Issues of Concern in Twain's Historical Remembrances


A Few Assertions About the Nature of History

[Some of these ideas are from Frykenberg, Robert Eric. History & Belief: The Foundations of Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.]

  1. History is not independent of interpretation.  Facts are always placed within a framework.
  2. History is both objective and subjective.  It has "a factual impact".  Certain historical records, occurrences, and data exist independent of us and do guide and shape the way we interpret, yet history also has a personal shape; different people ask different questions and end up with differing observations about what the facts mean.
  3. History is a narrative: 1) it often focuses on individuals, their identities, and their relationships with institutions; 2) it has a certain sequence and contingency with a narrative pattern--one thing "follows" another for a reason; 3) it has a "story-worthiness" that explains why we are concerned with it; 4) it often has a certain "trajectory of culmination," a certain end or purpose that the historian feels it is leading up to.
  4. History may also have a deep sense of connection with the teller: it helps explain who we presently are. (e.g. The Exodus, Christ's resurrection)
  5. History, from a Christian perspective, includes an account of God's actions in the past.  History, therefore, also shapes our faith: we better understand what we believe on the basis of what God has done for us.
  6. Because Christians affirm the incarnation of Christ, the covenant God made with Israel, and the particular circumstances surrounding the cultural makeup of the early Church all as historical realities, we also affirm the historicity of human culture in general.  To affirm that God is, in some sense, eternal and therefore above time, does not mean that we deny the particular time-bound nature of our own cultures or of God's willingness to enter those cultures to speak to us, most perfectly in Christ in first-century Palestine.
  7. Likewise, to affirm that we are in part shaped by the particular historical forces of our cultures' pasts does not negate that God has a universal will for all cultures and times.


  • In what ways does Twain's history of learning to be a riverboat pilot or his early experience in the Civil War have a personal shape and importance to it?
  • How does Twain present the narrative pattern or storyworthiness in his two accounts?
  • What do the two stories each reveal about Twain's values and concerns?
  • Is humor naturally found in our pasts?  Why or why not?

Tacit Knowing and Riverboat Piloting

[Some of these definitions are taken from material developed by Dr. David Naugle.]

tacit knowing: "true knowledge involves personal involvement in knowing, the link between knowing and responsibility.  At the bottom of all human activity are things that are known, but cannot be put into words."   This suggests that tacit knowledge is imparted through mentoring relationships in which an apprentice is willing to submit to the master's way of doing things in order to learn them.

focal and subsidiary knowledge: "an awareness from and awareness to."  focal knowledge represents the activity that we focus on; subsidiary knowledge represents the latent knowledge that we must have to perform the task, i.e. bikeracing requires a great deal of subsidiary knowledge that the racer cannot focus on in the midst of a race but must nonetheless have ingrained.

Michel Polanyi observes: "An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice [. . .] To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. [. . .] These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to the extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition" (53)


  • How does Twain's experience with riverboat piloting an example of tacit knowledge and learning?
  • According to Twain, what is the cost of his acquired skill?  Is he correct?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding