Thursday, March 24, 2011

The "New" Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Again

I was recently asked by one of my students to respond to the "new" edition of Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a report in our campus newspaper.  This roughly coincided with (actually it predated) an interview with a news service reporter (Reuters) that focused on that edition and with a recent CBS Sixty Minutes segment.  Even in 2011, we continue to be entranced by Twain's creation, even though -- or perhaps because -- it sparks a variety of controversial responses. 

Here are the student's questions, with my response:

Do you feel it is appropriate to remove the word "ni**er" from Huck Finn?  What do you think this does in terms of the meaning of the text for our society?

The fact that you are not able to type the word out demonstrates how uncomfortable we have become with the word. 

I think that Twain would be mightily opposed to a wholesale removal of the word from his text.  He knew the language that he was using, and he was aware of the potential for discomfort.  Not, by the way, by African American readers but by a readership that was solidly middle-class and predominantly female – Twain was, after all, writing to an audience of primarily white readers.  He knew that his language and his tone would be unwelcome by some.  He wants you to feel uncomfortable.  It’s how he gets and keeps your attention, and how, ultimately, he argues that you need to change your world view.

If you read Huck Finn you are faced with a series of problems:  there are questions related to race and the relationship between white and black; there are comments aimed at demonstrating clear class distinctions among characters; there are issues related to the abuse of children and the failure of a society of adults to help protect children from that abuse; there are questions of the role of society in establishing and then continuing attitudes and policies that keep individuals within tight social and legal constraints; there are comments that suggest the adult white world (the dominant society), despite its sense of self-righteousness, is really in conspiracy against children and African Americans.  [Twain] takes careful shots at established religion.  In its deepest sense the book is an argument against what John Stewart Mill would call the “despotism of custom”:  it’s not about legal freedom; it’s about the failure of the majority to see a minority (poor children and African Americans) as having any potential.  And it’s about how that majority imposes its rules.  Finally, it’s about the use of violence (psychological and physical) by the majority to assure its continued power.  “Nigger” is only one way that power is reinforced in the book; it’s powerful, but it’s one tool wielded by the majority in at attempt to keep control of its definition of morality.

For what purpose did Mark Twain use the word, in your opinion?

Many commentators fall back on the point that the word was used as part of the speech of the 1840s (when the story is set) and the 1880s (when it is written).  They suggest that Twain is just being accurate in his reproduction of the language at use within American society.  That is too simple an explanation and often leads to a condescending attitude toward those with legitimate grievances against the book and its language. While the word was often used, it was used with an explicit political and social purpose – to signify the dominant idea that African Americans were inferior and, indeed, not human.  The word always carried that purpose, and even in the ante-bellum period (as well as in the post-Civil War period), it was identified as a word not to be used in polite society. 

You have to realize who is using that word in this text.  The narrator is Huck – a partially (and poorly) educated young boy who has grown up in a society that embraces the ideology and the practice of slavery.  He is the son of a racist.  He lives with the Widow Douglass whose sister Miss Watson owns slaves.  Huck is a racist.  Some critics look to his opening tricks on Jim as evidence of this – he only becomes aware of Jim’s humanity gradually – though there is a good case to be made that Huck never really generalizes from his experience with Jim.  He may come to see Jim as human, but [Huck] will never work against slavery as a system or have a full and complete conversion to a more socially liberal interpretation of race.  The word is one of the more explicit ways to demonstrate this idea, and Twain uses it with the intention of making readers uncertain and uncomfortable.

I think the text offers a warning about those children like Huck who are left to find some moral system for themselves.  Lately, I have come to see the book as Twain’s meditation of what happens when a child is brought up in a world that is hostile to the belief in human compassion.  There are days that I even think that this is Twain’s consideration of what happens when a child is left to grow without any kind of deep Christian and moral instruction.  That, by the way, probably puts me at odds with a score of Twain critics.  So be it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett: the Naturalist and Realist Spheres

Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday with a party sponsored by George Harvey and Harpers.  There were a host of writers present that evening, including William Dean Howells, a young Willa Cather, and Charles Chesnutt.  Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was Twain’s escort into the dinner.  She sat at the main table with Twain.  I have always liked that connection between two powerful realist writers.

Class discussions this term have focused on the writing of Twain, Crane, Freeman, (Sarah Orne) Jewett, Crane, Norris, and (still to come) Dreiser.  Twain, I think, stands as a transition between high realism and the movement into literary naturalism.  For our purposes The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson offered a shift toward naturalism, especially with its dominant questions over nature/nurture and its methodical beat of determinism.  Twain used that novel to extend his explorations of identity and self that shaped Huckleberr Finn, and he used the novel to ask questions about the nature of human action and the definitions of class and race.  He didn’t, I think, have any answers, but he did have a lot of questions. 

What I found most compelling in all of this, however, was the variation in voice between the so-called “regionalist” or “local color” writers – Twain and Freeman and Jewett.  In many ways the three share an interest in the veracity of everyday life, from the careful creation of vernacular speech to the often pinched lives of small towns in transition and in decline.  And while Twain was a master at describing the realism of small towns and at criticizing the narrow perspectives and intentions of the citizens (think of St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing or Hadleyburg), I come away lately with a sense of the realistic failure of Twain’s vision of “small” town life.  Artistically, his mimetic approach to the image and limits of small town life seems to me seasoned with caricature even more than character.  His descriptions themselves offer a limited description of the limited lives.  This is naturalism at its most effective.  And I wonder what the function of art can be when it is so dominated by his kind of ruthlessness.

Against (or perhaps supplementing) Twain’s small towns I find Jewett’s New England, especially in The Country of the Pointed Firs.  Even it its decline, it is a more complicated and artistically significant venue.  Jewett’s Elijah Tilley, Captain Littlepage, or William Blackett or Joanna, Mrs. Fosdick, or Almira Todd offer a deeper experience of a people and the strains (geographical, social, economic, personal) they feel than anything that Twain creates in his mid-career fiction.  The adults of St. Petersburg are at the service of its children (especially Tom Sawyer); the adults of Dawson’s Landing are corrupted by the omnipresence of slavery and racism.  Neither is reality at its most effective.  But the complicated lives of Jewett’s Dunnet’s Landing open to the panorama of reality and its myriad stresses – primarily the stress of domestic relationships.  There is much to contemplate in the dropped stitches of Elijah Tilley as he knits and recalls his youth and his taking for granted the loyalty of his now dead wife.  That kind of strain is rare in Twain and comes only at a sideways glance as he conjures loss in Hank Morgan’s Camelot or Adam’s Eden.