Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 24: Thursday, April 13, 2006
Finishing off
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tomorrow's Diversity Conversation: "The Perils and Potentials of Belief"
(Noon, @ the Multicultural Center): me, Wil Franklin, Paul Grobstein, Orah Minder,
talking about religious perspectives and the liberal arts environment

(Cf. Margaret: " could use HF to talk about the issue of reading and what you can believe.")

For Tuesday, read Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" (in packet): re-focus on this matter of "intuition"
Reminder: revised due date for Huck Finn paper, conference, final presentations
Questions about any of the course-keeping stuff?

Organize yourselves now into groups for your final presentations:
Who will you work with? When will you get together to do that work?

The Resurrection of Huck--and of Racism?

Tupac: Resurrection, In His Own Words

"But if they was joyful, it warn't nothing to what I was;
for it was like being born again...."

"what you want to come back and ha'nt me for?"....

"No, I warn't ever murdered at all...
You come in here and feel of me if you don't believe me."
(Tom and Huck, Ch. 33, p. 177-178).

Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas

Thomas refused to believe in Christ's Resurrection,
and Christ came to him and asked to touch him and his wounds,
and to believe (John 20: 24-29)

The final quarter of this book is an Easter story,
a story of coming back to life after having been dead.
It is a story of doubt and belief.
It is a tale of revelation:
"Tom Sawyer had gone and took all that trouble and bother
to set a free nigger free!" (Ch 42, p. 227).

Or is it one big joke,
a game of deceit and pretend:
"we let on to ourselves, that we was
at it thirty-seven years" (Ch 35, pp. 192-3)?

Laura O: How badly does everyone just wanna bash the heck out of Tom Sawyer? What a weasel. (grrr) Tom Sawyer is disappointing, but so is the end of this novel....Everything wraps up nicely just in time for Huck to say adieu. But, then what's the point? Why bother to write such a troubling book only to have it end happily? I feel like Twain is throwing me a false trick.

What's a body to do with this material?
How's it make you feel?

The Resurrection of Jesus
Stations of the Cross in Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya

Your assignment: re-present/re-enact a portion of the novel
Group 1:
"but its' too blam' simple; there ain't nothing to it. What's the good of a plan that ain't no more trouble than that? It's as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn't make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory....You got to invent all the difficulties." (Tom's lament, Ch. 35, p. 184, 188) What's the logic of making the job more difficult?

Marie: I'm seriously annoyed and I'm also completely stressed and its all because of Tom Sawyer. Why can't they just let Jim escape? Why does it have to be so complicated-----> TOM.
Group 2: [Jim] allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him; so he was satisfied, and said he would do it all just as Tom said....Tom was in high spirits. He said it was the best fun ever had in his life, and the most intellectural. (Ch. 36, p. 196)What are the "educated class" presumptions of this passage? What is the relationship between "having fun" and "being intellectual"?

Margaret: After reading the ending of Huck Finn, I no longer wanted Tom Sawyer to be my friend. I didn't want him to be my enemy either, I just didn't want to know him. He comes across as just plain mean.
Group 3: I knowed he was white inside (Ch. 40, p. 216)--Cf. "It was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make abody's flesh crawl--a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white." Ch. 5, p. 20)What is the meaning of "white"? Group 4: "Turn him loose! he ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth!"...Then what on earth did you want to set him free, for, seeing he was already free?" "Well, that is a question, I must say; and just like women! Why, I wanted the adventure of it! (Ch. 42, p. 226)How free are all creatures, in the world of this novel? And what are the gender presumptions underlying this exchange (about the freedom of men, the constricting role of women)? Group 5: what he had planned in his head, from the start, if we got Jim out all pay him for his lost time....and Tom gave Jim forty dollars for being prisoner for us so patient, and doing it up so good, and Jim was pleased most to death (Chapter the Last, p. 228)Read this passage as economists: What calculus is operating here? What's the cost-benefit ratio? For both Tom and Jim? For you? Group 6: But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and civilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before. (Chapter the Last, p. 229)
How HAS this individual developed?

Alison: I have been noticing how events just slide off of Huck without much moral or psychological impact.

Laura O: This book is like a nightmare. It startles you, but then you get to wake up. Yet, you're scared bad enough to realize that you won't be so lucky next time around. In real life, you can't escape just because you're in a story, that doesn't happen.

Allie: Huck is constantly running (or floating away) and so avoids having to think or judge his situation and behaviors for any length of time. The last line of the novel...tells the reader that Huck will keep on separating himself from being "sivilized" and so can continue to make tragic events humorous despite the deterministic aspect that they will occur. I'm doubtful that humor is revolutionary for Huck, in terms of helping him to destabilize norms and show their absurdity, if all he does is to avoid those norms.

Some more material to work with:

I. Chris' challenge
: 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. II.Ralph Wiley's re-scripting
Scene 3, from From Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn INT. PHELPS HOUSE. PARLOR. Huck is sitting in a split-bottom chair, looking around. Aunt Sally sits on a little low stool in front of him, and takes him by both of his hands.

Let's have a good look at you. What's kep' you? --boat get aground?
Don't say yes'm--say Aunt Sally. Where'd she get aground?
I didn't rightly know what to say, because I didn't know whether the boat she was talking about would be coming up river or down.
HUCK warn't the grounding--that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.
Good gracious! Anybody hurt?
Huck studies Aunt Sally's reaction to his next statement.
...killed a nigger, though.
(relieved) Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.
Huck drops his head as she natters on. She can't--won't--help him free Jim.
III. Donald Siegel's essay on "Play, Games, Sports and Athletics," observes that the experimental quality of play, an "original and basic. . . fundamental phenomenon of existence," both enables individuals to experiment with finding ways out of situations in which they appear to be "stuck" and serves "society's need for innovation." Its psychological rewards are intrinsic in the doing, rather than in the "exchange value" of what is produced by playing; when players are totally absorbed in a game, they (not so) paradoxically both lose a sense of self-consciousness and feel "in control" of what they are doing: "a sense of ego is lost but concentration is vastly increased."

When Siegel's analysis moves from "play" to the artificially created situations he calls "games," the critical distinction is rules, which structure play, in part, by placing spatial and temporal constraints on the activity. Rules are conceived in such a way as to make the attainment of ends "deliberately inefficient," in order to create challenges for those playing the game.
IV. Emily Elstad, Slipping into Something More Comfortable: Huckleberry Finn and the Discourse of "Nigger." English 207: Big Books of American Literature. Bryn Mawr College. Spring 2002. "The Brothers and Sisters are running this city! Don't let nobody fool you: we are in charge of the city of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!"

--John Street [Mayor of Philadelphia, addressing the NAACP, Spring 2002]

"You're speaking your mind and sometimes you slip. We all slip."

--Lucien Blackwell, in response to Street's comment

....When I was eight years old, my father read Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud to me. I remember the night he began reading; I sat next to him patiently and waited as he held the book solemnly before him and looked me squarely in the eyes. "I am about to read you a book," he told me gravely, "that has a word in it that I don't ever want to hear come out of your mouth as long as I live."

I never forgot these words, though I cannot remember whether my father actually read the "n-word" to me all 215 times it appears in the story. In a recent phone conversation my father said that he thinks he replaced "nigger" with another word like "slave" or "black person". . . . In 'giving' this inflammatory word to me, my father's fear was not that a poison innate within "nigger" would seep into my growing character, but that I might say the word "nigger" without grasping the volume and gravity of its meaning, resulting in a misunderstanding. I never disappointed my father by using the word "nigger," but this did not keep me from "slipping," that is, from making mistakes or saying '"the wrong thing" . . . accessing subconscious, childlike truths that lie beneath the "politically correct," which obscures and prevents meaning from arising . . . .

Some time after my father read Huckleberry Finn to me, my third-grade class was planning the performance of a lip-synch to the oldie "The Leader of the Pack," a song that tells the story of a girl in love with a motorcycle-riding bad-boy named "Jimmy." The crooning lover's father does not approve of Jimmy, and one day he tells his daughter to "tell [her] Jimmy [they're] through." I was (gleefully) cast as the lead-singer, and redheaded Benjamin was to play Jimmy. As we sat on the classroom floor and planned how Benjamin would ride off the stage on his cardboard motorbike to the sound of a revving motor, screeching wheels and the protests and wails of me and my back-up singers, an idea occurred to me. I raised my hand and was called on by our teacher, Mr. W.

"Maybe Paul should be Jimmy," I suggested. ""He's black, and some people don't like black people." The words, which seemed perfectly logical to me at the time, hung heavily in the air as both Paul's and Mr. W's faces dropped. Mr. W, who had always looked at me approvingly now looked stern and even angry. "Emily, if anyone thinks that way they are wrong."

Mr. W's words remain with me today just as my father's do, and I have spent a good part of my life reflecting on these words and my own. Was I a horrible, racist person for saying those words? Part of me wishes I could go back in time and snatch my words out of the air and swallow them before their sound reached anyone's ears. Only recently have I started to forgive my childish self for "slipping." The lesson I learned from "slipping" has stayed with me all my life, and I believe that it was at this moment that I learned the immense gravity and power of words. Thinking back on the situation, I believe that what I said was not an expression of my opinion but was rather a simple and unadulterated observation about my world. I wish that Mr. W. had taken that opportunity to deal with the issue of race in our classroom after I made that comment . . . . Doing so might have increased our understanding of each other and addressed the ways in which our society needs to be different, and it might have decreased both Paul's and my sense that we had done something wrong.

How does this anecdote speak to a discourse of "nigger"? I maintain that political correctness, or our fear of "mis"understandings, anticipates offenses that can never be predicted, and that if we do not allow ourselves to "slip," we cannot learn the truth about what we think or the truth about how others feel about what we think. "Slip" can mean "to slide or glide, esp. on a smooth or slippery surface; to lose one's foothold" or "to break or escape"--a person, the tongue, lips." These definitions imply that we bring to verbal "slippage" is involuntary, which suggests that in "slipping" somehow we access our unconscious, or what we "really mean." Other definitions of "slip" include "to fall away from a standard; to lose one's command of things," and "to pass out of, escape from, the mind or memory." These notions of "slip" posit a new state emerging from the act of slipping, a temporary loss of control that yields both a personal, subjective truth and a changed state that has moved away from "a standard" and into new thought and order. Instead of chastising people for "slipping," for describing the way in which they honestly think about the world, perhaps we should consider the meaning behind words spoken in moments of "slipping" and really think about how they speak to our world. Thinking metaphorically, sometimes only by slipping and falling to the floor do we notice that there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.

All groups together now: how do we make sense of crowd behavior? What's its relationship to the behavior of individuals? Why/how does it differ? Is there a "crowd mind"--or only group behavior? Why do we "just go along" with the crowd?

Erin: WHile Tom seemed like the consummate child Huck proved himself a mature adult. Except when he went along with occurred to me that maybe we never grow out of this "going along with it" behavior. That's kind of what I wrote my paper on for Moby Dick: why so many go along with the maniacal leader even when they realize he's crazy...Fellini once said something about how we never really grow out of adolescence. seems like Twain might agree?

Colonel Sherburn: "the average man's a coward...The average man don't like trouble and danger...the pitifulest thing out is a mob...they fight with courage that's...borrowed from their mass" (Ch 22, p. 118)

Jillian: anyone who is part of a group in this book seems to make poor decisions that involve hurting other people....individuals...left to their own devices and forced to make choices for themselves, they're much more apt to reason things out and behave in a somewhat logical fashion

Laura S: American literature, as inspired as it is by our individualistic culture, almost HAS to follow the development of an individual.

Cat: I still firmly believe that Huck Finn is supposed to convey a message or a moral to the public. If so, whom is he trying to reach?

Wait! There's one character we forgot...

the Mississippi River, changing but always still...coherent in some way...
a kind of constancy built on change....

Our own bodies are like The Mississippi River--changing but always still .... coherent in some way....: Whatever your age, your body is many years younger. In fact, even if you're middle aged, most of you may be just 10 years old or less...most of the body's tissues are under constant renewal....But...people behave their birth age, not the physical age of their cells: a few of the body's cell types endure from birth to death without renewal, and this special minority includes some or all of the cells of the cerebral cortex. (The New York Times Science Times 8/02/05).

Allie: I think that we need to give more consideration to the mechanism of the river. There exists a clear distinction between the Mississippi River and the land. On land, the characters seem to be able to have more control over their own actions and situations, whereas on the river they are at the mercy of the current....Inasmuch as the river is a distinct course, it is a deterministic force in the novel and carries with it an element of tragedy and helplessness....

Emily: It is still interesting to think of Huck as black in his less social moments. When he is just sitting on the raft with Jim, there is no racial distinction.

Alice: I think that the whole point of being on the raft isn't to make Huck black, Jim white, or anybody any color -- the point of the raft, in my mind, is to try and eliminate color.

Mark Twain. Life on the Mississippi (1870):

Fight Over Huck Finn Continues

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