Tag Archives: Huckleberry Finn

Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me nigger though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a nigger.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that nigger Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Niggers never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

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Roller Skating in a Buffalo Herd

He’s a nut. But he’s the most talented nut I’ve ever known. – Minnie Pearl

RogerMillerFeature

Roger Miller had no off switch.  In a career that took him from the dive bars of Lower Broad to the Broadway stage – amassing 11 Grammy Awards, a Tony, and his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame (1995) and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1973) – he was one of those live wires directly tapped in to the pulsating energy that holds the universe together, burning white hot bright and all too brief.  When asked, those who knew him universally remember his relentless spontaneity, genius and humor.

There is nothing spontaneous about Erick, Oklahoma. The topography surrounding Erick is broad and green and endless. It stretches out for miles in every direction without relief or intermission. This was the environment where the boisterous, explosive genius spent his formative years picking cotton on his family’s farm and escaping into his overly active imagination.

What I’d do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff… I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention.

Miller first began composing songs on the three-mile walks to his one-room country schoolhouse.  His older cousin married a local boy named Shelby who gave Miller his first guitar and, with it, his first taste of a life outside of Oklahoma. Shelby became better known as Sheb Wooley, most notably for his 1958 novelty record “The Purple People Eater” as well as dozens of film and television roles as a western character actor, including Rawhide and a memorable performance playing notorious murderer Frank Miller’s brother Ben in High Noon.

After a stint in the Army, Miller made his way to Nashville where he worked as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel and toured as a harmony singer with Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys to make ends meet. He was signed to a publishing deal and in 1958 several of his songs became hits with other artists. Ray Price took “Invitation to the Blues” to #3, Ernest Tubb hit with “Half A Mind,” Faron Young cut “That’s the Way I Feel” and Jim Reeves gave Miller his first #1 record with “Billy Bayou” all in that same year.

Miller was well on his way. But he longed to be a recording artist himself, and he blew through his songwriting draw most nights at Toostie’s Orchid Lounge.

The famed honky tonk in downtown Nashville is today a soulless shell of its former self. Tootsie’s was once ground zero for Continue reading →

If I Hear it Again, I Swear I’ll Scream: Hemingway, Huck Finn, and “Cheating”

See also:

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 “the Nigger Jim” (which Twain never used) or the word “nigger” 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. Continue reading →

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.