Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, October 19, 2012


I would read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn once again with Dr. Ravitz.  In the Fall Quarter, 1964, I took another of his courses, English 377 (American Thought II), a course that dealt principally with Realism and Naturalism--the post-Civil War era.  And once again I was with Huck and Jim aboard the raft, and I began to learn the lesson that successive readings of a text can bring to the careful reader all sorts of new meanings--all sorts of minnows and giant catfish yanked up onto the raft.

Another great example of this, for me, was Hamlet.  I taught it every year from 2001-2010 at Western Reserve Academy, and every year--every year--I found myself understanding something I'd never really understood before, discovering some new way to look at a character, a situation, hearing from a student something I'd never thought of ...

Just one quick example: Remember the scene when the Queen breaks the news to Laertes?  The news that his sister has drowned?  She tells the story in great detail (see below, for a refresher):

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Alas, then, she is drown'd?
Drown'd, drown'd.

I had read and taught this passage for quite a while before this question arrived, unbidden, one day: How did she know all this?  Who could have told her?  If someone witnessed what she's telling Laertes, then that person stood there and watched Ophelia drown. I mean, the woman is floating there for a while ... why didn't the witness do something?  Or is Gertrude just telling the grieving brother a sweet story to soften this hardest of news?

So ... among the lessons I learned from my experience with Huck and Dr. Ravitz: Returning to a text is in some ways like reading it for the first time.  You are different.  You filter the words in a different way as they arrive in your mind.

I've had this experience many times by reading in my, uh, "later" years books that I'd read in my nonage.

And so with Huck Finn I was now thinking about the journey motif, the picaresque nature of the narrative, the aspects of Transcendentalism that leak into the story.  I was noticing more clearly Twain's satire of religion, of mob behavior--his profound fear of human ignorance, which he believed was our greatest threat.  And so on.

(BTW: Got an A this time!  Movin' on up!)

Original Aurora Middle School
102 E. Garfield Rd.
I graduated from Hiram College in June 1966, started teaching at the Aurora Middle School a few months later.  As I wrote yesterday, I don't believe I ever had students there read the novel--though I talked about it now and then, urged kids to read it.  Used passages from it occasionally for various  reasons.

I left Aurora at the end of the 1977-1978 school year for a position at Lake Forest College in Illinois; I stayed one year (I missed middle schoolers!  Who woulda thunk it?).  But there was no opening in Aurora (I tried!), so Joyce and I both accepted positions at Western Reserve Academy.  There, Huck Finn was part of the sophomore curriculum (Joyce taught sophs), and I taught frosh and juniors, so no Huck for me at WRA--not yet.

The Learned Owl
Hudson, OH
I left WRA at the end of the 1980-1981 year (I was in a snit), thinking I would easily find another job.  I didn't.  That following year (1981-1982) I worked as a clerk, part-time, at the Learned Owl (Hudson's bookstore--still in business)--and I taught freshman comp at nearby Kent State University.  And on our reading list ... Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I was thrilled.

And then, my first day in class, I saw that I had some African American students.  Now what?

TOMORROW: Teaching Huck at KSU ... and WRA ...

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