; there are times, however, when the writings from another century are something less than exciting for them. Twain is enjoyable, offering enough laughs in his fiction to keep everybody entertained. But many times it's that ``extra'' reading, beyond the usual assignments, that bring the real joy to both prof and student.

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Case in point is Twain's account, in ``Life on the Mississippi,'' of his youthful desire to become a riverboat pilot. Now, I never had that desire - and I know of none of my students who dream of such a career; we're located in northeastern Ohio, far from river traffic. But from Twain's account of the experience of first wanting to be identified with the river, then of learning the craft, we both come to an appreciation of something more than just another era, more than just a bit of history. The account becomes a real ``bonus'' for us all.

Twain tells how he was drawn to the beauty of the Mississippi River as a youngster. He describes ``a certain sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal....''

He continues the description: ``...where the ruddy flush was faintest was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it in every passing moment with new marvels of coloring....''

Just imagine being on the river each day and being a part of that glorious scene!

That was Twain's goal.

And so he hired on as an apprentice, worked his way up the line of crew, and, at last, became a full-fledged riverboat pilot. The fulfillment of his dream.

And yet, having achieved this, looking back on the experience some years later, Twain was to write of a side effect he had not expected in this fulfillment.

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His words explain the circumstance: ``Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. ... All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of that majestic river!''

And if that beauty of the sunset from his youthful days were to return, Twain said, it would carry only pragmatic significance now - the identical scenes.

He wrote, ``This sun means that we are going to have a wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling `boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the `break' from a new snag and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree with a single living branch is not going to last long, and then how is a body going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?''

``Now, the romance and the beauty,'' Twain concluded, ``were all gone out of the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat....''

He had gained the mastery ... and lost the beauty.

Reading this passage, I find myself asking questions: Am I being too caught up in the mechanics of my work? Is it all blackboard and seating chart and syllabus and exam? Have I lost the intrigue - yes, the beauty - of getting to know people, exploring artistic endeavors, sharing insights? All these had attracted me to the classroom years ago.

And students find they sense a renewed desire to make the very best of their happy times on campus. To sense even what might be called the ``beauty'' around them, even in the classroom!

Is it too much to expect that Twain's experience can apply, can provide guidance for every one of us in some way?

I recall that old admonition about taking time to smell the flowers. Floral beauty is all around us and can serve purpose more than some arbitrary planting. Build, progress, reach the potential of wisdom ... but always recognize that very wisdom includes the inherent, quiet beauty around us.

Mark Twain learned - and I'm grateful he shared his experience with us. It's the ``extra'' dividend one gets from reading.

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