Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I

Recent controversy over The Help by Kathryn Stockett has reminded me of the continuing controversy over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

It seems reasonable to me that a novel by a white author representing African American characters and experience would be subjected to critical scrutiny. It also seems reasonable to expect that a white writer will depict that experience through a white lens, just as black writers will portray white characters and experience through a black lens. Does that mean that whites should not write about blacks and vice versa? I hope not. Even if that means white novels will bear vestiges, at the very least, of racism and black novels will exhibit prejudice toward whites.

One problem of American publishing history, however, in a white dominated culture, is that black writers have had to get past white editors and publishers while white writers have rarely been screened by black publishing filters. As a result, historically, more racism in white novels has been published than has the critique of white supremacy in black novels. It should be no surprise that black readers will react more strongly to and scrutinize more closely the way their experience is depicted by white writers.

Instead of being hypersensitive and resentful, white readers and writers might want to pay attention. They could learn something.

For the most part, though, criticism of Huck Finn as a racist novel has been met with furious defensiveness. Mark Twain, after all, is an American literary hero and Huck Finn has been considered his “masterpiece” (interesting word choice). To label Twain and his novel as “racist” seems unpatriotic at best and downright sacrilegious at worst.

How could Huck Finn be racist? The escaped slave, Jim, is a sympathetic character and the white Southerners are mostly unsympathetic objects of ridicule and satire. But, is an anti-slavery message the same as an anti-racist message? Can an abolitionist still be a white supremacist? Slavery had been abolished some twenty years before the 1884 publication of Huck Finn, but racism continued to run rampant. Does the anti-slavery message absolve the novel of racism?

Defenders argue that Jim is not only sympathetic but humanized as a man equally deserving of freedom as the white runaway, Huck. Huck, himself, must struggle with and overcome his own conditioned racism in order, not only to help Jim escape, but also to bond with him as a companion and fellow seeker of freedom. Some even see Jim as a father figure to Huck, putting Jim in a psychologically superior position.

Detractors counter that (1) Jim is hardly represented as “equal” to Huck, (2) even if he were, then he, a grown man with a wife and children, is being equated with a child, thus reinforcing a common stereotype of blacks as “childlike,” and (3) while Jim may be allowed moments of genuine humanity, he is largely portrayed as a caricature based on popular minstrel show “Jim Crow” stereotypes. Critics also question Huck’s moral progress and human bond with Jim, given the way Huck joins with Tom Sawyer in tormenting Jim when he is held captive at the Phelps farm at the end of the novel.

Defenders counter that, after all, how much moral progress can you expect a fourteen-year-old boy to make in such a short time span? Just the fact that Huck does have those pangs of conscience over Jim’s treatment is anti-racist enough. And, while Twain may not have completely transcended his own white supremacist and racist environment, he went further in challenging that ideology than any other white writer of the 19th century. (I would submit that Herman Melville, writing before abolition, went further than Twain did, though his subtlety in Benito Cereno, for example, would have escaped many readers.)

I wonder if the defenders and detractors are both right. I wonder if Twain himself was torn between challenging the morality of his white readers and placating them in order to promote his own popularity and book sales. The result is a novel that promises much in terms of an anti-racist message but falls far short of full delivery.

Van Wyck Brooks, in his critical study The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1933), claims that, just as this iconic author had two names, Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, so he had a conflicted psyche, one that aspired to be, on one hand, a serious artist using satire to critique his contemporary society, and on the other hand, a popular humorist, using folksiness to endear and promote himself to the reading public. Brooks traces this split throughout Twain’s career and argues that his increasing cynicism and misanthropy was the result of his own self-hatred for having “sold out” his highest and best artistic and moral promise. If Brooks is right, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is but one episode in the sad psychological story of our revered American author Mark Twain.

This commentary is not meant to reflect on The Help. That will have to wait for a future blog post.