Not a small amount of debate bubbled up recently over the plans of the publisher NewSouth Books and the scholar Alan Gribben to release censored editions of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Their intention, they say, is to offer versions of these texts that are cleansed of their most hurtful racial epithets, so as to enable continued teaching of the books in this era when Huckleberry Finn has all but disappeared from young classrooms. The issue was addressed from a variety of perspectives in a New York Times roundtable.
This plan to radically alter one of the most important novels in American history sent us back to an essay on Huckleberry Finn by the great Ishmael Reed, one that was included in our New Literary History of America. In the essay, presented here in full, Reed offers a characteristically sharp take on Huck Finn that, read in the context of this debate, makes clear the importance of Twain’s original language to the book’s continued power.
Mark Twain's Hairball
Structurally, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of an escaped black slave named Jim and a young white boy named Huck floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, is about as solid as a New Orleans levee and, beginning with the entrance of Tom Sawyer, seems to implode, but its epic sweep is impressive, its characters, both major and minor, engaging, and the novel tells us a good deal about how nineteenth-century Americans lived—as well as what has changed and what hasn’t.
The characters are given to excessive speech-making, and some of it is reminiscent of the form of tall-tale-telling prose poetry Muhammad Ali gets credit for inventing. “I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!” one of Twain’s characters boasts. “Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’ed by an earthquake, half-brother to cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on my mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing!” Some of Twain’s characters use gab to hustle the gullible; today they would be on Madison Avenue, and then as now using advertising to attract customers to their dubious wares. Even Jim, one of the few characters in the book with anything close to integrity, has a game. He peddles a hairball removed from the innards of an ox that, he claims, can solve mysteries and predict the future—if you feed it with money. An early talking head.
The novel is Twain’s hairball, a prescient book that lays down patterns of race relations in American life, just as the hairball represents the superstitious thinking not only of Twain’s time, but, when twenty-first-century presidential candidates appeal to millions of voters by claiming that the earth is 8,000 years old, of ours. Superstition takes many forms: when Twain wrote, Americans were as easily turned into mobs by rabble-rousers as they are today. Once it might have been characters like “the duke” and “the king,” the fast-talking con artists who take over Huck and Jim’s raft; in our time their place is taken by talk-show hosts as well as by those who are considered part of the nation’s intellectual elite. It was the noted commentator Charles Krauthammer who created the “crack baby” scare: part of a wider effort to paint blacks as subhuman, and a hoax.
The duke and the king provide Twain with an opportunity to poke fun at the awe with which their American cousins view European royalty. But even now, networks raise their ratings by appealing to the insatiable curiosity of Americans about the British royalty. Vanity Fair and other publications regularly feature royal doings for the entertainment of the upscale, white, second-generation Americans whose forebears were regarded as among the genetically damaged. In 2007, Helen Mirren received an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and hours of television are still devoted to Princess Diana, who has been dead since 1997. The duke and the king, so successful in their impersonations that they are able to fleece wide-eyed Americans of their money, were merely there first—and they themselves are a mirror of the impersonation of royalty that was the antebellum South. “Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see,” we hear of one member of the Southern fake aristocracy. “He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well-born, as the saying is”—yet his family is meting out mindless violence to its enemies, the Shepherdsons, who are, like the Grangerfords, “high-toned, and well-born, and rich and grand.” In their dedication to murdering each other, both families have been nearly emptied of male members.
Both Jim and Huck are fugitives from another form of violence: domestic violence. Huck escapes from his father’s beatings. Jim escapes from the “rough” treatment of Mrs. Watson, a white woman who inflicts physical as well as psychological damage on the captive, threatening to sell him “down the river.” She not only owns slaves, she participates in the breakup of the black slave family, the central issue of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which borrowed so liberally from Josiah Henson’s 1849 autobiography that the black nationalist and Reconstructionist Martin Delany proposed, in a letter to Frederick Douglass, that Stowe’s publisher pay Henson five thousand dollars). Through Huck’s eyes, focusing first on two white women, Twain renders these disunions in an effective though melodramatic scene: “So the next day after the funeral, along about noontime, the girls’ joy got the first jolt. A couple of nigger traders come along, and the king sold them the niggers reasonable, for three-day drafts as they called it, and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to New Orleans. I thought them poor girls and them niggers would break their hearts for grief: they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town.” Even though the white women in this scene are attached to the blacks, the blacks are still slaves under their control. Twain’s descriptions and those of others show that they could wield a whip with the best of them.
Jim commits violence against one of his daughters, not realizing she is deaf—but unlike the women who cooperated with the vile institution of slavery, Jim expresses remorse. Jim might have been surprised by the ignorant comment of Michiko Kakutani, who, in a review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved written when Kakutani was the most powerful literary critic in the United States, concluded that black men, during the slavery period, treated black women in the same manner that white men treated blacks. “Whites carelessly beat, rape and maim their slaves, sell them for a price and kill them for a lark; and in this world,” she wrote, “. . . a similar violence festers between black men and women, between parents and their children.” Perhaps Ms. Kakutani hasn’t toured plantations where she could have observed the instruments of torture, or, as I have in Ghana and Martinique, seen the slave dungeons where rebellious men were held. Or perhaps she, who slanders black men while honoring the misogyny of Saul Bellow, is the kind of critic, one among many, who experiments on black men but has a Stockholm-syndrome relationship with white authors. Perhaps she wasn’t aware that those who trafficked in blood forced black women to undergo painful medical experiments without anesthesia, or that most of the cadavers used in nineteenth-century medical experiments were those of black men. Black men didn’t have the equipment to inflict the same kind of damage on black women that white slave masters, both male and female, possessed to apply to both genders of slaves. I would be remiss in not subjecting such dangerous fantasies to the most severe form of evisceration, since such propaganda influences public opinion—and indirectly public policy.
Slavery being a more valuable mid-nineteenth-century American enterprise than all others, throughout the pages of Twain’s book Jim is much sought after. In fact, along with William Quantrill, the James Brothers, whose exploits have been celebrated by Hollywood in nearly a hundred years of pro-Confederate Westerns (with, at first, Jesse James portrayed by his own son, Jesse James, Jr.), murdered 180 people in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, for being “negro thieves.” The thin glue that holds Twain’s plot together is the pursuit of Jim by different characters. Jim is no fool, and has learned like other captives to outmaneuver the whites with whom he comes in contact, sometimes through flattery. At one point he salutes Huck as “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.” Even Huck, whose attitude toward Jim is ambivalent (in our century he would be a Nation-magazine progressive), has to admire his cleverness. “Jim had a wonderful level head for a nigger,” Huck says. “He could most always start a good plan when you wanted one.” There are other moments in the book that show the cunning blacks had to develop in a society where they could be punished or even murdered at a white person’s whim. When relaying a message from Jim to Huck, a slave invites Huck to inspect a nest of moccasins.
The book is a festival of what linguists call code switching, and of identity changing, where in order to get out of a jam characters must create bogus biographies on the spot. Another thing that hasn’t changed: blacks as criminal suspects. Whether blacks are homeless or university professors, they are constantly under surveillance by department stores, banks, and the police. Under the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, 35,000 black and Hispanic men in the city were stopped and frisked without cause; even the federal government admits to racial profiling. When Huck has to cover his commission of a crime, he blames it on blacks and is believed. As in Twain’s time, many American whites believe that their morality is higher than that of blacks; even Huck’s father, a drunk and a ne’er-do-well, accords himself higher status.
Of all the white characters in Huckleberry Finn, it is Huck’s father who best represents white, mainstream attitudes toward blacks in our own time. Though blacks are presented in the media as intellectually slothful, with constant reference to blacks who view reading as a “white thing,” the reading and math scores of Americans would lag behind those of whites in many other countries even were no Hispanics or blacks included. To be elected president in the United States, one must avoid appearing too intellectual or bookish. Huck’s father punishes Huck for his learning: “Well, I’ll learn her [Miss Watson] how to meddle. And look here—you drop that school, you hear? I’ll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better’n what he is.”
Like many contemporary white Americans, Huck’s father doesn’t want blacks to appear to be “better’n” what they are. He complains to Huck about a black who doesn’t know his place.
Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t man in town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful-est gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fesser in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home.
With this speech, Twain exposes a consciousness that still exists among many white Americans. The three blacks who were lynched in Memphis in 1892, as described by Ida B. Wells in “Lynch Law in America,” were murdered by a mob not for raping white women but for being too prosperous; they were followers of Booker T. Washington. In the twenty-first century, black voters are not deterred from voting by mobs, as was the case during the Confederate restoration, but by identification laws, vote caging, and subtler methods. Biographies of Colin Powell and Ralph Ellison, who was described by Robert Penn Warren as “every white man’s favorite black man,” chronicle the countless humiliations they endured so that they would never forget their place—to the point where, at a cabinet meeting, George W. Bush had Powell, as the secretary of state, locked out of the room because he was a minute late, forcing him to knock on the door to gain admission. How different from Huck’s Pap, who has a candor missing from today’s think-tank scholars and op-ed writers, who hide behind graphs and junk science to say what the old man said in plain words.
Mark Twain caught his time and place in a manner that statistics and policy papers can never approach. Twain takes the reader into the interiors of an age; he takes us into the minds of those who inhabit an age. While movies like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation give us an age through distorted and narrow lenses, a great novel permits us to enter an age and take our time and mosey about. Twain is often criticized for the supposed crudity of his portrait of Jim, but his Jim cares about his family, finds a way to survive in the wilderness, and is a sympathetic character struggling against forces that are insurmountable. By contrast, the black male characters in the work of Bellow, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, David Mamet, and that of a number of feminist writers, black and white, including Gloria Steinem, Barbara Smith, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan, are ignorant, bestial sexual predators exclusively, like the typical portrait of minority men in the media of the Nazi regime, a portrait that did and does make it possible for harsh social actions to be taken against them. But when, finally, Huck literally aches for Jim, missing Jim’s calling him “honey,” and “petting him,” Twain, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nathanael West, takes us to the very bottom of the American psyche, where the visibility is zero. Huck cries, “I want my nigger,” like the children of the suburbs who are addicted to gangster rap, like the white Southern children after the Civil War who craved their coon songs from New York. Twain exposes this bizarre hunger, this exotic yearning of those who despise blacks yet wish to imitate them. Who wish to be called “honey” by them. Who wish to be “petted” by them. Who wish to burn them, cut out their very entrails, and take them home with them. If you can’t give us our nigger, they seem to say, we’ll make do with Elvis. The late Rick James asked an interviewer why there was more interest in Michael Jackson’s trial for child molesting than in the war in Iraq, where the American occupation was causing ethnic cleansing and the deaths of tens of thousands. The same might be said of the near-pathological fascination with the doings of O. J. Simpson. Twain knew. I want my nigger!
(Electronically reproduced from A New Literary History of America, by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, eds, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.)
For more about A New Literary History of America, and for the full text of another handful of its more than two hundred essays, visit www.NewLiteraryHistory.com