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Thread: Not an Apology for Huckleberry Finn

  1. #1
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    Oct 2014
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    Not an Apology for Huckleberry Finn

    Not an Apology for Huckleberry Finn

    PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

    --Mark Twain

    I am placing this essay here because LitNet does not include Mark Twain in its author's list. The omission does not surprise me. Huck's raft has been taking on water for some time now. Fifteen years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being suppressed from educational curricula. College students, who had not yet discovered that it is more fun to censor than be censored, even sported protest posters calling it a "banned books". I remember, I remember.

    Huckleberry Finn is a satire on absurdities and atrocities in the antebellum American South. What has threatened it in recent years has not been political wrongthink but forbidden language--by which I mean THE WORD. Huck loves to say the THE WORD. And problems go deeper than that. Twain's views on race are a mixed bag. He was in some ways a counterforce to the noxious perceptions of his day. But some of his views are appalling and have little business troubling our day outside of free and enlightened literary discussion. And where will we find that in these blinkered times?

    I hold the unpopular view that Huck's frequent use of THE WORD from is ironic. Those who read the novel will note that Huck is deeply confused on a moral level. This is because he has learned in the antebellum South that things he knows to be good are bad (living free, for example, or giving aid to an escaped slave) and thing he knows to be bad (murder for honor's sake or having slaves in the first place) are good. The novel is often presumed to be primarily about race relations. Certainly it had that role in the twentieth century (and provokes a predictable response here in the twenty-first), but Twain's intentions were somewhat different in the nineteenth. He was writing a kind of explanation for Missouri's role (and that of the trans-Mississippi in general) in the American Civil War. The subject of race was bound to come up, but other factors, such as backwood isolation and a culture of heroic violence, were present, too. These and other elements are usually overlooked--and so the intent of Twain's work.

    Like its predecessor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is set (or at least begins) in Missouri, a slave state in the antebellum South. Twain, a Missouri native, published the novel in 1884, with the action set "Forty to Fifty Years Ago". Internal references to hard times probably place it during the lingering depression that followed the Panic of 1839--so between 1840 and 1845, when Twain was between 10 and 15 years old (Huck is 13 or 14). Whatever credibility Twain brought as an eyewitness (and whatever covert sense of nostalgia), he was viewing the times from the vantage point of the Reconstruction era and a living memory of the Civil War. The war was especially horrific in the border state of Missouri, where paramilitary guerrillas and Union loyalists fell into bloody cycles of neighbor on neighbor killing. How did such things happen in a sweet and homey place (at least for non slaves) like Hannibal, Missouri? Well, according to Twain, it was because supposedly decent people were getting right and wrong mixed up. Twain famously said anyone attempting to find the Huckleberry Finn's moral would be banished. But that was it.


    Huck Finn is the son of a malignant, backwoods drunk who sleeps among hogs in the ruins of an old tannery and, drunk or sober, loves to beat him up. By the time the novel begins, Huck is being raised by the "decent" widow Douglas and instructed by her sister, Miss Watson, a sanctimonious old maid who assures him his friend, Tom Sawyer, is going to hell. The women owns slaves, but this has no effect on their pretentious of decency.

    At first Huck is miserable, but over time he begins to feel at home. He is assured by the widow that he is making excellent progress. But Huck's new home life is interrupted one night when he returns to his bedroom to find that his father concealed there, threatening to beat him for his defection to the widow and decency. The old man begins legal proceedings to get his son back (what he really wants is to control the money Huck got at the end of Tom Sawyer). But when the court case becomes protracted, he kidnaps the boy and takes him to an isolated hovel beside the Mississippi River. His uncontrolled drinking is making him increasingly paranoid. Huck's life is now in danger.

    But here Twain does something unusual and important to the novel as a whole. For Huck, life with his father is hell. But he must admit that he prefers the freedom of living in the wilderness to what he thinks of as decent life with the widow. He takes it for granted that he's just not a very sort of decent person.

    Huck's home life soon reaches a critical mass. After a night of dodging his father's knife attacks, he fakes his own death by slaughtering a feral pig (symbolic of his father?) in the hovel and getting rid of the carrion. He escapes in a canoe to an island in the river where he finds Jim, an escaped slave of Miss Watson's he knew from his decent days. Given the times, Miss Watson had sold Jim for thrift's sake. He was going to be permanently separated from his wife and children and resold in New Orleans (also known as being sold down the river). But Jim fled instead with the idea of going north to work until he had enough money to purchase his wife's freedom, after which they would both work until they could afford to buy their children back.

    Huck and Jim make common cause in their flight. When a party of slave hunters approach, they set out on a derelict raft. This is sometimes heralded as an great moment in American literature: an interracial pair of heroes setting out to take on the world. But in fact it barely qualifies as a baby step. Jim and Huck become comrades, it is true. They are equal in their fugitive status and isolation on the raft--quite literally on the same boat--just as they had been literally and symbolically isolated on the island. But the equality Twain gives them is a rigged game. They are equal because in effect they both children. Jim is laughingly superstitious and childishly emotional or innocent. He speaks in an "Amos and Andy" sort of dialect. Twain pushes against the stereotype to a small extent. Jim is savvy enough to be the more cautious of the two; and he knows how to make himself scarce when recapture threatens. Jim cares deeply for Huck and looks after him as best he can. But he is not a father figure as he should have been--the good father Huck never had. Jim is good because of his childlike innocence. That's the best Twain can manage. There is no irony. It is a racist view.

    To be fair, Twain's characters all speak in dialect, and most are foolish in one way or another (far worse than Jim). The free Missourians Huck meets on the journey are a hardy and cheerful lot, but given to revenge to the point of utter murderous madness--Twain is accounting for the neighborly horrors of Missouri's Civil War. And the Arkansas "Jakes" Huck and Jim run into are just a dumber version of the Missourians--credulous, cowardly, hiding themselves behind mob violence. Twain was a satirist, after all. Was there really a difference with Jim?

    Yes, there was--and harken, O Youth, it was not his intersectionality. Twain may have painted southern slaveholders as stupid or violent or both (and so much for the Confederacy), but he gave them all the dignity of adulthood. Jim was denied that. There is only a moment on the journey that hints at who Jim is as a man. Huck (in a canoe) becomes separated from Jim and the raft in a fog. The passage becomes treacherous and Jim has every reason to think Huck may have drowned. When Huck finds the raft again, Jim has fallen asleep while watching for him. When he awakens, Huck assures him (as a practical joke) that he has never been away--Jim must have dreamed the whole thing. He asks him what the details of his dream could have meant. But Jim has finally had enough of being treated like an idiot:

    Jim looked at the trash, and then looked at me, and back at the trash again. He had got the dream fixed so strong in his head that he couldn't seem to shake it loose and get the facts back into its place again right away. But when he did get the thing straightened around he looked at me steady without ever smiling, and says:

    'What do dey stan' for? I'se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin' for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no' mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun', de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo' foot, I's so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is TRASH; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed.'

    Twain shows the reader this side of Jim, then, appallingly, lets it go. Jim is even more of a clown in last few chapters of Huckleberry Finn (which deteriorate into farce). Twain's failure to sustain Jim's adult dignity, and almost even to assert it, is an unforgivable weakness. If he saw through the racist stereotype (which clearly he did), he should have had the courage to rebuke it--the courage of his convictions.

    And that's a damned shame, because at its heart Huckleberry Finn has something important to say about human freedom. But let's get it clear: this is going to be Huck's story about Huck's freedom, not Jim's. Jim is more than ballast in Huckleberry Finn; he is the means by which Huck begins to resolve his moral confusion--to set himself free. Unfortunately he is little more than that.

    Freedom, everyone says, is the predominant theme of Huckleberry Finn--and it is. The raft, they will tell you, is a symbol of that freedom. And it is and it isn't. It is also a symbol of isolation--a necessary price to those like Jim and Huck who make the choice to be free. But the escaped slave and the abused child are fugitives--mostly isolated on their tiny raft. Nor does the Mississippi River represent freedom as an American ideal. During their separation in the fog, Huck and Jim miss their route onto the Ohio River (and escape to the "free North") at Cairo, Illinois. Unable to resist the current, they drift south to Arkansas until they almost in Louisiana--the very place Jim was going to be sold. Freedom, it turns out, is a moral choice. The river has ideas of its own.

    Huck's choice was only partly realized when he fled is father's abuse. He still needed to resolve his confusion about right and wrong so he could understand what exactly he was choosing. For all his love of freedom, Huck remains troubled by the idea that his life is ultimately indecent. After all, he has run off with Jim, the property of a decent woman who offered him a good home and a shot at his own decency--not the wickedness he was born to as his father's son. He is tormented by these thoughts as the Ohio River approaches.

    And so Huck resolves to sell Jim out. On one of his canoe ventures he approaches a group of slave hunters on the river, hoping it is not too late to reform. And yet, when the moment comes, he finds himself unable to betray his friend. Instead he drives the mercenaries away (in classic Huck Finn style) by hinting that a smallpox victim is on his raft and begging them to come and help. For this, Huck considers himself a liar and a coward--not man enough to do what needed to be done. He feels bad for not betraying Jim, but knows he would have felt just as bad if he had put the slavers onto him. He finds refuge in pragmatism and amorality:

    Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad—I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

    This approach, of course, is inconsistent with freedom (harken, O internet nihilists) since abandoning morality necessarily leaves one unable to choose the good from the bad. One is restricted to a narrow selfishness destined to be obliterated by the selfishness of some more powerful other. This is why a strictly libertarian society can only end in enslavement. But I digress.

    Later, when Jim is captured anyway (someone else betrays him), Huck's conscience starts bothering him again:

    And at hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's [THE WORD] that hadn't ever done me no harm...Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, 'There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that [THE WORD] goes to everlasting fire.'

    Huck resolves to write a letter to Miss Watson informing her of Jim's whereabouts, but before he can mail it, he sets himself to thinking again:

    I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time...I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog...and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper...I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

    'All right, then, I'll GO to hell'—and tore it up.

    It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming...

    That's as far as Huck gets on his journey to freedom. He never comes to realize that the sin he ascribed to himself belongs a slave society that lied to him about what decency is. But Twain's irony is clear enough.

    The end of Huckleberry Finn is a disaster. To be brief about it, Tom Sawyer returns and the whole plot becomes a boisterous joke. It fully deserves censure for racism--Jim and other African American characters are reduced to clowns and played for cheap laughs. Whatever survives of the earlier plot is resolved in a forced happy ending. It is as if, having made his point about the false morality of the antebellum South, Twain wants to treat his patient reader to a Reconstruction-era minstrel show. No thanks.

    But in fact, Huckleberry Finn is a tragedy, and not only because Jim's inner journey is omitted--although that is a tragedy indeed. There is also a smaller tragedy, usually overlooked. Early in the story, before Jim and Huck run away, the slave reads the boy's fate. Huck, he tells him, will die by hanging. Twain seems to have seen Huck's self-imposed exile from morality as permanent. As the novel ends, the boy strikes west to see what hell he can raise there. The Hanging of Huckleberry Finn would have made an interesting novel.

  2. #2
    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Apr 2012
    Reading, England
    I thought Huckleberry Finn was a great book, although it has its faults. I remember when I tried to read it as a boy, I was disappointed Tom Sawyer was not in it. I did not finish it then, but when I read it last year, it all went wrong after Tom Sawyer finally did appear. I watched an American English professor on YouTube say most Victorian era novels had bad endings. This one certainly had.

    Regarding the bad word, the thing I found strangest about it was that, while the bad word was used scores of times, all the mild blasphemy was censored. I kept wondering did people really say 'Dad fetch it!' and 'My land!'. Eventually the penny dropped. I found the blasphemy substitutions distracting, and the bad word, jarring. There was quite a bit of interesting discussion on YouTube about how the bad word makes the book difficult to teach.

    I was slightly surprised on re-reading it to find out that Jim was an adult with a family, while Huck was an adolescent boy. One scene that struck out for me was when Jim tells how he punished his little daughter for not obeying him, only to discover she was deaf. Jim was a loving man, but not the brightest or the most assertive. Whether that makes it a racist portrayal, I don't know.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Regarding the bad word, the thing I found strangest about it was that, while the bad word was used scores of times, all the mild blasphemy was censored. I kept wondering did people really say 'Dad fetch it!' and 'My land!'. Eventually the penny dropped. I found the blasphemy substitutions distracting, and the bad word, jarring.
    I know what you're saying, but it probably just means that the slur (which was used more than 200 times in the book) wasn't especially unusual. But Huck's 'All right then, I'll GO to hell' would have shocked Twain's readers deeply and sent more than a few Miss Watsons reaching for the smelling salts. This was an effect of the Great Awakening religious movement on the American Midwest. I spent my boyhood summers in Iowa (which abuts Missouri to the north) where it was still in flower. I never heard anything like 'Dad fetch it!', but everyone said 'My land!' It was a polite version of 'My Lord!"--an all purpose exclamation.

    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    There was quite a bit of interesting discussion on YouTube about how the bad word makes the book difficult to teach.
    I just found some of it. There's an interesting excerpt from 60 Minutes called Huckleberry Finn and the N-word" (I despise 60 Minutes and all television so if I say it's interesting it must be). I would leave a link but I don't want to put Logos in a bad spot. The video was posted eight years ago and God knows when it originally aired. It discusses substituting "slave" for THE WORD so the novel can continue to be taught to High School students. I appreciate the motives of at least some of the Bowdlerizers, but really, High School students (to say nothing of those in college) should be able to handle upsetting language. That debate, of course, has reached absurd proportions in recent years.

    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    One scene that struck out for me was when Jim tells how he punished his little daughter for not obeying him, only to discover she was deaf. Jim was a loving man, but not the brightest or the most assertive. Whether that makes it a racist portrayal, I don't know.
    It's a good point about Jim's daughter. The scene helps to fill him out as a human being, admirable in some respects and flawed in others (he was hitting his daughter when he realized she couldn't hear him). We know he intends to work selflessly to get his family out of slavery, and he exposes himself to recapture rather than abandon Tom when he is shot in the leg. He is a thoroughly decent person (which I suppose is important to Twain's overall point) but we don't know much more about him than that. He is mostly a means for Huck's psychological/moral development. Maybe that was the best Twain could do at the time, I don't know. It's interesting that Huckleberry Finn was published in Britain before America. Perhaps it was a sort of test market.

    Speaking of Huck's psychology, noticed that his choice of hell in refusing to betray Jim (the climax of the book, really) was foreshadowed in a conversation with Miss Watson near the novel's beginning:

    Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn't mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn't say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it. But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn't do no good.

    The irony, of course, is that Tom is the once concerned with doing good while Miss Watson was the one who (a little later) sold Jim.

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