Me vs. Jane Smiley

That’s right–the match-up the literary world has been dying to see ever since the head-to-head publication of A Thousand Acres and my 4th-grade theme, Types of Huts of the Plains Indians, started one of the literary world’s most storied and colorful rivalries. The awards show disses, the booksigning brawls…all I can say is we’ve got history.

And now it comes to this.

For the past 2 weeks I’ve been looking for a convincing and credible argument against the inclusion of Huckleberry Finn in the high school canon. I should have known it would come by way of my old nemesis. Smiley. In the January 1, 1996 Harper’s, she wrote a lengthy article in favor of replacing Huckleberry Finn with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the lineup of high school standards. (A lot of people already read Uncle Tom, but she basically wants to eliminate Huckleberry altogether.) She says that Uncle Tom gives readers a much better sense for the conflicts and tragedies wrapped up in the slavery and racism of antebellum America.

Maybe that’s true, but I think her criticism of Twain is based on a pretty shallow reading of the book. If it were Mark Twain’s point to illustrate tragedy and conflict in a straightforward, dramatic manner, and if his book were in competition with Uncle Tom based on those criteria, Smiley might be right. But I don’t think that’s what Twain’s book is about at all. I think the ironic tone of Huckleberry Finn is more complex–and more honest–than a straight dramatic tale. Here’s why:

First of all, Twain is a humorist, writing in a satirical mode. He has big criticisms to make about the society around him, but he knows that a spoonful of satirical irony will make some of the harder medicine go down. He’s not necessarily trying to give us a documentary snapshot of the slave or slave-owner’s lifestyle. He’s exaggerating, digressing, mocking, and performing various other freestyle literary tricks intended to reward those who appreciate irony and to weed out those who don’t.

Although he’s writing in an ironic mood, the book is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and there’s a very good reason for that. In my mind, for something to be funny it must be: incongruous (what happens is different than what was expected), sudden (surprise=laughter), and benign (harmless). In this book, Twain covers those first two requirements but violently rejects the last: Nothing in this book is harmless. Jim and Huck’s travels take them through dangerous territory where they are in constant risk of losing absolutely everything. Jim, a runaway slave, and Huck, a runaway from a violently abusive father, share some characteristics, most notably that other people seek to “own” them. The river brings them into contact with one threatening, nightmarish character and event after another. (I’m fully aware that a lot of you out there vigorously disagree with my assessment of the book’s tone. I’m not really talking about “tone,” which Huck keeps lighthearted in his narration, but rather about the events themselves, which are described in enough realistic detail to shock attentive readers.) There is nothing “benign” about their environment. If Huck weren’t such an optimist and opportunist, this would be a horror story, not a comedy. Reading it this semester, many aspects of their journey have reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s latest book The Road, which I read last year, and which is one of the bleakest books I have ever read. In some ways, it’s kind of Huck Finn without the irony, told from the perspective of an old nihilist instead of a young optimist.

In her Harper’s article, Jane Smiley makes it pretty clear what she wants from Twain’s book. Okay, so she masks her desire for meaning behind her summary of other critics, but the gist of it is this: The book is supposed to be the story of a naive but innocent hero on a journey of self-discovery in which he sheds prejudice and racism and accepts his travelling companion as a whole human. If that tiny summary represents the narrative Twain was trying for, I would agree that he falls short. In fact, if that were the point of the book, I would stand right up with some of my students and argue that this is a racist book. I would agree with Smiley that with the Shepherdson/Grangerford episode “the novel begins to fail, because from here on the episodes are mere distractions from the true subject of the work: Huck’s affection for and responsibility to Jim,” and that Huck doesn’t “take Jim’s desire for freedom at all seriously; that is, [he does] not accord it the respect that a man’s passion deserves.”

Smiley’s big mistake is that, in that last quote, she attributes the failing not just to Huck, but also to Mark Twain. In her view, Twain’s values and opinions are clearly denoted in the text and Huck’s attitude evolves throughout the book to conform to Twain’s ideal. I think that is utter nonsense, and I don’t think Huck is supposed to be a hero. Huck and Jim are clearly both victims, and in their travels both almost entirely vulnerable. Neither can hide the cultural markers that set them lower than others (Jim’s skin, Huck’s youth and class) or the marks of their abuse at the hands of powerful “overseers.” They are both claimed as property. Is Huck’s victimization as sociopolitically profound or historically important as Jim’s? Of course not. And we cannot forget that Huck’s victimization, unlike Jim’s, comes with a dash of privilege–just enough let Huck set himself one small step above Jim in the hierarchy of the raft.

Even so, Huck and Jim are both “abused children” trying to make their way through the world without a master, and they are naive and painfully ignorant in similar ways. Huck is literally an abused child, and he acts like it, sometimes reflecting or mimicking the abuse he has received. Jim is all that, and more, a runaway slave, although he tends to have a more mature attitude and more self-control than younger, wilder Huck. Both are victims of–and, yes, active participants in–a violent, power-hungry, racist culture that actually allows some people to own others. Of course they hate the system, but, much like most kids here at this school, they also buy into it in lots of subtle ways. Jim’s comments often reveal aspects of the interactions between slaves that show the hierarchy and power structures continuing down to the bottom of the pyramid. As I mentioned, the power structure even infects the culture of the raft. Both Jim and Huck play on the board their society sets up for them and that’s exactly why this book is a tragedy. No character–not even the author–is separate from the culture, and there’s no evidence to suggest that Twain claims to be.

Taken in this light, Smiley’s description of the book is basically right, but her assessment, far from being an indictment of the book, to me highlights the book’s honest and unflinching view of racism and power in our culture. She says that while the book only pays lip service

to real attachment between white boy and black man, Twain really saw Jim as no more than Huck’s sidekick, homoerotic or otherwise. All the claims that are routinely made for the book’s humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd. Jim is never autonomous, never has a vote, always finds his purposes subordinate to Huck’s, and, like every good sidekick, he never minds. He grows ever more passive and also more affectionate as Huck and the Duke and the Dauphin and Tom (and Twain) make ever more use of him for their own purposes. But this use they make of him is not supplementary; it is integral to Twain’s whole conception of the novel. Twain thinks that Huck’s affection is a good enough reward for Jim. (emphasis added)

The conclusions she draws in this passage about the unsatisfactory outcomes in the book are absolutely true. The book is deeply unsatisfying if you’re the kind of person that likes people and wants everyone to get what they deserve. But I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that Mark Twain thought the end of the book was in some way instructive or ideal. I think he’s simply, and pessimistically, reflecting the tragic state of affairs in the world around him. He’s stating a simple, devastating fact that ignorance and racism are here–always here–and here’s what happens as a result. Huck is not a perfect hero who totally transcends the world around him. Some of the characters make modest gains in understanding, but the book doesn’t show a complete vision of the way the world should be.

In the end I think Twain is a bit of a nihilist. I think this book represents his struggle with his own upbringing and attitudes, and I think it is a struggle that he essentially gives up and walks away from with some degree of dejection. He realizes that he can never leave behind his upbringing, his memories, his own bad actions, the examples of his friends and loved ones… Like most Americans, of all races, he grew up with the disease of racism all around him, and he has infected. While it seems pretty clear that he was able to shed actual racist attitudes and behavior in his adult life, the scourge and shame of his childhood remained. Twain’s novel shows how the country as a whole is also plagued by the memories of racist and evil behavior in our youth.

Smiley unintentionally wraps up her essay with a comment that perfectly reflects America’s lingering problem the discussion of race, and the hypocrisy that accompanies the discussion:

As Jim and Huck drift down Twain’s beloved river, the author finds himself nearing what must have been a crucial personal nexus: how to reconcile the felt memory of boyhood with the cruel implications of the social system within which that boyhood was lived. He had avoided this problem for the most part in Tom Sawyer: slaves hardly impinge on the lives of Tom and the other boys. But once Twain allows Jim a voice, this voice must speak in counterpoint to Huck’s voice and must raise issues that cannot easily be resolved, either personally or culturally. Harriet Beecher Stowe, New Englander, daughter of Puritans and thinkers, active in the abolitionist movement and in the effort to aid and educate escaped slaves, had no such personal conflict when she sat down to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Smiley’s world–and I suspect this goes for much of “progressive” America–the only valid voices in this debate are those supposedly untainted by the scourge of racism. Does Stowe, supposedly preserved from this blight by her insular upbringing, somehow have the ability to transcend the inherited cultural attitudes and provide a more authoritative version of the story of racism in America? Or is it Twain, who has personally witnessed one side of the tragedy, who has the more relevant view? If you take this book seriously, you understand Twain’s view that we’re all tainted. Racism is America’s original sin. As children, we’re all innocent victims. As adults, we unconsciously propagate the destructive power structures we grew up with.

I don’t think Huckleberry Finn has a happy ending, and Mark Twain was no optimist. The purpose of satire is to mock and criticize one’s own culture. Something happened between the writing of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: Twain got disgusted. As I’ve tried to make clear in class, it’s good for us to feel disgusted, too. In her assessment of the book and the author, Smiley carried her disgust with the message over into a disgust for the honest messenger. Let’s not make that mistake.



2 responses to “Me vs. Jane Smiley

  1. Here’s another reason: Uncle Tom’s Cabin blows. So boring. Don’t try and defend it, Matt. You know it’s true. You know if you read it at all it was only because you were forced to. Huck Finn, though. That’s a keeper.

  2. Agreed. As far as I’m concerned, art without irony is a waste of time. Mostly because it’s dishonest.

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