Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sam Clemens at the Cotton Club: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I originally published this at the end of April, 2010. I'm bumping this to the top of the stack as it is directly relevant to my current work on Matt Jockers' Macroanalysis.
This is the second post in a series on Race in the Symbolic Universe. The first one is here. (Cross-posted at The Valve.)
In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led "to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence--one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness." That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans, with various Prosperos continually defining themselves against various Calibans.

In discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Morrison notes "the apparently limitless store of love and compassion the black man [Jim, the escaped slave] has for his white friend and white masters" and points out that Huck and Tom subject Jim to "baroque, endless, foolish, mind-softening" humiliation, which Jim accepts at face value. The question is: What is Mark Twain thus revealing about the role black people have in the white psyche? What needs do whites thus satisfy?

The basic story of Huckleberry Finn is well-known: Huck runs from home to escape his alcoholic and abusive father and is joined by Jim, a slave running for freedom. They ride a raft going south on the Mississippi and have adventures along the way. Jim is captured, Tom Sawyer arrives and helps Huck to rescue him. There are complications but, in the end, Jim is free and Huck decides to continue fleeing.

Let's take a look at the last sixth or so of the book, which is about the elaborate shenanigans Tom and Huck undertake toward the end of rescuing Jim. This is where they inflict most of the humiliation on Jim, all in the name of freeing him. Freeing him from what?

Jim was being held in a small wooden shack. Springing Jim from the shack would have been an easy matter, as was obvious to Huck, Tom, and to Jim himself. However, guided by Tom's reading of such books as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man In the Iron Mask, the boys made elaborate work of it. For example, at one point Tom decided that Jim had to scratch appropriate inscriptions on the stone wall of his cell, things such as "Here a captive heart busted" and "Here, homeless and friendless, after thirty-seven years of bitter captivity, perished a noble stranger, natural son of Louis XIV" (chapter 38). Aside from the fact that Jim couldn't write and these particular inscriptions make no sense whatever when applied to him, there is an even more fundamental problem: The wooden shack which held Jim prisoner had no stone walls. Undaunted, Tom noticed a millstone which he decided would be an adequate surrogate for the missing stone wall. Unfortunately it was too heavy for him and Huck to move. They decided they needed Jim's help. Since they had already dug a tunnel under one wall of the shack it was easy to get Jim out. Once free, Jim helped the boys to get the stone back into his humble prison where he could then copy Tom's inscriptions on to it.

Something is obviously very wrong here. If they had a tunnel into the shack and Jim was able to get out through it, why bother to lug the millstone back into the shack? Once outside, Jim was free. And, since that was the point of this entire exercise, that should have been the end of it. But that was not the point of the exercise, not for Tom. Early in the plotting Tom decides that it would, in fact, be trivially easy to set Jim free. He says to Huck (chapter 35):
Why, drat it, Huck, it's the stupidest arrangement I ever see. You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can't help it; we got to do the best we can with the materials we've got. Anyhow, there's one thing—there's more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn't one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.
When Huck question's Tom's desire for a saw to cut through the bed-leg to which Jim was chained, observing that they could just "lift up the bedstead and slip the chain off," Tom replied:
Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that? No; the way all the best authorities does is to saw the bed-leg in two, and leave it just so, and swallow the sawdust, so it can't be found, and put some dirt and grease around the sawed place so the very keenest seneskal can't see no sign of its being sawed, and things the bed-leg is perfectly sound. Then, the night you're ready, fetch the leg a kick, down she goes; slip off your chain, and there you are.
However much one might admire Tom's veneration of the written authorities, and his verve and inventiveness in bringing them to bear in this situation, one can't help feeling that this is all more than a bit ridiculous. Why is Mark Twain having him do all this? What is he trying to show us?

Before we take a crack at those questions there is one more level of foolishness we have to see. Tom's elaborate planning came to fruition in an escape that was gratifyingly difficult and ultimately successful. However, Tom was wounded by a bullet in his leg and, unfortunately, Jim was captured as he stayed with Tom while Huck went to find a doctor. Huck is understandably confused and upset. The companion he had struggled so hard to free is, once again, captured; and his good friend is wounded. When Tom recovers sufficiently to understand Huck's concern and to respond to it, he tells him that Jim "ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth" (chapter 42). It seems that Jim's mistress, Miss Watson, had died two months ago and freed him in her will.

The complications Tom invented to add difficulty to the physical process of escaping are thus doubly ridiculous. Not only were they an impediment to the physical act of escaping, that act itself was unnecessary. Imprisonment served to physically realize Jim's legal status as a slave. But that, we now see, wasn't Jim's legal status. Legally he was free. And Tom knew it from the very beginning. The entire escape served no moral purpose. It happened only to satisfy Tom's sense of theatrical style.

Farfetched as it is, we can accept that as an account of Tom's motivation in the matter. We may be exasperated, if not outraged, by such behavior. But in the world of this novel, it makes sense. That, however, is not really the issue which confronts us. We need to know what the world of this novel is about. In some way it captures some facet of American experience and attitude. Given it's centrality in the canon of American literature, the experience and attitude Mark Twain embodied in Huckleberry Finn is central to American culture.

Morally, Jim was a free man. He was so, because that is how he was born, essentially free and the equal of other free men and women. That is the moral basis of the American political system; it served as the moral basis for the fight for independence. That it took a long time to extend that essential moral freedom to eliminating slavery, is an unpleasant fact about American history. And it is that unpleasant fact that Mark Twain is dealing with in this elaborate charade of imprisonment and escape, which thus becomes an satirical allegory on the political concept of freedom.

From the very beginning Jim was, essentially, free. The physical fact of his captivity did not match the legal fact of his freedom. The escape charade is thus something which Tom projected onto Jim. Knowing that he was free, Tom nonetheless, for his own purposes and satisfaction, imagined Jim to be a prisoner. This kind of projective act is at the psychological core of American racism. European-Americans, some more than others, and some little if at all, have used African-America as a means of discovering and acting out aspects of their own desires and needs which they cannot deal with directly. Such psychological maneuvering is quite common on an individual level. American culture has made such projection a part of its collective culture. Thus, if we can better understand the cultural psychology of Mark Twain's novel, we'll begin to understand the cultural and psychological dynamics which has shaped the course of American music in our own time.

Let us return to Huck, and ask ourselves what was driving him: Why did he want to escape? The immediate problem was the return of his alcoholic and abusive father. Huck feared for his life, and justifiably so. In order to get to the Mississippi he had to escape from his father's cabin after his father had locked him in. But that's not all that drove him. He had been under the care of the Widow Douglas, who set out to "sivilize" him, dressing him in proper clothes, forcing him to eat supper at the right time, with the correct manners, forbidding him to smoke, insisting on reading to him "about Moses and the Bulrushers", and so forth. Between his father's probable assault on his body and the Widow's constriction of his spirit, Huck had no choice but to escape.

And so he does, and meets up with Jim, who is also escaping. Huck treats Jim as a black mammy who soothes the wounds inflicted by his abusive father and constricting mother-surrogate. In Jim Huck finds the nurturing parent he so desperately needed, prompting Leslie Fiedler to remark that Jim gives Huck (Love and Death in the American Novel, p. 353):
. . . pure affection . . . without the threat of marriage . . . the protection and petting offered by his volunteer foster-mothers without the threat of pious conformity . . . the friendship offered by Tom without the everlasting rhetoric and make-believe. Jim is all things to him: father and mother and playmate and beloved . . . calling Huck by the names appropriate to their multiform relationship: "Huck" or "honey" or "chile" or "boss," and just once "white genlman."
That is an absolutely extraordinary statement, but it is true. At the very heart of American literature we have this story of a dispossessed white boy who finds his deepest emotional satisfaction in the bosom a black man. For the first time in his life Huck feels at home, on a raft in the Mississippi with an escaped slave standing in for his parents.

This is a rootless image of home. Which is to say that it is a contradiction, for home is where one's roots are. Home is where the heart is. Huck's heart was threatened by his father and kept at a distance by the good Widow. Where there is no heart, home is just a house. Huck finds fellowship only with a man who is, by virture of his race and history, an outcast to Huck's society, and that's saying something, for Huck himself is pretty marginal.

Thus the novel collapses at the end, with no real resolution, no home achieved. Jim finally tells Huck that his father is dead. Though now a free man, there is no sense of a viable future for Jim. As for Huck, he's going to "light out for the territory . . . because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it." Home on the Mississippi has dissipated and our protagonist can only return to rootless wandering.

In the symbolic structures of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, emotional fullness and ease exist only in African America. Jim is an ideal type, an Aunt Jemima in a male body. Yet Mark Twain had no way of reclaiming that emotional richness for European American, not even in the provisional and fictive magic of the novel. He didn't make Jim a white man, say, accused of a crime he didn't commit, because his symbolic universe would not and could not function with a white man in the narrative's central parental role. The only way he had to point up the radical difference between the upbringing Huck had had and the upbringing he needed was to clothe that difference in the most radical symbolic opposition the culture had available, the difference between black and white.

Yet, less than a half-century later—Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884—young white boys like Bix Biederbecke and Benny Goodman, Huck's spiritual descendants, would listen to jazz records and sneak into jazz clubs where they would admire black musicians and aspire to play like them – for a fictional example, see my discussion of Young Man With a Horn. What these boys did was no longer symbolic, it was real. Their black role models were hardly ideal; they certainly were not Aunt Jemima types. What jazz musicians, black and white, have in common is that they play jazz. Otherwise they are as diverse as any other occupational group. But the imagined events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn molded the lives of real people, helping to prepare a place in the white man's soul that would make it easier for him to pattern his music on a black model.


  1. Bill, I've blogged some of my Twain chapter in my dissertation over at Citizen of Somewhere Else. I tend to agree with your psychological reading, but used Tom's giving Jim a coat of arms to suggest that Twain was specifically writing a parody of Reconstruction.

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  2. Hi, TC. Good to see you around these parts. On Twain as parodying Reconstruction, that's certainly consistent with my take. So I agree with you:

    The point of the joke, though, is aimed directly at the end of Reconstruction: Jim's coat of arms signifies and dramatizes the limitations of liberal reformers, the triumph of racist reactionaries, and their collusion in imposing precisely the "badge of servitude" that the Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. So I agree with Scott that Twain did have a moral purpose in representing Huck's failure to stand up to Tom, but, Colacurcio-like, my reading emphasizes that Twain is historicizing this failure and making it a figure for the larger society's moral and political failings. The sense of betrayal most readers feel at Huck's actions (and lack thereof) in the last third of the novel, then, is a pale shadow of the betrayal of African Americans by the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

    As I recall, Twain had a rather grim take on America toward the end of his life, but it's been a long time since I've read him.