Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Disgusting Adults and a Festivus Grievance

“Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her, now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn’t seem to make it go, somehow.” (727)

This comes from Huckleberry Finn’s thoughts after reading the poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, who died as a child. What we know about Grangerford adults—slaveholdes, murders, petty, jealous—we are somehow glad she did not grow up. Her poem, which Huck read, was about a boy who drown. Her poems were acts of selflessness, tributes. Why is it that solidarity and selflessness seems to come only from the children that Huck Finn encountered on his adventure?

Every time I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (this is maybe the four time and the second time this year), I am struck first and foremost by how utterly disgusting most of the white adults in the story are. As for blacks, we really only meet Jim and the slaves who give refuge to Jim, while Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords. If we want to be hard on Twain, we can accuse him of infantilizing Jim by not giving him the same vile characteristics as the other adults in the book. We have two plot lines in the novel. The first deals with Huck achieving his moral autonomy when committing to freeing Jim and learning to see him as more than a plaything. The second is the series of odd adults that Huck encounters, all with their own brand of odious personal defects, some of them personal, but a great many systemic and products of the civilization they lived in.

cover

The first adult we meet is the Widow Douglas who quite selfishly took on the job of “sivilizing” Huck. If we trust Huck’s narration (and why wouldn’t we as hopefully good and moral people), the Widow Douglas sees like the state. She does not abuse Huck physically, but she does work hard to crush his freedom and creativity while regimenting his life. Her job is to prepare Huck for work, a criminal act of murder if there ever was one. Remember that Huck preferred living with his physically abusive father who periodically locked him in a room. (“it warn’t long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part. It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study.” 647–648). When pap takes Huck back to his cabin, the Widow Douglas uses the power of the state to steal him back. Huck’s wishes are not consulted by either adult. Douglas’ sister, Miss Watson is Jim’s owner. We have no reason not to believe that Douglas does not sustain the paternalistic ideas toward blacks and children that ran through slave society. (See my second post on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for more on Huck’s attitude toward life with the Widow Douglas.)

robbers

Of course, even if Huck marginally preferred the physical brutality of pap to the moral and mental abuse of the Widow Douglas, pap is utterly disgusting. He is after the money Huck earned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, steals the little that Huck has on hand to drink, beats Huck, and locks him in a room while he is gone. He is also thoroughly racist and resents any blacks with even a smidgen of education or status. In a two-page rant he dwells on a free black who could vote.

Let me add a Festivus grievance at this point. The Wikipedia entry for Huckleberry Finn (the character, not the novel) has a significant section on the impact of pap’s alcoholism on Huck. It is well sourced. I guess someone was going to write a silly psychological profile of Huck Finn especially, but I was surprised to find one that utterly missed the point that Huck is the freest and most moral character in the novel. Instead, these scholars have focused on how Huck was mentally, intellectually, and morally damaged by being raised by pap. I do not want to defend abusive drunk parents, but instead point out the stunning resilience of children in the face of the violence of the adult world. Below is the really stupid part, which suggests that some of Huck’s best qualities are a result of the violence he experienced at home.

“Huck is regarded as “vulgar” and “lawless” by Mark Twain. These characterizations of Huck coupled with his constant lying and his absurd schemes, such as faking his own death, are examples of Huck’s externalizing behavior. Pap’s alcoholism coupled with the absence of Huck’s mother ultimately attributes to Huck’s extreme externalizing behavior. Huck‘s experience of a lack of warmth and sensitivity from his mother was only exaggerated by her complete absence due to her death. Huck’s situation is more severe than many other COAs because he was entirely deprived of warmth and sensitivity from his mother Huck’s lying, stealing, and absolute disregard for the rules are also clear examples of his externalizing behavior. Huck ultimately fakes his own death and runs away from his village to escape his father as a result of how poor of a role model he sees his father to be.”

So as part of my Festivus airing of grievances I call for an end of psychological profiles of fictional characters using assumptions derived from our contemporary therapeutic culture. (This is the second time I posted this bit from Against the Logic of Submission, but people keep going to therapy.)

Huck fakes his own death to escape his bind. Either he must stay with his father or return to the Widow Douglas. This begins his rafting adventures on the Mississippi. He hides out on an island and meets up with Jim, who ran away from Miss Watson because of suggestions that she will sell Jim south. (Another odious adult for you.)

ghost

Along the way they encounter a series of groups, the first three of which are a gang of robber and murders stealing from a steamboat that ran aground, the feuding and violent Sheperdsons and Grangerfords, and the duo of confidence men the Duke and the King. Since Huck and Jim will spend most of the time with the Duke and the King, we can close with a study of their character. They are rather ridiculous, but no less so than the people they are able to con. We read with disbelief that their able to sustain their schemes as long as they do. Their first trick that we experience involves convincing Jim and Huck that they are heir to the Duke of Bridgewater and Louis XVII. I found this interesting because we have two con artists who take advantage of the democratic capitalism of the antebellum period, but also sustain a façade of inherited privilege. In any case, Huck sees through them right away, but does not mind playing along. They put on shows of bad Shakespeare and later a vulgar show called “The Royal Nonesuch.”

The Duke and the King practicing

The Duke and the King practicing

In their own words, they choose whatever will make them money. “Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture, sometimes—oh, I do lots of things.” (744) Their first scam to make money after being with Huck and Jim is to put on a revival, ending with donations for a missionary venture to Asia. In a way, there is some play involved in the Duke and the King’s efforts (I think the professionalization of careers limits us too much), but in the end they are looking to take advantage of everyone they can. At one point they even sell Jim. While on the surface they appear as interesting playmates, they also turn out to be characteristic of the worst aspects of antebellum American civilization.

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

Enjoy a Christmas smoke; live like Huck

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