Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 23: Tuesday, April 11, 2006
3/4 the way through
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Laura S: I think it is so much a part of the canon
that it wasn't necessary to read it....
Huck Finn seems to be such a part of our cultural memory
that it isn't even necessary to read it to sound like you have.

Cf. the strong animus against the "hypercanonization"
and "idolatry" directed toward the novel in Jonathan Arac's
Idol and Target (1997)

Thomas Hart Benton, "Huck Finn" (1936)

"Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"

Alternatively (?):
Childhood is the Place Where Jokes Are Allowed

I. Coursekeeping
Papers now up on The Scarlet Letter
Remaining papers to return today

Let's think about the next one, on Huck Finn,
ostensibly due this Fri, 4/14--but since I'm not
spending Easter weekend grading these), let's revise that
(as all else): how 'bout you set your own due date,
allowing time for response before
the final 10pp. revised/expanded paper is due
(5/6 for seniors, 5/12 for everyone else)?

reminder: second writing conference
w/ me before that paper comes in

also to consider together: our alternative to an exam
how to use 4/25-4/27 to share with one another what you have learned?
original plan:
1. small group work on book introductions:
How might you map, together, the emotional landscape of 19th-century American literature?
2. panel presentations of proposals for final papers

alternate plan: group performances of what you have learned from this class
Spontaneously formed emergent groups of four or so students each should prepare ten-fifteen minute presentations reflecting on some aspect of the course readings. Presentations should encourage, in a provocative and entertaining way, further story development on the part of others in the class.
review: expectations and grading policy

II."Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"
--from my observation, last Monday, of a 9th grade English class in Masterman H.S.
--Millay (1892-1950) was Maine-born, a Vassar grad, the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, "the poetic voice of eternal youth, feminine revolt and liberation")

"First Fig"
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

"Second Fig"
Safe upon the solid rock
the ugly houses stand:
Come see my shining palace
built upon the sand!

You seem, as a group, largely to share Millay's definition of childhood as
that space/place of innocence, where bad things don't happen
(and to resist the "growing up" that is reading=awareness of the "bad"!?)

Catherine: during my first reading, I was Huck. I was naive, I never questioned the authenticity of his infomration...Now, I realize Tom is cruel....I miss the innocence of that first reading.

Emily:I've found that I like seeing things through Huck's eyes. Everything is simple, with no thought for the past and no concern for the future. He lives life day to day, adventure to adventure. I think that Huck's narrative gives a unique view of the story, one that I'm not ready to give up yet!

Adina: I feel like I don't trust Huckleberry Fin enough....It's as if it's one big run-on sentence; a little kid telling a story. Huck is very impressionable and he has the psyche of a child; he's constantly being influenced by different people. Because of this, it's hard for me to trust him. It's not that I believe that he is lying or that the events I recounts never happened, it's just that his reality is the reality of a child....I sort of prefer to adopt the mindset of a child and to just run with the flow of events.

Marie: I like reading with Huck as my narrator. I like hearing what he has to say and I like hearing his opinions and I don't see why I have to worry about trusting him or not....I trust him as much as I would anyone else.

Alison: I'm enjoying the child's narrative but, like kids do, Huck doesn't edit his thoughts, so they include many more minute details than are necessary...the sort of anti-intellectual, outdoors man attitude...annoys me.

Amy: Reading Huck Finn is like coming home....I'm so pleased to be approaching from a child's POV...both because of innocence...and for honesty which adult narrators are all but incapable of achieving. Child as narrator to tell the truths that adults have been trained not to tell: it's so crazy, it just might work

Angeldeep: Huck is asking us to come and experience what he did and accompany on his playful adventures. Moral and logic be damned. While I do see the problem with entirely trusting a child like Huck as a reliable narrator, I do still want to preserve the playful part of the book

Jillian: I grew up listening to the BBC radio drama on tape.... and I never once thought to question the validity of Hucks' claims. Lately, I've been wondering whether or not he might be a bit prone to exaggerating....

III. The childish innocence of your first reading (which so many of you want to hold on to) is not like Huck's childhood (nor is it the childhood of most people in the world, now or ever...!) The space that is childhood in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and in most childhoods...) is filled with death and disaster.

Huck easily fabricates such stories (think Sarah Mary Williams, Goerg Elexander Peters, the child w/ a shipwrecked family, the child w/ a smallpoxed family, George Jaxson who fell off a steamboat, the child w/ a dead family he tells the Duke & Dauphin about). When Huck tries to help the villains on the steamboat, he says, "there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself, yet..." (Ch. 13, p. 61). Yep, his identity is "fluid."

Paper Dolls: Huck Finn

As Huck play acts, tries out identities, not knowing who he is, the worlds he imagines (like the one he lives in) are death-filled.

IV. What also distinguishes Huck's childhood, however, is his sense of double consciousness. His outsidedness and marginality give him an awareness and understanding of the possibility of alternatives to what is which he would otherwise lack.

Jillian: Huck is, really, the least childish of them all. He is, as much as a fourteen year old boy can be, rational and responsible...whereas the adults tend to fall under the categories of impetuous, impulsive, and self serving

Barbara Dixson (in the FAHE Newsletter, Winter/Spring 2006): "It does get your attention, discomfort. It causes you to give up on your old habits and expetations. It makes you desperate enough to see possibilities and take risks. If nothing else, it gives you new empathy for other uncomfortable people."

Cf. W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) on double consciousness

Gloria Anzaldua (1942-2004) on "borderlands"

Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (1983): the "ascetic code of willed homelessness . . . a good way for one who wishes to earn a proper love for the world"

G.H. Mead (1863-1931) on the "I" and the "me": Mead has a very useful concept of the self as being a dialectical relationship between "me" (the structure of social roles) and "I "(the response to it that breaks through the structure); that is, between the "conventional, habitual individual," and the "novel reply" to it. "I" is the creative response to the social roles "Me"internalizes.

That's what goes on WITHIN--but Mead also argues that one learns first to negotiate this internal dialogue through what he called the "conversation of gestures" (our interactions with others in which we are not aware that we are eliciting their responses, and which HAVE NO MEANING independent of those interactions). His key image is of dogfight: each act of two hostile dogs is a stimulus for the other's response; in the relationship between these two, "as the act is responded to by the other dog, it, in turn, undergoes change."
Allie: Huck seems to be of two minds...On one hand...he has contempt for Jim as a nigger and on the other, Huck knows and loves Jim as a person and as his friend/father figure. This dichotomy is seen in Huck's response to Jim's trash conversation when he feels both remorse and pride for his lie.... Unfortunately, Huck's "conscious" is torn by these conflicting views of Jim and feels guilty in "helping" to free him....I think...Jim was aware of how Huck is of two minds and is trying to show him how to think otherwise.

"I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so....He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was" (Ch 23, p. 125).

"...if I ever I struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" (Ch 24, p. 131).

V. Being "of two minds" (thanks, Allie!) enables one Let's look first @ the lying (such a normal mode for Huck, that he has to argue himself into the wisdom of telling the truth for once--or does he?): So I went to studying it out. I says to myself, I reckon body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place, is taking considerable many resks, though t I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here' a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better, and actualy safer, than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it. (Huck, deciding to tell the Phelps girls the truth, Ch 28, p. 148)

"Set down, my boy; I wouldn't strain myself, if I was you. I reckon you ain't used to lying, it don't seem to come handy; what you want is practice. You do it pretty awkward." I didn't care nothing for the compliment (Levi Bell, the lawyer, to Huck, Ch 29, p. 158)

Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time. (Huck, after telling the smallpox story, Ch. 16, p. 76)
VI. The other thing that "double consciousness" gets Huck is an easy ability to play jokes on others, and to tell jokes (remember the hoarse horse, the "A-flat minor/miner"?).

Marina: I can also see him as immature. For example, when he plays tricks on Jim...

Alison: I am a little intimidated by Mark Twain's reputation as a wicked satirist....

Laura S: I think I'm finally getting the humor....I've been thinking about my reactions to these jokes. Part of me feels uncomfortable laughing at them, because they are undeniably racist and offensive. But they are also "good jokes" - there is something clever in them that makes them effectively racist. Is it wrong to laugh at a joke like that, even when you recognize the underlying belief is wrong?

I reckoned, that with her disposition, she was having a better time in the graveyard. (Huck re: Emmeline Grangerford, Ch 17, p. 84)

Why do we tell jokes?
Why do we tell racist (or any other kind of "category") jokes in particular?
Where do they get us?
Two theories:

humor as preservative (helps us tolerate what is intolerable): Gershon Legman, No Laughing Matter: An Analysis of Sexual Humor. (1968) humor as revolutionary (helps to destablize norms, show their absurdity):Leonore Tiefer, "The Capacity for Outrage: Feminism, Humor and Sex," Sex and Humor: Selections from The Kinsey Institute. (2002): Let's go for the latter:
Comedy imagines upending the world: it is the genre of possibility:
the essence of something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try.... a comic aspect....even a brand of harsh satire...typified the American belief that everything can be solved (from Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex) What I want you to have in mind, as you complete the novel for Thursday
(there are some very uncomfortable scenes....
Jane Smiley says the book gets "lost in a maze of farcical invention")

is this possibility:

From Project Gutenberg

that humor is a strategy to produce a distance and open up a space for new thinking,
an important feature of realizing how a norm functions to produce a reality,
a step towards "de-realization"/literalism,
funny moments that show the limits of a norm or an ideal.

This is not so different (?) from "humor as a default setting,"
from our laughing when we feel uncomfortable or horrified.
(Several years ago, in this course, Sarah Friedman paper wrote a paper
on humor as opening up a space for dialogue and change.)

The question I want to put on the table as you finish the novel
is whether the particular kind of play in the last quarter of this novel
actually opens up a space for newness/new thought/behavior.

This book as a whole highlights the activity of making up games.
It begins and ends w/ elaborate games designed by Tom Sawyer.
Huck uses him as guide/model/standard throughout the center portions
(problematics are that the game involves other human beings, in particular, Jim).

So far, we've read 3 key scenes in this regard:
"Tom...wanted to tie Jim to the tree for fun" (Ch. 2, p. 10)

"Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed"....It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger--but I done it. (Ch. 19, p. 72)

"It was a close place. I took up [the paper], and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell"--and tore it up." (Ch. 31, p. 169).

What is happening in this famous "crisis of conscience" (what Arac calls one of the "two hypercanonized passages" of the novel)? Is Twain playing a game on you? Opening up new possibilities? Satirizing his satirist? If you were assigned to re-write this scene for Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn, what would you do?

Chris: To think that there is an imaginary line that separates us from the people "enacting racism" is a childish idea....we are helping to perpetuate a system....There is a part of the joke in each and everyone of us. Yet, we still distance ourselves, standing behind the infallible armor of the analytic....we need to be more honest....we need to understand that we do not stand wholly separate from the evils that exist in the world.

Margaret: I don't quite know where I stand on using the word, but then there are alot of words I'm not quite sure I know where I stand....The confusing thing about racist terms is that the term/music itself comes from an offensive place.

Jessica: This divide, the insitution of racism versus the individual experience of racism, does seem like an important one to clarify....we're going to read this as a work of literature, and...the race we are cannot stop us from that, or we'll never move forward.

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