Saturday, December 29, 2007

Going to Hell: Some speculation regarding Huck Finn and slave-holding culture

Edwin Hergesheimer’s map of Southern slavery, September 1861, found here. Visit the link to see and explore an enlargeable image. Found via Matthew Yglesias.

(EDIT: Now, I hope, a bit more precise in wording.)

Whenever I teach or otherwise talk about Huckleberry Finn, I am quick to note the centrality of the Mississippi River to that novel--not just as its setting but how the basic fact of its flowing southward determines, and even forces, the novel's climax: his decision to help Jim escape from slavery. Huck, to be sure, never talks about the river in these terms; yet, given that it is literally true that the river has brought him to the place where he makes that decision, it's no great stretch to say that it has brought him there figuratively as well.

It wasn't until I saw this map for the first time yesterday, though, that it occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, something else just as unremarked upon in the novel but just as present gives shape and direction to Huck's thinking. Huck is not innocent of slave-holding culture; on the contrary, the world he lives in is so shaped by that culture that, for much of the novel, he literally cannot even imagine, much less accept, some truth other than that culture's central a priori assumption of the sub-human nature of black people. But the population of the county Huck hails from, Rawls County, Missouri (the location of Hannibal, and three counties north of where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi), was about 30% slaves according to the map I linked to (caveat for this and for what follows: Huckleberry Finn is set in the 1840s, so what I hope to suggest here is more like an indication of scale rather than actual facts). Considering that most of those slaves would have been on farms outside Huck's St. Petersburg and Huck himself lived in town, Huck would not have had occasion to see on a daily basis the full manifestation of slave-holding culture. Relatively speaking, he would know of that culture more than he would know it.

Now, compare Rawls County to those counties of northeastern Louisiana on the Mississippi, one of which is where the Phelps place is located and where Huck and Jim's southward journey ends: none of those counties has a percentage of slaves relative to total population of less than 68%, and one of them appears (it's hard for me to tell) to have a population consisting of at least 90% slaves. Again, if what's being considered here is the relative scale of slave-holding rather than strict accuracy regarding verifiable, actual numbers during the time of the novel, I think it's safe to say that in Louisiana Huck is confronted with the fullest expression of slave-holding culture he's ever seen. The Phelps place is no Tara, but it is a working plantation. In a "no-camels-mentioned-in-the-Koran" kind of way, that never gets expressed directly in the novel; but it's hard to resist thinking, as with the Mississippi's southward flow--a fact so simple that it doesn't even merit direct mention--that this fact can't help but give shape and form to Huck's admittedly evanescent thinking regarding Jim's humanity and what his response to that should be.

Chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn is, as readers know, the climax of the novel. Its thematic significance is clear enough and needs no pointing out here. However, this chapter--in particular, the passage below--takes on a new resonance for me in light of the map. Setting, after all, is more than just geography; "the world of the novel" refers to cultural, as well as the usual kind, of topography. In the world Huck finds himself in as he describes his dilemma, the drama of his choice is all the more heightened: he knows what he "should" do in a world that demands it of all its members, in the courts and from the pulpit: "'There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.'" It's as though, there in northeastern Louisiana, the phrase "sold down the river," the literal fear of slaves from upriver, is for Huck, now, inextricably combined with a glimpse of an eternity of agony for such as himself.

And yet.

The most metaphysical Huck ever gets is when he says, in this same chapter, "You can't pray a lie." So it's entirely appropriate that in a world that considers the word "abolitionist" about the worst thing you could call someone, Huck avoids philosophical abstraction entirely: he confronts the hellish fact of slavery with the fact of Jim's decency toward him as they float downstream into that hell:

. . . I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the [letter he's just written to Aunt Polly] down and set there thinking -- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell" -- and tore it up.
The point of all this? Just that, in our relatively more-enlightened but racially-hypersensitive times, it's become harder to "read" this great novel, to see the great moment on the raft as hugely significant and not as a "well, duh!" moment. It is a realist novel par excellance, and that is its great strength and its great weakness. Huck Finn--character and novel--are rooted firmly in a time and place so utterly different from our own (thankfully so, in many ways) that, unfortunately, some end up assuming the wrong things about those differences, reading them as they do through today's lenses, and therefore presume the worst about the novel . . . with the result that we forget there is much this novel still has to tell us about ourselves as Americans--and not only about the past, either. The trees of anachronism cause some of us to lose its forest of truths.


R. Sherman said...

One of the things that has always bothered me about modern interpretive theories, is the absolute refusal of such critics to acknowledge and appreciate the culture and times in which the author lived. As you point out, to us, post Civil Rights, Huck's actions, his Reformation, seem "well, duh."

Thus, do we have people believing that Twain shouldn't be read because of the use of individual words, (quite appropriate given the time) instead of looking at Huck's actions:

"All right, then. I'll GO to hell."

It's sad, really.

John B. said...

Yes to all.

Not that I'm claiming I do it well, but it's hard work to teach Huck Finn well because of its (and our) cultural baggage. That hard work and, yes, fear cause lots of otherwise well-meaning people to be reluctant to teach it--which, as you say, is indeed sad. But no other novel captures so honestly how we collectively have handled the issue of race: bumbling about due to prejudice and ignorance; small-but-crucial initial steps toward justice; inexplicable backsliding.

The key to reading Huck Finn is to remember that it is what it is. It is not a racist novel (racism requires self-consciousness; Huck's "racism" is literally unthinking, reflexive, borne of ignorance), but neither is it America's Feel-Good Novel About Race. So, it's not going to make anybody really happy. But then again, most great national novels don't.

Tink said...

I think that if taught well, this is an accurate portrayal of the prevailing mindset during this historical period. This story can do much to illustrate the need for knowing cultural context when analyzing a work. I applaud your foray into Huckleberry Finn. And don't you just love the word resonance?