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The following review appeared 2 March 2020 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Is there room on the shelf for another book about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Hasn't everything been said about Mark Twain's masterpiece that can be said? And if anything is left to be explored, would answering the question of who killed Pap Finn be near the top of the list? Or even on that list? And yet, that is the book we have before us, and it reminds us that the answers to the first two questions are "yes" and "no," and the answer to the second two questions is "no, but it should be."
One of those books on the aforementioned shelf is a slender yellow volume by Franklin R. Rogers called Mark Twain's Burlesque Patterns (1960), in which Rogers postulated the notion that Huckleberry Finn was first conceived as a "burlesque detective story," or, more to the point, a murder-mystery centered on who killed Huck's father. Rogers studied the early composition of Huckleberry Finn and demonstrated that in 1876 Twain was focused on murder mysteries, including them not only in Huckleberry Finn, but in two shorter works he wrote about that same time, A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, and "Simon Wheeler, Detective" (which was both a play and an aborted novel).
Murder mysteries--fictional ones--can be entertaining. The mystery surrounding the death of Pap Finn is intriguing. He's found naked in a house swept by flood waters into the Mississippi River, and the room is cluttered with sordid clues--some of them revealing and some not. But even if his murderer is discovered, where would that leave readers of the story? Besides, by the time Twain finished writing Huckleberry Finn, the mystery of who killed Pap Finn was no longer central to the action and was left unresolved. Forty seven years after Rogers raised the question, Jon Clinch published a superb contrapuntal novel that shadows the action in Huckleberry Finn, solving that mystery and establishing Huck's maternity. But that novel is Clinch's fictional conception of the story, not Twain's.
Takeuchi discusses the work of both Rogers and Clinch, among others, and offers a plausible resolution to the mystery by the end of his first chapter, but that's not the end of Takeuchi's enquiry; it's just the beginning. For Takeuchi, there is the "larger mystery involving the novel's author--why Twain, all his life, evaded writing about what he had experienced at the death of his own father" (vii). Takeuchi likens his investigation to studying a black hole, in which the black hole itself cannot be seen or directly observed, but can only be detected by studying the movement of nearby objects and distortions of light around it. We may never know exactly what young Sam Clemens saw of his father's autopsy, or the full depth of his ambivalent feelings about his father, but his writings--both what he wrote and what he didn't write--provide clues, and Takeuchi sorts them out.
The investigation begins at the murder scene in the floating house. Twain provides a detailed inventory of the contents of that room. Huck and Jim take careful note of what is there. Among the items present is a wooden leg, but they are unsuccessful in their search for its mate. More seriously, both Huck and Jim fail to notice that Pap's boots are missing. Huck would have recognized them by the "X" nailed into one heel, the sign by which he'd known his father was back in town when he saw his footprint in the snow by a fence stile (a ladder or steps built into a fence). In fact, they also fail to notice that Pap Finn's clothing seems to be missing; at least Huck does not recognize any of the clothing in the room as Pap's. As Takeuchi points out, the critical clues are not what is present in the room, but what is absent. This observation sets the stage for some of what will follow in his study: the significance of footprints, crosses, and absences. Besides A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, and "Simon Wheeler, Detective," Takeuchi traces these clues in other writings including a letter Twain wrote to his children as Santa Claus, and "The Stolen White Elephant." He pieces together these clues and reveals Pap's murderer. No spoilers here, but the murderer used Pap's clothing as a disguise, and is exposed by Pap's distinctive boot print.
At this point, those familiar with the tropes, metaphors, themes, and plot devices that have attracted the most attention from Twain scholars for decades will see where things might be headed--disguises, gender roles, crosses, twins, corpses, father-figures, crime and punishment, etc. In fact, those who have read two books that were published in 2019 alongside the paperback edition of Takeuchi's book--Jarrod Roark's Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, and Ben Griffin's Mark Twain's Civil War: "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed"-- will find those studies helpful preparation for understanding Takeuchi's sometimes complex arguments. Crime and justice are a recurring theme, and the final chapter of this book is on "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed."
Just as Roark explains Twain's treatments of legal and extra-legal justice, Takeuchi notes that Twain does not always solve a murder by catching the murderer. In both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Detective, the corpse of the victim is identified at the end, but not the murderer. Crosses are a crucial clues to identity in both stories, and so are footprints. In "The Stolen White Elephant," the footprints being followed are of the dead elephant, not a murderer, and are still being followed after the corpse of the elephant has been found. In A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, it is the absence of footprints in the snow around the unconscious body of the Frenchman that are a clue to a murder. Twain uses the word "clew" for "clue" implying the double-meaning of a ball of twine that can be used to trace a path (just like following footprints), a meaning that Twain makes explicit when a clew is used in the cave to mark a path.
Studies of twins and doubles in Twain's fiction are exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, but Takeuchi takes a new approach, and discusses what he calls "splitting." Twain explicitly describes "splitting" in "Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes," where Huck and Franklin talk about how two individuals can be combined into a third new individual (or vice versa). Takeuchi cites Twain's text (46-47) and also cites its parallel in David Wilson's misunderstood joke about killing his half of a barking dog (earning him the nickname "Pudd'nhead" by the witless villagers of Dawson's Landing). He then traces the splitting which is the central theme of "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" where the narrator battles with his conscience, which has split off into a menacing creature who mocks him. Takeuchi demonstrates how splits, which are of course, psychological more often than physical (like the water droplets in "Three Thousand Years"), are a romantic theme when one individual is split into two, as in "The Carnival of Crime," and realistic when two halves are contained in one individual, the normal human condition. Takeuchi points out that Twain's life was "full of the oneness of opposites. Critics often discuss the combination of two opposing elements in Twain's self" (53). Twain's characters often function as two halves of a whole that have been split apart at some point, or else an individual who is conflicted by the two halves of his self.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is explored as an example of an individual that has been split into two, with Tom's brother Sid functioning as Tom's irksome conscience, just as the narrator of "The Carnival of Crime" was pestered by his conscience. Crime and punishment also is split: When Tom is punished, he splits off his punishment from his crime by tricking others into white-washing the fence. He even gets two forbidden fruits (apples) for his effort, first from Ben Rogers, and then from Aunt Polly. But splitting works in both directions: Tom is also twice punished for crimes he did not commit--once for ink spilt in a schoolmate's book, and again when he steps forward to take Becky Thatcher's punishment for the torn page in another book. There are other injustices: Muff Potter is wrongly accused of a murder committed by Injun Joe. Joe Harper runs away from home after being wrongfully accused of stealing cream. He and Tom bond just as do their grieving mothers who think their boys are dead, each representing split halves of a whole. Takeuchi describes how Twain's splitting of crime and punishment in Tom Sawyer, and Tom's scapegoating his friends into performing his punishment for him capsize the Biblical story of original sin and the forbidden fruit.
Takeuchi also makes a convincing case that Injun Joe is a scapegoat who functions as one split half of Tom. Both had visited the graveyard in search of a corpse, but for entirely different reasons, but they are linked by the murder that takes place there. Until Tom testifies in court, Injun Joe is the criminal half of Tom, and Tom is the punished half of Injun Joe (his scapegoat). But after Injun Joe's escape from the court, Tom becomes the punishing half of Injun Joe (his split conscience). Injun Joe is driven by his desire for patricidal revenge against a father-figure--hoping to kill the widow of the dead Judge Douglas, who had humiliated him. Takeuchi draws parallels with other patricidal themes in Twain's writings: The baby of Charles Allbright in the famous Raft Episode of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Driscoll in Pudd'nhead Wilson (where fingerprints, like footprints, lead to the murderer, and twins are split), and Archy Stillman in A Double-Barreled Detective Story (in which a man who is split, half human and half dog, tracks down his father). Drawing upon the themes already traced in other writings, Takeuchi then traces those same themes in Huckleberry Finn, drawing upon previous studies on the Oedipal themes in the novel.
Takeuchi divides Twain's writing of Huckleberry Finn into three stints, the first beginning in 1876 when it started as a murder mystery, and the second and third stints in 1880 and 1883, as Twain struggled with Huck's conscience and his own. In a later notebook entry from 1897 Twain wrote that when he split his conscience into a separate person in "The Carnival of Crime" that he had made a mistake--that his conscience was part of himself, and Takeuchi declares that this "externalization to internalization of conscience is the most important marker of the turning point of Twain's battle with his conscience in the novel" (200). He argues against Huck's famous "go to Hell" moment as the turning point in the story, and instead argues that the infamous Evasion Chapters are when Tom and Huck, split halves, play off each other until Twain makes peace with his conflicted conscience.
Takeuchi's study concludes with "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," in which the death of a stranger represents the death of a father figure as well as an unsolved murder. The older man who is shot to death by young men on a hapless adventure turns out to be a father with children, and the mystery of whose bullet killed this father is left unresolved. This fictional event that Twain injected into his account of his brief participation in a state militia at the beginning of the Civil War parallels the patricidal themes in his other fictional works. The parallel is obvious between young Sam Clemens who soon heads west to the Nevada Territory and the young Huck Finn who states his intention to light out for the Territory.
Some of Takeuchi's observations have been made by others (and
are duly acknowledged), but none have been extended quite this far or linked
together in this way. He weaves some complex interpretations, and whether
every reader will agree with every conclusion, Takeuchi builds his arguments
deliberately and without jargon, and as far out on a limb as it may seem at
times, he never saws on the limb. The result is a book that offers fresh insights,
and deserves its space on that crowded shelf.