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The following review appeared 21 March 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Carl Wieck's preface to Refiguring Huckleberry Finn has perhaps the most unusual opening to a work of Twain criticism in recent memory. He offers a quote from Gerald Posner's Hitler's Children: Inside the Families of the Third Reich, where young Norman Frank, son of Nuremberg convicted war criminal Hans Frank, states that reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "ruined me for the rest of the Third Reich" by piquing his sense of humane justice (ix). The power of Twain's novel to transform individual perceptions of humanity, as evidenced by this dramatic anecdote, establishes the thematic base on which Wieck creates an intriguing and expansive work of criticism.
From this powerful preface, Wieck sets out to explore connections between keenly felt evocations of humanity in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the essence of the "wellsprings of the American spirit" (xiii). He posits that Twain's novel and the American spirit share a rational humanity necessary to a society that strives to make "decency, equality, and freedom" available for all (xiii). While many critics have written about such "Americaness," Wieck constructs his argument from areas neglected by earlier critics, thereby infusing his chapters with fresh and provocative arguments about Twain's novel.
Wieck begins his argument by shedding light on Twain's connections to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Although William Howells named him "the Lincoln of our literature," Wieck points out that surprisingly few scholars expand on the direct links between Twain and these key figures in American history. This observation inspires new reflections on how Huck and Jim serve as contemporaneous expressions of the American spirit. The duo continually declares a Jeffersonian independence from restrictive cultural norms, thus developing a friendship based on Lincoln's Gettysburg assertion that our nation is "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." While Wieck underscores the significance of the novel's dedication to America's potential humanity, he tempers this observation by discussing the nation's failures to live up to such lofty ideals.
Wieck introduces his analysis of the novel's satire with a discussion about the parallels between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Frederick Douglass's writings, especially his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. Directly connecting Twain's friendship with Douglass to the well educated, "white-shirted, free nigger" derided by pap early in Huckleberry Finn, Wieck argues that several recurrent themes in Twain's narrative directly emerge from his association with the outspoken abolitionist. His investigation scrutinizes issues like the scorching satire of Huck's discussion of the status of English servant compared to American slaves, and the slippery ways that Twain places the ideas of "whiteness" and "darkness." Theses compelling examinations of the influences of Douglass, Jefferson, and Lincoln on Huckleberry Finn lend cultural authority to the close readings of the novel that make up the rest of Wieck's book.
Wieck throws the authority of these historical American paragons into tension with the cultural authorities from which Huck and Jim spend much of the novel attempting to break free. He portrays Huck's conscientious struggle to accommodate his natural instincts about "rightness" to society's claims for the rightness of slavery, racism, greed, and religion, as a devastating commentary about how far America remains from reaching its democratic potential.
Exploration of these tensions also generates a compelling reading of the Evasion section of Huckleberry Finn. Building on Louis Budd's observation that Tom's dishonesty and selfish manipulation of Jim is unmistakable commentary on the "Southern question," Wieck asserts that the Evasion section also foretells the shameful social inequality of America's post-reconstruction era and forecasts that the nation would not address this injustice for generations to come.
After addressing the "Southern question," Wieck turns his attention to the perpetually rewarding study of irony in Huckleberry Finn. Wieck's most compelling arguments breathe fresh life into episodes that have received much critical attention. Seizing on Franklin Rogers's commentary that Twain originally had not planned for the narrative to take a raft ride down the river, he contends that the novel primarily shows Huck and Jim attempting to go against the flow: against both the natural flow of the river and the equally inexorable flow of society. Wieck also lingers over the exploration of the "Floating House," skillfully calling attention to the ironic fact that the clothing and Barlow knife liberated from the doomed house and used by Huck and Jim to escape their old lives were originally connected with Pap's dead body. These discussions, along with excellent chapters on the elusive duality of the narrator, blackness and whiteness in the novel, and Twain's prefatory disclaimer, ensure that scholars, educators and lovers of Twain's work will find Wieck's criticism extraordinarily useful.
Even the few unconvincing arguments in Wieck's book still provoke thought. His chapter, "The Figure Forty in Huckleberry Finn," occasionally strains to attach significance to the appearance of the number throughout the novel. Wieck acknowleges the common biblical associations with the figure forty, connecting the slave bounty of forty dollars to Judas's bounty of "thirty pieces of silver" for delivering Christ to the Romans, and the Jim's gaining his freedom in the fortieth chapter to the Israelite's wandering for forty years before gaining the promised land; however, he lacks compelling support for his connection of the phrase "forty acres and a mule" with the novel's text. The possibility of this link raises interesting and relevant questions: particularly about the self and societal deception implicit in Tom rewarding Jim with forty dollars as the novel closes. Yet this link-culled from cultural speculation and conjecture about the nebulous phrase "De Mule" in Twain's working notes-remains too subtle for such a strong assertion.
In many ways Wieck's final chapter, "Knowledge and Knowing in Huckleberry Finn," both traces aspects of Huck's intellectual and moral journey and accounts for the novel's durable resonance in American culture. He argues that Huck's escape from extensive formal schooling empowers the growth of the practical wisdom and morality that he acquires by the end of the novel. This practical wisdom, Wieck suggests, ultimately lies in Huck's ability to expand his understandings of tolerance and humanity in the face of an inflexible and often bigoted society. Such capacity for moral maturation, literarily figured in Huck, directly evokes the democratic influences of Jefferson, Lincoln and Douglass discussed early in Wieck's book. This is the conclusion to which Wieck's criticism leads us: that the American spirit ultimately exists in "refiguring" our identities in response to our consciences.
This conclusion holds great promise for other Twain works as well. The
connections between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and foundational
American political philosophy beg similar considerations of A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Personal Recollections of Joan of
Arc, and other writings that negotiate themes of personal freedom. Thus,
Wieck's unusual preface functions not only to demonstrate the transformative
power of Huckleberry Finn, but it also acts as an invitation to rediscover
key aspects of our American roots in a notoriously cynical age. Wieck's
meditative analysis of the "vital human echo" heard in Huckleberry
Finn reinforces Twain's position as our most "American" author.