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...

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