Third Mark Twain Lecture

". . . we'll all evade together . . . it's called an evasion" --
Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn, Chapter 39 (p. 435)

I spent today talking about why I think Huck Finn is both a very powerful examination of racism and a racist book, and how that divided identity says a lot about both "Mark Twain" as a writer and American culture.

It was a class full of ambivalences. I started with how HF is a wonderful testimony to democratic values -- its main characters, Huck & Jim, come from the "lowest" categories of the society it's set in ("poor white" and slave), yet display all kinds of human & moral greatness, vs. the "quality" folks. Yet, when the novel looks at the "people" generally, it sees them as a pretty ugly mob. It especially sees them as a kind of audience, with very debased appetites, for violence, watching Boggs die, for lewdness, the Royal Nonesuch, etc.

Col. Sherburn represents one way of "performing" for this "public"--tell them the truth about how contemptible they are, and be hated. The King and the Duke represent another kind of performance -- flatter the audience's appetites, expectations, prejudices, and be popular. I said that as a realist writer MT aspired to something like Sherburn's mode of truth-telling, but as a man with the ambition to be popular, famous, wealthy and loved by American readers, MT couldn't avoid the need to put on a kind of King & Duke audience-ingratiating show in HF.

Thus he begins down river with Huck seeing what's there, & especially seeing Jim's humanity. But this is dangerous to MT's popularity, because his contemporaries expected MT to make them laugh, not to challenge their preconceptions. In the middle chapters MT lets Jim challenge stereotypes, even condemning Huck for using him as entertainment after the fog, but in the last part of the novel (MT's own "Tom" show) MT sells Jim out. Huck becomes Tom, MT rewrites HF as Tom Sawyer, the whole idea of freeing a freed slave -- an issue American should address in 1885 -- is treated as a joke, etc. Tom tells Huck that the name for what they're doing in the novel's last section is an "Evasion" -- and for once I agree with him: in this long last section MT is working to evade the serious issues he'd raised earlier in the novel. He gives his contemporary readers, though, what they expected: from "Mark Twain" -- humor, entertainment, something to make them laugh; and from a character with a black face -- humor, entertainment, something to laugh at.

Was Mark Twain a racist? Essentially, I said I thought he was something worse, someone who knew racism was wrong, but as the King & Duke do with Christianity, he knew how to exploit it to make an audience happy. Should book be taught? I said I think so, because it's such a great place to look at our divided legacy as Americans. In way it shows how Huck's freedom depends on seeing Jim as fully human, for example, it reminds us of both the achievements and the ideals of our democracy. In the fellowship Jim and Huck create on the raft, the novel gives us a great image of what we should work toward. In way, though, it sacrifices Jim humanity to popular prejudice, it reminds us of how imperfect has been our country's realization of its ideals. In its reduction of Jim at the end to the minstrel stereotype, the novel gives us a painful example of what we should fight against. But to blindly defend the novel, to ignore completely all the racist elements that are in it, is to me a refusal to confront both our past, as it "really happened," and our present, where racism still exists. If HF can help us see what's in front of us though, it's good to teach, and talk about.

To me, there is no more important conversation for Americans to have than the difficult, potentially painful discussion about race and racism. Banning HF won't solve that problem. Teaching HF well might help -- but to me teaching it well means recognizing that MT's novel is part of the problem of racism as well as potentially part of the solution.

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