By J.F. McKenna
As American literature’s widely acknowledged platform, Huck Finn’s raft remains our sturdiest conveyance of native genius even as it continues to receive endless inspections. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel delights youthful readers, furrows the brows of many ahistorical souls, occasionally tempts the misguided toward censorship and always demands undivided attention as a singular case of the human condition.
Now Andrew Levy, whose imposing academic title at Butler University belies his own gifts as a storyteller, gets the latest last word on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—and, as last words go, he has fashioned a fresh view of the novel that Ernest Hemingway christened “the best book we’ve had.” It’s no overstatement in this Land of Hyperbole to declare Huck Finn’s America, published by Simon & Shuster, an enlightening if challenging journey on that old raft.
Looking far beyond Twain’s liberal application of the epithet “n****r” in a oft-called children’s classic, Levy writes that “his work is a cultural biography of Twain in his era, one that shows how Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness, and how our misjudgments of the book’s messages about race and children reveal the architecture of our forgetting.
“I started it twenty years ago with a dim idea that there was something about the child in Huck that was misunderstood and something in the argument about the book’s treatment of race that had reached an impasse. I spent months in the late 1990s reading ancient newspapers, tracking Twain as he toured America in 1884 and 1885 alongside Louisiana writer George Washington Cable in a show he called the ‘Twins of Genius,’ which was intended to help Twain promote the publication of Huck Finn. I explored the debate about children and schools that raged at the time to see if Huck Finn entered into it. And I explored what black readers of the day said about Twain’s book, scouring through the frayed remains of black newspapers from the 1880s. Yet what stayed with me was the milieu, not the thesis: the whispers of a lost, dying America, and an America uncannily like our own. A lot had changed. And nothing had.”
Point-blank the writer-scholar insists: “After years of reading, teaching, and writing about the book, though, I’ve come to believe that we got this backward—that our understanding of what is comic and what is serious in Huck Finn says more about America in the last century than America in the time Twain wrote the book.”
Not exactly a simple tale about a seemingly inconsequential boy, a runaway slave and their adventures on a raft, is it?
As is illustrated by the analysis of Butler University’s Anna Cooper Chair in English, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has continued to grow even more remarkable as a cultural gauge since its first days in print, when readers initially agonized along with the abused and semi-educated Huck about his letter telling Miss Watson the whereabouts of his friend and her slave, Jim.
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembing, 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.”
The best way to read Huck Finn, Levy advises his 21st century audience, “might be to see that Twain found the borders that divide parents and children as false as the borders that divide black and white—and that he even saw the way those borders overlapped. In turn, he attacked both with the same rough play, a tricksterish mix of comedy and political seriousness that meshed with the stereotypes of the time but fought them, too. And now we are indulging in more rough play—myths of nostalgia and myths of progress, and the instinct to classify, classify, classify—that inspires modern politicians, critics, teachers, filmmakers, and readers to divide the book into two books, one funny and ‘harmless’ and one not. Huck Finn can show us more about how we keep the discussion of childhood stalled, and the engine of racial difference humming, than any other book in our canon. To benefit from that insight, however, we would have to admit that it is not a book (flawed or otherwise) about children and adventure, or about racial progress. It is a book about what Junot Díaz calls ‘dedicated amnesia’ on a national scale. It is a plea—as is this book—to remember, and a fatalistic comedy about how we don’t.”
So allow me to recommend climbing on the raft and carefully listening to Levy’s eloquent observations about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—observations such as “If we are concerned about the uses of Huck Finn, we might fairly ask whether such moments of wit and artistry can be distilled from their murky and tricksterish origins, and turned into polemics, or whether those murky and tricksterish origins are the point. Does the ‘assault of Laughter’ really win the game of history, as he claimed? It makes a difference.”
Samuel Langhorne Clemens—aka Twain—certainly knew a lot about making a difference. The great Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once declared that Twain was one of this nation’s greatest literary assets, noting that the American writer did not give his countrymen “much chance of ignoring him.” In 1907 Shaw wrote Twain himself: “I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.” Prima facie proof of that assessment is Andrew Levy’s latest last word on Huck.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .