We get Huck Finn all wrong: Race, Mark Twain, children and myths of an American classic

Our sense of comedy and seriousness in "Huck Finn" says more about America now than America in Mark Twain's time

Published January 3, 2015 7:00PM (EST)


Excerpted from "Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece"

For anyone who wants to try to unravel the tangled knot that ties modern Americans to their past, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) remains essential. According to the most re­cent studies, Twain’s novel about a white boy and a runaway slave es­caping down the Mississippi River is the most frequently read classic American book in American schools. Few critics’ lists of the “greatest American novels” fail to cite it; few reporters describing its influence fail to quote Hemingway’s famous claim that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

At the same time, it also remains one of the most controversial books in American history, and in many schools has been removed from reading lists or shifted into elective courses. One hundred years after his death, Mark Twain can still put a book on top of the best-seller list—as his Autobiography did in October 2010. And Huck Finn, 125 years after its publication, can trend high on Twitter, as it did in January 2011 when NewSouth Books announced it would publish a version that excised the racial epithet “n***r,” which appears more than 200 times in the original, and replace it with “slave”—an edito­rial gesture both praised and derided with an intensity rarely reserved for the classics anymore. Huck Finn was, and remains, “an amazing, troubling book,” as novelist Toni Morrison tells us; an “idol and tar­get,” as critic Jonathan Arac writes.

Predictably, our regard for the book is even more two-sided than that summary suggests. For over a century, Twain’s oft-beloved novel has been taught both as a serious opportunity to reflect on matters of race and as a lighthearted adventure for children. Authors, his­torians, teachers, and politicians have sung its praises as a model of interracial empathy, or debated the wisdom and limits of that claim; studio motion pictures, big-budget musicals, cartoons, comic books, and children’s editions have all focused on it as a story of boyish escapade, an “adventure” with, at best, modest political ambitions. Since 1987, eight books plus dozens of scholarly articles and chap­ters have been published on race and Huckleberry Finn. But not one book, and only a modest number of chapters and essays during that span, have dealt deeply with Mark Twain’s portrayal of children in Huck Finn. The vast majority of newspaper editorials, Twitter posts, and public debates about Huckleberry Finn have focused upon race. References to childhood and Huck Finn in popular media abound, but he and his friend Tom Sawyer remain, in the public imagination, largely uncomplicated “emblems of freedom, high-spiritedness, and solid comradeship,” as James S. Leonard and Thomas A. Tenney have written. Huck is a “charming rascal,” one preview for a local pro­duction of the musical Big River claims. “Make your own kids [sic] fishing pole—Huck Finn Style,” an “adventure for boys blog” offers: “You may not be as free to roam as Huck, but you can spend a day lazing on the riverbank just like he did.”

After years of reading, teaching, and writing about the book, though, I’ve come to believe that we got this backward—that our understanding of what is comic and what is serious in Huck Finn says more about America in the last century than America in the time Twain wrote the book. Contemporary reviews of Twain’s novel, dozens of which appeared in American newspapers in the spring of 1885, barely mentioned race at all; they talked about children, and what message the book sent them, with great and varied passion. There is a shimmer to Twain’s portrait of white childhood in the ante­bellum era. But there are also murders, suicidal ideation, child abuse, and a profound satire on standardized education, and the ambivalent ways American parents both protect their children from, and provide them uncritical access to, popular culture. Huck Finn is a book about the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them—a disconnection so intimidating that, naturally, we placed this tribute to children’s alienation at the center of public school curricula.

Neither is Huck Finn a model of successful interracial politics, nor a book that we should regard, in our rearview mirrors, as essentially retrograde. Here, perhaps, it is more comic than we have considered, or than the national conversation can easily hold: moral satire in powerful ways, but also unnerving burlesque about things few mod­ern Americans find funny. And yet, precisely because it is both these things, it is also truly and disconsolately visionary about how the culture doesn’t always go forward but sideways, even backward, on matters of race and freedom.

The best way to read Huck Finn, in fact, might be to see that Twain found the borders that divide parents and children as false as the borders that divide black and white—and that he even saw the way those borders overlapped. In turn, he attacked both with the same rough play, a tricksterish mix of comedy and political se­riousness that meshed with the stereotypes of the time but fought them, too. And now we are indulging in more rough play—myths of nostalgia and myths of progress, and the instinct to classify, classify, classify—that inspires modern politicians, critics, teachers, filmmak­ers, and readers to divide the book into two books, one funny and “harmless” and one not. Huck Finn can show us more about how we keep the discussion of childhood stalled, and the engine of racial difference humming, than any other book in our canon. To benefit from that insight, however, we would have to admit that it is not a book (flawed or otherwise) about children and adventure, or about racial progress. It is a book about what Junot Díaz calls “dedicated amnesia” on a national scale. It is a plea—as is this book—to remem­ber, and a fatalistic comedy about how we don’t.

This work is a cultural biography of Twain in his era, one that shows how Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness, and how our misjudgments of the book’s messages about race and children reveal the architecture of our forgetting. I started it twenty years ago with a dim idea that there was something about the child in Huck that was misunderstood and something in the argument about the book’s treatment of race that had reached an impasse. I spent months in the late 1990s reading ancient newspapers, tracking Twain as he toured America in 1884 and 1885 alongside Louisiana writer George Washington Cable in a show he called the “Twins of Genius,” which was intended to help Twain promote the publication of Huck Finn. I explored the debate about children and schools that raged at the time to see if Huck Finn entered into it. And I explored what black readers of the day said about Twain’s book, scouring through the frayed remains of black newspapers from the 1880s. Yet what stayed with me was the milieu, not the thesis: the whispers of a lost, dying America, and an America uncannily like our own. A lot had changed. And nothing had.

I spent several more years writing about all this, then—like Twain with Huck—dropping it, picking it up, dropping it. When I finally committed to the subject, I also committed to my first, raw impulse. By 2009, very little had been said, in a serious way, about children and Huck Finn, though some decisive academic forays had been of­fered. On race, meanwhile, almost nothing had been left unsaid: in fact, “teaching the debate” had become almost as canonical as the book itself. I was sure this was wrong—not the content of the dis­cussion, nor its passion, but the proportions. In a fine history of American education fittingly named Huck’s Raft, Steven Mintz de­scribes several of the most persistent myths surrounding American children: “the myth of a carefree childhood”; the myth that “child­hood is the same for all children”; the “myth of progress, and its inverse, a myth of decline.” Huck Finn wasn’t just trapped in those myths—it was being used to perpetuate them, when all around me there seemed evidence that it could be something richer. I was rais­ing a boy, Aedan, now twelve, and every week he did something that reminded me of Huck—something sublime and curious, and not easily dismissed as a “boyish escapade.” My wife, Siobhán, a social scientist who specializes in youth and politics, introduced me to an international conversation about children and their ability to shape, and not just be shaped by, the culture around them—a conversation from which most modern Huck Finn readers, even as they enjoyed their time with “America’s child,” remained remote.

My university students tuned in Huck on a higher frequency: his loneliness was theirs, and they were hungry to put a name on it. With the least encouragement, they could generate papers about Huck Finn and video games, Huck Finn and the Hunger Games, Huck Finn and teenage smoking, Huck Finn and social media, Huck Finn and ADHD. Education students trained to teach young adult fiction and eschew classics found, instead, a classic that felt like today’s young adult fiction, if only one twisted the lens. They saw how Tom and Huck weren’t just two kids with fishin’ poles but embodiments of the axiom common in childhood studies that “the young make their own histories”—that they are amazing yarn spinners, cultural salvage artists, controllers of their own narratives.

Likewise, my students admired how attuned Twain seemed to the ideas they had acquired in professional education classes: how Huck illustrated Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences,” for instance—he was smart in several ways, but none that would show up on a standardized test—and how his maturation process matched psychologist Jean Piaget’s influential portrait of dynamic and in­teractive growth during childhood. And more often than not, they gravitated toward the position that Twain took in the debates of his day (and that his book could represent in ours): that young people should not be patronized, because human development rarely occurs in lockstep with the institutions designed to guide it. “In most cases changes take place in us without our being aware of it at the time,” Twain wrote in 1901, “and in after life we give the credit of it—if it be of a creditable nature—to mamma, or the school or the pulpit.”

Contrarily, my students regarded the conversation about race in Huck Finn with wariness. For most readers, the current fight over Huck Finn is most recognizably a fight over the “n-word,” and whether or not the book ought to appear in secondary school classrooms. What does its presence in the pages of Huck Finn signify, we now ask, and have asked since the 1950s: Is the book racist, or a textbook illustration of the antiracist uses of racism? As a compacted method for talking about race in America, the debate about racial slur is still very live. But it is not young, either, and by and large, my students think that what the book says about children, that they should not be patronized, is a broken promise here. They know what’s on Twitter— they know what’s on the radio. They already know the terms of en­gagement, already know the debate, the major schools of thought on appropriate uses: “eradicationists” and “regulationists,” according to Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

Like professionals, we discuss ameliorative and enhancing strat­egies: teaching Huck in tandem with African-American authors; teaching it on higher levels, in elective classes, only; teaching it using disclaimers, units on historical context, pop culture, or new tech­niques like “switching,” where students “switch” the race, or gender, or era of selected characters; teaching the edited version; not teaching it at all. But even the best ideas still sometimes feel like bandages on an untreated wound. My students know something is still wrong, that neither the complex vitality of children’s culture nor the exis­tential persistence of racial division is truly being addressed amid the vortex of mixed signals that surround them. For better or worse, they don’t require a book to speak on behalf of a nation, or to speak with one voice when it does: they understand that Huck Finn hurts some readers, enthralls others, and challenges many in-between. What they want is something blunter, the literary equivalent of a truth commission, that unmixes the signals, tells them how we got here, and what we might do next.

So I went back to the archives. As I scanned page after page of old newspapers, this time on a hand-cranked microfiche machine I bought on eBay, I recognized anew the fresh view that the “Twins of Genius” provided for understanding Twain’s novel. It didn’t just change the book for me—it changed the story of the book, its place in the culture. And now I paid conscious attention to the other news stories, the points of reference a reader of Huck in 1885 might em­ploy: reports of Huck-like boys, weaned on pop culture, committing murders; a national election that many believed would lead to the reintroduction of slavery. The world around Twain wasn’t the filler; it was the point. Twain’s childhood, and his evolution as a writer and national figure, came into focus for me: one could see how the country and the man grew up together and reached a crossroads at the same time.

I found George Washington Cable, the other Twin of Genius on that tour, to be a crucial contrast to Twain. His great essay “The Freedman’s Case in Equity,” which was published alongside chapters from Huck Finn in the same issue of the same magazine, and which called for the integration of public places, was both inspiration and foil to Twain’s novel. We have a tendency to see Twain as a “racial savior,” as Michael J. Kiskis has written, or, rebounding from that excess, a racist. But the spectrum itself is wrong. It is not Twain but Cable who shows us what commitment on race from a white Amer­ican of his time looked like. Twain, on the other hand, was the great spokesman for the idea that culture trumps politics—the one man in our history who could say (in the voice of Satan, of course) that “against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand” and almost be believed.

Reading reviews of Twain performances in the “Twins of Genius” reminded me that comedy, profane and tricky, was his expertise, and that the minstrel show, a now disowned but once extraordinarily pop­ular type of theater in which “blackness” was performed, was the key influence on Huck Finn that would help unlock a larger conversation. Scholars have known about this link between a celebrated American classic and a taboo pop form for decades; in fact, they have used orig­inal documents from the 1800s to uncover a wide palette of political emotions in minstrelsy in general, and with that a deeper sense of how old racisms transmit themselves stealthily into new centuries. But this scholarly discussion, dense and ambivalent as it is, has not significantly moved the public discussion. That most readers don’t see the connection between Huck and minstrelsy is because we equate minstrelsy with blackface stage makeup, which has been discredited, not with the songs, dances, jokes, and cultural strategies that endure. And that other readers, recognizing the connection, generally don’t focus on it, is because public discussion of minstrelsy’s role in shap­ing America has been buried alongside the appalling mask that best represented it.

Buster Keaton did minstrelsy; so did Bing Crosby; so did Bugs Bunny. It echoes throughout post–World War II music, through rock, hip-hop (the most popular current use of “minstrelsy” is in condemnations of stereotypes in rap, or among black comedians), jazz, and country, in situation comedies, “buddy” movies, in fashion, in literature. It ties Macklemore and Lewis, Miley Cyrus, and Tyler Perry to performers from 150 years ago, and it ties Huck Finn to us in ways we haven’t been willing to really acknowledge. Critics denounce the minstrelsy in Huck Finn, claiming that a “real,” or at least em­pathetic, portrait of Jim, the African-American man at the heart of the book, disappears beneath a “stereotype mask.” Defenders argue, as did Ralph Ellison, that “Jim’s dignity . . . and Twain’s complexity” rise from behind that mask. But few push through the basic frame of the argument, which implies that Twain did this work unconsciously, or that his courage simply failed, when in fact, for better or worse, these connections were something he wanted his audience to see from the very start. One talks about the minstrel show, and Twain’s particular take on it, to see how deep Huck Finn can be on race, not how shallow—to see what a complicated parable of the persistence of racism Twain had really built, and what an unconscious parable of the persistence of racism we built, in turn, by celebrating the book according to the terms we have.

There was, in other words, a serious debate about how to raise and educate children in the American 1880s. And Twain was con­tributing something more than a lighthearted “boy’s book” to that debate: he was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular cul­ture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at-risk children, and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor. And there was a serious debate about the future of race relations in the American 1880s, too. But Twain was not as much a part of it as we tend to think. He was somewhere nearby, ingenious, outraged, self-interested, vastly more interested in how many Americans play with race than in how they rise above it, or render its terms obsolete at the ballot box—an important conversation, but not the one we think we’re having.

And lastly, all through the research and composition of this book, and especially as I pored through the old newspapers, I never stopped hearing whispers testifying to an uncanny relationship between our present and our past. For many, it is an unspoken canon that “we,” at any given time, are the most tolerant of Americans that ever ex­isted, that the clock on phenomena like racism or child-rearing, for instance, only ticks in one direction. Others construct vast technol­ogies of nostalgia with little authority, and swear that the past was better. Many do neither—but are worn down by the kaleidoscopic subjectivity it takes to tell (and hear) the national story in a way that does justice to everyone who has contributed to it. As Mintz writes, though, few ever really tamper with the notion that we are either pro­gressing or in decline. The people in the past are either worse than us or better. That they might have been like us, and, more to the point, that they may have explored paths forward we have abnegated, had access to sources of wisdom we have lost, and were already frustrated by political debates that still persist to this day, is rarely part of the story we tell ourselves.

At times, during my research, the men and women of the Ameri­can 1880s struck me as quaint ancestors. More often, however, I was struck by the similarity of their political debates to ours; not iden­tical, certainly, but not less evolved. Historians warn us to respect the otherness of the past, and it is good advice, but maybe once in a while we need to hear that we’re stuck. Twain delivered Huck Finn to a country where Jim Crow ensured that African-Americans had more difficulty voting, held fewer public offices, and had fewer eco­nomic opportunities than they did in the previous decade, and where a racially biased judicial system drove many African-Americans into convict leasing systems that rented out their bodies for pennies a day. A modern reader trying to make sense of Huck Finn lives in a country where, as Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, large percentages of the African-American male population of major cities (three out of four in Washington, D.C., over half in Chicago) are either imprisoned—where their labor can be sold for pennies a day—or released from prison, but with restricted voting rights, mo­bility, and access to economic benefits.

Likewise, Twain offered Huck Finn to a country where parents, educators, and politicians worried that children, especially boys, were too exposed to violent media, that they were too susceptible to amoral market forces that made them anarchic and violent themselves. The twenty-first-century reader lives in a country worried about the exact same things, only with fresher media. In fact, the debate over chil­dren has changed so little over the last century—across a variety of issues—that Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, in Grand Theft Childhood, describe the history of that debate as “déjà vu, all over again and again.”

In this light, it matters that we have been misreading Huck Finn, because that misreading is both wasted opportunity and metaphor for our larger failure to recognize our close relation to the past. Twain, however, was incredibly alert to such matters: Huck is a “prescient book,” Ishmael Reed tells us, that “lays down patterns”—our pat­terns. From childhood, Twain was a “great boy” for reading history— his mother told us that. He was reading it the day he died. “Story up history,” he once jotted in his notebook; it was a kind of mission. Sometimes, he thought that he saw progress everywhere, but more often he did not. In his essays, he frequently found ways to argue that the sins and virtues of one era or country reinvent themselves in oth­ers. And as he was writing the last chapters of Huck Finn, he devised a history game called “Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder”: “The board represents any century,” Twain told its players. “Also, it represents all centuries. . . . If you choose, you can throw your game open to all history and all centuries.” It was exactly the game one might invent if one had concluded that history was a game—the same thing over and over.

And Huck Finn ends with its narrator right back where he started: “I been there before” are his last words, and he sounds weary when he says them.

We misread Huck Finn, on matters of race and children especially, for the same reason we repeat the cultural and political schema of the Gilded Age—because the appealing idea that every generation is better off than the one before conceals our foreboding that we live in a land of echoes.

And yet we read Huck Finn, after all these years, because the fore­boding speaks to us anyway.

Excerpted from "Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece" by Andrew Levy. Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Levy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

By Andrew Levy

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