Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

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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.

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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.

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