(x-posted from the Valve)
Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech. I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind. Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them. His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us. Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic. He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described.
As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c. My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is. One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist. On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read.
Which is what we say we do, careful as we are to pepper our conversations with “critical thinking” whenever we interact with the outside world. All of which dovetails with a long, unsatisfactory post I’ve written on The Novel of Purpose. In her discussion of Mark Twain, Claybaugh addresses Huck Finn‘s belated purposiveness via Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target. I have written previously of my admiration for Arac, but Idol and Target has always bothered me. Arac is right to say that the book has always been an exercise in self-congratulation—it is an abolitionist novel published in 1885—but as someone who has taught the novel three times now, I think his critical distance shows here. Students latch onto Huck’s declaration of war against Southern custom: “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says after recognizing his shared humanity with the captured Jim. It is a powerful epiphanic moment, even if it leads to the odd fact, as Claybaugh writes, “[g]enerations of readers have identified with Huck and have in the process congratulated themselves as if they were alone in recognizing that slavery was wrong, that African Americans are human beings” (175).
Huck Finn may only obliquely be a novel of purpose, but its characterization of Jim is perhaps the finest argument for the novel as a moral tool. As Claybaugh notes, when Huck Finn opens, Jim is little more than a caricature; over the long middle section of the novel, Jim displays ever more intellectual and emotional complexity; when Tom Sawyer returns, so too does the caricature. Only now, it is mediated by effects of the Bildungsroman that supplanted it. Jim is not a flat character, but a flattened one.
Claybaugh’s emphasis on the reformist tradition leads her to follow Arac and consider Huck Finn a belated antislavery novel. Though still central, I would say that “All right then, I’ll go to hell” is less significant as an antislavery sentiment than a promise broken by the horrors of the final act. Huck’s declaration makes Tom’s dehumanization of Jim all the more harrowing, which points to the moral content of the novel: it is one thing to say words—no matter how hard-won—another to act upon them when faced with cultural precedent. (Which is what Tom represents for Huck, as established in the opening chapters.) The perfidy of the otherwise sympathetic Huck bothers readers not because Twain conned them into self-congratulation, but because it demonstrates the weakness of Huck’s conviction.
This is not to say that I disagree with Claybaugh’s reading of the novel overall—Twain toys with the conventions of reformist literature throughout the novel—only that the focus on the belatedness foregrounds the issue of slavery, such that it is difficult not to read the novel as self-congratulatory con. She is correct to insist on Twain’s reluctance to consider literature morally edifying: Huck Finn‘s unfinished sequel, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, a realist counterpart to what he would later call “Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses.”
The sequel picks up where Huck Finn left off, with Tom applying what he has learned—from “Cooper’s novel,” as he admits to Huck—only instead of imposing generic conventions on life, Huck and Tom learn that such conventions aren’t drawn from it. They expect to meet honorable “Injuns” Fenimore Cooper portrayed, and reality seems to conform with literature at first. As Huck says, “we was all stuck after the Injuns, kind of in love with them, as you may say, and I reckon I never had better times than I had then.” The good times came to a quick close, however, when the Indians betray them, killing all but one member of the party Huck and Tom had befriended and kidnapping Jim. This is when Huck discovers Tom learned “about Injuns, how noble they was” from Fenimore Cooper; the rest of their journey to find Jim is an exercise in perpetual disabuse. The symmetry is telling: in Huck Finn, Tom uses literary convention to enslave Jim; in Among the Indians, Tom must shuck literary convention in order to free him. In neither book, then, can a case be made that Twain thought much of the novel of purpose.
And yet, the third act of Huck Finn brutally enacts a failure of conviction. I can think of no other discussion in which the students become as enraged at a character than the one spanning the last two classes on Huck Finn. They feel betrayed by Huck—so betrayed, in fact, that I wonder whether that anger is a permanent bequest. Has reading the novel increased the thought they put into a promise? Has literary study improved them, even if only in this smallest of ways?