Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, part one


I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a 1981 seminar on Mark Twain during my opening semester of graduate school (I was 27 years old).  While I was a graduate student (and for some time later), I never worried or even knew that I might have a need to be worried about how to interpret or teach this novel.  I knew that Twain's story contained problematic questions of identity and freedom, and I knew that there were long unresolved concerns related to race.  But I never thought about whether Twain's story was dangerous.  I was, after all, safely embedded in a hermetically sealed academic environment (not ivory tower, exactly; more like the Mad Hatter's tea party).  I had no real experience with the clash of personal and political interests that dent the book or its readers as it passes into the non-academic world.  I looked at Huck as unquestionably canonical.  It was sacred; the question of banning the book was to me just outrageous (I was easily outraged at 27; come to think of it I am pretty easily outraged at 56).  Students -- of all ages, of all races, of all ages -- needed to read this book to understand better American individualism.  Why?  Because my professor told me so.  And he was one of the founding fathers of Twain studies.  I was taught that Huck was the great tale of an America coming of age, finding its moral compass, and seeking independence and joy while heading out to a territory.  Little did I know then that such a territory simply never existed.  Twain himself was ambivalent as he crafted the sequel -- Huck and Tom Among the Indians -- a tale that he never did complete once he was brought face to face with his own inability to posit an edenic west.  How the times they do change.

As time passed, I read and I thought and I wrote and I taught.  My experiences with students (traditionally aged 18-22 year olds, distance learning students, adult returning students, corporate executives, graduate students, teachers during NEH summer programs) have driven me out of the shadow of post-world war two critical attempts to craft an American culture worthy of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 20th Century.  I have been pushed to consider troubling questions regarding the processes of critical interpretation and interpolation that haunt the history of our reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Is it the revolutionary book that critics, teachers, and cultural commentators insist that it is?   Does the story of Huck and Jim and Tom point to a new sophistication in race relations?  Has the book's hyper-canonization (using Jonathan Arac's description), based on the dreams of scholars and commentators, defined our reading and teaching?  Do the critics bear a responsibility for the myth that Huck sits at the heart of the American experience of race?  Should we be more circumspect in our efforts to sacralize the text?  The answers to these questions are no, no, yes, yes, and yes.  In the conventional world of Twain studies, those answers might prompt (at the very least) a letter to my mother to tell her that I do not play well with others.  I run with scissors.  I worry icons.      

This commentary grows out of a concern for the way Americanists have and continue to present Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a beacon of high-minded justice in our sometimes Polyanish, sometimes forbidding conversation about the relationship between literature and social understanding.  As I have become more uneasy about seeing literary study as an avenue toward moral training (it seems to me that methodology does not incite morality), it has become clear to me that for some reason Huckleberry Finn has become synonymous moral/character education.  Originally banned in 1885 by the directors of The Concord MA Library for its lack of moral center, the book is now hailed as a manifesto of the moral conscience.  More problematic, I think, it has become a central text in discussions of American race relations.  When critics were told to avoid the Intentional Fallacy, they were never told not to practice it to construct a purely literary answer to social injustice.

In Twain studies, one major voice in that debate belongs to Shelley Fisher Fishkin.  In Was Huck Black and Lighting Out for the Territory, Shelley has taken a lead role in drawing attention to Twain and race.  In her introduction to Was Huck Black, Shelley raises the literary and cultural stakes:

                        Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multi-
                        cultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength.
                        He appreciated the creative vitality of African-American
                        voices and exploited their potential in his art.  In the process
                        he helped teach his countrymen new lessons about the lyrical
                        and exuberant energy of vernacular speech, as well as about the
                        potential of satire and irony in the service of truth....
                                    ...But there is something about Huckleberry Finn
                        that sets it off from Twain's earlier work and makes it seem
                        less a continuation of the art he had been developing and more
                        of a quantum leap forward; its unrivalled place in both the
                        Twain canon and in the American literary canon relfects this
                        special status.  (5)

In the "epilogue" to Lighting Out, she offers a related observation on the value of Huck:

                        Twain's book is a wake-up call, an entreaty to rethink,
                        reevaluate, and reformulate the terms by which one defines
                        both personal  and national identity, the terms by which one
                        understands a person or a culture as "good" or "evil," a plea
                        to reexamine the hypocrisies we tolerate and the heinous
                        betrayals of hope we perpetuate -- in his time and our own --
                        in the name of "business as usual." (203)

I read this last comment as more relevant to Pudd'nhead Wilson, which, aesthetic flaws and all, carries a more genuine and unambiguous curse against hypocrisy. 

Shelley's descriptors of Huck ("quantum leap," "unrivalled," "wake-up call," "entreaty") take us far beyond Henry Nash Smith's and Bernard DeVoto's (even Walter Blair's) praise of the vernacular.  Smith and DeVoto praised the rustic voice, though it was a praise that perhaps led to condescension or worse a deliberate attempt to extoll the vernacular in literature to distract from the overt and practical politics of social change (a pat on the proletariat's back keeps them quiet and feeling important).  Now we have turned to prize Twain's treatment of race.  And we very quickly step over a line to move closer to an interpretation of Twain as guiding light -- not only for a literary tradition but also for a transcendent realization of the potential to ease racial stress.  One example:  in The Jim Dilemma:  Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Jocelyn Chadwick Joshua sees the movement toward that realization in these terms:

                        Adventures of Huckleberry Finn panoramically chronicles
                        the plight of the runaway male slave, the slave community,
                        the slave family, and the vision and indefatigable hope of this
                        American.  Against him is a South that is both proslavery,
                        the progenitor of Jim Crow, and hypocritical in its values.
                        More complexly, however, this chronicle is one whose
                        conclusion questions the readers and their notions of what
                        freedom means.  What does it cost?  Through Twain's portrayal
                        of Jim and the other slaves, the African American slave emerges
                        without what Langston Hughes disparaged as the romantization of
                        the South and southern slavery. (xv)

Mid-twentieth century approaches to the novel focused on freedom -- the freedom of the individual to separate and eventually to run away from a corrupt and "self" defeating society (James Cox's emphasis on Twain's satiric attack on a starched morality works very well here).  But a manumitted black adult male is at best an ambiguous symbol of morality's triumph.  And "Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest," is no statement of moral courage.  Unless you somehow want these to be.  Or need these to be.

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