Second Mark Twain Lecture

In a journal entry in 1895 MT called Huck Finn "a book of mine in which a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision, and conscience suffers defeat" -- I began by using that to go back to that climactic scene in Chapter 31 when Huck decides to "go to hell." I tried to line up the conflicts we'd been talking about Friday (between two kinds of language, Huck's vernacular vs. derived abstract vocabulary; between two kinds of authorities, what Huck experiences himself vs. what he's been told to think & to see by his culture; between two Jim's, the friend Huck has on the raft vs. the "nigger" it's "wicked" to "steal) along that same heart/conscience axis. I tried to show how rich in resonance that passage in Chapter 31 remains. For example, way freedom for Jim is a place he can get to, free states, but here we see how freedom for Huck (from his ideological enslavement to slave-owning society) would be a state of mind, an ability to see how "they say" isn't necessarily true, but his own experience is. But the larger point I was trying to get to was, that I couldn't agree with MT's assessment, that "conscience suffers defeat." Because Huck remains convinced slavery is right & he's wrong, I think MT's point is how "freedom" is really unattainable, or at least unattained by Huck in the novel.

Though novel creates several wonderful images, or illusions, of that possibility. There's the raft on the river, and the idea of lighting out for Territory. Both are deeply Romantic ideas (escape into nature), and resonant American tropes (getting away from an old world, beginning anew, individual opportunity, etc.) But to me, novel isn't a bildungsroman, or story of Huck's growth. He sees things on the raft in new ways, and at moments sees Jim in ways that challenge his society's racist ideology, but he doesn't generalize from these moments. "Niggers" remain real, & less than human to him. He lights out on the first page of the novel, as well as the last. And rivers flow between banks, just as, in a very subtle irony, Huck & Jim are going "down the river," into slavery, the whole time they're together on the raft.

This unpopular idea -- that HF is finally about how Huck CAN'T free Jim & Jim CAN'T free Huck -- led to larger question of realist movement in America, and way in HF MT is re-writing or revising Romantic ideas of self, freedom, etc. To Whitman or Dickinson as Romantics, consciousness makes reality, or at least makes significance; to MT as Realist, reality makes consciousness -- the world inside Huck's head was shaped or determined by external world, including the corrupt values of his society. And because it's inside him he cannot escape that by going into Territory.

I ended by trying to talk about how different is the HF I've been "teaching" -- serious, ironic, realistic, even skeptical -- from the one most people read -- funny, entertaining, inspiring. One reason I offered: the way the story's ironic structure means that Huck can show people being vicious or squalid, but since reader knows better even than Huck, knows, for example, how good Huck is, reader isn't implicated in the patterns of the narrative: we value Huck, so we're better than those people in the book. Said, though, that most serious way MT managed to make HF popular with his audience was by playing what we now call "the race card" -- and said that's what I'll talk about on Wednesday.

I also asked you, before Wednesday's class, to look at the way Jim has been drawn in the various illustrated American editions of HF between 1885 and 1985 -- examples of those depictions are available at THIS ADDRESS. I asked you to look at these and decide which, if any, seem to you to depict "Jim" the way you think the novel itself depicts him -- as a way get us all thinking about how the novel represents African Americans, and whether it strikes us as racist or not. We'll talk more about that on Friday...

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