Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

"Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood." . . . It swore every boy to stick to the band, and. . . if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn't eat and he musn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued; and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever. 

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath."

Seeing how often this novel has been reviewed on this blog (Chris's 2007 review, Brent's 2007 Review,  Chris's 2013 Review) makes me even more ashamed that I have never read this novel (or if I did, I was too young to remember). Go ahead and put on your Judgey Pants - I deserve it. An MA in Literature, an AP Lit teacher for four years, an American Lit teacher at one time and another and not read Huck Finn? The problem is that I didn't get it in high school, and my undergrad/grad classes didn't offer it (assuming probably that I had read it in high school), and as a first year American Lit teacher (who had two other subjects to teach) I was not going out of my way to read a book I had never read before just to teach it. There are just so many books....However! My freshies have the option of choosing this as a companion novel for To Kill a Mockingbird and my juniors also have the option of choosing this if they are unwilling/unable to get more contemporary American Lit (their other options include Alexie, Chabon, Tan, Egan, etc), so I really needed to read it.

When I began, my first thought was "Really? It's the n-word that is the MOST offensive thing and the reason why kids shouldn't read this book?" 

(Siderant: a student who is not my student found a slightly cut down version of this article by a Harvard Law professor on the n-word and was very offended that I was teaching it. I found out because they complained to their teacher. The teacher pointed out to the student that my MLA citation showed my source as being The Journal of Blacks In Higher Education and that such a journal would probably NOT print anything that was racist. I actually did white out the 'igger' for every word not in a quote because I found it to be a bit much; I hand-wrote a note at the top saying that although I didn't feel I had a right to change the author's diction, I did feel like it was acceptable to leave the blank space to give students the space to determine their own feelings on the word. I feel like this student's knee-jerk reaction - that any paper that has the n-word on it must be racist and any teacher who passes out any papers with the n-word on it must be racist - to be so depressing because it showcases how adults can have the same knee-jerk reaction about a book - that any book with the n-word in it must be racist.)

Needless to say, I found the alcoholic father and the child abuse to be a much more compelling reason to keep this out of children's hands. "He chased me round and round the place with a clasp-knife, calling me the Angel of Death, and saying he would kill me...By and by I got the old split-bottom chair and clumb up as easy as I could, not to make any noise, and got down the gun. I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip-barrel, pointing towards pap, and sat down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along." Here we have a 12 year old pointing a loaded gun as his drunk father because he is rightfully afraid for his life...and the n-word is what we are all concerned about? It makes me sick the way Americans don't even notice violence but will get all up in arms for a word (or any kind of sexuality). My grandfather (who was himself an abusive alcoholic) gave my older brother beautiful copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when he was in elementary school, and in retrospect I really can't imagine what he was thinking.

As a former teacher of wayward youths, I immediately fell in love with Huck. He's had such a shit time at life because of circumstances totally beyond his control, and my heart really went out to him. I found his journey to be fun and funny and sweet and heartbreaking, and I really just wanted to be the older-but-not-a-parent mentor figure for him. His narrative presence is often beautiful ("And how slow and still the time did drag along" - come on! he builds a slow and still sentence that is so lovely). His struggle to develop a morality when everything around him is a complete moral paradox is at times baffling because I'm so far removed from his reality, but considering the setting I don't actually find it problematic when Huck thinks things like: "Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children - children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm." 

What made me crazy throughout the book though was Huck's hero worship of Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer would have done it better, more elegantly, more interestingly, smarter, blah blah blah. His self esteem is so low that all of his endeavors have to be measured up to (and fall short of) the great Tom Sawyer. Huck can never measure up to his smarter, richer, better off friend who wants to slum it and play at scary situations and violence because he has had the luxury of not having to actually deal with scary situations and violence. 

When actual Tom Sawyer shows up, I started to really dislike the book. Tom Sawyer is a monstrous teen of the worst kind. Scientific American has an interesting article about the psychology behind why Huck Finn turns into such a terrible person at the end, and it does a solid job of explaining Huck's actions (TLDR: peer pressure and awareness of low social status as well as Jim's role as a parental figure that needs to be rebelled against), but it also just reminded me why I don't teach middle schoolers. They're evil, and Huck is one of them even if he's not in school. He will probably be a kid I'll love in high school, but I can't stand the meanness of those 8th grade boys, and I hope that Huck grows up to realize that even in 8th grade he was a better man than Tom will ever be. 

As for Jim, how can you not love Jim? I do. I love every brave moment he has: running away, trusting a kid, taking care of that kid, not telling him what he saw in the ship, standing up to Huck and telling him when he's being a dick, trusting other slaves to pass information to Huck. All of these things could mean a return to slavery at best, lynching and mutilation at worst. Every time he does one of these things, I see the images of every lynching photo I have ever seen floating before Jim's eyes and him deciding to do it anyway. The power of that is moving. It's also heartbreaking to see his continued failure to find freedom. "Yes; en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, and I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

Because I love Jim so much, it's hard to forgive Huck, even if Jim does. I am completely okay with him being a more loving person than I am. 


Christopher said...

Carping about the n-word in Huck Finn is especially tragic because its one of the best literary affirmations of black humanity ever written. Jim is the noblest character by a long shot and Huck's moral confusion clearly suggests a rottenness at the heart of Southern culture that is clearly being held up for criticism. The more interesting question is: does the ending of the book cheapen the hard-won moral growth of Huck or the nobility of Jim?

Christopher said...
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