When we were kids, my sister Jean and I discovered the Mark Tidd books, written by Clarence Budington Kelland, while we were staying at our grandmother’s house in Staten Island, New York. I remember one of the books was inscribed “To Bobby” — that was my father’s name when he was a boy — from his mother.
Jean and I loved Mark Tidd. He was smart. Even though he looked funny (he was fat, and he stuttered), he always got the better of potential bullies. He and his three buddies got into all sorts of interesting adventures — in one book they took over a failing newspaper, in another book they ran a store, in another book they rented an entire broken-down deserted resort hotel — and they were always saved from looming disasters by Mark Tidd’s brains.
I tracked down some of the Mark Tidd books a few years ago, to see if I would like them now as much as I liked them when I was a kid. The plots and characters were pretty good, as juvenile series books go — the plots and characters obviously look to Tom Sawyer as a model (Tom Sawyer is explicitly mentioned in the opening pages of the first book; see also “Michigan Authors and Their Books,” Michigan Library Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, Sept-Oct. 1925 [Lansing, Michigan], pp. 22-24) — but as an adult I picked up on some undercurrents that made me uncomfortable. In the first book, Mark Tidd and his three friends form a secret society, which they model on the Ku Klux Klan; even though there’s no overt racism in the book (everyone in the story is white), even mentioning the Ku Klux Klan positively made it hard for me to like the book. (The later books don’t mention the KKK.) In the rest of the books, Kelland extols the virtues of hard work , honesty, and financial know-how — these are values I can affirm — but he doesn’t seem to recognize that a key ingredient to Mark Tidd’s success in his various enterprises is the backing of his father’s immense capital.
Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.
Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.
What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.
Summer is upon us in the Bay area, and it is time to reflect again on Mark Twain’s description of Bay area summers:
Along in the summer, when you have suffered about four months of lustrous, pitiless sunshine, you are ready to go down on your knees and plead for rain — hail — snow — thunder and lightning — anything to break the monotony — you will take an earthquake, if you cannot do any better. And the chances are that you’ll get it, too.