books, ReLit

ReLit: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Go West, young man.

x

Part of our summer vacation was spent on the banks of the Huzzah (pronounced “HOO-zah”) River in Steelville, Missouri, site of many a Beers family camping expedition back in the day. We waded. We fished. We threw rocks. We caught tadpoles. Erin caught a softshell turtle. If none of this sounds exotic to you, you are not a five-year-old boy.

One hundred fifty miles north of Steelville is Hannibal, Missouri — hometown to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A much larger river runs past Hannibal: the Mississippi. Twain said of that river that it was like a book with “a new story to tell every day.” His most famous book, set on that very river, is of course Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And as I (Ben) sat on the banks of the Huzzah in June, beholding its presence and witness to its slow, steady glide through time, I remembered a line Huck says about there being “no home like a raft,” because “other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

No book was harder for me to teach this year than Huck Finn. No book seemed to have changed so much since I last read it twenty years ago. I do not know if I taught it well. If success is measured by how much students “like” a book, then (with one or two exceptions) I did not. But I wondered, as I stumbled through teaching it, how much Huck Finn is a book that — despite its permanent fixture in the American canon (“all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway) — really wants to be liked. Like its author, Huck Finn is an ornery, subversive beast, punching up and down. It’s also really funny, although my students seriously questioned the integrity of my sense of humor. Nonetheless, let’s begin.

What You Probably Remember About Huck Finn From High School: A young boy and a black man on a river. And that Tom Sawyer is in it. Tom and Huck’s stories overlap, but it’s important to keep them separate as well. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written first, nine years earlier) is the one where Tom and Huck discover the treasure in the cave. It’s also the one when Tom whitewashes the fence (or, more accurately, bribes other kids to paint it for him) and appears at his own funeral. He shows up early in Huck Finn to serve as a foil for Huck (Tom is the hopeless romantic; Huck is more pragmatic), then returns late in the novel to hijack the story, both in plot (he gets shot “rescuing” Jim) and theme (though we’d argue that this is intentional on Twain’s part, but no less problematic).

You might remember — especially if you hated English class and thought your teacher was a pedantic bore for insisting there was hidden symbolism (usually involving sex) behind everything — the delightful “Notice” that prefaces the novel, which we will include here in its entirety:

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

You may have read that and thought, “Mark Twain — my man!”, and assumed because your English teacher went on and on about what a satirical, troublemaking genius Mark Twain was, that said English teacher would, you know, take Twain at his word and not waste everyone’s time dwelling on motives and morals and plots and all that.

What a naive fool you were then.

You might remember, more than the actual plot of Huck Finn, all the controversy. Specifically that the n-word is used two hundred and nineteen times. Censorship has always swirled around Huck Finn; it most recently resurfaced in 2011 when the publisher NewSouth came out with an edition that replaced “nigger” with “slave.” One of the arguments NewSouth made was that this actually helped Huck Finn attain a broader readership, since squeamish school boards could theoretically substitute a version that would be less offensive. (As Toni Morrison said of such efforts, “It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”) Never mind that changing the words also changes the meaning, since meaning derives itself from language; that edition was largely ridiculed, notably by Larry Wilmore, back when he was the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show”:

Mark Twain put that word in for a reason … and [“slave” is] not even accurate. In the book, Jim is no longer a slave. He ran away. Twain’s point is he can’t run away from being a nigger.

Indeed, the word has different meanings — depending on who’s using it, how it’s being used, when it’s being used. Twain knew this; an astute reader knows this. For its boy adventure stylings and comical overtones, Huck Finn is anything but light. It demands an astute reader.

Finally, you might remember your teacher droning on about how Huck Finn is a splendid example of regionalism and dialect, how it captures in its language the time, place, and people of the Antebellum South, and how it turns ordinary speech into an elevated art form. You might also recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the Mississippi River and thinking it was pretty brilliant — how the river was life and change and freedom, man — until your shiftless, forever-making-excuses teacher took three months to grade it, giving it to you the day before school ended, at which point Mark Twain was dead to you and you were big time into the Predator movie franchise and having deep, philosophical arguments with Chuck Brainerd about who would win in an Aliens vs. Predator death match. If so, you were wrong. Aliens would crush Predator any day of the week and thrice on Sunday.
No contest.
x

Let’s move on.

What We Got From Huck Finn The Second Time Around: A lot. For one, simple geography. It was lost on me the first time that Huck and Jim were floating down the Mississippi River — i.e., straight into the heart of the deep South. (They are aiming for the Ohio River, but miss the entrance on a foggy night when they get separated.) What they thought was the route to freedom was really a float trip into enemy territory. It was also, ironically, the same route Jim would’ve traveled had he been sold into slavery (in New Orleans).
x
I also picked up more of the novel’s abiding skepticism toward formal education. Huck’s caretaker, Widow Douglas, is out to “sivilize” him — clean him up, get him an education, make him a proper boy. Huck wants nothing to do with this:
x

The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.

Huck is perpetually trying to escape: from Widow Douglas, his father, the authorities. Basically, almost every adult in the novel. Huck Finn is a picaresque, a meandering, often implausible story of a roguish hero set against the social order. One of the many disquieting things suggested by the ending, called by some the saddest happiest ending in all of literature (Huck lights out for the territories — i.e., Oklahoma, Indian country — with Tom but without Jim), is that Huck will never escape the corrupt social structures which any group of humans, gathered any place in the world, will inevitably build, riddled as they are with prejudice, violence, selfishness, cruelty, and all sort of conflicted morality. What use, Twain suggests, is being “sivilized” by a culture such as this? And yet, what other alternative is there?
x
One of the ways the novel punches up is in its deeply skeptical stance on religion. When Huck meets his new friend Buck Grangerford in chapter 18, Buck takes him to church. Keep in mind that the Shepherdsons, the Grangerford’s bitter rivals, attend the same church:
x
Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.
A sermon on “brotherly love,” delivered to two families who commend its power and then turn around and kill one another. When Huck finds Buck’s dead body after the feud, he tugs it ashore: “I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.” Such is the fruit of religion for Huck. (Huck also turns his back on religion — indeed, on what he suspects to be his eternal salvation — in the book’s climactic moment when he rips up the note to Miss Watson that would reveal Jim’s whereabouts and reenslave him; “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says.)
x
In college, my professor spent a lot of time stressing how the book laid bare our own racial prejudices. I, and many of my classmates, being enlightened and open-minded twenty-somethings, took umbrage to this. We’re not racists! we all argued. If anyone is, it’s this Twain guy! Isn’t Jim a minstrel stereotype himself? Too bad Twain wasn’t alive now in such a racially enlightened era. We’d teach him a thing or two about race!
x
It’s all too easy to pat oneself on the back when reading literature from an earlier, less progressive era. And high school students love to do it. But a good English teacher should force them to deal with the text on its own terms — to read it with 21st century eyes but also ones aware of (and sympathetic to) the time and place from which it originated.
x
Re-reading and teaching Huck Finn, I learned that you can fail a text (and your students) when you don’t give it room to breathe. I thought we needed to address the race question, because isn’t that what everyone does with Huck Finn? As a novice teacher, I was afraid of not meeting this issue head on, resulting in what I’m now sure were heavy-handed attempts to inject race into the conversation, such that it quickly became a conversation no one besides myself wanted to have. (This meme probably best captures what my students felt like during this stretch.)
x
But during the seminar discussion day, when I was silent and the students talked, it was not race they wanted to discuss; it was Huck. Specifically, that he was just a kid, and that there was something in this novel that touched on childhood in a profound, unsettling way. Andrew Levy articulates this in Huck Finn’s America when he writes,
x

There is a shimmer to Twain’s portrait of white childhood in the antebellum era. But there are also murders, suicidal ideation, child abuse, and a profound satire on standardized education, and the ambivalent ways American parents both protect their children from, and provide them uncritical access to, popular culture. Huck Finn is a book about the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them — a disconnection so intimidating that, naturally, we placed this tribute to children’s alienation at the center of public school curricula.

Levy argues that race is not, in fact, the central theme of the novel (though he argues it’s still quite integral), but rather that childhood is. Like many modern readers, I read Huck Finn a long time ago and then my memory began to soften all its hard edges. I remembered it as a comical escapade of an unlikely friendship, an ode to a simple, adventurous, but ultimately “happy” childhood. (I suspect I’m not the only one who conflates Huck’s story with Tom’s, as if all childhood stories are alike.)
x
I forgot, until rereading Huck Finn, just how unsafe and despairing (in chapter one Huck says bluntly, “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead”) it is. Huck’s racist father Pap, one of literature’s most vile characters, beats him. Huck fakes his own death (by killing a pig and smearing its blood everywhere) to escape. Thirteen people die. One of them, Pap, floats by Huck on the river, though Huck doesn’t know it because Jim, in a gesture of mercy, spares him the truth until the very end. Not exactly Norman Rockwell stuff.
x

Why We Think You Should Give Huck Finn A Reread: At its simplest, Huck Finn is the story of a boy who comes to see the worth in a man that the rest of society tells him is worthless. That’s a story that still resonates today.

“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” Morrison said. This is another way of saying that returning to Huck Finn will both reassure and unsettle, both challenge and reward you. It will also make you laugh. (The Shakespearean word salad in chapter 21 is a highlight, especially if you’re an English teacher.)

Levy argues that “Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness” — and added, in an interview, that “we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.” Rereading Huck Finn forced me to consider how far we’ve come since 1885 but also, sadly, how much we’re still stuck in the same place.

Finally, if for nothing else, rereading Huck Finn will remind you just how much since owes some debt to it. And it made me appreciate, again, one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

——————–

For Toni Morrison’s full introduction to “this amazing, troubling book,” see here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s