Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part three

Like all death songs, de Conte's tale of Joan of Arc is a mix of disaffection, alienation, and disappointment.  The insanity of the coming night prevents reconciliation.  There is no spiritual reclamation, there is no joy.  His story is not a celebration of Joan of Arc, it is a blast at human kind and (similarly, I think, to Hank Morgan's autobiography) a record of the gradual realization of possibilities lost:

                        ...at bottom they were still under the spell of timorousness
                        born of generations of unsuccess, and a lack of confidence in the
                        way of treacheries of all sorts -- for their kings had been
                        treacherous to their great vassals and to their generals, and
                        these in turn were treacherous to the head of the state and
                        to each other.  The soldiery found that they could depend
                        utterly on Joan, and upon her alone.  With her gone, everything
                        was gone.  She was the sun that melted the frozen torrents
                        and set them boiling; with that sun removed, they froze again,
                        and the army and all France became what they had been before,
                        mere dead corpses -- that and nothing more; incapable of
                        thought, hope, ambition, or motion. (322)

This is all very much like A Connecticut Yankee:  a walk in the killing field that is daily life, a last look back.  De Conte's narrative is a walk in the company of ghosts that is ultimately a preparation for his own death.  It is an old soldier's tale -- one that is seasoned with momentary claims to humor and the distraction of short-lived, victories.  Ultimately it is a story of individual disappointments -- Joan's certainly (even her death is not what she wished it to be), but de Conte's especially.

Clearly, de Conte is displaced in time.  As he moves away from the victories and the comradeship that united Joan, her friends, and her circle of advizors, his comments become more infused with sentiment and with a sense of lost youth:  "How foolish we were; but we were young, you know, and youth hopeth all things, believeth all things" (426); "Our imagination was on fire; we were delirious with pride and joy.  For we were very young, as I have said" (439).  At 82 when he puts his memories to paper, de Conte can only look back at what he has lost with little sense of how history will judge his experiences or whether the work, the experience, the love that so defined his life will have been in vain.  He lives with his memories, but those memories are (literally) in ashes.  "We are so strangely made," he writes, "the memories that could make us happy pass away; it is the memories that break our hearts that abide" (439).

Like the crazed and obsessed narrator of Poe's "Ligeia," Louis de Conte is left with the piercing memory of Joan's eyes.  The story may be read as his growing restiveness under her gaze, his evolving sense of the purity in eyes destined to see God.  And, it seems, destined to smite de Conte in his tracks:

                        There was never but that one pair, there will never be
                        another.  Joan's eyes were deep and rich and wonderful
                        beyond anything merely earthly.  They spoke all the
                        languages -- they had no need of words.  They produced all
                        effects -- and just by a glance:  a glance that could convict
                        a liar in his lie and make him confess it; that could bring
                        down a proud man's pride and make him humble; that
                        could put courage into a coward and strike dead the courage of
                        the bravest; that could appease resentments and real hatreds;
                        that could speak peace to storms and passion and be obeyed;
                        that could make the doubter believe and the hopeless hope again;
                        that could purify the impure mind; that could persuade -- ah,
                        there it is -- persuasion!  (160).

And later:

                        And her eyes -- ah, you should have seen them and broken your
                        hearts....How capable they were, and how wonderful!  Yes, at
                        all times and in all circumstances they could express as by
                        print every sahe of the wide range of her moods.  In them were
                        hidden floods of gay sunshine, the softest and peacefulest twilights,
                        and devastating storms and lightenings.  Not in this world have
                        there been others that were comparable to them. (343)

Certainly, Joan gains strength from her voices, but what does she see with those eyes.  And now, looking back some 60 years, what does De Conte see.  Joan saw a direct and unchallengeable vision of unity through war.  It's a frightening image of wounds and assaults, all undertaken for the greater glory.  De Conte sees a child's death.  And he sees his own role in that death, and he is unable to reconcile the loss when so little was gained.  His loss is personal.  Not national.  Not religious.  He sees a childhood friend he loved engulfed -- one way or the other -- in the flames of political and religious zealotry.  And he is tired.  And he wants to die.

And in a way, De Conte plays a dual role as both Kurt Vonnegut and Mary O'Hare.  In the opening pages of Slaughterhouse 5, Mary O'Hare takes after Vonnegut with a passion that lays him flat.  She is angry about war and about the way men talk of war:  "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be playing in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men.   And war will just look wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them.  And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs"  (14). Her outburst ends with her subtitling the book -- "The Children's Crusade."  What better description for the work of Joan of Arc.

Many readers are much more sophisticated and worldly and deeply wounded than we care to admit as we make facile and droll remarks about ideology and then feel that we have opened a new vista on literature.  What opens that new vista is the emotional impact of reading and the ache of recognition readers nurse after reading.

Relatively early in the story De Conte comments on the notion of the need for honor, "...for when a man's soul is starving, what does he care for meat and roof so he can get that nobler hunger fed?" (73).  Mary O'Hare, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Mark Twain, I suspect, would laugh.  And maybe, by the end of his book, so does Louis De Conte.  Vonnegut's chapter ends with words that likely could have been penned by Twain as he looked back at Joan:  "People aren't supposed to look back.  I'm certainly not going to do it anymore.  I've finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun.  This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt" (22).  After Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain added at least (depending on how you count) 12 additional books to his list.  Some of them were fun.  So it goes.

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part two

A good deal of Twain criticism falls on deaf ears when we attempt to pour cultural analysis and theories of disaffection into general (lay?) readers.  They are, however, keenly tuned to the stories of loss.  They don't care about whether Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens is writing; the debate alienates them -- and frankly should alienate a lot of us.  It's time we recognized the inherent complexity of the human mind and personality. The Twain/Clemens split has done little to enhance our understanding of the writer.  It has stood in the way.  It's time to get back to human stories; it is time that we cherish the ghosts that inhabit Twain and his stories.

Susan Harris does, I think, touch on the ghostly quality of Twain's novel when, toward the end of her comments, she turns her attention to the value and character and emotions of the storyteller:

                        In Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc..., Twain's male narrator
                        is far more central to his [Twain's] concerns, especially his sense
                        of alienation, than is the figure that gives the narrator reason
                        for being.  One of the last of his completed novels, Joan of Arc
                        is marked by grief -- not the grief de Conte consciously expresses
                        about Joan's martyrdom, but the unconscious grief he represents.
                        This is the grief of loss, of dislocation, of disaffection.  It is the
                        grief that accompanied the euphoria of late-nineteenth-century
                        progress, and it is the grief that highlighted Mark Twain's own
                        progress through life.  It is the grief of the age, and like the other
                        cultural discourses informing Joan of Arc, it reflects a communal
                        experience refracted through one particular author's sensibility.

Harris here gives us something good and tangible and lasting to hold -- at least at the beginning of her statement.  The value in Joan of Arc is in its presentation of an individual's "unconscious grief...the grief of loss, of dislocation, or disaffection."  Therein, in fact, lies a tale.  A ghost story; or rather, a story told by ghosts.

It is a story that focuses on the power of the night.  It is not a power easily passed off as the incursion of the nightmare, the seduction of the incubus or succubus; rather, it is a scare that comes from an awareness of loneliness and a sense of the desolation that shocks in those seconds between the switching off the light and the moment our eyes adjust to the darkness.  There is terror in momentary blindness.  During my seminar for English majors (we work on questions of canonicity and of the reasons that why and how we read shape our notions of what we should read), we regularly happen upon several night terrors in our reading, and I have been struck at the resonance of fear and uncertainty that lies in the heart of writers and their characters who confront the dark.  Hemingway's Jake Barnes, after a particularly grueling night, slowly comes apart at the seams:

                                    My head started to work. The old grievance....
                                    I never use to realize it, I guess.  I try and play
                        it along and just not make trouble for people.  Probably
                        I never would have had any trouble if it hadn't run into
                        Brett when they shipped me to England....
                                    I lay awake and thinking and my mind jumping
                        around.  Then I couldn't keep away from it, and I started
                        to think about Brett and all the rest of it went away. I was
                        thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around
                        and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden
                        I started to cry.  Then after a while it was better and I lay in
                        bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the
                        street, and then I went to sleep. (38-39)

Some time later after an even worse night, Jake settles, drunk, into bed:

                        I heard them laugh.  I turned off the light and tried to sleep.
                        It was not necessary to read any more.  I could shut my eyes
                        without getting the wheeling sensation.  But I could not sleep.
                        There is no reason because it is dark you should look at
                        things differently from when it is light.  The hell there isn't!

Jake, of course, is crushed by despair, a despair that has its source in memory and in dislocation and in the dissipation that comes with the breaking of human bodies and human relationships.    

That emotional isolation is the battle that Janie Woods fights in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. For Janie, the darkness that houses the human soul becomes palpable as she and Tea Cake await the on-rushing hurricane:  "It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on.  But it was night, it stayed night.  Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands" (150).  That sense of foreboding, like the pall of an unavoidable heart attack, returns as Janie looks down at her dead husband:  "No hour is ever eternity, but it has the right to weep" (175).  The night robs you of hope; hopelessness covers you in darkness.

Jake, Janie, Tea Cake know well the dangers lurking in the darkness.  There is no bump in this night.  There is crash and burn.  And the human soul is the victim of being compelled to face its own crushing solitude.  Emily Dickinson had it right:

                                    There is a solitude of space
                                    A solitude of sea
                                    A solitude of death, but these
                                    Society shall be
                                    Compared with that profounder site
                                    That polar privacy
                                    A soul admitted to itself --
                                    Finite Infinity.

And so did Mark Twain:

                                    It is quite true I took all the tragedies to myself; and
                        tallied them off, in turn as they happened, saying to myself
                        in each case, with a sigh, "Another one gone -- and on my
                        account; this ought to bring me to repentance; His patience
                        will not always endure."  And yet privately I thought that it
                        would. That is, I believed in the daytime; but not the night.
                        With the going down of the sun my faith failed, and the clammy
                        fears gathered about my heart.  It was then I repented.  Those
                        were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with
                        bitterness and death....
                                    ...In all my boyhood life I am not sure that I ever
                        tried to lead a better life in the daytime -- or wanted to.  In
                        my age I should never think of wishing to do such a thing.  But
                        in my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.
                        I realize from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race --
                        never quite sane in the night. (MTOA, 156).

Twain knew the insanity of the night, and he injects his abiding sense of loss into a catalog of characters, especially when he allows those characters to tell their own stories, to give voice to their own isolation and disappointment.  Huckleberry Finn's voice comes immediately to mind. Louis De Conte also has just such a voice, a quiet, muffled, gravelly voice tuned by his reflection on loss offers a complex song of death in his Recollections of Joan of Arc.

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part one

I first read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in a graduate seminar in Mark Twain during the spring of 1981.  I wasn't sure what to make of it then. Why is Mark Twain obsessed with Joan?  There IS something about a woman in armor.  But what happens when that woman hears voices?  Why does he insist on telling this story?  Whose story is it anyway?  And how does all of that affect both our understanding of Mark Twain and our notion of ourselves as interpreters of his life.   

I was taught in 1981 that it was a failed book, a self-absorbed and misguided attempt by an author who, insecure and disappointed in his reputation as a humorist, felt driven to kindle some aesthetic sensibility within himself by turning to the serious topics of patriotism, martyrdom, and religious zeal.  I now look back and see how that course was dominated by the interpretive guns of Van Wyck Brooks, one of the first to look not only for a way to categorize Mark Twain but to split the writer Sam Clemens into pieces that when put back together didn't quite create a whole personality (we are all still struggling with that misguided approach).  Recollections of Joan of Arc was flawed; its narrator, Sieur Louis De Conte was a symbol of the ruined storyteller.  The attempt was a failure -- both aesthetically and humorously.  The book became the signpost of Mark Twain's creative impotence.  Such a splendid failure, however, cannot simply be ignored.  Joan of Arc is not at its best as a representation of aesthetic value.  It is stilted and uneven and reductive and derivative.  It is, however, an open valve to the voice of alienation, a complex tale of a disappointing life told in a muffled, raspy, aged, disappointed voice.  

Joan was reprinted as volume seventeen of the Oxford Mark Twain (1996; note the heavy irony -- Joan is seventeen when she dons her battle gear and marches out of Domremy with God's light in her eyes).  But the question is in those years between my first reading of the novel and that reprint, have we critics gotten any more sophisticated in our reading and interpretation of the story.  Do we, perhaps after the interpretive arguments and shifting paradigms of the last decades, have any new thoughts.   In his introduction of the Oxford Mark Twain volume, Justin Kaplan begins with this judgment:

                        Joan of Arc...deserves respect, but for me, and I would guess
                        for most contemporary readers, that respect comes with a
                        certain degree of consternation.  Joan of Arc is of less interest
                        for its intrinsic literary quality than as a biographical crux,
                        an event that illuminates the later life of a major American
                        writer while not adding to his stature.  It is the work of a
                        deeply conflicted, intermittently fulfilled man and artist,
                        a temporary resolution of the many disunities and identities
                        of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain (XXXI).

Kaplan here returns to the formula of the split personalities that have dominated much of Twain studies since the publication of his Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1969).  I keep hearing echoes of Brooks' indictment in Kaplan's words -- "a temporary resolution of the many disunities and identities of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain."  Kaplan had something there for a minute, but he lost by oversimplifying the conflict in a resurgence of the SLC/MT dichotomy.   

In the Oxford edition, to complete the cycle of comment on Twain's imminent failure, Kaplan's 1970 voice is book-ended with Susan Harris' afterword.  Harris offers a somewhat less stodgy reading that focuses on the relationship between Twain's ideological stance and the broad construction of his symbiotic intersection with pre-modern late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture.  In Harris' words:

                        Coming to attention during the latter part of the nineteenth
                        century, the figure who could have been a symbol of the New
                        Woman was as often co-opted by the conservative forces as by
                        the liberal, becoming an anomaly used to highlight women's
                        "essential" femininity and, most significantly, to support
                        traditional sexual roles.....At heart a nineteenth-century
                        "True" woman rather than a twentieth-century "New" one,
                        Joan could be heralded as a leader whose heroism lay,
                        paradoxically in her femininity, especially her feminine
                        sacrifice of self for her country, her God, and her king.

And, Harris concludes, "Certainly this ideology informs Mark Twain's text" (5).  Yes, it does.  But does this enhance both our understanding and appreciation of the story, especially in whether or how it illuminates what we know we think about Mark Twain or what we know we think about ourselves.  

That's where an element of stodginess erupts.  A twist on the academic disease -- a prizing of analytical distance over emotional strife.  We can be so hypnotized by the trill and warble of cultural ideologies that we miss the record of and potential for individual pain.  The specters of literary characters (of literary figures) oppose theory:  theories are either easily forgotten or remain fixed -- we can't read them any differently from one time to the next; characters, however, live, die, are resurrected, become ghosts.  We gain intimacy not with ideology but with characters and through the link they offer to our own suffering.  Culture is not family; ideology is neither gain nor loss of lover or friend.  Or enemy.  If every story is about the clash of ideologies, where does the human heart sleep.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Skepticism and the Literary Scholar

Skepticism has been at the heart of my movement in and out and then back into the academy.  When my father left the family (I don’t think it’s too harsh to say deserted since he never offered any kind of financial support once he packed his bags – he had removed any emotional support years earlier), I became skeptical of tradition-based family roles.  I was given a new and clear set of responsibilities; however, while the shift in my family changed the players within our home, it never changed the need to work hard or the need to deal with the most mundane of demands.  It was important to keep a sense of purpose even while working my way down a list of after-school chores.  A sense of purpose was just as important later as I worked my way through reading lists and assignment sheets whose suggested readings were landmarks along a path toward independence.  My skepticism was refocused as I moved farther from the usual boundaries of home.  One result was that I became more interested in new ideas:  reading was not only a way to escape into story but also a way to find my way out of the daily struggle of home life.  Very simply, like Benjamin Franklin, I used books and words as the capital to buy my way out of the house and into a new profession.

At this point, however, my skepticism ran head on into the lessons I had learned about respect and authority.  In fact, I set aside a measure of skepticism when I willingly accepted the pronouncements of my professors.  I took their lessons of critical analysis and skepticism to heart as they tore apart individual works and looked for literary meaning.  I restrained my questioning when they told me what to read and showed me how to read it.  They were in front of the class.  They were teachers.  And I had been taught to respect their position and their learning.  I was struck by their agility as thinkers, and I wanted very much to have every bit of power they were willing to share.  I held my skepticism in check because I wanted so much to become part of their exclusive club.  I never did question why that club was reserved for men, why most of the revered texts of that men's club were written by men, why women were given only supporting roles both within reading lists and within classrooms.  I did not ask these questions even though everything I had learned at home and in my neighborhood had taught me how wrong and one-sided and unreal that separation was.  I became an apprentice and learned the secrets and was -- up to a point -- allowed into academic society.  But I remained ambivalent toward the possibility of joining the fraternity.  So, I turned from the academy and went to work.

My ambivalence toward the academy simplified the transition to the traditional work world; however, all that began to change when I sensed that I was not going to be satisfied writing letters and going to lunch and going home and wishing I could write more and better and read more and be able to talk about the ideas I found.  My notions of responsibility alone could not convince me that it was more important to be paid than to be pleased with the results of your time and energy.  I was drawn to a life touched by language.  I was still excited by the prospect of reading and writing.  I could still hear my mother -- "You'll never make a living as a writer" -- but the attraction of working with words, and books, and writing was powerful.

I suspect that what came next parallels the experience of a host of my colleagues who found their way drifting back into the academy.  I moved from a 7-hour day (which realistically included between 4 and 5 hours of strict attention to tasks) to a fifteen or sixteen hour work day (crammed with preparation, teaching, reading, and class discussion).  That earlier scent of play and vacation became more and more powerful as I reveled in the verbal jousts and the careful attention to detail and argument.  I was able to move beyond the idea of education as play, as leisure because I had the good fortune to have several professors who taught me that writing -- good writing -- could come only out of an energetic process of thinking and a sense of purpose and that words and sentences were raw materials that needed to be planed and shaped, stretched and stitched.  That apprenticeship introduced me to the work, the honorable work of the academy -- combining the theory of literature with the practice of writing and the discipline of teaching.  Reading and writing and teaching reading and writing became my trade, and I began to see this trade as one more along the continuum of work that united the generations of my family.  My apprenticeship was spent learning how to build with words:  my grandfather wove carpets from bolts of cloth and strands of fiber; my father welded conduits and frames with metal and solder; my mother filled ledgers with columns of numbers and streams of adding machine tape; I read and wrote and tied words together (mine and others') to shape thinking (mine and others').  My instructors, advisors, and mentors showed me where to find the raw materials -- the books and ideas and language -- that I used in my weaving.  What I brought to this trade was a sense of the power of language and the appreciation of the discipline needed to work the long hours to add shape and texture to the few words I was able to tame.

Yet, even that last statement tells me that I have not yet conquered my ambivalence toward membership in the academy.  And I can find other examples:  I have published books (an edition of Mark Twain’s autobiography and a collection of essays that I co-edited), and I have edited journals.  That work may be related to the notion that an editor's work is often looked upon an journeyman work is attractive because it connects to my family's trades.  I have given many papers at professional conferences, but when I talk about presenting, I often focus more on the element of performance than on the scholarship so necessary to preparation.  I can discuss literary theory, but I often (and purposely) lapse into ungrammatical constructions seasoned with mild or hot curses.  I tell myself that I like and prefer the clear and unambiguous language of the barroom to the floral, polished expression of the lecture hall.  I prefer jeans to tweed, own only six ties, read and write about Mark Twain (a writer who suffered his own torn conscience when faced with entering the sophisticated drawing rooms and author parties of the east).  I suffer pretension badly, and I gladly proclaim that unrestricted conversation is an academic disease.  I am rarely comfortable with any public notice of academic success -- I enjoy thinking that others find my work worthwhile or helpful, but I am quickly embarrassed if they draw attention to it when I am party to that endorsement.  I am simply having too good a time.
As I write this, however, the ambivalence seems too intentional, another pose that I have adopted to help bridge past and present.  But slipping in and out of a persona, identifying that most useful rhetorical stance to take toward your audience and within your situation, reflecting upon the choices you have made as you present your self to the world, and editing your self are basic strategies for setting boundaries within our lives.  They also give us the distance and insight so necessary to our work to compose new knowledge.  That ambivalence is one way that I am able to maintain my connection to conversations with my mother, and as I resurrect those talks and those silences from the past, I see how they have affected my approach to work.  I begin to understand how the extended silences in many of our lives had a profound affect on how we have worked to change the profession as a whole.

The silences we have faced affect the philosophical positions we adopt and give direction to our arguments for the need to open the academy to new ways of thinking and to revised definitions of diversity and culture.  Those of us who have been seduced by the prospect of creating (or at least identifying) knowledge have become more active as we recall the lessons we have learned and channel our skepticism and ambivalence toward academic pronouncements into clear and honest action to open up the academy and make it more vibrant, more interested in new relationships sparked by new voices (both primary and scholarly).  Skepticism has provided the energy to enliven intellectual debate on the definition and construction of culture and has formed the basis for our questioning of the stolid tradition of the literary and cultural canon.  Put simply, that canon has rarely presented familiar voices, voices that were part of our childhood, voices that echoed through our multi-ethnic/multi-racial working class neighborhoods and schools, voices of our friends, our families, our fathers, our mothers.  Our agitation for change is rooted in our home lives, lives shaped by ideals of discipline and work and an eye to the truth manifest in relationships among the people and groups that surround us, in the communities in which we live.  It is rooted in neighborhoods.  It is rooted in a healthy skepticism that is at the very heart of a profession that trains its apprentices to read between the lines to determine meaning and connection.

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 work...is 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.

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.