On Our Huckleberry Friend

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A more interesting discussion of Huckleberry Finn than the one we keep having would be over the book itself. Here’s what Ernest Hemingway (in 1934) had to say about it:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.


Hold that thought. Here's the contrary opinion of Jane Smiley, who agrees with Hemingway about the ending, but not much else. She wrote (in Harper’s in 1996):

As with all bad endings, the problem really lies at the beginning, and at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, neither Huck nor Twain takes Jim’s desire for freedom at all seriously, that is, they do not accord it the respect that a man’s passion deserves. The sign of this is that not only do the two never cross the Mississippi to Illinois, a free state, but the Jackson’s Island scenes show that such a crossing, even in secret, is both possible and routine, and even though it would present legal difficulties for an escaped slave , these would certainly pose no more hardship than locating the mouth of the Ohio and then finding passage up it. It is true that there could have been slave catchers in pursuit (though the novel ostensibly take place in the 1840’s and the Fugitive Slave Act was not passed until 1850), but Twain’s moral failure, once Huck and Jim link up, is never even to account for their choice to go down the river rather than across it. What this reveals is that for all his lip service to real attachment between white boy and black man, Twain really saw Jim as no more than Huck’s sidekick, homoerotic or otherwise. All the claims that are routinely made for the book’s humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd. Jim is never autonomous, never has a vote, always find his purposed subordinate to Huck’s and , like every good sidekick, he never minds. He grows every more passive and also more affectionate as Huck and the Duke and the Dauphin and Tom (and Twain) make ever more use of him for their own purposes. But this use they make of him is not supplementary; it is integral to Twin’s whole conception of the novel. Twain thinks that Huck’s affection is good enough reward for Jim.

Smiley seems to think white racial sanctimony is what grew out of Huckleberry Finn — or at least that Twain’s book was hailed as archetypal because it caught that enduring zeitgeist.

White Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans, it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture, American politics, and the American economy. To invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with “greatness” is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is and to promulgate it, philosophically, in schools and the media as well as in academic journals. Surely the discomfort of many readers, black and white, and the censorship battles that have dogged Huck Finn in the last twenty years are understandable in this context. No matter how often the critics “place in context” Huck’s use of the word “nigger,” they can never excuse or fully hide the deeper racism of the novel-the way Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don’t care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans. And to give credit to Huck suggests that the only racial insight Americans of the nineteenth or twentieth century are capable of is a recognition of the obvious-that blacks, slave and free, are human.


Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a lovely tree-lined suburb of Saint Louis right next to Kirkwood, the lovely tree-lined suburb where I grew up (and, what the hell, not all that different from Oak Park, that eden of “wide lawns and narrow minds” where Hemingway grew up) so we’re products of common clay. (Hannibal, where Twain grew up, was upriver about 100 miles.) I recognize, if I don’t entirely share, the exasperation of a frustrated progressive with genteel white self-regard.

The point I see her getting at is that Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book for lazy minds to argue over because the stakes are so low — does Huck get to grow up in his own words, or in ours? — and every new censorship battle is another opportunity. The latest opportunity is right now, thanks to a new edition just produced by English professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University, who stripped Twain’s text of its niggers and replaced them with slaves. He thinks teachers would appreciate a version free of “a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”

Is that true? My sense of it is that nigger has lost so much vitriol — largely through canny African-American appropriation — that Gribben’s edition is a commercial opportunity he’d better cash in on now before it’s too late. It’s a word that puts whites who want to use it at risk of sounding tin-eared and presumptuous, which is a far cry from sounding racist and terrifying. Roger Ebert responded to the Gribben flap by tweeting, “I'd rather be called a Nigger than a Slave,”
and was quickly slapped down at livejournal.com, but not for racism.

Roger Ebert feels entitled to suggest what word is better and what he would rather be called. Because, you know, he's totally been there?...

It's not that I agree with people updating Mark Twain's work, which is supposed to reflect the reality people faced back then (and I don't believe in trying to erase history, it's the only way we'll learn), but I just *really* hated that he felt the right to use the word, that he felt the right to choose which word is better (did he forget he's white?) and that he would actually say which word he would rather be called when he will never be called neither. What was he thinking? SMH.

People need to think before they tweet and they need to think more before giving their opinion on races issues. Tweet him your opinions.

Ebert replied by tweeting, “ You know, this is very true. I'll never be called a Nigger *or* a Slave, so I should have shut the **** up.” He added a link to the above critique.

I hope all Ebert means by this is that the next time he has a point to make about literature, censorship, or racism he won’t try to make it on Twitter. I can imagine Jane Smiley, if she were writing her essay today, adding snarkily that Twain would have loved Twitter, having no ideas about race too big or too complicated for it. It wouldn’t have been true. But the vocabulary debate seems tailored to fit.

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