©1997 A.D. Sullivan
No Mark Twains or Tom Sawyers
Tolkien and Twain
No Easy Answers in Twain
Getting Huck Straight
Twain's Untruth or Sam's Scam
Dots of the irretrievable fading at the river side,
like worn LP grooves
their sounds expired, retired, scratched
limbs of trees, old brown leaves,
wilted reeds bent with the oldest songs of all
The first face seen in that hazy dream
school bell sounding in the back of his head
He used to play here, cool water skimmed with stones
and stringy islands of grass, a whole head higher
than he remembered
spray paint lyrics long out of date
Jerry & Jane, June, 57
Mark's Marauders, March 59
No Mark Twains or Tom Sawyers
No weasily big-eyed poor kids either
Tolkien and Twain
Cultural views on race and the death penalty
"The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime," -- Max Stirner
Although many authors, British and American, have expressed views on capital punishment, few have represented the differences of culture as well as Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien, or made their statements on the issue so clear in their creative endeavors.
Images of death as justice in these two authors seemed to define a European verse American philosophies in literature.The concept of death as justice is older than the bible, an eye for an eye representing the clan clash mentality. Even Homer expressed some reservations about it in the Odyssey, noting the need of some larger means of establishing satisfaction. Shakespeare played off this sense of vengeance and its futility in several of his master works.
Justice under this primitive system often resulted in ongoing feuds that when expanded onto national fronts, resulted in wars that lasted years if not generations. The rise of civilized society resulted partly from the constant state of brutality, promising families a higher sense of justice via the state. A king (or judges in his name) suddenly became the instruments by which wronged family members could receive redress.
For centuries, the issue of the state's right to kill someone has swung back and forth between perception as justice or cruelty, depending largely upon the nature of the world at the time. After the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, capital punishment began to decline in older Western Europe. People were sick of state-sponsored slaughter, and this tendency grew more pronounced after World War I, and later World War Two, when the state became more and more responsible for the death of its citizens, and an overall mistrust emerged.
America, for all of its distrust of social authority, has always feared chaos more than overpowerful government authority. While we often talk of freedoms and sometimes give way to radical groups such as the Weather Underground of the 1960s and the fringe right wing groups of the 1990s, these do not represent main stream thought in America, where most people willingly give away their freedoms to the government in exchange for justice -- but justice in this limited sense: causing punishment and death to those who do wrong.
As countries like England, France, and Germany now see state sponsored death as a human riots violation, American's tend to see it as a basic duty of government, and often grow more frustrated with the state's inability to kill a criminal than to protect a person from unwarranted accusations.
In their works Twain and Tolkien represented these two points of view very clearly, American vs. European, each painting their culture's attitude towards the state's right to execute. This, of course, is a limited view, painting their work with a social hue that fit their backgrounds.
Mark Twain grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River. His father's death forced him to find work at age 12, forcing him into the very practical world of the working poor. His career as a pilot on a river boat ended abruptly with the American Civil War, in which he served for a few weeks as a confederate volunteer.
"Entered it, got a taste of it, then stepped out of it again, permanently," Twain said.
For most of his life, Twain spent his life on the frontiers of society, moving west with the gold rush, wandering the high seas of the Pacific. His early years impressed upon him, the unpredictably of human kind, and how little cooperation people generated without a strong law to force them into it. Even later, when he grew older, Twain remained one of the most practical men of his time, a newspaper man with a very distinct view of the world.
Although he has been accused of being racist by contemporary black activists, Twain understood more about the white male mind of his day than the black activists do today, understood the struggle white men had in dealing with the issue of slavery. He saw slavery at its height, and the aftermath -- which left many black men of his era without hope.
More importantly, Twain saw the clan mentality that marked his generation, mocking it in sections of his masterpiece "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". For Twain, few other things matter than a proper sense of justice, and the need for a strong power to contain the unreasonable nature of the human being. He said interference by well-meaning people often denied the justice of a court, and oddly, in his book "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain predicted the clan war between countries that would emerge after his death in World War One.
Twain, who did not believe in God, believed in the need for a strong social order, a strong system of justice, one that could kill a man or woman in order to avoid the frustration that comes with unsatisfied clan revenge.
The more liberal Tolkien actually fought and was wounded in the war Twain predicted. Unlike Twain, Tolkien lived a largely protected life, gravitated to the university, where he became a teacher and intellectual, and developed a somewhat removed and unrealistic view of the world.
But like Twain, Tolkien's view of race was shaped by his experiences as a child, but brought about a distrust and tenuous relationship between the races that is often reflected in "The Lord of the Rings," his masterwork.
Tolkien, who was born and raised in South Africa and moved to England at an early age, lacked day to day contact with blacks. He knew them as servants but was largely out of touch with them until he was kidnapped by blacks and dragged across the plains, something documented in his fiction in a very negative fashion.
This may be his predominant memory of blacks, since less opportunity to deal with them as an adult or in a less hostile social situation. Many of his images are between black and white, something that has always made it difficult for me to recommend his books to my black friends. Most of the black characters that appear in his fictions side with evil (if not evil in and of themselves).
But Tolkien's sense of justice also disagreed with Twain's. His fiction deals less with chaos, than the organized and systematic assault on the individual by organized societies. The speech of one principal character in his masterwork made perfectly clear that he disagreed with the state's ability to kill, saying that since man cannot give life back, he should not take it away.
Cultural difference is only part of the reason for Tolkien's disagreement with Twain. Tolkien was an avid Christian, and unlike Twain, believed in a higher order and a purpose for people. Tolkien saw not the chaos of individual wills in conflict, the way Twain did, but as powers operating in life that are often beyond the intention of those individuals living those events. For Tolkien, unlike Twain, believed each person would later face God's justice, and that people, clans or states had no right to take the power of life and death into their own hands.
No Easy Answers in Twain
Author Jane Smiley has been on a rampage lately, trying her very best to discredit Mark Twain. In an 1996 article for the New Yorker, Smiley sought to destroy the myth surrounding Twain's book, "Huckleberry Finn", by claiming the work was not as much a masterpiece as previous generations have thought. Smiley in extensive interviews generated by the provocative and often misleading article went on to sing the praises of a well-known pre-civil war novelistic piece of propaganda called "Uncle Tom's Cabin". Smiley claimed the anti-slave book which helped create the fervor that eventually led to open violence against Slavery, much better represented a critical opposition to one of the most hideous American customs.
Smiley is right.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," did clearly and distinctly make a statement against slavery in a way "Huckleberry Finn" did not, largely because it was so limited in scope. It hardly said anything else, but the fact that slavery was wrong.
Twain's masterpiece captured the ultimate male, American myth in a way few books had before or since, as vivid in its detail of the male need to escape the trappings of civilization as Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" nearly a century later. While Ernest Hemingway may have exaggerated the total impact of Twain's book when he claimed it encompassed all American literature, Hemingway was not far from wrong. Twain's masterpiece represented the white American male, then and now, a fact that may be appalling to a novelist like Smiley whose works and opinions are so utterly political correct, and whose vision of literature seems focused narrowing on what a book's social impact is rather than its quality of art.
What makes "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" so brilliant isn't its stand on slavery, although that is one very important part of its overall effect, but the voices and language use, and the sense of place Twain has managed to create within the pages of his book. We get a vision of America and the American male that people like Smiley would have us deny, that primitive sense of ethics, mistaken loyalty and misguided systems of belief that is the center of most white, American males, and the heart of what built America.
"Huckleberry Finn", unlike "Uncle Tom's Cabin", gives us the inner struggle of the ruling class of America during that critical time before the Civil War, how some good souls defied their own doom to realize that slavery was wrong. Smiley's attack seems petty in light of this and a misreading of the work from a person who needs issues of black and white defined as black and white with no gray areas of interpretation. Smiley may also disagree with the model from which the work was drawn: the white American male, and because she is a woman of color, may miss the significance of Twain's work, simply because she's never had to make the choices Huck Finn made in his passage from boyhood into manhood.
Since the essays that follow were published in 1985, Twain has become even more controversial, especially with the discovery of the missing chapter to Huck Finn. The Politically Correct still claim Twain is racist, and as indicated above, an article in the New Yorker, even went as far to claim that "Huck Finn" does not stand up as a literary masterpiece against "Uncle Tom's Cabin" because Twain refuses to hit his reader over the head with his message. In fact, the New Yorker article by a prominent black feminist went as far as to claim the great American Myth of wandering the river in search of self is no longer valid in an America dominated by a literati of feminist propaganda. We hope, with this issue, to dispel this rewriting of literary history.
Getting Huck Straight"Look at all those lovely white people" -- Nancy Reagan to her husband before a 1985 Reagan support rally in Washington, D.C.
"When in doubt," Mark Twain wrote, "Tell the truth."
This philosophy over the course of his life, got Twain in trouble with groups as diverse as the U.S. Government and the Catholic Church. His travelogue "Innocents Abroad", remained on the Church's banned list into well into the 1950s, and his "Letters from Earth," was not published until 40 years after his death. Yet none of his books has caused more controversy than his best known -- "Huckleberry Finn."
When first published, this book was condemned by all sides. Right-wing bigots claimed the book promoted juvenile delinquency. High-brown elitists bemoaned it degradation of the English language. The hardest blow, however, came in the mid-1980s when the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) accused it of being racist -- this based on the extensively used pejorative "Nigger" and the stereotypical "Jim" as the main black characters in the story.
John H. Wallace, a Chicago educator is the most vehement of the black leaders against the book, calling it, "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written." This remark rises out of a growing controversy over required reading in American schools, long fought over other books like Orwell's "1984," Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," and Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." These others, though, are more often assaulted for political or sexual references; accusations against "Huck Finn" deal only with Twain as a racist.
There is much evidence to the contrary, that Twain was a radical. His objection to Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick" policies, early in this century, eventually destroyed his career. Twain hated racism, as he hated any form of discrimination. "anti-Semitism," he once said. "is the swollen envy of pigmy minds -- meanness, injustice." In 1985, a letter surfaced in the "New York Times" stating Twain's offer of financial support for a black student at Yale.
"We have ground the manhood out of (blacks) and the shame is ours, not theirs," Twain said. "We should pay for it."
Yet, some people claim, a non-racist can write a racist novel. So, what about the novel, which Norman Mailer, said could easily be mistaken for something written by a young contemporary writer? Sterling Stucker, a black historian, claimed that "Huck Finn" could not be a clearer, more categorical indictment of Racism in American life." He stated flatly that the books was "one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written."
Indeed, in 1978, "Huckleberry Finn" became part of a celebrated company as it was allowed into Communist China. Other authors included Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens. None of these others, of course, ever used the word "nigger" to describe blacks. But Sherwood Anderson and Ring Lardner did. So did William Faulkner, rated by many as America's greatest Novelists, one attacked by southern white in 1963 for his fiction attacking racism. True racists painted "Nigger Lover" over Faulkner's door at the University of Mississippi. Hardly in admiration of a KKK compatriot.
Mr. Wallace's objection, and that of the NAACP, lacks an understanding of the irony intended by Twain, which was to educate people into the subtle degrees of racism. "The Nation" magazine in 1985 decided to educate the Chicago teacher with a basic lesson in American literature.
Of course Huck calls people "Niggers"; for him to refer to them any other way would be inconceivable. But to say this can be misleading... The truth is that "Huckleberry Finn" is written from the viewpoint of a racist.
Just as the beginning of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" is told from the point of a 33-year old idiot, or Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next" is told by a deaf and dumb Indian in a mental ward. The more brilliant authors often reveal truths through characters that least resemble themselves, or allow the truth to filter out from the lies of a villain, as in Lardner's "Haircut." But Huck Finn is not a villain, he is simply a confused victim of mis-education. More from "The Nation:"
In moments of crisis, accordingly, Huck comes up against the discrepancy between standard conception of black people as "niggers" -- a conception he shares -- and what he has learned as a result of his direct experience with Jim.
The whole point of literature, and education, for that matter, is to teach people how to use reason and sense to decipher reality. In taking us through the experience of racism, Twain allows us to decide with Huck whether or not to turn in the runaway slave, Jim. Huck himself has doubts about what society will say:
It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again, I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.
But, as "The Nation" points out, when it came down to the nitty gritty, Huck "Can't do it. He would rather go to hell than turn Jim in."
What better lesson is there against racism? But some people are so caught up in their own prejudices that they can't see a friend for a foe. Yet the best defense of this book comes from Mark Twain himself when he said: "Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please."
Twain's Untruth or Sam's Scam
by Michael Alexander
Mark Twain periodically reappears like Halley's comet in our literary heave. With each appearance, from the first forced reading in school through richer rereadings later in life, we readers notice his recurrent light, his special mastery of that pure American idiom -- raised from the bed of our politics, our news, our life stories as we well them ourselves -- the Lie.
Yes, Twain's talent tells "the poetic truth, the jocular truth," rather than the journalistic. Under a false name, he did willfully create characters who saw a jaundiced misrepresented world. Their errors, being transparent, showed us the discomfort of this learning experience is called "humor," and we euphemistically call Twain a "humorist."
Huck Finn, for instance, was as ignorant as a backyard boy could be -- illiterate, superstitious, prejudiced. But his ignorance kept him from an understanding of accepted foolishness, such as fundamentalist religion, manners, and slavery. The Duke and the Dauphin make as much sense to Huck as the rest of society. Everything is facade, hearsay, say-so; Huck distance makes this clear. In the end, he realizes that he can no longer live the lie, even that of his deepest racist beliefs, thereby ceasing to be the same character. The book, and its dream of eternal boyhood, his over.
The untruths of rich and poor are similarly exposed when the Prince and the Pauper change places. The egalitarian illusion, that two people might interchange lives completely, leads to eye-opening situations. The Pauper can no more accept the careful charade of wealthy living than the Prince can cope with the violence of poverty. Each must return to his own responsibilities, at last; the "madness" of insisting that they are who they are falls before the facts, and their return to sanity also improves the social condition of both their lives. Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee" uses the same ploy.
The autobiographical work -- "Life on the Mississippi", "Roughing It", "Innocents Abroad", and Twain's Autobiography -- proved rather that the lie was essential to his method. From these books, we derive a picture of the author's existence, a life of outrageous fortune, millions almost made and lost on poor speculations, humility enforces by repeated humiliating (humorous) situations. Twain has made his life read like a fiction, and he seems all the more mythic in our imaginations because of this. But careful studies of discrepancies between his books and the facts, one such being "The Making of Mark Twain," by John Lauber, show what a downright unaccountable out'n out liar the man could be.
Why Twain couldn't even keep to the truth as a journalist. He boasted in his letters about making a dozen stories out of on accident by changing the details. Hoaxes, like the "Petrified Man" story, in which scientists find an Indian frozen in a rude gesture, made his byline known throughout the west. He thumbed his nose a journalistic responsibility, as other papers reprinted his lies. After joking that local charities were pocketing money raised for them, however, Twain had to leave Nevada to escape a duel, and to make a bigger reputation in the rest of the world.
Finally, Twain's abilities as a public speaker made him moderately well-to-do. He would speak on his latest travels, or read from his collected stories, for most of his life -- at one point, paying considerable debts in this fashion. His stage presence led the audience to believe he was unaware of his own humor, and invited them to laugh at his ignorance, his "western-ness" and his evident embarrassment, as well as his wit. This image, Twain calculated to achieve maximum effect. He even gave the same "impromptu" speech in several towns. Not everyone was taken in by his appearance, but Twain was clearly in the same business as Barnum & Bailey.
So now, Halley's back and books such as "The Making of Mark Twain," had brought Twain back to the bookstores as well. Also available is "Papa" a biography by his daughter, Suzy, written a hundred years ago, when she was thirteen. Her death at twenty-four was one of the greatest tragedies of Twain's life, and this book is his testament to her as much as it is hers to him. Twain has footnoted her statements, adding stories to illustrate: family plays based on "The Prince & The Pauper," mule-riding, history lessons, spur-of-the-moment stories to the children. Twain's temper, combined with his habit of swearing in private, led him to heave his entire wardrobe out the window.
Also available is the revised standard version of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," in which editor Charles Neider replaces a chapter that Twain took out to stick into "Life on the Mississippi." It fits wonderfully into Huck, adding debt to the time spent on the river; Huck swims to another raft and witnesses a comic confrontation between two big-talking rivermen, after which another tells a oral tradition from whence it springs. Neider also cuts some from the "Tom Sawyer" section at the end, improving its pace. How does Neider defend these changes? He reckons Twain wouldn'a cared much for the book's artistic integration's, anyhow.
So's if you do go and read that one over, an' I recommends you do, cause I did, then be sure to on and finish the job, by reading, "The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Greg Matthews. This book is so close to Twain's Huck, without its being timidly imitative, that it's spooky. It's sexier than the first, but that's natural on account i's a hundred years later to us, and Huck's a year or so older himself, and discovering women and the like. Very daring and deadly accurate. I can only conclude saying that Twain is not dead, the rumors of his death being even greater exaggerated than we had previously believed. It all goes to show: tell a lie long enough, and soon even you believe it is true.
All work is by A.D. Sullivan except where otherwise indicated.
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