Dr. Jack Knowles, a recently retired Milligan professor holds up some of Mark Twain's work. (Tony Casey/Johnson City Press)
From the moment he decided to become a teacher, Jack Knowles set out with the sole ambition of inspiring others the way he had been inspired.
Three professors in the recently retired teacher’s life influenced the path on which the Ohio native would ultimately instruct his students. He took from each of his favorite instructors’ methods of conveying information and prided himself on having earned a career as someone who can delve deeply into the topics of life, death, faith and the written word.
Since 2009, Knowles has been able to tackle these topics with Milligan College students in his English 404 class, titled "Mark Twain: American Idol.”
Through Twain’s work and Knowles’ vast expertise in many other eras and categories of literature, Knowles been able to bring students different moral situations in Twain’s writings.
Having previously taught Twain’s staple, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in some of his lower-level classes, Knowles assumed his students in English 404 had already read it, and opted to delve into other Twain tales.
Knowles’ required reading of the students included “The Innocents Abroad,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” and finally, possibly Twain’s darkest work, “The Mysterious Stranger.” Also featured is Ken Burns’ 3½-hour film on Twain.
It may seem like a tall order for students, but this was a high-level class on a prolific writer. And through each book, different trends would surface to bring different topics of discussion. In “The Mysterious Stranger,” and through many other portions of Twain’s writings, Knowles knew he was challenging students who consciously came to Milligan, a Christian liberal arts college, with the godless writer’s rants against the Christian religion.
In acknowledging Twain’s arguments against his faith, Knowles said he’s doing a service to the discussion and not avoiding any topics. He thinks the darker works tell a lot about how the former Samuel Clemens was raised, and especially how he was raised in a punishing Calvinist way. Though his mother was said to be a sweet woman, Knowles said, an important distinction could be made about Twain’s father.
“He said he’d never heard his father laugh,” Knowles said about what he called the foremost humorist of his time.
Knowles said Twain’s upbringing and world experiences helped him show his readers just how dark things had become in his later years, through his writings in stories like “Stranger,” a tale with Satan as the central character, ultimately reveal a harsh and dark reality about the existence of man.
This could very well have been the tip of the evidence, or as Knowles called them, hammer blows, against Twain as a family man.
Although not taught in the same class, Knowles offers an alternative view through the works of Christian writer C.S. Lewis, who he says also didn’t avoid discussing the evils of the world as well as the splendors.
The discussion is what’s important to Knowles. Those favorite professors of his past were great in asking questions and drumming up proper discussion on the issues, Knowles said, and that’s how he models his classes.
“In a genuine life of faith, you have to look at both the darkness and the light,” Knowles said.
It’s isn’t hero worship for Knowles. As a great scholar on literature, he’s just as quick to point out some of Twain’s lacking qualities as he is of his strengths. He thinks “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” stands out because it’s one case where Twain tackles the task of focusing in depth on a female character, which is quite possibly a weak point in his other writings, Knowles said.
It stands out, too, because of how much high praise the author has for Joan of Arc, a deeply religious historical figure, which flies well in the face of the trend of his other books.
Knowles pulled out words from Twain’s work in a mid-1890s copy of Harper’s magazine in which he speaks of Joan of Arc. He excitedly shares the last paragraph in which Twain concludes, without Knowles’ agreement, of Joan of Arc’s prominence as the top-rated historical figure.
“Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances — her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life — she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced,” Twain said of her.
What Knowles finds funny about Twain has been the loose treatment of his quotes over the years. He points out two of Twain’s most famous quotes, one about three different kinds of lies and another about Twain being “the American,” as being attributed to him, when they should have either been attributed to the original coiners of the quote or the character who Twain had say the words.
How Knowles came to the idea of teaching Twain came through work with colleagues through his pursuits of obtaining his master’s and doctorate degrees.
As for the survival of his Twain class at Milligan, Knowles is unsure if it will go on without him.