The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Michael Kiskis

Editor’s Note:

The post below was published in February 2011 by Michael Kiskis on his blog, Kiskis Log.  Dr. Kiskis passed away suddenly in May, a shock of great sadness to the community of Mark Twain and Humor Studies scholars who knew well both the insight of his scholarship and his passion for his work.

What I didn’t know about was his blog, which I discovered when John Bird posted a link on the Mark Twain Forum.  After reading the posts, I was struck not only by their insight, honesty, and humor, but also by a feeling that such writing—informal, yet academic—should be shared with other scholars.  Dr. Kiskis’s blog rekindled an idea I had been considering for several years, an online publication for humor scholars to post occasional pieces and to share their own blogs.

This essay, “The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is published in honor of Dr. Kiskis’s life and work, and for the part his work played in the genesis of the Humor in America blog.  I am reposting it with the kind permission of Michael’s wife, Ann.  I encourage you to read further in Michael’s blog and to see his website for more information on his career.  See also Michael’s other blog, Canonical Babbling.

–Tracy Wuster

The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Michael Kiskis

Part one

I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a 1981 seminar on Mark Twain during my opening semester of graduate school (I was 27 years old).  While I was a graduate student (and for some time later), I never worried or even knew that I might have a need to be worried about how to interpret or teach this novel.  I knew that Twain’s story contained problematic questions of identity and freedom, and I knew that there were long unresolved concerns related to race. But I never thought about whether Twain’s story was dangerous.  I was, after all, safely embedded in a hermetically sealed academic environment (not ivory tower, exactly; more like the Mad Hatter’s tea party).  I had no real experience with the clash of personal and political interests that dent the book or its readers as it passes into the non-academic world.  I looked atHuck as unquestionably canonical.  It was sacred; the question of banning the book was to me just outrageous (I was easily outraged at 27; come to think of it I am pretty easily outraged at 56).  Students — of all ages, of all races, of all ages — needed to read this book to understand better American individualism.  Why?  Because my professor told me so.  And he was one of the founding fathers of Twain studies.  I was taught that Huck was the great tale of an America coming of age, finding its moral compass, and seeking independence and joy while heading out to a territory.  Little did I know then that such a territory simply never existed.  Twain himself was ambivalent as he crafted the sequel — Huck and Tom Among the Indians — a tale that he never did complete once he was brought face to face with his own inability to posit an edenic west.  How the times they do change.
          As time passed, I read and I thought and I wrote and I taught.  My experiences with students (traditionally aged 18-22 year olds, distance learning students, adult returning students, corporate executives, graduate students, teachers during NEH summer programs) have driven me out of the shadow of post-world war two critical attempts to craft an American culture worthy of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 20th Century.  I have been pushed to consider troubling questions regarding the processes of critical interpretation and interpolation that haunt the history of our reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Is it the revolutionary book that critics, teachers, and cultural commentators insist that it is?   Does the story of Huck and Jim and Tom point to a new sophistication in race relations?  Has the book’s hyper-canonization (using Jonathan Arac’s description), based on the dreams of scholars and commentators, defined our reading and teaching?  Do the critics bear a responsibility for the myth that Huck sits at the heart of the American experience of race?  Should we be more circumspect in our efforts to sacralize the text?  The answers to these questions are no, no, yes, yes, and yes.  In the conventional world of Twain studies, those answers might prompt (at the very least) a letter to my mother to tell her that I do not play well with others.  I run with scissors.  I worry icons.
          This commentary grows out of a concern for the way Americanists have and continue to presentAdventures of Huckleberry Finn as a beacon of high-minded justice in our sometimes Polyanish, sometimes forbidding conversation about the relationship between literature and social understanding.  As I have become more uneasy about seeing literary study as an avenue toward moral training (it seems to me that methodology does not incite morality), it has become clear to me that for some reason Huckleberry Finn has become synonymous moral/character education. Originally banned in 1885 by the directors of The Concord MA Library for its lack of moral center, the book is now hailed as a manifesto of the moral conscience.  More problematic, I think, it has become a central text in discussions of American race relations.  When critics were told to avoid the Intentional Fallacy, they were never told not to practice it to construct a purely literary answer to social injustice.
          In Twain studies, one major voice in that debate belongs to Shelley Fisher Fishkin.  In Was Huck Black and Lighting Out for the Territory, Shelley has taken a lead role in drawing attention to Twain and race.  In her introduction to Was Huck Black, Shelley raises the literary and cultural stakes:
                        Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multi-
                        cultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength.
                        He appreciated the creative vitality of African-American
                        voices and exploited their potential in his art.  In the process
                        he helped teach his countrymen new lessons about the lyrical
                        and exuberant energy of vernacular speech, as well as about the
                        potential of satire and irony in the service of truth….
                                    …But there is something about Huckleberry Finn
                        that sets it off from Twain’s earlier work and makes it seem
                        less a continuation of the art he had been developing and more
                        of a quantum leap forward; its unrivalled place in both the
                        Twain canon and in the American literary canon relfects this
                        special status.  (5)
In the “epilogue” to Lighting Out, she offers a related observation on the value of Huck:
                        Twain’s book is a wake-up call, an entreaty to rethink,
                        reevaluate, and reformulate the terms by which one defines
                        both personal  and national identity, the terms by which one
                        understands a person or a culture as “good” or “evil,” a plea
                        to reexamine the hypocrisies we tolerate and the heinous
                        betrayals of hope we perpetuate — in his time and our own —
                        in the name of “business as usual.” (203)
I read this last comment as more relevant to Pudd’nhead Wilson, which, aesthetic flaws and all, carries a more genuine and unambiguous curse against hypocrisy.
          Shelley’s descriptors of Huck (“quantum leap,” “unrivalled,” “wake-up call,” “entreaty”) take us far beyond Henry Nash Smith’s and Bernard DeVoto’s (even Walter Blair’s) praise of the vernacular.  Smith and DeVoto praised the rustic voice, though it was a praise that perhaps led to condescension or worse a deliberate attempt to extoll the vernacular in literature to distract from the overt and practical politics of social change (a pat on the proletariat’s back keeps them quiet and feeling important).  Now we have turned to prize Twain’s treatment of race.  And we very quickly step over a line to move closer to an interpretation of Twain as guiding light — not only for a literary tradition but also for a transcendent realization of the potential to ease racial stress. One example:  in The Jim Dilemma:  Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Jocelyn Chadwick Joshua sees the movement toward that realization in these terms:
                        Adventures of Huckleberry Finn panoramically chronicles
                        the plight of the runaway male slave, the slave community,
                        the slave family, and the vision and indefatigable hope of this
                        American.  Against him is a South that is both proslavery,
                        the progenitor of Jim Crow, and hypocritical in its values.
                        More complexly, however, this chronicle is one whose
                        conclusion questions the readers and their notions of what
                        freedom means.  What does it cost?  Through Twain’s portrayal
                        of Jim and the other slaves, the African American slave emerges
                        without what Langston Hughes disparaged as the romantization of
                        the South and southern slavery. (xv)
Mid-twentieth century approaches to the novel focused on freedom — the freedom of the individual to separate and eventually to run away from a corrupt and “self” defeating society (James Cox’s emphasis on Twain’s satiric attack on a starched morality works very well here).  But a manumitted black adult male is at best an ambiguous symbol of morality’s triumph.  And “Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest,” is no statement of moral courage.  Unless you somehow want these to be.  Or need these to be.

Part two

The Civil Rights movement (Huck Finn was banned on racial grounds for the first time in 1955) and the more contemporary concern for Human Rights have pushed critics to find hope for racial transcendence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  But critics are also driven by a decidedly retro attempt to inflate literature into moral guide and Huckleberry Finn into a moral guidebook.  This is not new.  And it is also not likely to succeed.  There is precedent.  In Herman Melville’s Redburn (1849) there is a moment when the main character tries to navigate his way through London using his father’s worn guidebook.  It doesn’t work.  Melville’s narrator gives his young man a warning:
                        Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books
                        in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is
                        made up of guide-books….Every age makes its own guide-books,
                        and the old ones are used for waste paper.  But there is one
                        Holy Guide-Book, Wellingborough, that will never lead you astray,
                        if you but follow it aright; and some noble monuments that
                        remain, though the pyramids crumble. (151)
A decade earlier, Emerson said it differently:  “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.  The books of an older period will not fit this” (American Scholar, 55); and “Books are the best of things, well used; abused among the worst. What is the right use?  What is the one end which all means go to effect?  They are for nothing but to inspire” (American Scholar, 56).
          Jocelyn’s point about “readers and their notions of what freedom means” should Inspire us to consider the interpretive acts of Twain critics. The question is what do critics see in this book. And how do they translate what they see into the academic essay and book, into the interpretive custom (or to bow to Thomas Kuhn, the interpretive paradigm) that shapes a legacy for up and coming scholars and teachers.  In Twain’s time, Matthew Arnold described one of the functions of the critic as deeply spiritual:  “…[the critic’s] best spiritual work…is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things” (Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, 38).  Arnold has taken quite a beating during the late twentieth century; however, even those critics who claim to be good little post modernists who hold to the contingent values of interpretive communities or contextual readings just can’t seem to resist hearing in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a call for an Arnoldian ministry.  Critics want to see a lesson in racial tolerance because it fits a dream of the growing acceptance of the polyglot American scene; therefore, critics see the seeds of a racial tolerance in Huck.  They look too long and too hard to find “the absolute beauty and fitness of things” in a book that is horrific.  We are too unreflective as we practice close and interpretive reading.  We are too full of our “wee selves” as we deliver a sermon of racial tolerance with little understanding of how that message is received by our students or by the communities in which we live.  And we feel that somehow tolerance will come about simply because we say that it should.  Standing up against that vision of faith in Twain’s novel is kin to claiming oneself apostate and can result in a form of scholarly excommunication.  Too bad.
          So let me tell you what I think of Twain’s book.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a harsh and disturbing story.  The reality of slavery that hovers over a good part of the action contributes to that harshness, but it is neither the only nor, perhaps, the most compelling or oppressive custom that exists in this fictive world.  The custom most prized is the dominance of moral/ecclesiastic and civil law over any semblance of justice.  In service to the letter of the law, the two vigorous henchmen of Zeus — the belligerant and talkative Might and the ominously silent Violence — come from chaining Prometheus to his rock to ride herd over Huck’s river valley:  they drink with Pap Finn; prime Huck’s fear to the point he accepts patricide as a way out; stoke the hate between the Grangerfords and Shephardsons; whet the greed and lechery of the Duke and the King; and instigate the lynch mob that faces Sherburn and the posse (a clear hint of the Klu Klux Klan) that chains and returns Jim to the Phelps farm.   They sew alienation and exploitation and reap a full harvest.  With Huck we stand in a helpless awe as they usher the deadly sins across this stage:  Pride, Covetousness, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery. They feast on meager pickings.  The fight is so vicious because the stakes are so very small. And Huck and Jim only momentarily escape with their lives.
          All told, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not about freedom and independence.  It is about menace and how the combined threat of Might and Violence drives two isolated and alone and marginalized human beings into a fragile mutual protection pact.  Neither Huck nor Jim is able to exert real and lasting influence over his life:  the white boy seared by poverty and abuse and the black man forced into flight by the threat of being sold are clearly not in a position to consider independence viable.  Given their life experience, it’s likely that neither boy nor man would be able to conceptualize freedom (Huck’s definition is always freedom from never freedom to; Jim has little concept of freedom apart from a vague sense of geography and a wisp of a possibility of being with his family).  What they can conceptualize is a temporary rest from pain, a fleeting moment of comfort.  Rather than the great elegy for American individualism and unchained movement, Huck’s story emphasizes the destructiveness of corporate thought and the evil within a social system that works to pit the least powerful (Pap Finn as white trash; the slave community) against each other to assure the dominance of the law and those who adhere to it. And of those who gain social standing or profit.
          Truth be told, a great deal of criticism of Huckleberry Finn is closer to religious fever than open-eyed astonishment at the realism at the heart of the tale (and, yes, I am very aware of the irony in my saying this at the end of this paper in this environment, especially after the tone of certain of my earlier remarks).  Racism is only one form of prejudice described in Huck’s story.  As readers and critics, we should not discount the images of domestic abuse and alcoholism or desperate and soul-sick loneliness; nor should we slight the experience and knowledge of those behaviors and emotions that students bring to their reading.  Throw-away children are not only found among the poorest of our society.   Neither are throw-away adults.  Many of our students read Huck’s opening monologue in chapter one and hear their own, or a friend’s, or a family member’s voice.  Many of us do too.  Sometimes we hear our own.  So we turn from that echo to safer interpretations that rely on highly specialized interpretive strategies or esoteric knowledge.
          What does it take to re-acquaint ourselves with the realism within the story of this one boy and this one man.  I think that we need to be more willing to let the story wash over us, to give ourselves over to the tale rather than force a meaning because we have been groomed in the practice of a literary criticism that prizes tradition and precedent over innovation.  Despite our studied iconoclasm, academics are notorious for staking out a critical line shaped by earlier work.  We may question, but we question within the very restrictive protocols of academic debate.  Perhaps it’s time now to take a collective breath and try to consider whether modern and contemporary critics have traded in their love for the real and the understanding of the stakes of genuine political action for tweed and gabardine and denim and for a Promethean hope in racial understanding by way of a few easy months on a raft.  Epiphanies are not that easily found (god knows that I have tried).  A borderline literate kid is not necessarily the messiah.

(c) 2011, Michael Kiskis, Ann Cady

3 responses

  1. […] Even scholars and critics are not immune to this trend, wanting Mark Twain to be somebody in particular, or to mean something in particular. (An early re-blogging on Humor in America addressed one aspect of this topic, in Michael Kiskis’s “The Critics Dream Mark Twain”). […]

  2. […] of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago.  Michael Kiskis’s The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also helped launch our site.  Both pieces offer insight into the cultural roles of American […]

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