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.

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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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GAN Quest: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

🙂 🙂 🙂

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we left Huck Finn, now comfortably well-off, being ‘sivilised’ by the Widow Douglas. But when Huck’s Pap comes back, wanting to get his hands on Huck’s new-found wealth, Huck finds himself at his father’s mercy, locked up in their shanty and subjected to beatings. So he hatches a plan to escape. Meantime, Miss Watson’s slave Jim has decided to run away because he’s overheard Miss Watson say she’s going to sell him down to Orleans. When the two meet up they decide to throw in their lots with each other and set off down the Mississippi on a raft. This is the story of their adventures. (Please note there are some spoilers in this review on the basis that almost everyone will already know the story.)

“A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I rek’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No – ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factory; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factory when he want to res’.”

There was always going to come a point at least once in the Great American Novel Quest when I would hit a book that didn’t seem to me to live up to its reputation. Sadly, this is that book. I’m quite sure that if I had read it not knowing of its status, it would never have occurred to me to rank this as anything more than a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn – showing its age, certainly, but with a fair amount of satirical humour.

However, even reviewing it as an adventure, I found it compared unfavourably to its predecessor. The few chapters at the beginning are pretty much a reprise of Tom Sawyer, with the gang again getting together to play at being robbers, and much of the humour here is simply a repeat of the first novel. The next section – Huck’s cruel treatment at the hands of his father – is treated so lightly that it didn’t generate any real emotion in me; and Huck’s pretence at having being murdered in order to escape is again very similar to what happened in the previous book.

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Once Jim and Huck get together, the story improves greatly for a while and the first section of their journey is the best bit of the book, as we see these two unlikely companions begin to form bonds of affection and loyalty. It’s here that Twain shows most clearly through Huck’s narration the acceptance of slavery as an almost unthinking norm in the society he’s portraying, and we get brief flashes of Jim as a real person when he tells about how he will be separated from his wife and children if he’s sold.

Then unfortunately the two con-artists – the Duke and the King – come on the scene and from there on the whole thing seems to lose any narrative drive. To be honest, while at first it seemed clear that Huck and Finn were heading north to the free States, after this mid-way point I had no clear idea what their plan was, if they had one. The book, like the raft, seems to drift aimlessly as we are given little humorous set-pieces at each of the towns they visit. But not humorous enough, I’m afraid, to compensate for the repetitiveness of the section nor for the overdrawn caricatures of these two characters.

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“Well, some of the best authorities has done it. They couldn’t get the chain off, so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain’t necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim’s a nigger, and wouldn’t understand the reasons for it, and how it’s the custom in Europe; so we’ll let it go.”

When Tom finally re-appears, the story picks up for a bit as he and Huck each take on false identities to fool Tom’s unsuspecting aunt. But then we get to the long-drawn out and frankly tedious final section where, instead of rescuing Jim, Tom goes off into another of his fantasies and stretches the whole thing out to an extent where I found I was beginning to skim whole chapters in a desperate bid to get to the end.

So as a novel, I’m afraid this would rate no more than 3 stars for me.

* * * * * * * * *

Trying to look at it a bit more deeply as a contender for Great American Novel status, the two things that are most often mentioned are the innovative use of dialect and the satirical look at attitudes towards slavery. Certainly, the dialect is done wonderfully well – Twain never misses a beat, and makes each voice not only distinct, but an unmistakeable indicator of the different class each character occupies. So Tom’s voice clearly shows he’s of a better class and level of education than Huck, while Jim and the other slaves share a dialect all of their own – a dialect that is recognisable from most of the early Hollywood films portraying slavery, such as Gone With the Wind. This made me wonder if the dialect was authentic, or a Twain creation that influenced later culture. Either way, it’s a virtuoso performance from Twain and certainly raises the artistic level of the novel. (Honestly, though, I found it irritating after a while – frequently having to re-read Jim’s dialogue to catch the meaning. Perhaps that’s my Britishness showing through.)

kemble3

I found the slavery question more complex, oddly because Twain makes it seem so simple. He makes the tolerance of slavery a universal thing, accepted unquestioningly by everyone in the novel. I found this unconvincing – the book is set only a couple of decades before the Civil War, and surely there would have been more shades of grey over it, even in the South, by that period? Also, although he shows the basic inhumanity and emotional cruelty of one man owning another, somehow he also shows the owners as fundamentally good-natured and mostly quite kind to the slaves. I’m sure that was also true of some owners, but I’m equally sure there was a lot more physical cruelty and abuse than this novel suggests. It all seemed strangely sanitised, especially since the point was presumably to show the plain wrongness of the practice. And, while there’s no doubt every character in the book regardless of colour is displayed as, shall we say, intellectually challenged, 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 left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I really, really wanted Jim to tell Tom and Huck to grow up and stop messing him about, rather than to continue metaphorically wagging his tail at his masters, as he did even once he discovered that he had been a free man while Tom was indulging his own selfishness.

Hmm…I’m guessing you can tell I wasn’t convinced by this one…

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagBearing in mind when the book was written, and that the audience for it therefore didn’t share today’s sensibilities regarding race and equality, I’m assuming that the book perhaps did shed light on the evils of slavery for its contemporary readers, at a time when the post-war society wasn’t living up to the expectations of the proponents of the war. To be honest, I’m basing this assumption more on the book’s reputation than on anything I found in the text though. So, somewhat grudgingly – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I think the theme most definitely meets the originality test and there’s no doubt the use of dialect was innovative, so – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagOh dear – I feel I’m going to offend most of America here and quite probably the rest of the world too but…no, I didn’t find this superbly written. The dialect, while hugely skilful, detracted on the whole from my enjoyment; and the plot was too straggly and unfocussed, particularly the several chapters at the end. The humour and satire simply weren’t enough to carry it. So…not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think this is arguable. While the book concentrated very much on the South, and was of course historical even at the time of writing, it was clearly written with reference to issues in the contemporary society. It seemed to me that Twain saw the issue of equality as one for the whole of the US and in that sense, it addresses the entire ‘American experience’. But does it capture it? I’m conflicted – but on the whole no, I’m not wholly convinced by Twain’s portrayal of this society so…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, donning my hard hat and cowering behind the settee, I hereby declare that not only is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not The Great American Novel, but for only achieving 3 GAN flags and 3 stars, it isn’t even A Great American Novel.

Please don’t hate me! Instead, convince me that I’m wrong…