Monday, 16 April 2007

Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose (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...

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