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The following review appeared 16 January 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Forum
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Jonathan Arac, one of the many scholars cited by Andrew Levy in his new book, Huck Finn's America, wrote that "talking about Huckleberry Finn has made many smart people say foolish things" (215.xxiv). Levy himself says "writing a provocative book about Huck Finn and Mark Twain is about the least provocative thing one can do . . . one doesn't say anything new about Huck Finn--a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to observe. There are original insights in this book, or, at least, original juxtapositions of older insights [and] there is an effort to bring arguments known within the academic community to a larger audience" (197). Levy need not worry about joining the ranks of smart people saying foolish things. Far from it. He succeeds brilliantly by drawing together the large body of existing critical analysis of Mark Twain's masterpiece, brightening the beams of those insights by focusing them together, and then broadening the resulting illumination with flashes of insight of his own. The seasoned Mark Twain scholar will blink in pleasant surprise to see familiar themes in new ways, and the general reader may very well be blinded by the light. Every reader will appreciate Levy's graceful fluid writing style--free of scholarly jargon and peppered with elegant turns of phrase--that achieves an admirable level of concision and clarity.
Levy's very readable writing style is a sign of respect for his reader, just as medical personnel are increasingly trained to avoid medical nomenclature as a sign of respect when talking to patients. But this enjoyable reading experience should not mislead anyone into thinking the author has not done his homework. His 70,000 word text (approximately 200pp.) is followed by 50,000 words of endnotes (approximately 100pp.) and a 30pp. bibliography that comes close to being a comprehensive gathering of the best writings about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His endnotes, filled with interesting commentary, form a very readable narrative of those writings on Huck Finn, and this reviewer suggests two ways of approaching this book: Mark Twain scholars might enjoy reading the endnotes first, and then reading the main text, while general readers might best enjoy this book by reading the main text first, referring to the end notes as little as possible, and then read the endnotes separately. This may seem like strange advice, but to answer the anticipated question: yes, the endnotes are that good, and fun to read by themselves.
The book is not flawless, but the factual errors are few and have no bearing on the gist of the text. Most result from Levy repeating factual errors from previous scholarship. For example, Twain is described as joining the Confederate army rather than a state militia (34), the Author's National Edition is dated 1912 instead of 1910 (164), and he refers to the Mark Twain and George Washington Cable lecture tour of 1884-85 as the "Twins of Genius" tour (13, and chapter 7). This apparent error was introduced into scholarship by Twain's own lecture agent James Pond in 1900 and it was first brought to light in January 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum by Benjamin Griffin of the Mark Twain Papers who attributed the error to Pond's own faulty memory. Such mistakes only serve to remind us all that factual errors, once introduced into the published record, can have very long lives and effect the very best work of later scholars who rely upon them.
Levy begins by reviewing Sam Clemens's own life and the broader historical context that led up to the writing and publication of Huck Finn. He notes, as have others, that Mark Twain's racial views evolved as a result of his travels, and adds that his views on childhood evolved as a result of experiencing parenthood (48). He next reviews "bad boy" literature like George Peck's Peck's Bad Boy and dime novels, and how they were seen as both reflections of and influences on boys' behavior (51). This has been studied before, but Levy uncovers contemporary newspaper accounts of crimes and incidents that are startlingly close to those depicted in Huck Finn. He next makes the observation that Mark Twain "was more radical talking about children than talking about African-Americans" (56) and later explains how contemporary reviewers reacted to the book more often as a depiction of childhood than a depiction of the racial divide (155).
Things heat up when Levy focuses on "Boy No. 2" (William Dean Howells's name for Huck Finn) in chapter five. Levy says "Tom needs grown-ups. But Huck does not" (65) and that "Huck wasn't just a bad boy. He was a specific type, the child . . . who compulsory attendance laws and school finance schemes like the Blair Education Bill were supposed to repatriate into society . . . the boy outside the system" (70) and that Tom was "another type [of bad boy]: the boy on whom literacy was wasted, who read too many dime novels" (70-1). Tom and Huck have been viewed by many scholars through the prism of "bad boy" literature, but Levy brings those observations together with nineteenth century trends in progressive education reform, nineteenth and twentieth century minstrelsy traditions, dime novels, the sensationalizing of crime in the media, and other contexts that echo down to us today. Readers laugh at Tom Sawyer's gang when they attack a Sunday school picnic (72), but Levy cites numerous gang crime incidents from 1880s newspapers that are not funny at all, including a robbery and murder committed by a young white boy and a black man (6-8).
Levy also points out that the models for Tom and Huck were not just the bad boys whose crimes were making the news, but two of Mark Twain's own daughters, Clara and Susy, and explains how parenthood and his different attitudes toward boys and girls came into play (73 et seq.). Levy describes Mark Twain's fascination with how children develop a conscience, and how Mark Twain traces this development in his log "A Record of the Small Foolishnesses," examining both his own moral growth and that of his daughters. Read side-by-side with Huck Finn, new insights and connections between the two manuscripts emerge. Levy also describes how the manuscript to Huck Finn was often "closer to the fire than the writing desk" between 1876 and 1883 (83), and how his further writings about children, especially The Prince and the Pauper, brought him back to work on Huck Finn. The conventional view is that writing The Prince and the Pauper drew Mark Twain's attention away from Huck Finn, but Levy draws close parallels between the youth themes of those two works (84).
The Mark Twain and George Washington Cable 1884-85 tour has been the subject of two books and many articles, but Levy approaches that famous tour through a close reading of Cable's various writings--his fiction, essays, and speeches (113 et seq.). From Mark Twain's perspective, the point of the tour was to promote his forthcoming book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and things started out well enough, with the men performing a sort of minstrel act without blackface (119). However, Mark Twain did not fully comprehend what it meant when "Cable sang like a minstrel but wrote like an abolitionist, and that he was going to offer the American public a straight line to racial integration--with no codes, no winks, and no hedging [while instead] Twain was going to test the black voice behind a white face" (120). Levy calls upon the ever-expanding research into minstrel show traditions and how they are reflected in Huck Finn, often in unexpected ways. It may come as a surprise to some that blacks sometimes put on white face to mock whites, that blacks attended minstrel shows, and that some shows included actors wearing faces that were half white and half black (225-228). Levy also marshals a well-established body of scholarship to make the case that the famous "evasion chapters" of Huck Finn, from which Mark Twain read during the tour, were packed with coded language and are a parody of the "convict-lease" programs of the day that essentially re-enslaved black men (137-8). But when Cable's 'The Freedman's Case in Equity' was published in the same issue of The Century Magazine as a chapter from the forthcoming Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it drew more attention to Cable than Mark Twain, and Mark Twain's parody and code language seemed pale by comparison. Cable was pilloried in the south while black newspapers praised him (145). Mark Twain simultaneously admired Cable and was jealous, but expressed his annoyance in other ways (153).
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published at a time when the newspapers were full of stories about children committing violent crimes inspired by reading the wrong things, and when books written for American children were clearly emerging as a separate genre (168). Levy explores both that context--Huck and Tom as bad boys, and Huck Finn as a book about childhood--and then traces the "off-spring" of Huck Finn in Mark Twain's other works featuring characters like Joan of Arc, young Satan, and the teen soldiers in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (160 et seq.). He also traces Huck's off-spring in film, music, and cartoons through the twentieth century (166) and links Huck to modern depictions of youth in Home Alone, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the Harry Potter films, and other movies (170, 276). He also discusses how Huck Finn is taught today (207-8) and even cites in his bibliography a dozen papers written by Butler University students (326-27). This leads to insights into Huck Finn and modern theories of childhood development (172) and Huck and Tom as examples of psychological disorders now referred to as ADD/ADHD (174), and Levy reminds us that by "canonizing Huck Finn the way we do, we . . . canonize a raft of ways to think and argue and worry about children that make neither them nor us freer. It is not too late to recognize that we have been trying to shake free the 'real' child from the stereotypes of childhood for so long that the effort itself has become a stereotype" (175). This problem comes into clear focus when Levy compares Victorian and modern responses to Huck Finn (176 et seq.). In this context, Levy points out that when the "evasion chapters" are ignored the emphasis of Huck Finn shifts to race, but that when it is remembered that Mark Twain read from those very chapters during the Mark Twain-Cable Readings "was it not possible that the 'minstrel show stuff' and 'evasion' were the places where Twain was making his point, and not running from it?" (182).
Levy concludes by asserting that "Mark Twain and Huck Finn teach us that American history is 'echoic' (a word he credits to Victor A. Doyno), not progressive. A healthy dose of humility for the sojourner in Twain's world, then, for the problems about which he writes become your problems" (197). Earlier along in his narrative, Levy comments that Twain wanted "to re-create the first moment many whites saw something positive, something they wanted to emulate, in blacks, and to relive the complicated subversion of that moment [when] white Americans might experience racial others without mediation" (118). But Levy may be overly hopeful when he says "good Americans want to live up to our best myths about ourselves, we'll want to do something, anything, rather than repeat the past. In that moment, we'll understand what Huck Finn teaches" (196).
At the time Huck Finn was first published, Jim Crow laws
separated black and white America, the "convict-lease" programs
were perpetuating slavery, race-baiting was widespread in the media and in
politics, and the word "nigger" wasn't used in polite society, but
everyone used it everywhere else. This reviewer will leave it to others to
debate what separates black and white America today, what forms of slavery
are being perpetuated even now, how much race-baiting infects the media and
body politic, and what words people use outside polite society. But Mark Twain's
child, Huck Finn, has something to teach us, as every reader of this book
will understand, and that's a good beginning.