Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huckleberry Finn, the Lost Cause Mythology, and "Nigger Jim"

After my earlier post, I went home.  The evening, though, has been a continuation of the day, with multiple  notices of additional comments on the expurgated Huck Finn, and an unsettling realization that the tempest has been unleashed.  Once the nightly news, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and Stephen Colbert have taken aim, there's not a whole lot left to do but ride the wave.

But among the various comments, there was one rather disquieting observation.  I am not sure what to make of this, but there is an idea floating along that the new edition of Huck is part of the movement to rewrite American history -- to sanitize the record of slavery and to make antebellum institutions less onerous and more friendly.  Really.  I am still rolling with this.  It seems to me a full and paranoid approach to a relatively idiosyncratic editorial decision.  I think of the late 19th century attempts to rewrite the history of the Civil War and the battles over abolition and a series of tales (perhaps most often represented by the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris) meant to re-imagine the character of the "happy darkey" in Southern fields, and I think of the connection to the more virulent use of the minstrel image that led into the fiction of Thomas Dixon.  The myth of the lost cause seems ubiquitous these days.  I do not want to think that the new Huck ties to these.  It says something about us that we slide into this thinking.

This morning I talked to a newspaper reporter about the new edition.  I turned down two on-camera interviews for local and regional news channels.  At various stages the question of Twain's "nigger Jim" came up.  Here is still another problem.  Mark Twain NEVER names the character "nigger Jim":  it's a false read of Twain's description of "Miss Watson's nigger, Jim."  So we defend Twain by attributing to him a deeper racist comment.  That is wrong.

So this upset, even if it last a while longer, should be cautionary.  We need to be careful in our own thinking -- before we step further through the looking glass.


  1. I agree that seeing the new ediotn of HF as an attempt "to rewrite history" takes us down a dangerous road. Not every literary turn constitutes revisionist history.

  2. There is something about Twain that tempts people to see him as a touchstone for a variety of cultural movements or influences. The range of responses to the news of this edition has been truly amazing. And many commentators (especially those who leave comments to news stories) seem quite willing to push the interpretive envelope. I admit that I am still a bit shocked by the tone of a lot of the commentary and surprised by the long-lasting influence of the icon of Twain. It's as if people are unwilling to see him in any kind of complicating light or unwilling to think of him as one writer among a host of 19th century authors who struggled with social issues. Twain was not and is not the only writer we should read. I am just taken aback at the unwillingness to see that. Thanks for the comment.