Saturday, July 24, 2004

One more post apropos of Huck Finn

Yesterday I bought a copy of John Berger's Selected Essays at Barnes & Noble (this link provides a hint of the flavor of his essays), and in reading around in it while enjoying my latte, I came across this passage from his essay on Ulysses:

When [my schoolteacher] gave the book to me, I believed it was illegal in Britain to own a copy. In fact this was no longer the case (it had been) and I was mistaken. Yet the 'illegality' of the book was, for me, the fourteen-year-old, a telling literary quality. And there, perhaps, I was not mistaken. I was convinced that legality was an arbitrary pretence. Necessary for the social contract, indispensible for society's survival, but turning its back on most lived experience. I knew this by instinct and when I read the book for the first time, I came to appreciate with mounting excitement that its supposed illegality as an object was more than matched by the illegitimacy of the lives and souls in its epic. (467-468, emphasis added)

It struck me, reading that passage, that this explains as well why Huckleberry Finn so sticks in my nation's craw. It's never been illegal to own Huckleberry Finn, but its availability HAS been policed ever since its publication. In its early days, it was criticized for its vulgarity, poor grammar and Huck's (and, perhaps, Tom's) defiance of adult authority--yet, of course, Huck speaks and writes (and renders the speech of others) just as they and he--not to mention millions of others--speak. Nowadays, critics condemn the novel's use of the word "nigger" and, more subtly, its depiction of Jim and Huck's inconsistent behavior regarding him. But certainly, few of us, whether or not we use the N-word, can claim to be entirely purged of inconsistent thinking on the issue of race, either as individuals or as a nation.

We want Huck to be better than he is and, perhaps, better than us. We want, in Huck's parlance, "sentimenterin'" when it comes to its theme of race. But sentiment is a societal policing action: it tells us how we SHOULD feel, not how we often DO feel and behave, despite our more noble impulses. And in the case of Huck, as Richard Poirier reminds us in his powerful reading of Huckleberry Finn in his book A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature, Huck is the product of an inherently racist society--one so racist, in fact, that it's not even aware that it IS racist. In Huck's world, all accepted authority conspires together against even allowing for the possibility of black people's having the same emotional impulses that whites do and doesn't even bother to defend its thinking (Abolitionists are, in Huck's world, a remote and vague fear, nothing more). And Huck, a young adolescent torn between the twin (and often opposed) impulses of developing a sense of self and seeking communal acceptance, is caught in numerous "tight places" as regards his relationship to Jim. Not that Huck, as I've mentioned earlier, is entirely noble; after all, how many of us were morally consistent as teenagers? Or now, for that matter? I think, though, that for Huck to get as far as he does in acknowledging Jim's humanity is itself worthy of acknowledgment because of the supreme difficulty inherent in getting to that point.

But the novel doesn't show us the end of racial harmony/equality that we desire in our own society. Instead, it ends with Huck still stuck within the means to achieving that end. Twain refuses to sentimenterize: he IS writing a novel in the realist tradition, after all. Showing the reader things as they are--as, in fact, they remain--makes for an irritating reading experience at best, painful at worst. But Huckleberry Finn will become obsolete, superfluous American reading only when its moment has passed. And so far, it has not.

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