First Mark Twain Lecture

Huck Finn, though a best-seller, has always been controversial too. In our time: is it racist? should it ever be taught? (I said we'd discuss these questions in the third HF lecture.) In its own time, though, banned from some libraries, attacked by some critics, as too coarse, vulgar, racy (racy, not racist). [BANNED IN CONCORD]

Basic objections in 1885: to Huck as "bad" kid, and to novel's language as "bad" too -- both truant, both bad models for American children. Huck's character & his language inextricable. In comparison with the other "text" in the novel, Emmeline's poem, Huck's language not "literary," or derived from books and cultural preconceptions, but vernacular, and derived from his own experience.

I talked about the way, on one hand, that meant MT could use Huck's "illiteracy" to emancipate novel from imported linguistic conventions, allow American novel to represent American experience in its own voice (perhaps what Hemingway meant when he said "All modern American lit comes from one book, Huck Finn"). And also the way Huck's engagement with what's "really" there, as opposed to what books say (whether the book is the Bible, or Tom's romances, &c.) allows MT as a "Realist" to re-write earlier, romance accounts of the world -- we compared the robber gangs Tom has read about (Chapter 2) to the robber gang Huck sees firsthand on the wrecked steamboat Walter Scott -- Scott, of course, was a writer of "romance." And, I suggested, one of the books MT is using Huck to re-write is his own Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- where that novel "white-washed" the ante bellum world Clemens grew up in nostalgically, Huck Finn takes a harsher look at the cruelty, violence, greed, and hypocrisy of the same slave-holding society.

That led to the most complex or resonant way MT is using Huck as a point of contact with what is really there, as opposed to what he's supposed to "see," ideological pre-judgments about reality: way Huck can see Jim, and through his voice, language, let us see him too -- we looked hard at the passage (p. 320) when Jim calls Huck "trash" for playing a trick on him as a friend, and talked a lot about words, dictionaries, how much difference "what you call a thing" -- or a person -- makes.

But went on to way, as his language shows us, Huck not really free of all cultural or ideological preconceptions -- "nigger" vs. Jim, what he's supposed to see vs. his experience with a man on a raft. Here we looked hard at the scene usually referred to as novel's thematic or moral climax: Chapter 31, where Huck decides to go to hell. Although Huck is alone, you can hear two voices in that scene -- one, voice of his conscience, which speaks to him with a southern not a heavenly accent (conscience as constructed by society, not a divine monitor of right and wrong), and can "see" two different "Jim's" in that scene -- "a poor old woman's nigger," which as a piece of property Huck will go to hell for stealing, and "I see Jim before me," the friend whom Huck does not want to abandon. I ran out of time before finishing the discussion of this scene, but the main point I was trying to make can be summed this way: HF is a novel about slavery, but if plot is about whether Huck can help Jim get free, thematically its more profound question is: can Jim help Huck get free? free from the way his thoughts have been shaped by his society? We'll go on with that question, and with the passage in Chapter 31, on Monday.

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