We should have applauded 13 years ago. It was our only chance.
Charles Van Doren began his 90-minute reading from the works of Mark Twain at the University of Connecticut Torrington campus July 21, 2006, with a single, oblique reference to a scandal that has plagued him for half a century — his complicity in a rigged television quiz show. It was our chance to let him know we were now on his side.
The M. Adela Eads Classroom Building was packed with more than 200 eager attendees, as Van Doren, a new English Department faculty member at the local campus, prepared to entertain us with excerpts from one of his favorite authors. The event was sponsored by the Litchfield County Writers Project.
Project director Davyne Verstandig introduced the speaker as “Professor Charles Van Doren.” The tall, 80-year-old Van Doren, dressed all in Twain-like white, strode to the lectern. “It is extremely gratifying,” Van Doren began, “to hear myself introduced as Professor Charles Van Doren. I have been waiting 50 years for that.”
Perhaps if he had paused here, it would have happened — the applause. Instead, he launched right into his talk. He began by saying that Mark Twain was four things: a sentimentalist, a humorist, a moralist and a great writer.
To illustrate the author’s sentimentality, Van Doren read from Twain’s unfinished autobiography, which is filled with loving references to Twain’s wife, Olivia Langdon, and their three daughters. For humor, he read from “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” in which Adam mistakes his infant son Cain for a fish, a bear and a kangaroo. Twain’s moral conscience was shown by Van Doren’s reading from “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” which drips with sarcasm about religious hypocrisy.
Finally, for sheer great writing, Van Doren read from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” He finished with an episode in that novel in which Huck is debating whether to send a letter to the owner of his runaway slave friend Jim, doing the “right” thing and returning the stolen “property.” Jim, unaware of Huck’s plan to betray him, continues to be friendly to the only white person he could ever love.
Huck says to himself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell!” — and he tears up the letter.
Here, after an hour and a half, is where we finally burst into applause.
Van Doren’s remark at the outset was all he said about what must have been his own private hell — banishment from his professorship at Columbia University because of his 1956-57 involvement in the television quiz show “Twenty-One.” After racking up winnings of $129,000, Van Doren admitted that the show’s producers had fed him the questions and answers.
Van Doren, a rising star from a distinguished family, was exiled from the academic world. He later held an esteemed post at the Encyclopedia Britannica and authored several critically acclaimed books, but the world remembered his past. In 1994, it was fictionalized in the movie “Quiz Show,” produced by Robert Redford but without Van Doren’s imprimatur.
It was clear from Friday’s large turnout, on a rainy evening, that most people have forgiven him for his part in the deception.
Like Twain, Professor Charles Van Doren was a sentimentalist, a humorist, a moralist and a great writer. He nearly wept when a young acquaintance or family member hugged him before the reading. He joked about having to keep adjusting the microphone to be heard over the rain on the roof. For years he willingly accepted responsibility for taking part in the quiz show scandal. And anyone who has read his 1991 book, “A History of Knowledge,” will agree that he is a clear, insightful writer.
We applauded his reading of Twain. We should have applauded Professor Charles Van Doren.