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Tuesday, 06 May 2008


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Candace Waid has a whole big reading on this with regards to the ending of the novel, the baroque escape stunts that seem so ridiculous --- she argues that we see it in a more negative light, with the ritualistic humiliation of Jim being the answer to the question "what does it mean to set a free nigger free." In this reading the text is much less about recognizing the humanity of black people than fearing that the freeing of the slaves back then might have been a disastrous idea. Black people can be set free, she argues, only through a process of emasculation.

Of course, to do this she employs the whole "fear of the black phallus" argument in really dubiously reaching terms, with Jim's leg being bitten by the snake and puffing up and cutting off the bed leg to free him from captivity... painting him blue and calling him a "sick Arab" comes in here somehow too, if I recall. On the other hand, they dress him up in a ladies nightgown, don't they? Hmm.


I've read the Waid, but to be honest, she's much better on Wharton than she is on Twain. (Not that I'm being territorial, not me, perish the thought, even though I'm working on them both.) That said, I've a strong reading of Sawyer's callous subterfuge in the last chapters of Huck Finn, and it largely accords with Waid's conclusions. Yes, I think Twain's condemning lip-service Reconstruction in those last chapters. Tom's a swell representative of the nostalgic Southern tradition, and if his extension of it veers into romance, well, that's what Twain wanted it to do.

I've written this up in a quasi-publishable form ... making it completely unsuitable for the blog. Let me re-work that into something I can post and we can continue the conversation.

Aimee W.

Agreed on all counts, but that passage still makes me tear up.

Aimee W.


I too read the last chapters as a critique of the failures of Reconstruction. Twain's not perfect, not by far - but if I were to cite faults with his political or racial consciousness, I probably wouldn't start there.


I never use historical fiction. Which is to say: when I assign fiction in my history classes, it's always with the understanding that it is a reflection of the attitudes of the author in the context of the time it was written, and if it deals with events that are "historical" from the author's point of view it tells us nothing about the history except the author's understanding. As much as possible I try to avoid assigning fiction that actually includes that sort of complication, focusing on fiction written "in the moment" (and prefering autobiography, when I can get it; not that it's more reliable, necessarily, but the issues are less complex).

On the Twain, it seems to me that a fairly dehumanized view of former slaves was still pretty strong by the 1880s, such that Huck's evolution (sorry, SEK) would still have some bracing effect on readers. It's not just as a critique of Reconstruction that it works.


I thought Gettysburg was fought in the 19th century.


There's more history than slavery here, though! For me, the register of that line has always been that connecting "I'll go to hell" to an actual social issue turns Huck's silly litle rebellions into something more meaningful (i.e., it's not about slavery, but about whether hell is actually better than heaven). In this context, being a "boy" starts to mean something less like immaturity and more like an explicitly anti-civilization stance, harnessing the (as you point out, well established) moral authority of abolitionism to defy the authorities of polite scoiety. And "polite society" (and the ways it extends its authority out to remake "immature" societies) had by no means disappeared by that point; 1884 is the very year of the conference of Berlin where Africa was apportoned out to European poweres who were really at the very peak of their ability to use moral arguments about "civilizing savages" to justify conquest. When Huck, as a character whose savagery is explicitly being civilized decides that he doesn't want to go to heaven (and, in the same act, aligns himself on the right side of an already settled question), it seems to me that, in its historical moment, it has quite a lot of significance. I don't know if I'd say "bravery" exactly, but it's worth noting that the Berlin conferfence was convened by King Leopold, who Twain would directly attack in his "King Leopold's Soliloquy" of 1905. But by that time Leopold was already a fairly reviled name, in certain reform circles, so it's interesting in a different way that Twain had already attacked the principles that Leolpold would use, and did it long before the "abuses" of the Congo had really begun.


There's another layer beyond the historicism, which is that your students are idenitfying with the bravery of Huck the character, not Twain the author. This gets to both the beauty and danger of teaching novels in the context of a history class: they can allow students to imagine and identify with the process of living in a place and time much better than historical texts can or should, but this can also lead students to feel too easily that they undersand what people were thinking. Twain, unlike Huck, didn't live in a hermetically sealed world of Sothern white morality. He was exposed to different strains of abolitionist thought long before slavery was abolished and made his own judgemnets and choices (in fact, I know very little about Twain, so I'm sure there are all kinds of subtleties I'm missing here, but I think my basic point still stands).

I teach novels in all of my African history surveys, partly to have students engage in questions of historical imagination and partly as a treat (and, as someone in that thread noted, the treat works two ways -- it's a break from the denser historical texts and it rewards students who've been paying attention by allowing them greater historical or cultural insights into the world that's represented). I don't teach them as native informants, though I do worry that students will take them this way. I haven't ever taught Achebe's Things Fall Apart, partly because I figure that they'll read it elsewhere and partly because there are complex and difficult questions of representations contained in it that I think could be opened up in really interesting ways in a lit class (or an African studies class for that matter), but in a history course would be a distraction. Sometimes I lecture explicitely on the task of reading novels as an excercize in historical imagniation, sometimes I just fold this into the discussion. Transparent reading is always a danger though, even in texts where you wouldn't expect it. I had to intervene in discussion of Ngugi's Devil on the Cross once to remind the students that the novel was intended as an allegory and as satire, not as a documentary.


"Huck Finn would've been a different novel had it been written in 1844. It would've been the braver novel the students ardently desire it to be. It would be another novel still were it written in 2004"

Brings to mind Pierre Menard, does it?

Luther Blissett

But the time of publication doesn't change the representation of Huck's heroism. If it was heroic to challenge the moral order in 1844, then it is heroic for a character to do so in a novel set in 1844.

What it changes is our identification as readers with Twain-as-hero via Huck-as-hero. And that's the problem.

The other problem is this: was it really all that heroic in 1844 to challenge the moral order? Those who defend Founding Fathers for their views by "historicizing" them always fail to mention that plenty of people in their *own* time condemned the very things we condemn today. It's not like anti-slavery sentiment was uncommon in the early 19th century. (Huck as a character is different, insofar as he's represented as completely outside anything like contact with anti-slavery sentiment due to his upbringing. Huck *believes* he is risking a lot in siding with Jim, even if Twain ironizes this belief. Scott can correct me, but wasn't Twain fairly atheistic at this point?)


FYI: I'll respond tomorrow. Stupid Iron Man stupided me for the evening. God damn you Anthony Lane and mainstream critical establishment!


Those who defend Founding Fathers for their views by "historicizing" them always fail to mention that plenty of people in their *own* time condemned the very things we condemn today.

This is more or less analogous to the discussion I have every Christmas: 'No mum, it's not OK that nan's racist.'

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