The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Michael Kiskis
Finding the Flow: Mark Twain, the River, and Me by Sharon McCoy
Mark Twain has more quotations he didn’t say attributed to him than any other person I’ve ever heard tell of. One of the most recent ones making the rounds of the Internet goes something like this:
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born . . . and the day you find out why. — Mark Twain”
Google this sentiment a few weeks ago, and you would have gotten hundreds of hits, all claiming that Mark Twain said it. Some of them add italics for the important words. Some of them omit the ellipses, which clearly are a modern marker for a pause, rather than an indication of anything left out. But hundreds of sites all agree on one thing: Mark Twain said it.
Go a little further back, and no one attributes it to him — mostly because he never would have said such a thing. He wouldn’t have believed in its truth, and if he did, he would have changed that word “important” to something profane and blasphemous.
But almost in spite of himself, Twain is one American writer that many people — and not just academics — have a personal stake in. He means something to them. And every time they find a sentiment that fits their preconception — whether bitingly funny, simply curmudgeonly, or fundamentally humane — the sentiment often gets attributed directly to him. Twain is a slippery figure, hard to see clearly in spite of extensive biographies and autobiographical writings, partly because he created a multifaceted character so many people still want to believe in.
“My Mark Twain.” “Our Mark Twain.” Who the hell is Mark Twain?
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”).
While scholars and critics are adept at sifting through quotations that Twain did not and would not have said, we often get just as stuck behind an idea of Twain that gets in the way of clear understanding. What I want to focus on here, though, is not a quotation attributed to Twain, but a notorious and often-quoted statement about Twain in a book by Ernest Hemingway. Mostly, I want to focus on it because it makes me crazy.
Even crazier than the idea that Twain would have written Hallmark sentiments.
Because it seems to me that so often the picture of Twain that people have in their minds gets in their way whenever this statement is brought up. And it has been brought up many times over the years, to make many arguments. The passage comes in the early part of Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. During a fairly sociable encounter in the relative wilds of Africa, Hemingway’s narrator pontifically tells his chance companion:
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Many scholars and critics, who otherwise have provocative and trenchant insights into Twain, Huck Finn, and literature in general, read this quotation in terms of their own desires and anxieties, rather than on its own merits. Hell, I probably quoted it myself in some dubious passage of my dissertation.
Some critics focus on the inflated praise of Twain as the foundation and pinnacle of American literature. Some focus on the phrase using a racial epithet as though part of Jim’s name (which Twain never does) or the racial epithet itself (which Twain used frequently and in multiplicitous, ambiguous, and ambivalent contexts).
Still others focus on the “cheating” part, arguing that Hemingway’s narrator’s praise of the novel includes significant criticism; to them, Hemingway means that the “real end” of the book should come in Chapter 31, when the Duke and the King take Jim away and sell him down the river, when Huck decides to “go to hell” to rescue him. These scholars and readers focus on the extended “evasion” sequence — in which Tom Sawyer plays grotesque romantic games with a grown black man’s freedom and terrorizes an entire village regardless of the increasingly feeble protests of his insecure white trash companion — as what Hemingway would characterize as “cheating.”
I mean, this is Hemingway, for heaven’s sake.
Why on earth would anyone who has ever read Hemingway’s books — any of his books, but especially, perhaps, To Have and Have Not — think that he would ever have any objection to the evasion sequence of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or think that he would characterize it as “cheating”? (If you have any doubts, you might enjoy Toni Morrison’s reading of To Have and Have Not in her book Playing in the Dark.)
Folks, Hemingway would have found the extended evasion sequence hilarious.
We can argue about whether he would actually “enjoy” it, especially given his dehumanizing appellation of Jim, or whether Hemingway would just find it so painfully true, so painfully American, that you must laugh. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that Hemingway would find the entire evasion sequence hilarious.
And it may or may not fit the Twain we each want him to be, but I bet he found the evasion sequence hilarious, too — though I would argue that he probably found at least some aspects of it painfully funny. (I am not immune. I have my ideas about Twain, too.) But of course he found it hilarious. Why else would he devote so much of the book to it?
Remember, this is the man who loved and played practical jokes his entire life, including jokes that could have had disastrous or dangerous consequences for other people. While Twain, for instance, enjoyed tweaking the prejudices of his New York City publishers and colleagues by bringing his African American butler George Griffin along and deferring to his opinion, Twain never once seemed to consider the very real danger this might put George in during the height of the lynching era. And he was not always reasonable to those he considered class inferiors or servants. Katy Leary, who worked for the Clemens family for decades and who in many ways idolized Twain, was still honest enough to tell tales on him — like the time he discovered a button missing on one of his shirts and responded by throwing his entire collection of clean shirts out his upper-story window onto the lawn.
In some ways, Twain is much more fun to read — and to read about — than he might have been to know. Livy didn’t call him “Youth” just in fondness.
But let’s go back to the quotation itself. Hemingway’s narrator says that if you read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “you must stop” where Jim “is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”
For some reason I cannot understand, most scholars and critics, including those whose work I love and admire, all seem to assume that this passage references the last third of the book, from Chapter 31, when the Duke and the King sell Jim down the river. After that, Huck goes to steal Jim out of slavery, Tom appears, and then the long “evasion” sequence begins.
But may I point out something here? In Chapter 31, there are no “boys.” There is just Huck. There is only one passage during which Jim is actually “stolen from the boys,” in the plural.
After the evasion and the long-delayed escape, when Tom is shot, Jim (in a dress) refuses to run and leave Tom wounded, perhaps to die. He, Huck, and Tom are recaptured by the townsfolk. There, the townsfolk, who want to lynch Jim, separate him “from the boys. This is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”
Again. This is Hemingway. Of course Twain cheated. And Hemingway recognized it.
Jim is saved from lynching only by a combination of four things:
- selfish self-preservation (the townspeople don’t want to have to repay his market value to his owner),
- dehumanizing, though intended as mildly positive testimony on his behalf (“He ain’t no bad nigger, gentlemen,” says the doctor),
- Huck’s terrified and ineffectual wishes that never translate to concrete actions (“I reckoned it warn’t best for me to mix in,” Huck says), and
- the unbelievable deus ex machina of Tom Sawyer regaining consciousness in the nick of time to confess to terrorizing the town and to announce that old Ms. Watson had inexplicably freed Jim in her will, so he’s not a slave any more anyway (by Missouri law, in any case–but they are not in Missouri).
In other words, “cheating.”
Because, really, removing the spectre of an owner who could legally force them to pay for Jim would simply take away the townspeople’s primary motivation not to lynch Jim. They have been terrified and humiliated. They want someone to pay.
But instead, it all works out “okay.” Cheating. The kind of cheating that humor allows for.
In a “serious” book, rather than a humorous book with intensely serious foundations, the ending would have been much different. Think about it. The book is finished and published in the 1880s. Reconstruction has ended and has mostly been dismantled, “home rule” is restored, horrific race riots are on the rise in Northern cities, and almost 1/4 of the Federal money to ensure fair elections is being spent in New York. Within a decade, lynchings in Clemens’s home state of Missouri would take on the nature of racial pogroms or purges — hanging, burning, or torturing a specific target, but also systematically clearing an entire county or several counties of any blacks whatsoever. Yet we’re supposed to believe that these slave-owning antebellum villagers would all chuckle and say, “Shucks, let’s all just let the free African American man who has all of our respect and the protection of the law go”?
Not on your Nellie.
Humor allows Twain both to point out and to back away from the extreme logical conclusion to which his scenario leads us. And humor allows us to face it or not, as we so choose. The power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be. To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh it off — if we so choose.
There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages. (Following the Equator)
And that one Twain really did say.
© Sharon D. McCoy 2 October 2012