Thursday, March 12, 2009

On a Troublesome, Hot-Button, Deeply Complex Classic

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be persecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. - Mark Twain, on the title page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In the introduction of my Scribner's edition of The Great Gatsby, Matthew J. Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina refers to Fitzgerald's seminal work as the proverbial "great American novel," meaning that it is "the great work of fiction with defining American thematic qualities and that James Gatz/Jay Gatsby is the great American character." However, Bruccoli also notes that "[a]dherents of Huck Finn take issue and umbrage" with this. Although the grand phrase GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL has long been a serious cliché (despite the fact that we all still want to write one), I still think that most literate people, if asked, would narrow the contestants to either The Great Gatsby (1922) or Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The former is probably a "safer" choice, however, since the latter has been in recent decades marred by accusations of racism. Which immediately begs the deceptively obvious question: Is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a racist book or not? Or is that just too black-and-white (harhar) a question?

Most critics take issue with Jim as a character, while others find the liberal use of the word "nigger" to also be problematic. In the words of Toni Morrison, in her essay "Jim's Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn":
We need to explicate the ways in which specific themes, fears, forms of consciousness, and class relationships are embedded in the use of Africanist idiom: how the dialogue of black characters is construed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to disfamiliarize it; how Africanist language practices are employed to evoke the tension between speech and speechlessness; how it is used to establish a cognitive world split between speech and text, to reinforce class distinctions and otherness as well as to assert privilege and power; how it serves as a marker and vehicle for illegal sexuality, fear of madness, expulsion, self-loathing.
Mark Twain allegedly based Huck's dialect on that of an African-American boy he knew, and yet Jim's speech is borderline coherent. (Jim: "I 'uz mos' to de foot er de islan' b'fo' I foun' a good place." Huck: "There was a place right about the middle of the island I'd found when I was exploring.") Morrison asks us to consider how "Africanist" language (Twain used the phrase "Missouri negro dialect") may be used as a signifier of the "other" in contrast to white "normality." And furthermore: in the context of both dialect usage and the novel's "third act" (in which Jim is imprisoned), what does Jim's presence as a character suggest? Mark Twain was very much a regional writer whose works often illustrate and satirize the features of the local culture. He even states that, when writing Huck Finn, he was very careful and deliberate in deciding each character's dialogue. In other words, Twain describes things as they are and, often, why it is ridiculous that they are the way they are. I have seen Twain exhibit racist tendencies (or what we would consider racist tendencies) in Roughing It; however, I also argued that he was merely acting as a product of his time and place. Can we make that same argument here?

In addition to dialect issues, there is also controversy surrounding the relationship between Huck and Jim, which fluctuates between one of equality and one in which Jim, a black man, defers to Huck, a white boy. For example, Jim sits patiently and allows Huck and Tom Sawyer to needlessly complicate his rescue by adding romantic flourishes Tom had read about in adventure novels. "Jim couldn't see no sense in the most of it," says Huck, "but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him; so he was satisfied, and said we would do it all just as Tom said." It's certainly hard to imagine Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Parker, or Abuya Suleiman Diallo ever being so lame. "Two things strike us in this novel: the apparently limitless store of love and compassion the black man has for his white friend and white masters; and his assumption that the whites are indeed what they say they are, superior and adult," says Morrison, who goes on to assert that
The humiliation that Huck and Tom subject Jim to is baroque, endless, foolish, mind-softening — and it comes after we have experienced Jim as an adult, a caring father and a sensitive man. If Jim had been a white ex-convict befriended by Huck, the ending could not have been imagined or written: because it would not have been possible for two children to play so painfully with the life of a white man (regardless of his class, education, or fugitiveness) once he had been revealed to us as a moral adult.
One common interpretation of the ending is that Twain intends to parody the sensationalism, flamboyancy, and overblown pathos of romanticism. But even then, as Morrison argues, such proto-postmodernist intertextual "play" would not be possible if Jim were white, since American readers of the time simply could not conceive of a white man allowing two children to jeopardize the freedom he has been fighting for the entire book.

Obviously, then, Morrison and others have objected to the power dynamic between Jim and the white characters, particularly Huck. I noticed that too, but I also believe the reality was far more complex. Eugene D. Genovese's seminal 1974 book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made examines the institution of slavery from a Marxist standpoint, using Antonio Gramsci's theories of cultural hegemony to explore how rich Southern slaveholders used the seigneurial concept of familial patriarchy to make their ascendancy over slaves and "lesser" whites seem natural, necessary, and beneficial.
No class in the modern Western world could rule for long without some ability to present itself as the guardian of the interests and sentiments of those being ruled.

The idea of "hegemony," which since Gramsci has become central to Western Marxism, implies class antagonisms; but it also implies, for a given historical epoch, the ability of a particular class to contain those antagonisms on a terrain in which its legitimacy is not dangerously questioned.

In short, Genovese goes on to explain, the hegemonic class must take the interests of other classes into account in order to ethically validate itself in everyone's eyes, not just its own. Accordingly, in the antebellum South, a big-time slaveholder would often position himself as the patrone, a figure common to seignuerial societies "who simultaneously protects and abuses, nourishes and punishes." Now here is where it gets dicey: Genovese argues that black slaves, in navigating a social structure which rendered them powerless, would often identify with the master over poor whites (such as Huck). In fact, it was the slaves who invented the phrase "poor white trash." The masters, meanwhile, actively encouraged the mutual antipathy between the two groups on the grounds that it lessened the chances of a multiracial slave-impoverished white uprising. And that concern was not entirely without merit. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra, a Marxist study of the Atlantic world, describes several instances, usually in the Caribbean, in which white indentured servants and black slaves joined forces against their exploitative "betters." Once the revolt was crushed, the response was invariably to drive a wedge between black and white commoners. Interestingly, Linebaugh and Rediker assert that this was achieved by giving white laborers more status at the expense of black slaves.

Several characters in Huck Finn certainly fit the "poor white trash" stereotype even more viciously than many writers today would depict. Twain's poor whites, as well as their environment, make Jeff Foxworthy & Co. look downright urbane:
Then we went loafing around the town. The stores and houses was most all old shackly dried-up frame concerns that hadn't ever been painted. . . The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn't seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played-out tin-ware. The fences was made of different kinds of boards, nailed on at different times; and they leaned every which-way, and had gates that didn't generly have but one hinge - a leather one. Some of the fences had been whitewashed, some time or another, but the duke said it was in Clumbus's time, like enough. There was generly hogs in the garden, and people driving them out.

All the stores was along one street. They had white-domestic awnings in front, . . . and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching - a mighty ornery lot. They generly had on yellow straw hats most as wide as an umbrella, but didn't wear no coats nor waistcoats; they called one another Bill, and Buck, and Hank, and Joe, and Andy, and talked lazy and drawly, and used considerable many cuss-words. . .What a body was hearing amongst them, all the time was -

"Gimme a chaw'v tobacker, Hank."

"Cain't - I hain't got but one chaw left. Ask Bill."

The despicable personality of the "loafers," as well as the run-down and substandard conditions they live in, soon become even more vivid:
All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn't nothing else BUT mud - mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in some places, and two or three inches deep in ALL the places. The hogs loafed and grunted around everywheres. You'd see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazying along the street and whollop herself right down in the way, where folks had to walk around her, and she'd stretch out and shut her eyes and wave her ears whilst the pigs was milking her, and look as happy as if she was on salary. And pretty soon you'd hear a loafer sing out, "Hi! SO boy! sick him, Tige!" and away the sow would go, squealing most horrible, with a dog or two swinging to each ear, and three or four dozen more a-coming; and then you would see all the loafers get up and watch the thing out of sight, and laugh at the fun and look grateful for the noise. Then they'd settle back again till there was a dog fight. There couldn't anything wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dog fight—unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.
Meanwhile, though undeniably clever, the "duke" and the "king," two con men who travel with Huck and Jim, are also shockingly callous, conscienceless, and manipulative. And, of course, there is also Huck's drunken, abusive lout of a father. But all in all, Jim and the other black characters are NEVER portrayed as being this incredibly loathsome.

Twain's contempt for poor whites nevertheless seems far removed from what Genovese interpreted as a respectful, reciprocal quasi-feudal relationship that existed between them and the plantation elite. Genovese identifies four strata of middle- to lower-class whites: "solid yeoman; respectable sub-subsistence farmers who supplemented their incomes by working as day laborers; skilled and semiskilled mechanics; and dissolute, déclassé 'poor white trash.'" He then goes on, perhaps controversially, to claim that seeing "proud, free white men willingly defer to the great and powerful planters" only reinforced the slaves' ties to their masters. (However, Genovese also points to contradictions in this social arrangement in that even the most degraded whites could still participate in the political process and claim legal equality with the rich.) What this meant is that slaves ultimately respected "quality" and, as inheritors of an African "shame culture" that also encouraged aristocratic ethos and bearing, were actually proud to identify with a powerful white master, as opposed to "poor white trash." Even an otherwise racist white woman could say, when talking about a boorish schoolteacher, that she "hope[d] he might in time learn from the negroes in return for some book learning, as they are singularly gentle and courteous in their manners." In other words, the antagonism between slaves and poor whites often derived from the hegemonic influence of the plantation elite, who presented themselves as paragons of manners, lifestyle, and behavior for everyone else (including their slaves) to admire and emulate.

(You can see how Roll, Jordan, Roll can also be classified as a "troublesome, hot-button, deeply complex classic" of historiography. I'm not sure I'm buying everything Genovese's claiming, BTW.)

So how do Huck and Jim fit into this? Genovese also points out that relations between slaves and poor whites were more complex than seen at first glance. Many slaves who stole their master's goods would sell them to poor whites at drinking and gambling parties. And some poor whites who were brutal when on the slave patrol would nevertheless help a particular individual slave run away - just as Huck did. In fact, Huck's inner monologues, in which he contemplates returning Jim to Miss Watson and struggles with the "sinfulness" of aiding Jim's escape, reflect what Genovese calls the "dangerous ambivalence" that occasionally arose whenever the two groups interacted. The childlike manner Jim exhibits - another sore point for critics - may also be derived (that is, whites' belief in it) from the Southern institution of paternalism and how it presented itself on the plantation as a fundamentally familial arrangement. In trying to morally justify themselves, slaveholders liked to insist that black people (who one Georgia State Supreme Court judge referred to as "children of the sun," as contrasted to a "hardy and industrious [white] population") needed to be taken care of. Should slavery fall, they could even be exterminated! "And therein lay [other] dangerous implications," says Genovese, ones which, if Genovese is right in his characterization of the antebellum South, could go a long way in explaining the origins of the Huck-Jim partnership. The slaveholders ultimately saw themselves as authoritarian father-figures presiding over an extended plantation family. Hence: the black slaves were their "children." While this system welded blacks and whites together in a dysfunctionally intimate family bond, it was also inherently cruel in its demands for reciprocity and subjugation. "Against insubordination alone," intoned one slaveholder, "we are severe." Any acts of self-assertion or ingratitude on the part of the "children" were tantamount to treason and would be punished accordingly.

(Twain actually does satirize the Southern elite's culture of honor and family obligation in Huck Finn. The Grangerford-Shepherdson feud is simultaneously tragic and farcical, while the weepy, maudlin art and poetry of the late Emmeline Grangerford may be a parody of the overly sentimental mannerisms of the genteel Southern lady.)

In other words, if Genovese is right (and I'm not necessarily saying he is - he was only one historian, albeit a highly esteemed one), then Huck and Jim were victims of the same suffocating, two-faced, oppressively paternalistic plantation hegemony that denied women, children, and African-Americans their rightful recognition as full human beings with intelligence and capability. Even when he grew up, Huck, should he remain in the South, would always be caught, as a poor white, in the quasi-traditional web of hierarchy and obsequiousness. (Obviously, the Civil War happened, but Huck never gives any indication of an ability to tell the future.) Perhaps that is why he chooses to flee at the end of the book, preferring the life of perfect freedom, beholden to no one, instead of Aunt Sally's promises to "sivilize me."

But, as Toni Morrison points out, Huck is still not a black man. While slaves and poor whites may have regarded one another with antipathy, from the latter's perspective, at least they were not "niggers" because "freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another; the signed, marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave." Oh, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really is a great book, Morrison concludes, but mostly in that "it stimulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom." In other words, it's Great because of the hard questions it raises about the African-American presence in American literature, especially as the specter of an oppressed population of "others" that has shaped white writers' responses to "quintessential" American themes such as individualism, social engagement, masculinity, and the contrast of innocence to darkness, death, and hell. In short: the American literary tradition may exist precisely because of the historical position of black Americans.

So . . . is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn racist or not?

Hell, I don't know. As Mark Twain would say, it's a "dark and bloody mystery" for the sages of the ages. (Actually, I suspect it may be a wholly subjective question.) But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does need to be read.


Mrs. C said...

Hi, child. I have been waiting and waiting for an opportunity to read and respond to this review; today I have the great pleasure (that two-word phrase to be read fair DRIPPING with sarcasm!) of spending 40 minutes with two hooligans--direct descendents, no doubt, of Tom Sawyer--in in-school suspension, and so the gift of time.

I answer the central question here unequivocally--from my subjective POV, ain't no way in hell this is text designed to enlarge the racist tendencies of the reader, though I'll warrant that could certainly be an outcome: I'm regularly chilled by the ignorant and willful misinterpretation of AMERICAN HISTORY X, for example, by my blatantly neo-skin-head teenyboppers, who, I assure tham, have been abused and neglected by their parents who would raise children to be so loudly and proudly elitist...

In the case of ...HUCK...I look only to the nobility of trhe characters. Jim is so far and away the most honorable of the denizens of the text. And make no mistake: this is NOT an ignorant man. His very survival, minute by minute and mile by mile, is inextricably tied to Huck's better nature (fo'sho' better than TOM'S--what an ASS that kid is!)and he knows it and he manipulates it and he coddles it until (Lawd, make it so!) he gets his way to SAFE! And he helps to grow Huck's honor and nobility in the process--there is no question that he is the better father to Huck than Pap ever could think to be...

Now, though, manipulate is an interesting term--and I tell my students all the time that it is not necessarily a BAD thing, right? Heck no! We need to be aware of it's play in our own lives, both as agents and as "victims," right? And so the honorable Jim manipulates the very heck out of Huck--knowing from the get go that Pap is dead, Jim won't tell Huck--not I say, out of kind consideration of the child's feelings, but rather because Jim cannot budge an inch off that island without Huck as the license for transport. Huck may be a kid, but at least he's the right COLOR--Jim needs that kid by his side if not exactly ON it if he has any chance at getting free.

Bell has just sounded; I gotta go! But seriously--you should teach. You got it goin' ON!

BTW. my word is "unduck"--as in be unafraid; don't duck the issues--as you never really do!

Mrs. C said...

Wow, some serious typos and usage issues there; well, that's what comes of a parentage of bizarrely slow computers, an I-refuse-to-roll rolly chair and three escorted trips (3?!) to the lav for two (2!) boys all in 40 minutes...

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