Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Distorting art through political filters: Did Mark Twain do 'a historic injustice' to Jim?

 "To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle." — John Keene, Annotations, quoted by Ben Ehrenreich in the Oct. 19 Nation.

"I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n." — Huckleberry Finn, reflecting on his companion Jim's homesickness as they raft down the Mississippi

What do we go to art for? How vital to our experience of art are the political and cultural values we have absorbed and the personal moral sense we've developed along the way?

These questions loom large as our political life shows no sign of losing its polarized quality, and the cultural wars that sometimes overshadow larger social ills continue to bloody the landscape. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" still bobs to the surface of a raging torrent, and a particular instance concerns me here. Without retreating into aestheticism, it's important to resist confusing what art does with how we think the world should be.

John Keene extends Jim's story in "Rivers."
Such confusion is promoted by a  review of John Keene's "Counternarratives: Stories and Novellas" in a recent issue of The Nation. "Probably the most exemplary of them," writes reviewer Ben Ehrenreich, "is 'Rivers,' a tender and brutal tale in which Keene avenges a historic injustice, granting Mark Twain's Jim the opportunity to narrate his own post-Huckleberry life."

My blood started boiling at that. I could hardly believe Ehrenreich meant the historic injustice was Mark Twain's, rather than the slavery Jim was trying to escape. But my worst fears were confirmed as the reviewer goes on to credit Keene with making Jim "something Twain never allowed him to be: a man of complexity and depth, with his own loves, tragedies, desires."

My head was practically exploding (fortunately a rare condition) at that "something Twain never allowed him to be." I will set aside Keene's imaginative foray into Jim's "post-Huckleberry life,"  granting it for now an artistic integrity the reviewer seems to be withholding from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." As a young black writer, Keene may very well have an agenda, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt inveterate readers extend to all creative writers.

But no Keene agenda could be as pernicious as Ehrenreich's. Let's get a few things straight: An author is neither permitting nor denying a character freedom that a sympathetic reader may choose to imagine for him. Jim is a slave of Miss Watson's, not Mark Twain's. And both Jim and Miss Watson are characters, among many others, chiefly the title boy, who have been created by Mark Twain. They behave and think according to the demands of the story he wanted to tell.

The limits an author places on his characters are a large part of the reason he's telling a story about them. You might as well take a dim view of Gustave Flaubert for not allowing Emma Bovary to marry someone other than a dull, provincial doctor. How unfair to condemn her to suicide after she has made a mess of her life!

Jane Smiley gave Huck-lovers lots to think about.
Someone came up with this worthy two-fold description of a critic's responsibilities: First, determine what the author is trying to do. Second, assess how well he has done it. You can't discard the first part by revising your responsibility so you get to determine what the author should be trying to do, applying tests extraneous to art. That's just stocking a barrel with fish. For step two, you can easily proceed to shoot them.

Of course, "Huckleberry Finn" is open to criticism on aesthetic grounds, including evidence that the
author may have had a divided consciousness about what he was trying to do. This is the tack the
novelist Jane Smiley pursued in her 1996 essay on the novel, comparing it unfavorably to "Uncle Tom's Cabin"  and crediting the latter for greater clarity about the evils of slavery and its toll on real human beings. But Harriet Beecher Stowe nonetheless accomplished this through creating imaginary characters and putting them into action.

Smiley's intelligent anti-Huck argument is not even closely approached by Ehrenreich's clueless swipes. It's hardly worth my time attacking a reviewer few of my readers have heard of. But the air that criticism breathes is also breathed by readers and playgoers, and Ehrenreich's rhetoric seems designed to set up criteria for judging works of art as though they were political positions subject to attack for siding with "historic injustice." I've grown suspicious of the term "political correctness," but this is a prime example of it.

Besides which, he's got Mark Twain's Jim all wrong. The escaping slave clearly has "his own loves, tragedies, desires"; Huck is amazed Jim thinks often of the family he left behind and expresses his sorrow openly; the second epigraph of this post quotes that acknowledgment. One of the novel's most moving episodes follows, when a sharp noise from the riverbank reminds Jim of the time he realized his 4-year-old daughter had been deafened by scarlet fever, from which he thought she had recovered. He slapped her for not obeying his command to shut the cabin door. Then, after a gust slammed the door shut and she didn't flinch, he suddenly realized the child couldn't hear anything, and he hugged her, crying and begging forgiveness.

So, the reviewer doesn't seem to know what's in the original book, but his worse error is believing that Mark Twain remains a bad actor on the political stage, especially where race relations are concerned, and that "Huckleberry Finn" may be properly judged as a tract or a personality test of the author, who flunks. The historic injustice has to be avenged, to use Ehrenreich's fevered language, through the unfinished business of American life, not through misreading an American classic.
It would be presumptuous to assume Mark Twain harbored no racism, but he was surely capable of looking in the same direction with an African-American.

Among the apt parts of Smiley's critique of "Huckleberry Finn" is to question why Huck and Jim didn't head straight for the opposite shore to Illinois, a free state. You will recall they shot past Cairo, carrying them deeper into the slave states, when they had intended to turn up the Ohio. Again, Mark Twain is in control here, and his neglect of that solution can best be attributed to the romance of the river.

As Samuel Clemens, Twain had been caught up in that idyll (see "Life on the Mississippi"), and Huck, his hero, enjoys the freedom of rafting and having genuine adventures not indebted to Tom Sawyer's borrowed trickery. It may be an aesthetic flaw to have allowed the romance of the river to take over the story, but I don't think so. Neither have generations of readers around the world. However much being mesmerized by the Mississippi may draw attention away from Jim's search for freedom, this is Huck's story. Twain's biggest mistake was to allow Tom Sawyer to complicate the last part of the book with pointless shenanigans, diminishing both Huck and Jim.

Huck and Jim disagree about Solomon's reputed wisdom.
In conclusion, I'll draw upon Jim's native sagacity in order to object to p.c. readings of "Huckleberry Finn." It comes earlier, when Huck and Finn are discussing Bible stories. The boy is trying to convince his companion of Solomon's justified reputation for wisdom; he's getting nowhere. Jim brings up the story of the king's proposed solution to a dispute between two women over a child claimed by each: cutting it in two.

Jim is having none of it: "De 'spute warn't 'bout a half a chile, de 'spute was 'bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he can settle a 'spute 'bout a whole chile wid a half a chile, doan' know enough to come in out'n de rain."

There's a whole man in Mark Twain's great book, a runaway slave named Jim. Readers who go into "Huckleberry Finn" with a filter that suspects the author of insufficiently raised consciousness taking the form of confining a character as if in a real master-slave relationship  — those people, whether common readers or critics, will emerge with only half a man, and even less of the book.

This 'spute is about what's lost in doing that. Social-justice ideologues  need to come in out'n de rain and dry off around the glowing hearth of art.

[For a local scholar's recent examination of Mark Twain's relationship to his characters and his times, read my former colleague Dan Carpenter's feature here.]


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