Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
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U. S. Naval Academy
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There is nothing new about a critical edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1961, Kenneth Lynn produced such a book titled Huckleberry Finn: Text, Source, and Criticism. It has been a durable resource for teachers and students over the years; and Books in Print still lists it, thirty-five years after it was first introduced.
An even more elegant critical edition, one edited by Hamlin Hill and Walter Blair, appeared in 1962. The Art of Huckleberry Finn was revised in 1969 and was one of those books I used regularly in my first years of teaching. One colleague had already given the book such a permanent place that he had his paperback version library-bound. When he retired, I inherited it. This venerable book is, alas, no longer available for classroom use, or I would be tempted to use it still.
Later, the W. W. Norton Company decided that critical editions were a good thing and popularized the form across the English curriculum, giving us cheap but good collections of texts, source materials and trenchant criticism. Among the editions the company has issued is, of course, one of Huckleberry Finn. They too have mostly faded from stock, leaving only the venerable Lynn production and one in the Unwin Critical Library edited by Harold Beaver on the market.
There is an opening in the field, then, for a new entry. Graff and Phelan have stepped in to fill the gap. They cannot claim that the idea for such a book is a new one; but they do put a somewhat different slant on their volume, advertising that it is a study in critical controversy. Graff and Phelan's collection consists of an opening essay titled, "Why Study Critical Controversy," the text of the 1885 edition of Huckleberry Finn, a portfolio of seventeen Kemble illustrations from the first edition, and eighteen critical essays divided into three groups: (1) the controversy over the ending, (2) the controversy over race and (3) the controversy over gender and sexuality.
Both of the pioneering critical editions in the field, that compiled by Lynn and the one fielded by Hill and Blair, have relied on the 1885 edition of Twain's novel. It is a good and proper thing to do. Twain approved the text and had it printed and distributed though the Charles Webster Company, a company he created and controlled. Though he lived twenty-five years after the first printing of the novel, Twain never saw fit to make major changes to the text.
The various critical editions do differ in how they print that 1885 text, however. The most satisfactory is the Hill-Blair rendition. It is a facsimile of the 1885 edition, putting illustrations and text together as they were then. The Kenneth Lynn printing is the worst. To save space, the text is printed in double columns. Even chapter titles receive little space. All in all, the feeling is one of being crowded unmercifully.
The Graff and Phelan printing falls somewhere in between the two others. The text is printed in a single column that allows it to breathe a little; but this is no re-creation of the first edition. The seventeen illustrations that Graff and Phelan reprint are assembled in a gallery at the end of the novel rather than at appropriate places in the text. I suspect the publishers, not the editors, made this decision as they must have made the decision to introduce the acknowledgments on page ii and continue them on page 551 to avoid the expense of another two pages. Because one of the critical essays, Earl F. Briden's "Kemble's `Specialty' and the Pictorial Countertext of Huckleberry Finn," calls upon the reader to look at the illustrations for the Twain book, it would be doubly valuable to see those illustrations as they appeared with the text.
None of the controversies that the editors choose are controversies that worried nineteenth century audiences. They spring from twentieth century sensibilities. Of these twentieth century concerns, the one about the ending of the novel was the earliest to appear. Indeed, of the five essays the editors choose, four were printed either in the Hill and Blair or in the Lynn volume from the 1960s. The new addition is a piece by Richard Hill that looks at the role a critical agenda can have in shaping criticism. He opines that Leo Marx is a critic who has allowed his agenda to shape his view of the ending of Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, that agenda has helped Marx to see things that are not in the text. Hill's call is for a criticism that does not overreach the text. While the critic may, by disregarding the text, further his own political aims, he does not, Hill avers, thereby deal justly with the author or the text being considered.
The problem of overreaching the text arises again in the book's weakest section, that on gender and sexuality. The weakness manifests itself in several ways. First, half the section had to be newly written for this edition, suggesting perhaps that the controversy does not exist in any lively way in the community and so must be manufactured by the editors. I do not mean to say that the essays that have been solicited for the book are unworthy and therefore should never have been published. Two of the three may be valuable in fostering the pedagogical goals of building interest and aiding the formation of critical principles. In his well-reasoned essay "Walker versus Jehlen versus Twain," Crews roundly criticizes Myra Jehlen for majoring on a minor adventure in Finn and on misinterpreting much of even that minor event. Nancy Walker (to whom Crews gives a clean bill of critical health for her admirable essay "Reformers and Young Maidens: Women and Virtue in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"), Myra Jehlen (who is criticized for her essay "Reading Gender in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn") and Crews himself are all engaged in dealing with Twain's text. Their interchange is interesting and causes the reader to reflect on the nature and rules of the critical enterprise.
Overreaching occurs also in the two essays devoted to homosexuality. Leslie Fiedler's "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" is well known to students of Twain. It has been around since 1948. Students have always read it, but critical anthologies have rarely printed it. I suspect its exclusion has not so much to do with its thesis that Huck and Jim's relationship might depend on unfulfilled homoerotic impulses as on the fact that it does not support that thesis with solid textual work. There is also no support, textual or otherwise, given for Fiedler's assertion that this homosexual impulse underlies all black-white male bonding in American culture. Enter Christopher Looby. Virtually ignoring any relationship of Fiedler's thesis to Huckleberry Finn, Looby sets out to offer the cultural evidence that Fielder failed to give in 1948. I must say that he does a fine job of introducing anecdotal evidence; but what he does can hardly be called legitimate literary criticism of the Twain work.
The relationship between black and white in Huckleberry Finn has occupied literary critics as much as the question of the relationship of the races has occupied society at large. Two sources have furnished much of the best criticism on this issue: the Mark Twain Journal (issues in 1984 and 1988) and Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (eds. James S. Leonard et al., Durham: Duke University Press, 1992). Indeed, three of the seven essays in the section come from these two places.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin's book Was Huck Black? (New York: Oxford University Press) caused quite a stir in 1993. The editors excerpt some of the best of her interesting and careful work. Her claims are modest, but the possibility of at least some of Huck's speech being based on an unconscious use of the language Twain had heard from "Sociable Jimmy" is certainly intriguing.
While Gerry Brenner's piece seems to rewrite Huckleberry Finn--and in doing so to distort the novel Twain wrote--James Phelan responsibly points out where Brenner has gone astray, and so makes reading the two essays together an instructive and important part of the critical dialogue.
Apparently, source criticism is too much out of fashion to be treated in the text. I have frequently found that the excerpts from Twain's autobiographical dictations, the excerpts from the Sentimental Song Book and the excerpts from Johnson's writing about Captain Simon Suggs not only spark discussion in an undergraduate class but also that they build appreciation for the kind of historical spadework on which good literary theory can be built.
The Hill and Blair edition is not available, so I suspect I will use what Graff and Phelan have given us, picking and choosing among the critical articles, as most of us seem to do anyhow.
Contents of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy:
Why Study Critical Controversies?
Part One: Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Life of Samuel Clemens and the Reception of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The 1885 Text
A Portfolio of Illustrations from the 1885 Edition
Part Two: A Case Study in Critical Controversy
The Controversy over the Ending: Did Mark Twain Sell Jim Down the River?
Lionel Trilling, "A Certain Formal Aptness"
T. S. Eliot, "The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End"
Leo Marx, "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn"
James M. Cox, "Attacks on the Ending and Twain's Attack on Conscience"
Richard Hill, "Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
The Controversy Over Race: Does Huckleberry Finn Combat or Reinforce Racist Attitudes?
Julius Lester, "Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Justin Kaplan, "Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn"
Peaches Henry, "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn"
Earl F. Briden, "Kemble's `Specialty' and the Pictorial Countertext of Huckleberry Finn"
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "From Was Huck Black?"
Gerry Brenner, "More than a Reader's Response: A Letter to De Ole True Huck'"
James Phelan, "On the Nature and Status of Covert Texts: A Reply to Gerry Brenner's `Letter to De Ole True Huck'"
The Controversy over Gender and Sexuality: Are Twain's Sexual Politics Progressive, Regressive, or Beside the Point
Nancy A.Walker, "Reformers and Young Maidens: Women and Virtue in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Myra Jehlen, "Reading Gender in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Frederick Crews, "Walker versus Jehlen versus Twain"
Martha Woodmansee, "A Response to Frederick Crews"
Leslie Fiedler, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!"
Christopher Looby, "`Innocent Homosexuality': The Fiedler Thesis in Retrospect"