Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nature and Society: N. Pod on Huck Finnn

The New York Times, December 6, 1959


by Norman Podhoretz

(Mr. Podhoretz, a New York editor and fiction critic, first read Mark Twain at the age of 8 or 9, when the works arrived at his home, a volume at a time, as a bonus for a newspaper subscription.)

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted," wrote Mark Twain in a notice at the head of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"; "persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of "Huckleberry Finn," and by now the number of candidates for prosecution, banishment and shooting must be very large indeed - far greater than Mark Twain could ever have anticipated. No other American novel (with the possible exception of "Moby Dick") has been so thoroughly ransacked for motives and morals, so lovingly examined, so jealously claimed as an ally in so many different polemical campaigns.

In the early years of the century, Van Wyck Brooks (who had not yet become the leading patriot of American culture) cited it in support of his contention that the crudity of life in the West had combined with the emasculating gentility of the East to cripple the genius of Mark Twain and prevent his proper development as an artist. Some time later, Bernard de Voto, rushing to the defense of the West, pointed to "Huckleberry Finn" itself to refute Brooks, and far from indicting American life for the destruction of Mark Twain, gave it full credit for having produced and nourished him.

More recently, the issue has shifted to deeper ground, and "Huckleberry Finn" is now read as a key to the very essence of the American imagination, a central document of our most primitive impulses. A few years ago, Leslie Fiedler gained a greater degree of notoriety than it is usually given to literary critics to achieve by suggesting that the relation between Huck and Jim expresses the homosexual attraction toward Negroes which Mr. Fiedler discovered hidden in the furthest recesses of the American unconscious. (It is amusing to speculate on the punishment Mark Twain might have thought up for this kind of motive hunting had he been prescient enough to know that it would some day come into fashion.)

Other contemporary critics, more restrained than Mr. Fiedler though hardly less exuberant, have spoken of Huck as an archetype or a mythic figure who embodies the nostalgia for innocence and the fantasy of flight from maturity that are said to be so characteristic of the American soul.

Sooner or later, it seems, all discussions of "Huckleberry Finn" turn into discussions of America - and with good reason. Mark Twain was the quintessential American writer, quintessential because he was more or less untutored - "a natural," as Wright Morris puts it, "who learned to write the way a river pilot learns the feel of a channel." And Richard Chase, in his remarkable book on the American novel, observes that "Huckleberry Finn" is constantly engaged in an "exorcism of false forms" through parody and burlesque, and that the chief exorcism performed by the novel is done upon "European culture itself."

Why did Mark Twain find it necessary to exorcise European culture? Partly, of course, in order to liberate himself from the grip of an approved literary style that bore no relation to living American speech, but also, in my opinion, because what he had to say about life could not have been said by a writer whose attitudes had been molded by the European sense of things.

Someone once quipped that the whole of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, and it might be remarked with equal justice that the whole of European literature is a commentary on the first sentence of Aristotle's "Politics." Man, says European literature in a thousand different ways and in tones ranging from dismay to jubilation - man is by nature a social animal. To conceive of the individual as existing apart from society is an illusion or at best a convenient fiction; there is no State of Nature and there never was one. It was this idea more than anything else, I believe, that Mark Twain was trying to exorcise in "Huckleberry Finn." He was asserting through the image of life on the raft that the State of Nature is a reality, and he was asserting through the character of Huck that the distinction between the individual and society is a true distinction and a necessary one.

Lionel Trilling, in his brilliant introduction to "Huckleberry Finn," takes rather a different view of the matter. Mr. Trilling, of course, recognizes that the novel is built on an opposition between nature and society, but he cautions us against thinking of that opposition as absolute. Huck, he tells us, "is involved in civilization up to his ears," and his flight from society "is but his way of reaching what society ideally dreams of for itself." This interpretation, I should say, is itself in need of exorcism, for it is an attempt to assimilate "Huckleberry Finn" into what I have characterized as the European sense of things.

Surely the fact that Huck "has not run away from Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas and his brutal father to a completely individualistic liberty" only proves that Mark Twain's idea of the State of Nature is not Freud's or Hobbes'. And surely the fact that "responsibility is the very essence of Huck's character" only proves that Mark Twain differs from Mr. Trilling in his view of what belongs to nature and what to civilization. The truth is that all the virtues civilization claims for itself (and which Mr. Trilling claims for it) - responsibility, love, loyalty, generosity and so on - are seen in "Huckleberry Finn" as properties of the State of Nature. Civilization, to be sure, has usurped credit for them, but what else does this novel demonstrate over and over again if not that civilization is really their mortal enemy?

No more devastating comment has ever been made on the fraudulent pretensions of civilization than the great scene in which Huck struggle with himself over the question of whether to turn Jim back to Miss Watson. Huck, of course, is not consciously a rebel against the values of his society, and he never doubts that he has done wrong in helping a runaway slave to escape. After he discovers that the Duke and the King have sold Jim back into captivity, he decides that the hand of Providence has slapped him in the face, "letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm." He tries to console himself with the reflection that "I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame," but he is too honest to accept this as an adequate excuse, and finally he scrawls a note to Miss Watson telling her where she can find Jim.

The passage that follows the note is one of the supreme moments in all of literature: "I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking - thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time; in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind."

And he goes on remembering details of their voyage down the river together, until his glance falls on the note he has just written to Miss Watson. "It was a close place, I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' - and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.

We must not be misled by the humor of the concluding lines into supposing that Huck's belief in his own damnation is perfunctory or insincere. Mark Twain is using the device of comic exaggeration - reaching all the way down into hell - in order to make the contrast between the "civilized" values and Huck's natural feelings as stark as he possibly can.

The contempt for civilization that breathes through every page of "Huckleberry Finn" - both the particular civilization Mark Twain was writing about and civilization in general - is only matched in intensity by the reverence for nature embodied in the character of Huck and in the image of the river. The Mississippi, as Mr. Trilling rightly observes, is a god in this novel, and those who attune themselves to its ways are able to share in its power, its vitality and its beauty. There is also danger in the river and destruction and loneliness, for the god has his sullen moods and refuses to be placated. But though the river can maim and kill, it cannot do what society invariably does; it cannot warp a man's feelings into ugly and unnatural shapes, and it cannot distort the clarity of his vision of the truth.

Now that I have succeeded in adding myself to the violators of Mark Twain's ordinance against finding motives in "Huckleberry Finn," I might as well follow Huck's example and go the whole hog in wickedness by looking for a moral, too. The moral, I think, will be obvious to anyone who feels the sharpness of the opposition Mark Twain set up between nature and society. "Huckleberry Finn" is a celebration of the instinctive promptings of the individual against the conditioned self, and a refutation of the heretical idea that reality can be equated with any given set of historical circumstances. This heresy has become even more powerful today than it was seventy-five years ago, and there can e no better protection against the morality of "adjustment" than Mark Twain's uncompromising, hard-headed insistence on the distinction between nature and society.

For that matter, it might be a good idea to pass a law requiring social workers, guidance counselors and all the members of certain schools of psychoanalysis to read "Huckleberry Finn" at least once a year. There is no telling what might happen if the proponents of adjustment were forced into periodic contemplation of a character who is more civilized than his mentors and more mature than his elders precisely by virtue of his refusal to submit to their notion of what is necessary, "natural" and real.

No One Liked It But the Readers

It is one of the smaller ironies of English literature that "Huckleberry Finn," the most American of American books, was first published abroad; by the house of Chatto & Windus of England seventy-five years ago today: Dec. 6, 1884. Even the German edition, issued by Tauchnitz, preceded American publication, and Canadians too had a chance to read the book before American readers. It was finally issued here in early March, 1885. For a volume that has, in recent decades, been almost obscured by critiques, the first critical reactions ranged from silence to scorn.

Most newspapers, including The [New York] Times, ignored the book. Those journals that reviewed it flayed it. New England led the chorus, but other parts of the country contributed their mite. The Concord Library banned the book, characterizing is as "the veriest trash." The Boston Transcript thought the action of the Concord Library superfluous. After sampling an extract in The Century magazine, said that newspaper, "nobody wants to read it." But it was The Springfield Republican that summed up the matter most austerely. "The trouble with Mr. Clemens," said the S. R., "is that he has no reliable sense of propriety." The only bright spot in the whole operation were the readers - 40,000 of them before publication. A few weeks later that figure had risen to 50,000.

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