Sunday, November 5, 2017

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.

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