Saturday, February 12, 2011

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

The Civil Rights movement (Huck Finn was banned on racial grounds for the first time in 1955) and the more contemporary concern for Human Rights have pushed critics to find hope for racial transcendence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  But critics are also driven by a decidedly retro attempt to inflate literature into moral guide and Huckleberry Finn into a moral guidebook.  This is not new.  And it is also not likely to succeed.  There is precedent.  In Herman Melville's Redburn (1849) there is a moment when the main character tries to navigate his way through London using his father's worn guidebook.  It doesn't work.  Melville's narrator gives his young man a warning:

                        Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books
                        in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is
                        made up of guide-books....Every age makes its own guide-books,
                        and the old ones are used for waste paper.  But there is one
                        Holy Guide-Book, Wellingborough, that will never lead you astray,
                        if you but follow it aright; and some noble monuments that
                        remain, though the pyramids crumble. (151)

A decade earlier, Emerson said it differently:  "Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.  The books of an older period will not fit this" (American Scholar, 55); and "Books are the best of things, well used; abused among the worst.  What is the right use?  What is the one end which all means go to effect?  They are for nothing but to inspire" (American Scholar, 56).

Jocelyn's point about "readers and their notions of what freedom means" should Inspire us to consider the interpretive acts of Twain critics. The question is what do critics see in this book.  And how do they translate what they see into the academic essay and book, into the interpretive custom (or to bow to Thomas Kuhn, the interpretive paradigm) that shapes a legacy for up and coming scholars and teachers.  In Twain's time, Matthew Arnold described one of the functions of the critic as deeply spiritual:  "...[the critic's] best spiritual to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things" (Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, 38).  Arnold has taken quite a beating during the late twentieth century; however, even those critics who claim to be good little post modernists who hold to the contingent values of interpretive communities or contextual readings just can't seem to resist hearing in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a call for an Arnoldian ministry.  Critics want to see a lesson in racial tolerance because it fits a dream of the growing acceptance of the polyglot American scene; therefore, critics see the seeds of a racial tolerance in Huck.  They look too long and too hard to find "the absolute beauty and fitness of things" in a book that is horrific.  We are too unreflective as we practice close and interpretive reading.  We are too full of our "wee selves" as we deliver a sermon of racial tolerance with little understanding of how that message is received by our students or by the communities in which we live.  And we feel that somehow tolerance will come about simply because we say that it should.  Standing up against that vision of faith in Twain's novel is kin to claiming oneself apostate and can result in a form of scholarly excommunication.  Too bad.

So let me tell you what I think of Twain's book.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a harsh and disturbing story.  The reality of slavery that hovers over a good part of the action contributes to that harshness, but it is neither the only nor, perhaps, the most compelling or oppressive custom that exists in this fictive world.  The custom most prized is the dominance of moral/ecclesiastic and civil law over any semblance of justice.  In service to the letter of the law, the two vigorous henchmen of Zeus -- the belligerant and talkative Might and the ominously silent Violence -- come from chaining Prometheus to his rock to ride herd over Huck's river valley:  they drink with Pap Finn; prime Huck's fear to the point he accepts patricide as a way out; stoke the hate between the Grangerfords and Shephardsons; whet the greed and lechery of the Duke and the King; and instigate the lynch mob that faces Sherburn and the posse (a clear hint of the Klu Klux Klan) that chains and returns Jim to the Phelps farm.   They sew alienation and exploitation and reap a full harvest.  With Huck we stand in a helpless awe as they usher the deadly sins across this stage:  Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery.  They feast on meager pickings.  The fight is so vicious because the stakes are so very small.  And Huck and Jim only momentarily escape with their lives.

All told, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not about freedom and independence.  It is about menace and how the combined threat of Might and Violence drives two isolated and alone and marginalized human beings into a fragile mutual protection pact.  Neither Huck nor Jim is able to exert real and lasting influence over his life:  the white boy seared by poverty and abuse and the black man forced into flight by the threat of being sold are clearly not in a position to consider independence viable.  Given their life experience, it's likely that neither boy nor man would be able to conceptualize freedom (Huck's definition is always freedom from never freedom to; Jim has little concept of freedom apart from a vague sense of geography and a wisp of a possibility of being with his family).  What they can conceptualize is a temporary rest from pain, a fleeting moment of comfort.  Rather than the great elegy for American individualism and unchained movement, Huck's story emphasizes the destructiveness of corporate thought and the evil within a social system that works to pit the least powerful (Pap Finn as white trash; the slave community) against each other to assure the dominance of the law and those who adhere to it.  And of those who gain social standing or profit.

Truth be told, a great deal of criticism of Huckleberry Finn is closer to religious fever than open-eyed astonishment at the realism at the heart of the tale (and, yes, I am very aware of the irony in my saying this at the end of this paper in this environment, especially after the tone of certain of my earlier remarks).  Racism is only one form of prejudice described in Huck's story.  As readers and critics, we should not discount the images of domestic abuse and alcoholism or desperate and soul-sick loneliness; nor should we slight the experience and knowledge of those behaviors and emotions that students bring to their reading.  Throw-away children are not only found among the poorest of our society.   Neither are throw-away adults.  Many of our students read Huck's opening monologue in chapter one and hear their own, or a friend's, or a family member's voice.  Many of us do too.  Sometimes we hear our own.  So we turn from that echo to safer interpretations that rely on highly specialized interpretive strategies or esoteric knowledge. 

What does it take to re-acquaint ourselves with the realism within the story of this one boy and this one man.  I think that we need to be more willing to let the story wash over us, to give ourselves over to the tale rather than force a meaning because we have been groomed in the practice of a literary criticism that prizes tradition and precedent over innovation.  Despite our studied iconoclasm, academics are notorious for staking out a critical line shaped by earlier work.  We may question, but we question within the very restrictive protocols of academic debate.  Perhaps it's time now to take a collective breath and try to consider whether modern and contemporary critics have traded in their love for the real and the understanding of the stakes of genuine political action for tweed and gabardine and denim and for a Promethean hope in racial understanding by way of a few easy months on a raft.  Epiphanies are not that easily found (god knows that I have tried).  A borderline literate kid is not necessarily the messiah.

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