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University of Missouri

Mizzou’s Mark Twain Scholar Calls It Quits

Tom Quirk retires.

Mark Twain

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Tom Quirk

Photo by Rob Hill.

“I wish we could say the reports of Tom Quirk’s retirement are exaggerated,” quips Ron Powers, BJ ’63, whose Mark Twain: A Life (Free Press, 2005) was a National Book Award finalist. “The fact is that the University of Missouri is losing a great scholar, a great man and one of the pre-eminent Mark Twain scholars alive today,” he says. Powers credits Quirk with helping him cut through scholars’ extreme interpretations of Twain. “Tom helped me to be conscious of Mark Twain’s words themselves rather than reacting to received opinions of those words.”

Quirk, professor of English, retires Sept. 1, 2013, after 34 years at MU.

Reading Twain with as few preconceived notions as possible has been a theme for Quirk as well throughout his six books and numerous articles. He started his scholarly life studying Herman Melville but changed paths when he began teaching Twain after another Mark Twain scholar retired. He loved Twain’s writing and found that he had plenty to say about the author. “There were and are a lot of things written about Mark Twain and his work that I couldn’t accept — for example, that he’s a racist, and that he was a spontaneous, uncalculating and unartistic writer with talent but without discipline.”

On the contrary, Quirk says, despite Twain’s sometimes off-the-cuff quality, recent scholarship shows that he devoted himself to revising his writings. And Twain’s takes on social issues reveal even more. Quirk’s latest book, Mark Twain and Human Nature (University of Missouri Press, 2007), traces Twain’s intellectual development. “I was in for a lot of surprises as I did the research. Twain changed his tune on all sorts of things” that were widely accepted during his youth in antebellum Missouri. Quirk’s investigations reveal Twain as a man who followed his curiosity and conscience to evolve views that were antiracist and pro-woman. “He had little education to speak of, but he was very smart and very well-read.”

Regarding his motives for retirement, Quirk says, “It’s time to give somebody else a chance. People have heard enough from me on Mark Twain.” But he allows as how he would speak up if something needs to be said. And he’ll continue reading Twain, his boon companion.

When asked to draft his scholarly epitaph, the professor channels the author and cracks:

Tom Quirk
Withdrew Passing

Read Tom Quirk’s essay The Flawed Greatness of Huckleberry Finn.