Huckleberry Finn and Effects of Story

Cross-posted from a discussion at the Valve:

If the world goes against the truth, then I will go against the world – the decision expressed in Huck’s great Damn it then I’ll go to hell moment. Huck, at least in the moment, takes a “stand,” the root word of “resist,” a great moment of “resistance.” When I first read it as a young person, I saw and felt of course what he was referring to literally but I also referred it to my own life and my own decisions I had made, and had seen made, and had failed to make, and decided and reaffirmed to make then in the moment, and how I wished to proceed generally in the future. The text moment facilitated my own thinking, meditation really, in the vein of Huck’s thinking, about my own testing situations I was facing, had faced, and might face. I couldn’t mentally join Huck shoulder to shoulder about chattel slavery in the US thanks to abolition but I could feel in solidarity with his spirit and stand, his spirited stand, about, say, the wage slavery of today and many other such injustices I was aware of. Moments of reading and thought like that can put steel in your blood and spring in your step. A real experience. Real effect. Reading books (and experiences of all sorts) change some people’s lives, in various ways, at least in that they can have this real affirming or strengthening or committing or otherwise galvanizing effect. Can many people who have devoted their professional lives to literature really not come up with a variety of examples of this well-documented fact or phenomena off the top of their heads? I’ve taught Huck at the college level as part of Intro to American lit, but it never occurred to me to teach it solely or even primarily in reference to race (even though we also read critical articles of it that critiqued race and other aspects, aesthetic aspects and so on, at my choosing). You can take Jim and nearly all the moments of race out of the novel and still have the story of Huckleberry Finn that primarily accounts for the form of the work – which is in my view, the drama of a perspective of “youth” engaging a corrupt and villainous adult world, society. That’s the key to the form of the novel: the struggle of youth (in society). Take that away, restore Jim and moments of racial intersection, and you’re left with little more than one of the great aesthetic flaws of the novel—the crude novella that is the last third of the novel, plus some preceding stretches. (The last third of the novel actually works better on its own, if it were a separate novella/story, than it does as an aesthetic and thematic part of the novel.) When Hemingway famously (over)said, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” he wasn’t referring to race, of course. Lionel Trilling claims that much of what he was referring to is that the novel “reinforces the colloquial tradition with the literary tradition. Indeed, it may be said that almost every contemporary American writer who deals conscientiously with the problems and possibilities of prose must feel, directly or indirectly, the influence of Mark Twain. He is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.”

I think one could go farther and add: the voice of youth. (Which may be a clarification of what is perhaps unconsciously implied.) The voice of youth struggling to survive and live in face of a very often corrupt society. Huck Finn is not primarily a bildungsroman, nor comedy, nor satire, nor caricature, nor tragedy, nor romance, nor polemic, nor melodrama, nor lit, nor pop, nor nature writing, nor essay, nor colloquial catalogue – though it is all of these things and more at various times. It’s primarily the voice of the struggle of “youth” (in society) (as lit/pop feast, at its best).

This fundamental form of Huck Finn—young Huck like a pinball through adult pins and paddles while desperately avoiding terminal holes—is so often used today, we many not see the significance it may have marked in American literature: the ascendancy of a worldly youth perspective. We can scarcely get away from some version of it today, but I would guess (I’m MFA degreed, no Victorian scholar) that the novel HF was the first great American instantiation of this form-creating-perspective or perspective-creating-form. Dickens in England before Twain. The Anglo-American child hero. (I think it’s Sylvia Hewitt’s studies that have shown that continental Europe has much better general child care provisions and child well being outcomes than does Anglo-America. Maybe there’s a real link between lit and life there, maybe longstanding, maybe mutually feeding. Been studied?) Race is one element in this form in Huck Finn, arguably a primary element, but still only one element of many. Jim’s situation as “runaway slave” seems to me to function more as a device to drive the plot so that Twain could ever further explore the great theme of the book: youth perspective on society. That theme exploded post WWII (socio-political reasons pop to mind), perhaps post Catcher in the Rye so that today maybe we almost don’t see it as a perhaps “peculiar” formal device. If I think of a Henry James novel in relation to Huckleberry Finn, I think of What Maisie Knew.

I’m curious about who is, and who can, assert that HF be taught mainly in reference to race. Of course it can be examined well and good for any number of reasons, race critique not least, even as the novel is built and directed more in other ways.

Reading (and writing) is an experience that can help people think about all sorts of things – including the moral, the psychological, the political, even simply the factual, you name it. It can help us make up our minds about so much. The evidence for this is overwhelming. And when we really make up our minds about certain things, really set our minds to something, the effects can be, sort of, limitless. Hiroshimic. Or otherwise. Literature/art has played extraordinarily oppressive and libratory roles. It’s important to have some idea how. And which. And why, what, when, where, and to what degree. Some of this has been studied and determined. And more such important studies, including experiments, are badly needed.

For example, does “advocacy pedagogy” work? Done effectively, of course. That’s what teach-ins are. That aside, simply on the basis of regular literature classes, parents complain all the time, for example, that after their children read The Jungle in school they become vegans, or vegetarians. We need to know, what books prompt how many people to become, say, pacifists, or anti-militancy activists – etc.

Doing so may cause us to seriously revise our notions of what fully civilized literature is, and what it isn’t—(erudite and sophisticated, as sufficient criteria? – or more fully vital and humane, in its time, or in any time? libratory and expanding of other valued normative qualities, and understandings, as criteria?)

And when employing one of the most classic teaching methods – of comparing one set of facts/ideas/books to another opposing set of facts/ideas/books – while trying not to at all let on your own views as teacher—then it is useful, necessary, to have literature of all sorts, including novels, from all poles, that so thoroughly explore, say, opposition to a war of aggression that they will be known as much for their antiwar stand as for any, even high, literary quality. Put that up against some hotshot soldier’s memoir or novel that is generally ultimately not fundamentally critical of the basis of a war of aggression – a status quo war book. Or even something like Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, with its limited Iraq War exploration. Similarly, teach different combinations of books: all antiwar books in some classes and all much less antiwar books in another, or all status quo supportive books (consciously or implicitly). And use mixed percentages of these types of books in other classes. And different teaching “philosophies”. After the courses, as scientifically as possible, sample students’ views, knowledge and attitudes – later on track them and record what they go on to do. (Of course, control for or account for the nature of the students initially, to the extent possible.) Also sample parents’ subsequent complaint level! Or compliment level. The results may be surprising, or they may not. They may be highly determinate or totally indeterminate. One problem is, such worthy experiments cannot even be carried out in literary realms (not even anecdotally, piecemeal) if there is no diversity of literary books – no or few literary (or popular) antiwar novels, for example.I think we might be forced to revise some of our notions of what great literature really is, and be led to create anew. I think we can run through some of these thought processes simply in our heads of course, that’s what thinking and discussing are all about. In fact, given the interest and lacking some such experiments, we have to, based on what is already known.But then these concerns may apply only if you agree with Calverton that “granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.”

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See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini


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One thought on “Huckleberry Finn and Effects of Story”

  1. Im sorry to say that I believe your interpretation of the novel to be utter nonsense. It is not a story about youths battle against a villainous adult world, but a critique of American society 20 years after the abolition of slavery. If you decide to re-read the book, try to see behind the adventure of a young boy, to the actual problems of the time. A spirit of evasiveness is very present throughout the various episodes in the novel. As soon as one gets close to discovering a problem, the people move on to the next best entertainment at hand. The clearest example would be the speech given by Sherburn, after which the mob leaves for the circus to avoid confronting their faults. Of course their are many other elements of the novel that I could list to persuade you that the book is in fact Mark Twain’s “meditation on slavery”, however I shall not try to explain the book like a school teacher. My attention was caught by your dismissal of the last part of the novel to be a “crude novella”, which is an aesthetic flaw. However you fail to see the true meaning of the ending by hiding behind these claims. Please read through some articles which explain the Novels true meaning, and reread the novel and see if it will change your mind.

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