Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Huckleberry Friend, Samuel Clemens, and Me

In the early 1960s I worked on my master's thesis in English at what then was called California State College at Long Beach. In my thesis I examined the novels of William Dean Howells, and through this very sane gentleman, then known as the Dean of American Letters, became more interested in Samuel Clemens, Howells' closest friend. Through reading their voluminous correspondence I grew to know a lot about attitudes about suitable topics for novels in the late nineteenth century in both America and in England.

Those who have conversed with me recently know how I've rededicated some of my time to rereading Charles Dickens, who tackled every social issue in England during the early and mid nineteenth century. In our country, in the last half of the nineteenth century only Samuel Clemens had the courage to address prevailing attitudes towards blacks. This was the post Civil War period when antagonism towards so-called carpetbaggers and liberated blacks ran high.

I don't usually get embroiled in impassioned discussions on Facebook...but this piece of news set me on fire.

So today I posted this today on Facebook:

What the Huck...have we all lost our literary minds? You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger...and you don't mess around with Finn!!

I got responses...from my old friend, Chris, who runs a bookstore, Once Read Books, in Long Beach:

From Chris Statler:
They're ignorant swine and don't understand the irony of using a derogatory name to describe and dehumanize a character who in fact is smarter, more human and wiser then the Southern crackers whom he is able to evade. You can hear Twain chu...ckling to himself as you read the book and certainly Tom and Huck reorganize Jim's wisdom and understanding of the river (life) and its complexities. Who in modern times best resembles Nigger Jim? Obama, he's smarter then his detractors and they resent a black man who is more human then they are. "nuff said. Someone needs to write an article called IS Obama nigger Jim?!!!!!

And another, from my professor at UCLA, who taught Group Conflict and Change, a class that students referred to as Race Relations:

Dr. Alex J. Norman:
When I was in high school in Durham, NC we read Twain's Huck and although polite, we all cringed evertime we had to read the "N" word. I got through it but never had the desire to read more of Twain (I thought the use of the word was excess...ive). I thought then, as I do now, that it was simply a manner in which the society was reminded of the racist underpinnings of the country, and was a means of passing on prejudices (I think the same of "Birth Of A Nation"). Still, I don't believe that it should be censured, it is what it is--American Literature.

That said, any wonder why Twain didn't want his biography delayed until 100 years after his death?


And various other responses from all over the map. I finally commented on my own comment:

I have Twain's unBowdlerized recently released autobiography on my Kindle. Twain makes it clear that he wanted to speak openly about his views about people after their children and grandchildren were long gone. Huckleberry Finn satirizes th...e insensitivity and ignorance of southerners of that period and reflects how children who hear racist putdowns and derogatory words all the time have difficulty forming their own views...witness Huck's continual struggle, should he believe what he hears from the others or what he sees in his relationship with Jim? This was a brave attempt, given the era. When I taught high school English I drew a parallel for students about Huck on the river and Holden Caulfield on the streets of New York, and how youth try to deal with adults' hypocricy and meanspiritedness,

Have you read Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn? Several fascinating articles, mostly delineating how Twain, called by his friend, William Dean Howells, a "deSouthernized Southerner," struggled with his conscience in the same way that Huck does, and accepted personal responsibility for the American legacy of slavery, a practice that Samuel Clemens saw no use for or sense to and abhored.

Incidentally, I just read Sinclair Lewis' early novel, Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, set in the late 1910s in NYC, and the "N" word is used casually by insensitive people even then. And this by the man who later wrote Kingsblood Royal, which Ebony in 1947 named Best Novel of the Year.

The "N" word, unfortunately, is not limited to Americans. I heard it every day in Belize, used by Creoles, descendants of Scots and British pirates and their West African slaves, in reference to the Garifuna. And in India the officers of the British Raj used the term in reference to the Indians.

All said, though, I believe that banning, burning and Bowdlerizing books is never a good thing. The very idea makes me want to... light out for the territory ahead...the closing words of Huckleberry Finn

The Territory Ahead, by Wright Morris, though written in the '70s is still one of the best books on American lit that I know of. Wright criticizes American writers (with the exception of Henry James) who celebrate the theme of flight from civilization as a failure to address pressing socio-cultural issues in the art.

1 comment:

  1. So my friend, Chris Statler, says: “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter”. Mark Twain

    A few weeks ago I thought I was dying and I was close to it. With little sleep, a loss of blood and in a great deal of pain I thought to myself that I had always wanted to say the essential thing that is in me, that I had never thought nor said before, a thing that is not love or hate or pity or scorn but the very breath of life something fierce and wise, something wonderful and profound yet the only thing I could think of was ,don't except mediocrity, no matter how well intentioned it is; don't except it in art, music, television, at the grocery store or in your leaders. Now it's been a good thirty years since I've read Twain yet I seem to recall very clearly that there are several things one might consider cliches. Start with Huckleberry Finn, red hair, freckles, a drunken dad, questions authority, or ignores it altogether, a longing for freedom, sounds like the old definition of the Wild Irish to me--should we demand his name be changed to Huckleberry Smith so that no one of Irish heritage gets offended. It's absurd and very timely. When the far right is scrambling, scurrying , begging, that we not hold them responsible for their choice of words or symbols (blood libel, Sarah,really?) Twain made it very clear that he wanted to be held accountable for his choice of words. He chose them very carefully. I say we honor Sam and do just that! We should also give credit to the people who read Twain and respect their intelligence. I suppose people will misinterpret these would be "do gooders," as politically correct liberals; I would like to remind people that there is nothing in the etymology of that word that would include such people. Liberal is not a derogatory term. Asshole is. And that's what these people are. Look, I like nothing more then knocking off the hats of well respected hypocritical citizens, with a metaphorical snowball, or making fart noises when they speak --we all have a bit of Huck Finn and Tom in us but we have Jim too. And that's as it should be.

    I'll have to register so I canleave a commenton your blog.....Here's my comment for now!