Tag Archives: Huck Finn

Finding the Flow: Mark Twain, the River, and Me

While writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain had some trouble finding his flow.  The manuscript was clearly important to him, and clearly troubling.   His early mentions of it in letters are ecstatic — the writing was moving swiftly and clearly.  But soon he hit snags.  He ended up putting the manuscript away several times and writing three other books before it was finished.  One of these books, Life on the Mississippi, has clear ties to Huck, but there are several significant scenes in his European travel “buddy” book,  A Tramp Abroad, that also resonate strongly with his most famous novel.  One of the funniest, and one of my favorites, involves crashing a raft.

Until this past Sunday, I had never really appreciated, except in a distant and intellectual way, Twain’s fascination with rivers.  Even though I’ve been kayaking numerous times, and I’ve always had fun, I’ve never before tackled it with such a strong sense of my own mortality, the inscrutable flow of the current, and the exhilarating and hilarious terror of crashing.  And now, frankly, I find myself even more puzzled by readings of the novel that focus on the idyll of the river and see the tension and the terror coming solely from the society’s intrusions on that peace.

A river, really, is a fucking scary place.

Those moments of calm, drifting slowly along with the current, fill you with the delusion that you understand the flow, that you’ve surrendered to it, that it will in some way take care of you.

What utter horseshit.

The river is a powerful and inexorable force, utterly oblivious to your puny self, and it is best that you never forget that — at least while you’re actually still in its reach.  It is just as happy to have you smash into a boulder as it is to have you flow gently and peacefully in its lullaby.

WaterfallSunday was a lovely, lovely day.  As I embarked on the annual Mother’s Day “Broads on the Broad River” trip, I remember thinking that it could not be more idyllic.  The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, a constant breeze flowing; the company, of the best sort.  I let myself go with the flow of the current, looking for the arrows in the water that mark the safe passages between the rocks in the rapids, floating with exhilaration when I hit them just right and shot through.  And I laughed, too, when I missed the sweet spot and bumped over the rocks instead.  The first small waterfall, pictured here, was easy this year, and I grew cocky as I made it through without dumping.  The even smaller waterfall downriver, though — one that I wasn’t expecting — was another story.

Heavy rainfall had changed the river that I thought I remembered.  Our group had gotten spread out, and I learned of the second waterfall only when I saw a distant friend ahead suddenly disappear.  Her head reappeared downriver, and I marked the spot I thought I had seen her navigate the hazard.

Boy, was I wrong.

Only when I was on the crest did I realize how poorly I’d chosen my spot.  Looming right in front of me with remarkable insouciance was a gigantic fucking boulder, lying crosswise, right in my path.  I turned the kayak as fast as I could, to try to shoot the narrow space between the bottom of the fall and the rock, congratulating myself when I succeeded.

Dumb.

As soon as I shot out of the ironic shelter of that rock, the full force of the river hit the kayak broadside, throwing me and all of what Huck would call my “traps” into the current.  I got my head above water, and ducked again just in time to keep from getting brained by my own overturned boat, maniacally spinning its own dance in the current.

RaftTA1r

“A Deep and Tranquil Ecstasy”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t my life that passed before my eyes at that moment, it was this picture from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.  (Twain scholars are truly weird people.)  Here, the two friends sit blithely on their raft, with umbrellas to protect them from the sun, bathing their feet in the cooling water, and there is Sam, smoking away, like nothing will ever go wrong.  But to me, now, it seems that there is a pensive gleam in his eyes, absent from his friend’s blank and vacuously smiling face.

As a child, Sam almost drowned in the Mississippi river numerous times.  His brother Henry died on it, as did countless others he knew, and the slave trade was active up and down its waters.  Mark Twain could have had no illusions about the ephemeral nature of the river’s idyll, whether the inevitable disruptions came from man or from the oblivious beast of the river itself.  He had to be fully aware of the inevitability of the crash, of one’s helplessness in the current, of the hubris and strength with which we go against the current for a time or mistakenly believe we actually have control.   Or peace.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the raft crash comes at a turning point in the novel.  It is abrupt and terrifying, and it comes almost right after Huck has realized at last the magnitude of the crime he is committing by traveling with Jim.  Further, he realizes at last that Jim has children of his own and an agenda of his own beyond helping this young white ragamuffin escape his father.  But even then, Huck protects Jim from some slave catchers by telling them a lie, because Jim has praised him for being the only friend he has now, and for being “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim” (124).   But fog, the river, and a careless steamboat pilot result in a violent crash that separates them and changes the course of the novel.

In the complementary raft-crash scene of A Tramp Abroad, however, the moment is brief and fleeting — a minor but significant incident in the course of the novel.  Here, in chapter nineteen, Twain’s narrator revels in his hubris and takes exuberant credit for the crash: Continue reading →

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Teaching Humor with Multicultural Texts; Teaching Multiculturalism with Humor

Understanding humor is all about understanding context — often about understanding shifting contexts.  The more you know about the different contexts in the text or performance, the deeper (and sometimes the more painful) your laughter — especially, sometimes, when you ruefully recognize yourself or people you know well as a part of the complex target of a joke.  Of course, if the joke cuts too deep, too close, or you feel it misrepresents too much, you may “get” the joke, but not find it funny at all.

Which is why I tell students in my multicultural humor courses that if they are not offended at least once during the semester, they are not paying attention.

But, I continue, they should not consider this as a negative thing, but as an opportunity.  An opportunity to learn more about themselves and others.  An opportunity for self-examination, societal examination, historical understanding, and growth.  A chance to learn that before you take offense, you should make sure you fully understand the joke and its (usually) limited target.  Jokes with broad targets are rarely funny — it is as we understand the subtleties and nuances of the defined target that we truly understand the joke.  Own only what truly belongs to you, I tell them — don’t just assume that the joke is talking about you.

Teaching humor with an deliberate awareness of multicultural contexts, teaching humor that comes from a variety of cultural groups, is a great way of digging into the way context affects humor.  It is also a great way to explore the different ways people use humor, what humor means to them, how humor functions as a part of one’s world view, how humor affects the way people deal with each other.  Teaching humor with that deliberate awareness of multicultural humor and context helps us to see subtleties that we might otherwise miss with a singleminded focus, or a focus on humor that discounts cultural differences and similarities as significant factors.  Because teaching American humor usually means at least some consideration of Mark Twain, we can use Huck Finn as a quick example.  If we consider Twain’s humor there from the limited perspective only of a white male, we miss the ways in which Jim uses humor to negotiate position and authority with Huck, or the way Jack uses exasperated humor in order to maintain plausible deniability (and the way Huck sees and points out Jack’s intelligence, but completely misses the humor).  And we miss the opportunity to have the difficult discussion about how much Twain really understood and how much he unselfconsciously portrayed.

And how much richer our understanding of the period as a whole, and American uses of humor in general, if we read humor from Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, Alexander Posey, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Milton Oskison, E. Pauline Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others?

Humor can also open doors for us if multicultural literature is our teaching focus.  Often, when we think of multiculturalism, we are trained to think in terms of “tolerance” or “tolerating differences.”  And yet, to stop with “tolerance” can actually serve to increase social and cultural divisiveness.  The focus on “tolerance” assumes that something different must be tolerated rather than celebrated.  Humor is one way that many cultures attempt to cross boundaries, to understand and celebrate what makes each community unique.  At the same time, the ambiguity of humor and its intended audience can expose inequities and inconsistencies, both within the community and in its relation to other communities or to society at large.  We laugh at ourselves, at each other, and with each other: each interaction presents its own risks and raises its own set of questions.  It is a risky endeavor, not one for the faint at heart, but the potential rewards are strong.

Not least of all, from my perspective, is that teaching humor with multicultural texts and teaching multicultural texts that utilize humor are great ways to broaden my own horizons and to teach my students research methods.  I cannot pretend that I understand all cultural and historical references in the texts we read together, and I do not.  I openly invite — and require — students to engage in primary source research, in order to understand the cultural contexts and specific references in the texts.  And I share my own findings with them.  This means that each time I teach a text, I learn something new.

What better reason to teach? Continue reading →