The following review appeared 4 November 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Glen M. Johnson <JohnsonG@cua.edu>
The Catholic University of America
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
"The `Lincoln of our literature' must yield to the Lincoln of our politics."
That is the punch line of Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target. What Jonathan Arac means by it is not altogether clear. Much earlier in his book Arac has focused on a problem: many students and parents feel pain and anger at required reading of Mark Twain's novel in schools. We might well assume, then, that the yielding that Arac's sentence calls for involves constructive suppression of Huckleberry Finn in the interest of what, in his phrasing, is represented by Abraham Lincoln. And indeed, Arac goes on to say that "principles and actions, and public debates over principles and actions, are more important to remember than Huckleberry Finn if we wish to end racism. . . ." If we wish to understand Arac's point, we must pay attention to his nuanced use here of "remember." But we can come to terms with that and still not understand how we are to protect people from the pain caused by Twain's book and, simultaneously, make it the focus of public debate.
To be more specific, Arac has emphasized Twain's use of "the word." To his credit, Arac doesn't resort to euphemisms: "nigger" is there in his book, as it is in Mark Twain's, over and over. Yet Arac doesn't address the possibility that his own contribution to public debate has the potential to cause pain to students and parents. Perhaps Arac intends his university-press publication to function at a higher level--of age? education? intellect?--than the reading of Huckleberry Finn in schools. Twain's novel is "a wonderful book," Arac says. Evidently a point comes where potential pain is--replaced? balanced out? incorporated?--in the process of discussing principles and actions. Unfortunately, Arac doesn't tell us where this point is on the spectrum from the junior high classroom to the Ph.D. seminar. Nor does he discuss the alchemy that determines whether a particular word or work will be, at a given moment, assaultive or part of constructive debate. How do we teachers promote discussion of these issues without inflicting on those in our power the pain that Arac believes is encoded in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Has Arac led us into this wilderness only to abandon us?
Jonathan Arac has produced an extraordinary contribution to scholarship and culture studies. I have risked beginning my review in an ironic mode to help establish what kind of book Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target is--which is not quite the kind of book Arac wants to claim. He subscribes to the now-familiar notion that literary criticism is a form of radical activism. Nevertheless, the energy and intelligence of his book are metacritical, not political. He examines the process by which Huckleberry Finn achieved its unique stature, what Arac calls "hypercanonization." Although he evidently doesn't reject aesthetic criteria, Arac won't accept artistic value as a sufficient explanation for how this novel became a cultural "idol." "Idol" is loaded language, of course, but Arac cites enough hyperbole to justify it. There has indeed been a degree of religious fervor in the praise heaped on Huckleberry Finn, as well as in the iconoclastic assaults on it--and also in the responses to the iconoclastic assaults. Arac guides us through all of this intelligently and with respect for the critics he anatomizes. You will get a lot from his book if you're willing to accept that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a socio-cultural phenomenon as well as a literary masterpiece--and, more to the point, that the cultural and the literary define each other.
The bulk of Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target is devoted to this narrative of hypercanonization and idolatry. Arac is historically specific: the unique prestige of Twain's novel, he says, is a product of the mid-twentieth century and the work of a small number of prominent literary critics including Lionel Trilling, Henry Nash Smith, and Leo Marx. Arac is most attentive to Trilling's 1948 introduction to a college edition of Huckleberry Finn, later a chapter in The Liberal Imagination (1950). In the historicist take on this period, now familiar from work by Arac, Donald Pease, Russell Riesing, and others, literary criticism was bound up in the politics of the early Cold War. What Trilling praised in Twain's Huck were the values of America's anti-communist left: the complex individual self, dialectical struggle, internalized protest, truth-telling, and "moral style." Huck's decision in chapter 31, to "go to hell" rather than betray Jim, was adopted by liberals like Trilling as the epitome of individualism, as opposed to (Stalinist) group solidarity, and of moral sensibility as the essence of political freedom. To these values Leo Marx added the "vernacular" stance, revealed most impressively in the daybreak scene in chapter 19 of Huckleberry Finn. For Marx in "The Pilot and the Passenger" (1956), vernacular language carries democratic social value.
Arac's discussions of Trilling, Marx, and their contemporaries are respectful, carefully reasoned, documented, and valid. His book performs a service in reminding us, once again, how "universal" values in our canonical literature always reflect specific political assumptions and agendas. We should now be less facile in praising the democratic language of chapter 19 or Huck's moral debate in chapter 31. (And I should make clear that Arac doesn't demand that we stop praising these things.) There are, nevertheless, serious weaknesses in Arac's narrative. One is that neither moral nor vernacular arguments originated with Cold War-era intellectuals. Arac can't give due credit to Howells, Brooks, DeVoto, and other obvious predecessors of Trilling and Marx, because doing so would reduce the role of the historicists' bugaboo, liberal anticommunism. Arac is aware of his problem but evades it. For example, DeVoto's praise of Twain's "'making the vernacular a perfect instrument'" is reduced by Arac to "the earliest relevant usage" of the term. Arac engages in a similar sleight of hand in citing Mencken, Constance Rourke, Walter Blair, F. O. Matthiessen, and others in praise of common language--then against his own evidence announcing that "only in the years after World War II did vernacular emerge with the prominence it still maintains."
Another problem involves how Arac folds racial issues into his political narrative. Reading his book leaves the impression that the civil rights movement was invented by white intellectuals as a Cold War move. Martin Luther King is barely mentioned, in passing, in Arac's discussion of liberal race consciousness during the 1950s. In a book that decries lack of serious attention to African-Americans' complaints about Huckleberry Finn, it is remarkable to find Arac rendering voiceless the black leaders of the postwar period. This is even more astonishing given Arac's criticism of the work of Gunnar Myrdal and others, for whom "blacks function as objects of complex white feelings." Yet precisely the same thing occurs in Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target, which becomes another example of what Arac denounces, "a long persisting inability to recognize the agency of African-Americans in regard to their liberation and advancement." The likely explanation for this is that Arac has been blinkered by his historical narrative, with its need to assert the cultural-political power of university intellectuals.
Arac's thesis concerning race and liberals is that Huck's sensitivity to Jim's humanity appealed to Cold War intellectuals as a validation of America--of the ability of Americans to solve political problems without radical change, through moral struggle focused within the hearts of individuals. Thus Twain's book "came to be endowed with the values of Americanness and anti-racism." To support his point Arac points out that the earliest serious criticism on Huckleberry Finn, by Howells and others, did not emphasize chapter 31 or see the novel primarily as a parable of racial understanding. Somewhat contradictorily, Arac also provides a long discussion of how Twain came to promote himself as a moralist on race, through "retrospective contextualizings of his fiction."
There's little question that Arac is correct in identifying the 1940s and 1950s as the origin of the standard racial-moral reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet his narrative ignores the principal source of liberal racial consciousness in that era, which was not leftist politics but the powerful tradition of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Just as he slights Martin Luther King, Arac ignores Gandhi and a line of American thinkers going back to Thoreau and Emerson. Arac's blinders in this area so narrow his vision that he has a great deal of trouble with the African-American thinkers whom he does treat, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and John Hope Franklin. These individuals largely shared the liberal beliefs of the white intellectuals who are Arac's targets. For some reason, however, Arac does not subject the black writers to the same kind of historicist scrutiny. So Baldwin's and Ellison's subtle contributions to discussions of Huckleberry Finn tend to be quickly summarized, then left to float, largely unattached to the narrative. The predictable exception comes in an instance where Baldwin criticized white northern liberals--that gets Arac's attention. With Ellison, Arac is condescending: the novelist spoke about "our" burden of world leadership, and for that he is called "highly quixotic," though Arac's own narrative makes clear that such sentiments were characteristic of the time.
Though the mid-century political and critical climate is Arac's main concern, he carries the saga of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn forward in two ways. Not surprisingly, his main interest in contemporary criticism is Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? (1993). Arac's critique of Fishkin has two emphases. First, her work is nationalistic, using Twain's novel for "interracially progressive purposes" rather than "questioning the identification of a nation with a book." Second, and more telling, Arac finds fault with Fishkin's linguistic arguments for African-American sources of Huck's vernacular. Such criticism of Fishkin's evidence is not as original as Arac claims. Nevertheless, his detailed analysis leaves big holes in her argument. So thorough is the critique that Arac can be accused of piling on, getting into petty points about geography. In any case, Arac makes the critical prestige of Was Huck Black? look suspect, on both scholarly and cultural grounds.
Arac's second emphasis in studying the reputation of Huckleberry Finn over the past quarter century is what he calls "idolatry." It's interesting that he uses two terms for the process he seeks to expose: "hypercanonization," which is the work of literary critics, and "idolatry," which is its "journalistic by-product." There's snobbery in this distinction. Academics and journalists are doing the same thing, identifying "a book not just with a nation, but with the goodness of a nation." However, evidently only the professors are intellectually serious. Condescending or not, Arac provides a devastating critique of journalists who jump to the defense of Huckleberry Finn against those who would remove it from classrooms. Granted, it's not difficult to make Nat Hentoff or Jonathan Yardley look foolish: you just need to quote them. But it's not only these columnists who come off looking bad. When literary debate gets into the newspapers, "many smart people say foolish things." And Arac demonstrates that something pernicious lies behind much of the foolishness: the argument that black parents and children don't know how to read serious literature.
There's something pernicious in the literary criticism as well. Near the beginning of Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target, Arac provides a "maddening survey" of instances where Huck's companion is called "Nigger Jim." As Donald Gibson first pointed out in 1968, Twain never wrote this phrase, never made "Nigger" part of Jim's name. And yet Arac finds it in the writings of a who's who of Twain scholars, from DeVoto, Wecter, and Krutch through at least three prominent critics writing today. It's not necessary for Arac to mention Detective Mark Furhman--though he does, twice--to get his point across. Literary critics have contributed to "the continued honored circulation of a term that is both explosive and degrading." We may not follow Arac to the point of calling the idolatry of Huckleberry Finn "an excuse for well-meaning white people to use the term nigger with . . . good conscience"--but it is difficult to explain why so many have used it.
Jonathan Arac indicates that he worked on Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target for over a decade. If such a book had appeared in the mid-1980s, it would have created a sensation. Though I anticipate strong reactions in 1997-1998, the shock value is much diminished. The new historicism in American literary studies is now dominant, its political stances conventional, its rhetoric familiar. This is a good thing, I believe, because it may keep us from jumping immediately into a shouting match over Arac's book. Rather, we can read Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target for its scholarly excellence and its incisive, provocative criticism. Arac touches on much more than I have mentioned in this review: read what he has to say about the editing of the California edition of Huckleberry Finn, for example, or his comparative comments on works by Stowe and Cooper, or his discussions of critics whose assumptions he shares, Raymond Williams and Edward Said. This is a book that we all must take into account from here on.
Arac's book is free of the "gotcha!" rhetoric of much contemporary historicist writing. Though he criticizes the great line of Twain critics, he also compliments Trilling, Marx, Smith, et. al., by wishing to join their company. This ambition is overt, if immodest: "My own critical premises are largely in the line that I am criticizing. . . . They also all believe, as I do, that . . . imaginative goals are always linked, in complex and important ways, to the society and history in which the writing occurs. . . . Therefore the criticism that treats them must not be restricted to a narrowly defined aesthetic sphere." In pursuit of his ambition Arac has given his book an Arnoldian subtitle, The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. One of its benefits is to suggest that today's historicist American scholars--our "tenured radicals," in Roger Kimball's snide phrase--belong to a significant tradition of cultural criticism with activist ambitions. I, for one, find the activist pretensions of these word mongers to be mainly soul butter and hogwash. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target will not do much to end racism, just as The Liberal Imagination had little effect on the Cold War. Still, both books help us to read our literature well, which should be a good thing no matter how you define "literature."