Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).
Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson
Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

68 thoughts on “Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

  1. What an interesting and innovative look at Twain’s work! I can see why you found it so engaging, FictionFan! And it all reinforces my belief that novels are perhaps best understood if one understands at least something of the times and cultures within which they’re written. It’s too easy otherwise to look back and perhaps miss something (or put something there that was never really there).

    • He really showed how mythology can build up over a book with each generation of readers accepting the views of the one before and building on them. And he did it interestingly! Definitely a book worth reading…

  2. Very interesting review! Alas, history does tend to be a circle. I recently read Just Mercy and was surprised by the extent of racial injustice in modern day. This review helps clarify some of what I remember thinking about Huck Finn.

    • Thanks, DD! It was fascinating when he described the articles in the newspapers of Twain’s time to see how closely similar they are to the stuff in today’s press, about both race and child-rearing. And having worked with the ‘bad boys’ of our own day I recognised so many of the arguments – sad that a hundred and odd years later we’re still arguing about why some kids go off the rails…

  3. I must say FF that this one of the best book reviews I have read anywhere, ever. A brilliantly thoughtful and considered piece, if you don’t mind me saying so. I read Huck when I was a girl and never felt tempted to return to it particularly. Levy’s take on it quite appeals to me as I had not ever thought of the original in this way. Pah – I wish I was cleverer then I would understand books better.

  4. FEF…this is remarkable. You’ve managed to rip a book without reviewing it! *laughs but tries not to* Poor MT. I fear he’s fallen out of your favor forever.

    But this is definitely a great review, and seemingly an interesting book.

    Edna Cooper Chair…I thought that was a name at first! (Or, did he just name his chair, and it is a name after all?)

    I think I met him before.

    • *laughing lots and lots* You can see right through me, can’t you? However, consider – since Mr Twain thinks I, and all my fellow-Europeans, not to mention a significant minority of his fellow-Americans, are dirty, ugly, stupid and inferior, do you think he would care about my opinion? And at least I’m not reviewing IA!

      It is interesting, and would probably work just as well for Twain fans as… well… me…

      *laughing more* Suddenly I want to name my chair! What should I name it??

      Really? Where?

  5. Another excellent and hugely thoughtful (and very readable) review . I’ve never been able to get along with Twain. I would like to claim its for the reasons you were critical of Huck – but, in truth, I never got that far. I just got irritated by the authorial voice for some reason. I do have Huck Finn, and the other one, and also A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King James on the bookshelf, somewhere. All foisted on me by someone who loved Twain and tried to get me to read him, but I invariably lost focus very very quickly and started looking round for something more interesting.

    This book sounds interesting though. Even though it might just be the fact that you have MADE it interesting

    • Thanks, LF! I suspect Twain and I are just about finished now. I enjoyed Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper, was pretty underwhelmed by Huck Finn, and positively loathed Innocents Abroad – time to move on!

      The book is interesting, though, and even apart form the stuff about Twain and Huck it was an interesting look at the time of writing and about the history of minstrelsy, not to mention the growth of ‘bad-boy’ concerns.

  6. That does sound interesting. I read Huck Finn when I was a child so a lot of the racism/social criticism went right over my head. It makes me want to reread it – perhaps after reading this study first.

    • Yes, when I read it as a kid I just thought it wasn’t quite as good an adventure story as Tom Sawyer. But then when I was a kid, sadly casual racism was still much more acceptable than it is today – I even remember Minstrel Shows on TV! So Jim probably seemed OK to me at the time. Kinda makes me feel we have moved on at least a bit…

  7. I’m a big Mark Twain fan, although I never understood why Huckleberry Finn was seen as greatly anti-slavery/anti-racist either. I’m definitely interested in reading this book, although it’s for different reasons than the one you had. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

    • I think anyone who’s read Huck Finn would get something out of this, whatever their feelings about the original. In fact, even taking the literary criticism bit out, it’s interesting just as a look at the social history of the time. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  8. Oh, lawsy, I think my TBR just got a boost today. Great review, FF. Mr. Twain was an interesting character. His short stories are funny…most of them. There was one that was quite dark. Maybe it had something to do with Haley’s Comet.

  9. Another brilliant review! I never liked Mark Twain as a child and certainly wasn’t inspired to try again as an adult but I think I’d have to, to fully appreciate this book. It certainly sounds like the author has done his research while still retaining his appreciation of the author and the book.

    • Thank, Cleo! 😀 It was certainly helpful that I’d read Huck Finn so recently – don’t know if I’d have got nearly so much out of it if my memory of the original was vague. But it was interesting about the society of the time as well as the book. I’ll try harder next time… 😉

  10. Agree with your initial take on AOHF. I had always thought, and felt, that this particular Twain work was merely reflecting what he may have seen at the time. Of course our perspective is different now. However, Levy’s book, via your review only, appears to make some good cases for various points. Fascinating!

    • Yes, I don’t really know why the book got its reputation as an anti-racist tract in the first place, but Levy makes clear it wasn’t seen that way when it was published. I did indeed fidn this book fascinating – and well-written! 🙂

  11. Great review! Context is everything, isn’t it?

    I haven’t read Huck Finn. In English class, my group was assigned “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute. A different group was assigned Huck Finn. I hated “On the Beach.” Clearly, I’ve always been an anti-post-apocalyptic person. Maybe I would have enjoyed Huck Finn more, but much of Twain’s satire most likely would have been lost on me at that time.

    Your review makes me want to buy the original book and this well-argued analysis and read the two side-by-side…..

    • Thank you! It is indeed!

      I must say I think Twain’s satire is over-rated. Having abandoned Innocents Abroad after twenty chapters, I’ve concluded his satire is simply small-minded rude little boy stuff from someone with an over-developed sense of his own superiority. He’s been stricken off my list of authors I want to read. Haha! Can you tell I hated it?

      But yes, it would be good to read the two side-by-side – I certainly got more out of it because I’d read Huck fairly recently…

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

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