Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Reading of Huck Finn


I was thinking about Huck Finn, having finished reading it and trying to work out some seeming ambivalence about it. A brief exchange with a friend, a former professor of American literature, caused me to try to put my thoughts together. In so doing I thought past my seeming ambivalence.


....Finished Huck Finn and am left with a conflicted, mixed-feelings critical self that I’m trying to work out.

It may be that the Phelps part of the novel is the first instance of black humour in U.S. literature.


Added note, here’s a view of black humour I agree with: ...the presentation of tragic, distressing, or morbid situations in humorous terms; humour that is ironic, cynical, or dry; gallows humour...


...OK, but then it is two books, not one....


...No, or at least no not necessarily.

Huck is always sensitive to his environment: he settles in up to a point wherever he is, including with his father till the beatings become too much.

He finds a temporary idyll on the raft with Jim right after the finale of the deadly family feud and before infection by the Duke and the King.

The pitiless, savage critique of society is relentless through the novel and it encompasses those who might seem good. 

So the Phelpses are “good Christians,” well meaning within their limits, loving of family, pillars of a kind of their community, God fearing to be sure, but they harbour slaves, keep Jim chained up, perceive him as chattel, and seek the “right way” to deal with him as a piece of property. 

Tom Sawyer is of the Phelpses, of the society that finds its true meaning in deathward ways, in the portrayal of the deadly, meaningless family feud, in the portrayal of Sherburn staring down and dismissing the would be lynchers even after his cold blooded murder of the drunken fool Boggs, and in its maintaining slavery, which by the time the novel was published, mid eighteen eighties, Clemens adamantly excoriated. 

The psychological portrayal of Huck is infinitely brilliantly acute. Bonded with Jim and isolated from society with him, his best humane instincts come out, though at constant war with how he has been socially formed. As Clemens wrote:

...It shows that that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it....

Clemens conveys with acute intuition that tension between Huck’s best instincts and his social formation. So, for example, not long after getting off the raft and finding the Phelps homestead to free Jim, and in the process of assuming the identity of Tom Sawyer, Huck, contriving to explain his delay in arriving, speaks of an accident on the steamer and answering whether anyone was killed says, slight paraphrase, “No’m killed a nigger.” 

Idyll gone, social formation makes its claim. And so Huck again falls under the pernicious sway of Tom Sawyer and is again ensconced, very comfortably, in the society Clemens in the novel reviles, the revulsion including that which appears nice and civilized and God fearing. 

We have for example the scabrous detail of Uncle Silas Phelps going to Jim, enchained, everyday to read the Bible to him. Tom’s wild and unknowingly evil plan to free an already free Jim is presented in bitter burlesque to pound home with relentless detail  the bottomlessly absurd cruelty of its errancy and to fulfill an intent of black humour, which is to expose to readers enjoying it, and to measure, their own deformed sensibilities.

The engine of irony, satire, sarcasm and black humour through the entirety of the novel is the abomination of slavery and racism. The reduction of the nobility of Huck and Jim at novel’s end is the apotheosis of that abomination. It devastates the society it portrays, a society that is a continuum from its degenerate dregs, its racist dregs, its murderous dregs, its inhumane dehumanizing dregs to its ostensible respectability. It’s scabrous that Miss Watson in her Will gives Jim his freedom. It may seem a good hearted act. But what underlies it and pillories it is society’s unrecognized evil in her owning him.

The loveliness of life on the raft is a temporary and magnificent dream of freedom and is a naked innocence—about all of which not enough can be said; it’s a peak of world literature—which can only have meaning isolated, apart from the dead land. Huck even within Tom’s sway at the end has some inchoate sense of this born of his experience when he declares: 

...But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

More On Huck Finn In Approaching Its Last Part


More on Huck Finn for a sec.

In Chapter 32, Huckleberry winds up at the Phelps’s farm and takes on the identity of, first off, Tom, then in the forgivable crystallization of hard-to-believe fictional coincidence, Tom Sawyer. He keeps saying it’s easy to be Tom Sawyer and on learning that he is to be Tom Sawyer, Huck says, mild paraphrase, “I was glad to know who I am.” The references to identity are many in the Chapter.

My general idea is that all works of literature involve, maybe entail, a search for self, some searches more explicit than others. That idea is manifest in this novel. As Huck tries on various identities, as he symbolically keeps dying and arising anew, as he sheds what he tries on, as he must needs work past the likes of a Tom Sawyer to become free, as the themes of death and freedom thread through Huck Finn, so now, at the Phelps’s in planning and scheming wth Tom to free Jim, Huck’s smack in the middle of that working-past effort.

So I approach the last part of Huck Finn to test my reaction to it, to try to see whether, as has been said a lot, it comprises a cruel and disappointing anti climax after the idyllic heights Huck and Jim reach for a time or whether I can see in it scabrous indictment of what Huck comes finally to reject that is both thematically coherent and that doesn’t pit that thematic coherence against a feeling of frustration and let down, or, in a word or two, emotional incoherence.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Ho Hum


I just finished John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, which I found underwhelming.

It a made a big splash in its time, 1959 and right after but I don’t see much, not anything really, about it now.

My sense is that its literary legs proved shakier than might have been thought. It seems to have faded away.

As I say, I found it meh, and diffuse, yeah diffuse, that’s the word that comes to my mind about it, too spread out, not that much that was that affecting. But hey, that’s just me.

A Mere Few Words On Huck Finn


On Huck Finn:

I’m thinking that Huck and Jim, on finding each after the terrible Grangerford Shepherdson climax of violence, reach innocent, idyllic heights on the raft, away from the dead land:

...It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many....

But then the dead lands brings them “Bilgewater” and the Dauphin and paradise is lost.

I can say this without a doubt: Huckleberry Finn is my favorite character in literature. I’m unable to put into words my sheer pleasure in hearing him talk to me.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On Whether To Teach Huck Finn As Written Or At All


Another thing about Huck Finn: that’s whether there’s a need to not teach the book or at a minimum whether “nigger”should be excised and replaced by (say) “slave.”

Of course I understand how the many times “nigger”appears and how blacks are portrayed are extremely offensive or can be. 

But should for that reason this masterpiece of world literature not be taught or not taught as written by Twain? 

I can see the argument for it not being taught or “nigger” bowdlerized. 

But in my judgment the argument is wrong and misses how precisely studying Huck Finn is at the essence of what it means to be liberally educated. 

For if there ever was an American great work of fiction that savages systemic racism, scorns the status of slavery, and indicts viciously and excoriates with literary finesse and fury too the society that enables and perpetuates these poisons, it’s Huck Finn. The novel, in one way of putting it, traces with deep and pervasive irony Huck’s emergence from the impact of these poisons to come to their redemptive rejection. 

So readers of all cultures and races and beliefs as they read, study and are taught Huck Finn should, I’d think, emerge from their initial shock from, repugnance with, and understandable reflexive reaction against the novel with a deeper, educated consciousness and appreciation of Huck’s emergence and what it means thematically. 

I’d think that with that journey from book’s beginning to its end, with that education out of first and maybe reflexive reactions and presumptions with all the stress and discomfort they may well cause we have a microcosm for what a liberal ought do among other things. And in this particular journey, Huck’s vernacular, his attitudes, the way black slaves are depicted are but a huge aspect of the novel’s brilliance and are essential thematically. For they depict with concrete,  pungent and realistic brilliance Huck’s world and they set with equal brilliance and psychological acuity the terms of from what he emerges. In this they amplify the power of that emergence. 

So in my view that’s what’s to be gained from studying and teaching the novel as written and what’s to be lost by not. The issue seems to me a test case for what a liberal education ought to be. 

In the same way, Jewish, I welcome the teaching of (say) The Merchant of Venice even as Shylock falls from his thundering Old Testament heights to being sent away like a defeated and servile dog or David Copperhead/Field, whatever, even as Fagan as a figure of looming effeminate unreserved evil gets no redemption and effectively and obnoxiously embodies Dickens’s anti semitism. And I welcome them not as in Huck Finn, where a redemptive vision emerges, but because like Huck Finn they are world class works of literature whose power overwhelms their anti semitism in deciding whether they should be taught.

Further On Rereading Huck Finn


On rereading Huck Finn

I’m rereading Huck Finn. I’m at the start of the Grangerford Shepherdson feud.

I’m thinking about everything as I go.

Among much, much else, I’m struck by Huck’s native wit, by how well he knows natural signs, by how cunning, inventive and shrewd he is, by how shrewd and intuitive a judge he is of human nature, by his practical wisdom, by how intensely reflective and thoughtful he is, by how deeply and unflinchingly honest he is with himself, how he chews and chews over issues and what troubles him till he works out some balance among his thoughts, his judgments, his emotions and his conscience, how in all that he is caught between elusive human truths of what’s basically right and wrong, mostly coming from Jim and his growing-deeper relationship with him, and the conventions that have formed him. 

I’m struck too by how Tom Sawyer as the embodiment of confinement by convention with his derivative false escapes from them has Huck in his power and how Huck, modest and learning about himself and the world, underestimates himself by giving Tom Sawyer too much sway over him. And I’m struck by how when Huck expresses his intense need to get away from his degenerate father he says with seeming equal urgency that he must as well get away from life with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson.

One thing I’ve been particularly turning over in my mind is Huck’s and Jim’s disagreement over Solomon’s reputed great wisdom, which is Huck’s view, and over why Frenchman don’t speak English.

Needless to say, there are many ironies running through both disagreements. Huck, 13 and somewhat educated, relies on conventional wisdom, scriptural authority and a certain amount of credentialism, Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas, and offers the example of Solomon proposing to slice a disputed over child in half to settle who is its actual parent. 

Jim argues that Solomon must have too many children such that one less means little and that what he ought to have done is go around and check with witnesses, those in the know, as to whom is the true parent. 

So Jim misses the more abstract point, as Huck complains he does, and Huck can see neither the virtue nor force of Jim’s literal and practical reasoning and dismisses Jim’s argument by saying in effect that being black he’s some form of lesser being who just can’t be reasoned with. 

Huck also argues that just as (say) cats and dogs “speak” differently so do Englishmen and Frenchmen. Jim replies, through some tough cross examination type questioning of Huck, that cats aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t cats but that Englishmen and Frenchmen are men and, so, should speak the same language.  Huck then essentially resorts to the same dismissal of Jim’s argument. 

In these exchanges, I don’t think all wisdom lies with Jim, though plenty of it does. Each is missing something of what the other has. Huck misses Jim’s plain stated and wise literalism that makes so much practical and elemental sense and Jim misses such learning as Huck has and being able to see past what is literally so.

So there is I think a complex epistemological theme, if that’s not too grand to say, working through the novel. It can’t be, I shouldn’t think, that through the disagreement over all men speaking the same Twain means to suggest, rather piously, that we all are brothers and sisters and language differences drive that simple truth apart. That’s a hopelessly abstracted and naive utopian view that in essence denies the force and richness of culture. 

I’d argue that what undermines any notion that Twain entertains this simple minded piety are the amazing richness of human difference and the near to infinite and amazing variety of human particularity that make up the novel as they come to be seen through Huck’s growing discernment and expression in narration. That all is a richness simply beyond the likes of Jim, taking nothing away from him since the force of his elemental truths and his wise and common decency stand shoulder to shoulder with all the more somewhat abstract and symbolic expanses of the world that emerge from Huck.

A long time ago I argued—against the then prevailing critical consensus that the novel’s final part is flawed in so reducing Jim given his natural aristocracy and freedom on the raft to the service of one more of Tom Sawyer’s at play schemes—that the last portion isn't  flawed and that an intended scabrous and savage indictment flows from it. 

I then over the years gave up that seeming interpretive ghost and tended to fall into the consensus view. Now I hear the music of my old idea playing softly but with increasing pitch as I reread. 

We’ll see. 

Or at least I’ll see.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Narrow Note On The Meaning Of Sexual Harassment


A question on the meaning of sexual harassment:

Here’s a typical definition of it plucked from no site in particular on the web:

.... Definition of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when either:

The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual's employment, education, living environment or participation in a University community.

The acceptance or refusal of such conduct is used as the basis or a factor in decisions affecting an individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.

The conduct unreasonably impacts an individual's employment or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community....

My question turns on the phrase “when either” in the third line of the definition and is, to be precise, why so limit it? 

It’s a phrase of limitation, saying in effect the general opening definition ONLY occurs “when either....

I understand that in certain areas of the law “sexual harassment” is a term of art and it may be that the quoted  definition, which doesn’t seem atypical of Internet definitions, at least from a quick search, tries to incorporate into a general definition those specific instances.

But I’d think an improved definition would omit “when either” and replace it with “examples of which include...”