Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Twain

Ernest Hemingway wrote, "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Yet less than a year after it was published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by several American libraries for obscene language and moral degeneracy. In Concord, Massachussetts, the librarian said the book "is not suitable for trash."  Twain responded, "This will sell us sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

To many Twain scholars, Huck Finn exposed the hypocrisy of slavery in a democratic republic while humanizing the slave Jim.  Twain's critics claim Huck Finn depicts Jim as a minstrel stereotype prone to superstitious and ignorant beliefs.  In 1957, the NAACP accused Huck Finn of containing "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations."  In 2009, a Washington state high school teacher called for the removal of Huck Finn from the school's curriculum.

Twain himself was nonplussed by public reception. He said, "I wrote Huck Finn for adults exclusively and it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them.  The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.  I know this by my own experience and to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.  None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."

Twain claimed the character Huck was inspired by his childhood friend Tom Blankenship whose father was a drunk and the model for Pap Finn.  But in many ways Huck was inspired by Twain himself.  Like Huck, Twain grew up in the pre-Civil War South.  Twain's home state of Missouri was a slave state and Twain's uncle owned 20 slaves.  In his autobiography, Twain wrote, "I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another…awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market.  Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen."

As he matured, Twain's attitudes toward slavery evolved.  Twain married into an abolitionist family and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who at one point housed Frederick Douglass. Commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation, Twain wrote, "Lincoln's Proclamation…not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also."

Amazingly, Huck Finn almost never came to be.  Twain started the book in 1876 and wrote 400 pages that he liked "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript.  Twain stopped the story about the time Huck and Jim exited the river.  He went on to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.  Seven years later, after taking a steamboat ride down the Mississippi, Twain was inspired to complete the novel.

Many have complained about the final portion of Huck Finn.  Through their journey down the river, Huck experiences Jim's humanity and a true friendship develops. But when the character Tom Sawyer enters the novel, Huck becomes passive and does nothing when Jim is captured.  All turns out well since Jim was already freed by his owner and Huck's pap is dead.  But the happy ending seems tacked on and is inconsistent with the complexity of the novel.  Hemingway wrote of Huck Finn, "If you read it, you must stop where…Jim is stolen from the boys.  This is the real end.  The rest is just cheating." (6" x 7", black ink print)

1 comment :

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