Tuesday, 06 May 2008

Because I'm All Out of Clever Titles, I Christen Thee "History & Literature" Eric and Ari's discussions about how to best incorporate literature into history classroom inverts the problem I face when designing a syllabus: "How do I demonstrate the significance of a novel outside the context in which it acquired its importance?"* I feel compelled to contextualize for reasons best understood by the example of Huck Finn. Consider Huck's classic epiphany in Chapter XXXI. He's written a note informing Miss Watson where she can find her runaway slave, only to get to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, for ever, 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 reader's annoyance with Huck dissipates because Twain allows them to participate in his recognition of shared humanity. Twain yokes together those clauses with semi-colons, crafting a sentence like a cartoon snowball on a mountaintop. With a gentle nudge, he tips it down the mountainside, and minutes later everyone cheers as two stories of packed snow smashes into prevailing wisdom. Students cry when they read this passage. They talk of Huck's heroism in voices trembling with patriotic pride: "How brave! For this boy to forsake the only moral order he has known! 'And a child shall lead them!' How brave of Twain to condemn the South in this manner!" I allow them to talk in this vein for a couple of minutes, then ask them to open their book to the title page and read what it says below the title: Then I ask them when it was published. They don't know what to make of any of it. "It was written twenty years after the end of the Civil War," I say. Blank...

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