'Huck Finn's America' takes a fresh look at a masterwork

What does Mark Twain’s cherished — and contentious — work of fiction teach us about about the nation it still fascinates?

Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece By Andrew Levy Simon & Schuster 368 pp.

There is a tendency among modern scholars to choose ever-narrower and more esoteric lines of inquiry – what the hero of Kingsley Amis’s "Lucky Jim" disingenuously called strangely neglected topics – in pursuit of novelty or originality. No matter how great a work may be, the thinking goes, it is not inexhaustible. This attitude is so prevalent that one is shocked to see a book as ambitious in subject and depth as Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece, which attempts nothing less than a radical reassessment of how America’s most famous book should be read. Whether it succeeds or not is almost beside the point. Levy’s book reminds us that the exegesis of this American scripture, which Hemingway considered the wellspring of our literature, is never complete and never final.

Twain warned, with a bushy-browed wink, that “[p]ersons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” He knew what a complex and unruly thing he had wrought, and so does Levy, who disdains the habit of treating "Huckleberry Finn" as either an adventure story or a parable of race relations. Granted, most readers regard it as a seamless fusion of both, but Levy maintains that even this is too simplistic and too limiting a way of looking at it. Read with its historical context in mind, "Huckleberry Finn" comes off as more concerned with childhood than with race. Read as Levy believes it should be, it reveals itself as  “the great book about American forgetfulness.”

By “forgetfulness,” Levy, a professor at Butler University who has spent years reading, teaching, and researching Twain and his times – and whose notes and bibliography take up a third of "Huck Finn’s America" – means cultural and historical amnesia, which stand in the way of our seeing just how much present-day America has in common with the period that produced Twain’s masterpiece. We are “stuck,” Levy says, rehearsing the same anxieties and arguments about childhood and childrearing that preoccupied early readers of "Huckleberry Finn". Though we preen ourselves on the evolution of our racial attitudes, conditions obtain for many present-day African Americans that look like anything but progress. We exist, Twain’s 130-year-old book insists, in a “land of echoes,” where both nostalgia and progress are by and large illusory, and “culture doesn’t always go forward but sideways.”

The biographical focus of "Huck Finn’s America" is on the “Twins of Genius” tour by Twain and the Louisiana writer George Washington Cable in 1884, which Levy nominates for the honor of “most singular, most successful book tour ever.” Both Cable and Twain performed acts of ethnic, racial, and class ventriloquism – Irish and Creole, including slave songs, in Cable’s case, and German and African American in Twain’s. Cable was, in Levy’s telling, the more explicitly antiracist of the two by a country mile; his essay “The Freedman’s Case in Equity,” published in 1885, made him innumerable enemies but also shifted the spotlight for a time away from Twain. “Reporters who previously would have been knocking on Twain’s hotel room door now knocked on Cable’s,” Levy writes. Black readers saw him as a genuine advocate and hero.

Twain’s approach to racial matters was complicated and less straightforwardly worthy of admiration. For one thing — and this may come as a shock to readers who suffer from that aforementioned historical ignorance or amnesia — Twain was a great lover of minstrelsy. The set pieces from "Huckleberry Finn" that he performed during “Twins of Genius” owe a massive debt to that now rightfully reviled form; though he did not perform the Huck-and-Jim “King Sollermun” dialogue in blackface, it would not have been out of place in a minstrel show. The decision of the publisher NewSouth to replace “nigger” with “slave” in its edition of "Huckleberry Finn" is perplexing when one considers how much more there is to object to in the book’s portrayal of Jim. The word is a historical fact. Jim belonged to Twain’s fancy.

The presence of the n-word, as our contemporaries thoughtfully – or primly – refer to it, in "Huckleberry Finn" is anything but the most disturbing or most interesting thing about the way it treats racism. When Jim is turned in as a runaway slave and a boy remarks to Huck, “There’s two hundred dollars’ reward on him. It’s like picking up money out’n the road,” the reader encounters a kind of casual dehumanization more loathsome than any word could convey. The book has many such moments. One likes to think that they lit a slow fuse in the minds of readers less disposed to Cable’s more direct but less subversive approach. This is not to excuse the instances in which Twain made Jim a figure of fun; it’s only to note that Twain seemed to have a plan.

That said, Levy makes a compelling case that Twain did not really mean to address race at all, that he did so reluctantly or even incidentally. What he wanted to do was lampoon his contemporaries’ fixation on the perils of childhood, on juvenile delinquency, and violence. Levy has combed through pages and pages of newspaper accounts that testify both to the violence of the age and to widespread anxiety about children being induced to violence by lurid dime novels. Twain, Levy says, was also addressing popular concerns about who would educate or “sivilize,” as Huck put it, America’s youth, and how. Most early reviews of "Huckleberry Finn" focused on its depiction of boyhood and did not even mention its treatment of race relations. Many were worried about Huck’s low character, the influence it might wield.

Levy draws parallels with more recent concerns about violent video games and other purported corruptors, and he cites Steven Mintz’s illuminating "Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood" as a rejoinder to the myth of decline: We have been fretting about how American children are raised, the stimuli to which they are exposed, for about as long as there have been American children. It is seldom asked why this vigilance is a bad thing, or why the fact that each successive generation grouses about decline is meant to disprove it. That it was silly for Twain’s contemporaries to condemn dime novels about pirates does not mean that it is silly for ours to condemn immersive first-person shooters. It might be, but it would be sillier to assume that things alike in kind must also be alike in degree.

Levy makes a beautiful and convincing case that "Huckleberry Finn" provides sharp insight into our ambivalence about children and “the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them.” But one is less sure of his conviction that Twain was pessimistic or even fatalistic about our ability to move forward in this context, or in the context of race relations. Levy makes much of the famous “evasion” episode of "Huckleberry Finn," in which Tom Sawyer and Huck go to elaborate and pointedly absurd lengths to “free” Jim, using tactics borrowed from both boys’ adventure stories and classic romances, only to learn that he had already been freed in his mistress’s will. “[Jim] tells Huck that he saw Pap’s dead body floating in an abandoned house one thousand miles and many months earlier,” Levy writes, “which means that both he and Huck were free the whole time and didn’t know it. A colossal, existential waste of time, it seems, for all.”

A waste of time? This elides several points which, if taken into consideration, suggest a more optimistic reading. True, the final “evasion” was a waste of time. True, it was for Tom Sawyer only an adventure or game, not motivated by any genuine contempt for slavery; he speaks of stringing out the escape “to as much as eighty year” and says that it “would be the best time on record.” Yet the initial escape, the one undertaken with Huck, was anything but a waste of time. It bought the time and created the circumstances in which Miss Watson could experience a change of heart. No escape, and Jim would have been sold in New Orleans. Jim knew this, too. Are we meant to believe he was protecting Huck’s feelings by sparing him the sight of Pap’s body? Or was he making sure that Huck wouldn’t be tempted to return home to safety?

In any case, the escape that counted was the one spurred on by friendship and by, on Huck’s part, agonized soul-searching. There are few lines in our literature more famous than Huck’s “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” for the sake of Jim’s freedom. The pointless “evasion,” masterminded by a superficially better bred Tom Sawyer, was motivated by self-interest, but Huck’s participation in it was decidedly not. Perhaps the message – or a message, for Levy and others have shown us that they are infinite – is that when it comes to progress, there is no “us.” It must happen at the individual level, and it is a process that must begin anew in each individual heart. Little wonder that Twain chose to show that process taking place, however imperfectly, in the lowest creature his particular America could imagine.

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