As an undergraduate full of a very unearned sense of personal worth (and dumb as a frog in a ballet class), I had to choose a research topic for a paper in one of a series of courses I was taking on theater history. I’d read “Is Shakespeare Dead?” by Mark Twain, and thought this might be a fresh topic. I must have also thought I was the only person to have ever read it. I was completely unaware that many scholars had also tackled that curiosity. As a matter of fact, I had no idea at all at the time, that the question about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works was the most academic question ever debated in English literature.
In class, each of us on the appointed day, stood and announced our thesis statement. When I offered my theme, proudly displaying what I considered to be brilliance, the professor smiled & said:
“Well, go ahead. If you look really hard, you just might find something on it.”
This particular professor’s personal addiction to sarcasm should have tipped me off, but I was young, and eager, and clueless. As we left class at the end of the period, one of my friends and fellow classmates turned to me and said:
“Van, you’re an idiot.”
Well, I’ve always lived my life in such a way to expect that to be said to me often, and possibly in reference to many of my habitual behaviors, so I didn’t catch on to the true meaning of it. It could have been for any number of things I’d said or done over the course of the day, or of the week for that matter. I just took it as a term of endearment as was common of us back in those days of peace and brotherly love.
I went to the library. I discovered that I would not be able to check out everything that touched on what was deemed “THE academic question”, because it was the weight of those materials that allowed gravity to keep the library building anchored to the earth. The possible resources would make up a colossal library all by themselves!
Just compiling a bibliography would take longer than the time allowed for the project twenty times over. A juggler would do better trying to keep a boxcar load of frozen turkeys in the air. I was soon over my head and drowning in some of the most complicated essays and debates (some brilliant, some arrogant and obtuse, and some I could not make head nor tails of) I’d ever seen in my life. I’d made thirteen trips to the student book store to buy more index cards, and still didn’t have enough, and wouldn’t be able to afford enough pencils to write it all down. Had I insisted on footnoting everything available, I’d still be at it today some four decades later.
Facing a now impossible deadline, I struggled to find ANYTHING that would help me wrap up this never-ending project. I found it in the argument that a popular likeness of Shakespeare was “similar” to a portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, and another of Sir Francis Bacon. The suggestion that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon was a commoner, and being pictured with signet ring, nobleman’s ruff, and sword of state might be evidence of a false identification, and it caught my eye. That’s it? A similarity? They are basing their argument on possible look-a-likes? Forgetting all else, I focused on that one thought.
I took an old promotional headshot of myself playing King Charles VII of France in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” from an earlier production at the same college. Even though the styles were from another period (Charles died more than one hundred years before Shakespeare was born), still the picture could be claimed to be the great poet, from strictly a likeness point of view, just as easily as some of the others being presented to the argument. Aha! This could be my ticket out of this mess!
Thinking myself to be a master wit, I attached it to my paper suggesting that my likeness looked more like Shakespeare than did Edward de Vere, or Bacon. I actually walked into class, and turned it in. I handed it to the professor, and looked him in the face smiling with all of the confidence of a pig breaking into the front of the line in a slaughterhouse.
Skydivers consider their sport to be exhilarating, but most of them like to use parachutes. I think it is a good idea to have one, and have it with you prior to jumping out of an airplane. Experience may be a good teacher, but not always a timely one. I had no idea how fast I was falling, but when it was time to pull the ripcord, it was too late to suit up properly.
I have often struggled with the stupidity of that decision, but perhaps it was the absolute naivety of my person that warranted some charitable consideration. Submitting the conclusion to be (or not to be) on the question of appearances, my image having more similarities with the bard, that I was in fact William Shakespeare, did not get me the grade I wanted. But thank goodness it also did not get the one it deserved, either. It did, however, garner some very good, and very practical advice:
“Very funny Mr. Brown, but please don’t think you should ever try getting away with this kind of Bul@#%!* in graduate school!”
I think some kind of make up work was allowed along with the urging that I strongly consider a directed study in the comedies if I thought I was “so damn funny…”. I almost protested, but as he sat there looking at my paper and not at me, he thought it appropriate to add one more twist of the dagger by using a direct quote from The Bard of Avon:
“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed!”
So, I took the directed studies. I probably read more books during that time than in all of the rest of my college career combined. And I became good friends with several pieces by Mark Twain that I may have overlooked otherwise. That was either a blessing or a curse, I’m still not sure. Eventually after trial by fire, water, and ordeal, I did complete my bachelor’s degree, and I am not ashamed of it.
Some time later, due to an oversight in the university admissions office, I found myself in graduate school. A research class pointed out to me that instead of pursuing the obvious, we were to seek out the obscure and esoteric. That was quite a relief for me, because evidently my study habits had never allowed much of anything to appear all that obvious to me, anyway. So with all the astute mental absorption of Don Quixote, I charged the academic windmills, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”. It was the same as if I’d been a blind man eagerly and with great confidence, trying to get hired as a taxi driver in Paris.
A dear friend who did not wish for me to just be an anonymous face in the crowd, helped the faculty put a label on me. Through this charity, word about my attempt with the Shakespeare question reached the ears of a professor in the graduate school. I will always be grateful.
The teacher of the graduate research class was as serious as a loaded twelve gauge shotgun less than ten feet away. He’d received his PhD from Yale at the age of twenty-seven, so he had never had the luxury of taking time out to play, or goof off. I, on the other hand, had been luckier in that respect. He considered me an oddity in a setting intended for higher learning.
I found out he had also talked with one of my other professors who was struggling with the prospects of advising me, and knew of my interests in wanting to script some of the writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens for a one-man show. Rumors of my “Shakespeare” term paper was out and about frolicking with the squirrels all over campus, and may have been cause of a “So, that explains it…” comment I caught wind of while walking by an office where two professors were talking together. The very next day, my research teacher called me to the side, and offered:
“Mr. Brown, if you think you are William Shakespeare, why do you all of a sudden want to become Mark Twain?”
That is when I knew that all of the politics and money in the world (of which I had very little) would not bring about a definitive degree with my name on it. But the question was fair enough. Another professor, who was also my advisor, thought the Mark Twain path was too crowded, and that I might get run over out there with my lack of experience. He suggested I consider doing a show as George Bernard Shaw, since that pathway was wide open, and had virtually no traffic on it to interfere with my travels. I thought, while it was interesting, it was untravelled because so few could find it on the map. Folks in colleges knew who Shaw was whether they’d actually read him or not. But the average man on the street did not know who he was, and would not likely be willing to pay to see a tribute performance of him.
Besides, there was another bit to consider in the area of compatibilities. I had a better grasp of colloquialisms and dialects of my region than I did those of Bernard Shaw’s world. Also, Shaw was a vegetarian. Twain would eat a porterhouse steak, and his vegetable of preference was tobacco.
After a period of toying with the conflict between my interests and goals, and those of the institution I had empowered to determine what I was supposed to think, I came to a realization. I addressed the idea that had haunted me since the third grade: every student dreams constantly of just finishing up, and graduating on to do other things. In other words, the very purpose of going to school seemed to be to simply get out.
By then, my fondness for the humor and vision of Twain was causing me to think I understood it. If you choose to model yourself in a fashion to a hero, you might want to find something they said that will drive you. I looked at a quotation that has often been repeated:
“I never allowed schooling to interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain
(He said the same thing with variable wording several times during the later years of his life, but the thought was not an original one. It is likely attributable to the earlier writings of the author, Grant Allen.)
Years later when one of my sons adopted this as his motto, and allowed it to accompany his photograph in his high school annual, I was so proud. As parents, we often feel validated to some degree whenever we see our children emulate us in some way.
But my thoughts now go back to that day in “gradual school” that may have been a significant turning point in my life. I was in class listening to a scholarly man speak. He spoke English, but I realized he was using it at a level beyond my reach or understanding. When the bell rang that day, instead of going to another class to be reminded of my ineptnesses, I just…went home.
Perhaps it was premature, I cannot say for sure. I cannot go back and change the past, and Mark Twain thought it would be foolish to want to. I agree with that. But it is not enough to just allow that witticism to become your mantra, or your excuse for quitting anything. As I continued to read his writing, two other of Mark Twain’s thoughts come along that should always be weighed in with it for balance:
“You can’t reach old age by another man’s road…”
and perhaps the most appropriate thought with which to close:
“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”
In spite of my own unacademic misadventures, I suspect great secrets are to be found in books. Kept there in darkness where few will ever open a window or door, secrets can hide for years, even centuries. Folks like to collect books and display them with pride, but never risk a paper cut by opening them. So to keep something from becoming common knowledge, put the secret in the text of a book. No doubt, it’s the safest place to keep them since their hiding place will be so rarely discovered.