Sunday, February 1, 2015

Huck Finn and Anxiety about children

A new book, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece, argues that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not primarily about race. Reviewing the book in Salon, Laura Miller writes that
... including Twain himself, considered race to be the primary theme of “Huckleberry Finn.” Rather, the novel emerged from and spoke to a society that was obsessed with wayward children, particularly boys, and most typically lower-class boys spurred to delinquency by the violent stories they read in dime novels. The papers were full of “stories of children committing crimes or dying young or killing each other,” to a degree that, Levy remarks, a modern reader would find “simply numbing.” In response to this perceived crisis, Americans were, for the first time, seriously discussing the establishment of a system of public education.
"Childhood in crisis" is, of course, a theme much still with us:
It’s easier to look back at the public conversation about bad boys when “Huckleberry Finn” was published and recognize it as an early incarnation of conversations we have right now. “Condemning the newest media because it markets violence to children is one of the oldest tropes in American politics,” Levy writes. “We forget that reading was the Xbox of the Victorian age, and dime novels their equivalent of violent video games,” but being reminded of this repetition is not that troubling.
However, Miller continues:
Race is another matter. Levy believes that Twain arrived at a conclusion that most Americans refuse to entertain. Huck might have experienced an epiphany about his kinship with Jim, but the novel ends with Tom Sawyer using both of them, and their lives, as a form of entertainment, then paying off the long-suffering Jim with the symbolically fraught sum of $40. Not much has changed in the course of “Huckleberry Finn” beyond the understanding of one wild heart, and that, as Twain himself realized in his old age, looking back on the failure of Reconstruction and railing about colonialism and King Leopold, does not actually amount to much. “Mistaking a dark comedy about how history goes round for a parable about how it goes forward is a classic American mistake,” Levy observes.

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