Thursday, July 22, 2004

"No time to be sentimenterin'": Huckleberry Finn and Thinking

Great national novels--that is, novels that define a nation--surely much be sources of irritation as well as pride. Surely Ulysses, Ireland's national novel, still sticks in Ireland's collective craw; Hugh Kenner, in his book A Colder Eye, argues that it must have, in its time, stuck in England's craw as well: it's not set in London but in Dublin; its hero isn't English or even Irish, but a Jew. Oh, yes: and that language. Spain's great national novel, Don Quixote, probably doesn't irritate anymore, but certainly it must have, once upon a time. Its hero's madness causes him to return to the days of Spain's coming together as a nation to drive off the Moors, but Cervantes' purported source for this story is an Arab historian and has to be translated from Arabic by a Moor. So much for the vaunted Spanish ethnic purity. It's not set in Madrid, but in a backwater. Etc.
Huckleberry Finn sticks in our craw. It's set not in the urbanized East or the mythic West but in the nation's drainage system, the Mississippi. Its heroes are a homeless kid--barely even a teenager, if that old--and a runaway slave. Both are barely articulate. Of course, those things don't matter so much now, but its language, a concern ever since its publication, remains a concern today (though the grounds for that concern have shifted from its improper grammar to its racial epithets).
It is supremely irritating.
All the more reason that we should keep teaching it.
All this is on my mind because I began teaching Huckleberry Finn in my American literature class this week. To my mind, no survey of American literature should exclude this novel; though I won't go quite so far as Hemingway and say that there was nothing before it, there's no question as to its greatness. And it's great precisely because it's messy and irritating and angering even as it makes us laugh, even as we accept Huck's decision to help free Jim even as he declares he'll go to hell for doing so. It's great, in other words, because of its utter honesty--and accuracy--in holding up a mirror to us to show us how we as a nation dance around, stub our toe on, do disservice to, and, on occasion, answer correctly the question of race. It tells us SOME things we want to hear, but not EVERYthing. We want to be reassured, a la Uncle Tom's Cabin, that good has triumphed over evil; or we want to point to it, as we do to Toni Morrison's magnificent novels, to show that, yes, the legacy of slavery still--and perhaps will always--haunt, but that we can draw strength from that legacy as we move into the future. Jim IS freed, yes, but we learn that Tom (and Huck, through Huck's silent complicity--that, by the way, is what ittitates ME about this book) deliberately, even cruelly, delays his freedom. It's difficult to make an end-justifies-the-means argument after you learn that the end had already been accomplished and so there was never any need for the means in the first place. As for drawing communal strength from this novel, I have yet to hear anyone make THAT claim for Huckleberry Finn--that we can draw comfort and strength from it.
On the contrary: I'd say that reading Huckleberry Finn closely should make us, if anything, even warier than we were before reading it.
Maybe THAT's why it makes so many of us, no matter our ethnicity, so uncomfortable in so many different ways. Like Huck, after it tells and shows us what it has to say and show, we actually have to THINK about it.

More on this later today.

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