“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part Two: Mark Twain in the Cold War and After

Historically this is but a part of that larger conflict between older, dominant groups of white Americans, especially the Anglo-Saxons, on the one hand, and the newer white and non-white groups on the other, over the major group’s attempt to impose its ideals upon the rest, insisting that its exclusive image be accepted as the image of the American. This conflict should not, however, be misunderstood. For despite the impact of the American idea upon the world, the “American” himself has not (fortunately for the United States, its minorities, and perhaps for the world) been finally defined. So that far from being socially undesirable this struggle between Americans as to what the American is to be is part of that democratic process throughout which the nation works to achieve itself. Out of this conflict the ideal American character—a type truly great enough to possess the greatness of the land, a delicately posed unity of divergences—is slowly being born. Ralph Ellison, pp. 254–255

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

This will be my final post about Mark Twain, unless the Library of America decides to publish his autobiography or 1601 or some of the other “forgotten” works. The Mark Twain Anthology is a collection of articles, reviews, and analyses of Mark Twain and his works from a diverse group of writers, many non-Americans. In my last post, I looked at the first half of this collection where I found writers attempting to come to terms with first the rise of Twain’s unique voice and then confronting his overwhelming cultural power. I discussed how some saw him as the first unreflective American writer (that is American by nature, not as part of a rebellion against European writers and culture). Many non-American writers were interested in Twain as for his anti-colonial stance. In the later 20th century, writers started to impose on Mark Twain a variety of different political perspectives. Identity politics is reflected in much of the commentary on Twain, as was the Cold War.

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I noticed three competing narratives about Mark Twain during the Cold War. The first is pursed largely in the United States and concerned identity politics and the quest to define America at a time when the global stakes were high. At times, it was simply a matter of imposing on Twain one particular group perspective, such as in Leslie Fiedler’s attempt in “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey” to suggest that Huckleberry Finn was part of a common trend in American literature to idealize same sex love. Fiedler wants to look to how children would have read these relationships. He goes so far as to call it a mythos in American literature. For T. S. Eliot, Huckleberry Finn, through the use of the River, provides a broader understanding of the American. He sees “no wisdom” in Twain’s later cynicism and pessimism, but sees hope for American unity in the relationship between Huck and Jim. Ralph Ellison suggests that “the Negro body” is the symbol of man in American literature, providing its moral center and the foundation for some cultural unity. “It is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro from our fiction conincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil.” (263) In the context of the Cold War and the struggle for civil equality, Ellison suggests this is a necessity.

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A second trend is reflected in W. H. Auden’s essay comparing Huck Finn and Oliver Twist. Auden, an English poet, like many others was struggling with the definition of “Western Civilization,” emerging in the context of the Cold War. Like writers knew, the political alliance between England and the United States betrayed significant cultural divisions running through “Western Civilization.” Auden points out a different view of nature. Americans see nature is a savage other to be endured, while in England nature is a cozy and caring mother, subdued and conquered. He also noticed a different human nature. For Americans human nature’s perfection has not been reached, hence stories like Huckleberry Finn look toward moral progress. He also looks at money. While the English see money as power, Americans saw money as “something you extract in your battle with the dragon of nature, represents a proof of your manhood.” (250)

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Taking the same question to the Pacific we have a wonderful article by Kenaburo Oe, who read Huckleberry Finn as a child when Americans bombs were dropping on Japanese cities. For him, Huck Finn represented an image of personal freedom, self worth, and moral heroism at a time when Japanese youth were taught to kill themselves at the emperor’s command. Oe is still troubled by the fact that American imperial violence in Vietnam shared little in common with what he saw of American in its literature.

This does not concern the superficial amusement of finding the heirs of Huckleberry in hippies and calling all other average Americans, all together, squares, along with Tom Sawyer. Rather, in my clear and extensive impression I might even call classical, I felt, in today’s America, for example on Fifth Avenue, in New York, the existence of Americans with their destitute hearts listening to the calls of nighthawks and the barks of dogs in the depths of forests. I think I will think about it anew as one way the Americans who are the descendants of the Oscar Handlin’s so-called “uprooted” can exist in the great forest of ultra-modern civilization.

With these two articles, we see that in the Cold War, there was a search for understanding among allies and Huck Finn was not uncommonly at the center of those musings. Notice also, that while in the early twentieth century, Mark Twain was being seen as the American ambassador to the world. But by the 1950s and 1960s that role had been taken over by Huckleberry Finn.

A third trend during the Cold War musings on Mark Twain was the voices coming out of the Communist world. While Americans and their allies explored questions of identity, Russians and Chinese were using Mark Twain to remind the world of the moral failings of the United States. They gravitated toward the more pessimistic Twain who wrote on the faults of American capitalism, slavery, and the horrors of empire. Lao She hits all of these points in his 1960 speech “Mark Twain: Exposer of the ‘Dollar Empire.’” These themes get picked up in some of the post-Cold War writings on Mark Twain by Americans, when questioning America’s empire and its place in the world became more common.

I do not think it is a bad thing that we find people all around the world using Twain to ask questions that shape their lives. He was the sort of undogmatic writer who is sometimes difficult to pin down. Like Richard Wagner, who wrote each opera with a unique theme and sound, Twain’s novels are distinct. Even individual works often contain several motifs. In A Tramp Abroad we get descriptions of German university life alongside retelling of American folklore. As this blog is attempting to get at the anarchist heart of the American literary tradition, the fact that a giant like Mark Twain is so hard to nail down is significant. One thing that almost everyone agreed on, however, was that the moment when Huck Finn chose the struggle for freedom over the values of community is the heart of Twain’s moral vision. If that is in truth the central moment in American literature, it may be enough to make my case.

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Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Huck as Revolutionary

In my last post I looked at the adults we meet in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and concluded that with the exception of Jim, they were all odious. One possible conclusion to this is that Mark Twain was infantilizing Jim. As the introduction to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stated: “The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves,” placing these two groups into a common religious realm. Some of the humor in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn come from the discourses between these two regarding ghosts, superstitions, and vernacular understandings of astronomy. The other side of this coin is that being moral seems to require never growing up (or maybe growing up just enough to reach moral maturity but not too much that the disgusting adult world makes you quickly forget those values).

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It is obvious to see that Huck spends most of the novel in rebellion against civilization. His adventure began with flight from the Widow Douglas and pap. The story ends with his decision to move to Indian country (something he does not do if we believe the sequels). In between he transcends his entire culture by choosing to free Jim. This part of the novel is important to read, if for no other reason than that it contains more moral wisdom than the entire Bible. Huck decided to write a letter to Miss Watson to tell her about Jim’s location. He based this decision solely on what he had been told, especially religious law. “The plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger.” (833) But then he thinks. “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at least I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened too look around, and see that paper. . . . ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” (834–835)

See, the moral gravity of the choice is such that it places Huck into total rebellion against civilization (“never thought no more about reforming”). This is not new, perhaps, but it takes on a revolutionary character now. Before he rebelled against reform for personal liberty, but at this point he is willing to risk his eternal soul in aid of a friend. Notice that his thoughts dwelled on the solidarity that had been built up between the two.

At this point in the story, Jim has been living in slavery on the Phelps farm. In reality he has already been freed according to Miss Watson’s will. Tom Sawyer, who was visiting the Phelps farm, knows this. Tom Sawyer clings onto Huck’s idea to free Jim and makes it a game. This is a point of great tension between the two. Both are working at freeing Jim, but for one is a revolution and for the other it is a game. Tom Sawyer wants to reenact the great escapes he read about in his books. Huck is searching for the most effective and safe way to free Jim (thinking that he is still enslaved and in great personal risk). Lacking the solidarity with Jim and believing that the stakes are low, Tom cannot take it serious. He constructs all kinds of elaborate mechanisms instead of simply liberating Jim.

Bear in mind, Huck is not entirely pure in this regard. There was a point earlier in the novel where he treated Jim as a plaything. This was when they were separated in the fog. When reunited, Huck pretended that it was just Jim’s dream. Huck is unable to do this anymore. Shared sacrifice and solidarity created the moral necessity and seriousness required of the revolutionary path Huck pursued at the end of the novel. This is something Tom could not see (but perhaps he could have given the right experiences).

I suppose this is leading me to a warning against a too carnivalesque approach to revolution and resistance, but I am not sure a revolution cannot be both fun and serious (although I know that often this cannot be and we must be prepared to act with deadly seriousness). Certainly we should let the play get too much in the way of doing what is needed, especially when the stakes are high. Neither should we allow play make things more difficult. This is what Tom does. “You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can’t help it, we got to do the best we can with the materials we’ve got. Anyhow, there’s one thing—there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.” (858) We do not need to wait for the revolution or the barricades. There are plenty of easily achieved (if not riskless) actions we can take now, without all the pomp.

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Huck chooses to be civilized for the privilege of playing robbers with Tom Sawyer. At the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he is done playing games. But neither is he grown up. He is not Injun Joe, the Duke or the King, or any of the other disgusting adults that populate these stories. Tom could grow up to be the Duke, or even Judge Thatcher, but for Huck there is only the Indian Territory.

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Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Growing Up

“’Who’s Robin Hood?’
‘Why he was one of the greatest men that was ever in England—and the best. He was a robber.’
“Cracky, I wisht I was. Who did he rob?’
‘Only sheriffs and bishops and rich people and kings, and such like. But he never bothered the poor. He loved ‘em. He always divided up with ‘em—perfectly square.’
‘Well, he must ‘a’ ben a brick.’
‘I bet you he was, Huck. Oh, he was the noblest man that ever was. They ain’t any such men now, I can tell you.’” (157)

That the main plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about children pretending to be robbers and praising the accomplishments of robbers while also engaged in a real serious life and death battle with a real robber, totally odious in practice with none of the nobility imagined by children, is very significant. Tom and Huck can play robber, but when they encounter a real robber, they face him with maturity, courage, and nobility. This tells us that Mark Twain did not believe that the line between play and reality was that far. Play did not create a false vision of the world, even as it did allow for playful imagination. We can believe that Tom and Huck after meeting Injun Joe still believe that robbers could be heroic and noble Robin Hoods. In fact, we know this is true because Tom recommits himself to being a robber even after becoming rich (even if that is to scam Huck into staying with the Widow Douglas).

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The adult worlds and the creative constructions of young people are mostly separate through the first half of the novel, but they become increasingly intertwined and combined in the second half. One example of this is the introduction of the summer activities to St. Petersburg, which brings, momentarily, a childish spirit to the entire town. A black minstrel show, the Fourth of July celebrations, a circus, a phrenologist and a mesmerizer all came in turn and “left the village duller and drearier than ever” when they left. By and large, it is the children who are forced into adult responsibilities, fears, and troubles.

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The murder trial of Muff Potter was the first time in the novel when Tom Sawyer was given a truly adult responsibility. The burden was on him to defend Muff Potter’s innocence. Of course to do so meant witnessing against Injun Joe, who sat in the audience looking fearsome. Although this made him a town hero, he remained in perpetual fear of Injun Joe. “Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye. Hardly any temptation could persuade the body to stir abroad after night fall.” (148) While most of us, I hope, enter adulthood without such a traumatic experience, fear is a component of that transition for most. Fear of money, fear for safety, fears of eternal loneliness. These are all ways that we are brought into adult responsibilities of college, careers, marriage, and saving.

Despite this, Tom is able to defend his freedom in the face of the pressures of creeping adult responsibility and he embraces them with greater seriousness and stoicism. This is what makes his assurance to Huck at the end of the book that he remains committed to being a robber feel so tragic. If he does grow to be a robber, it might very well be as a land speculator…although we do not share such fears for Huck. We already see in Tom some attraction to wealth that seems to be lost on Huck, when he looked on Injun Joe’s “treasure.” “He never had supposed for a moment that so large a sum as a hundred dollars was to be found in actual money in any one’s possession. If his notions of hidden treasure had been analyzed, they would have been found to consist of a handful of real dimes and a bushel of vague, splendid, ungraspable dollars.” (165) We can appreciate this childish approach to money (especially when people today hoard wealth that is literally inconceivable). There is some end to Tom’s innocence when looking at the wealth. It is clear from later passages that he wanted that treasure.

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Both of the young boys get their chance to become local heroes, but again we find a different between the two. Huckleberry Finn’s heroism is anonymous as he informs on the actions on Injun Joe to the Welchman. Tom is more famous as he saves Becky from their (quite scary) adventure of being lost in a cave occupied by Injun Joe, at his final hideout. After his escape he did not tell about noticing Joe there, an oversight that had tragic consequences.

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Tom’s role in killing Injun Joe needs to be addressed as part of his more harsh entrance to adulthood. Huck will enter adulthood through a moral question. Tom’s entrance to adulthood is shaped by violence and the acquisition of wealth. For two weeks, Tom did not mention bumping into Injun Joe in the caves. During those two weeks, the people of St. Petersburg locked the cave shut to prevent other children from getting lost. Only then does he tell the adult that Joe was there. Twain’s description of Injun Joe’s is one of the most horrible descriptions I have ever read and it has stayed with me for years. It conveys not only the horror of his death but the isolate that helped create Injun Joe and the insignificance of a single human life in the context of time.

In the final scene, Tom tricks Huck into becoming civilized. He perhaps does not know that civilizing Huck would end what Tom and the others of the town so admired about Huck. Tom perhaps just wanted him around him as a friend. He uses the attraction of a robber gang to convince Huck to be adopted by the Widow Douglas. In a way the final dialog between the two is a battle between adulthood and childhood, civilization and freedom.

Huck commits to staying with the “widder,” but it is his earlier words that stay with us. “The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reglar a bodyc an’t stand it. . . . I ain’t everybody, and I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so. And grub comes too easy—I don’t take no interest in vittles, that way. I got to ask, to go a-fishing; I got to ask, to go in a-swimming—dern’d if I hain’t go to go ask to do everything. Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort—I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out a while, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she woundn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks.” (212)

Welcome to the adult work Huckleberry Finn. I am glad you see it my way.

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Living Like Tom Sawyer

“The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that they were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” (63)

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is my candidate for the book that serves as a primer on freedom. It is not insignificant that it was published in 1876, when the United States was celebrating its centennial. He wrote these words at a time when Americans were that they were trying to tell the world of their success as a bastion of freedom. “Although my book it intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” (Preface) It is almost as if he is challenging his readers to look elsewhere for models of freedom. It exists not in the political realm, but in social relations, such as those created by children as they imagine their world.

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The first half of the Tom Sawyer centers on the experiences of Tom in St. Petersburg as a boy living under the care of his Aunt. He gets in fights, completes chores around the house, goes to Sunday school, plays with Huckleberry Finn, had various adventures as pirates. The major plot point that occurs during this first half is that Tom and Huck witness Injun Joe’s murder of Dr. Robinson. This terrifies the boys and they spend some time hiding out on an island. Tom is able to turn even that into a game as he crashes his own funeral, but only after playing pirates. In the second half of the novel, the plot is more significant, as Tom and Huck manage to find Injun Joe’s treasure (the money he stole). Injun Joe dies in the cave that he fled to, but only after Tom’s harrowing escape from the same cave. I will assume most people know this basic outline and the details. I want to talk more about what we can learn from Tom Sawyer (and Huck as well) about freedom.

If the novel has an argument, it is that the adult world is corrupt, exploitive, controlling, and overall despicable, while children, engaging the world freely, are creative, cooperative, and basically good. Injun Joe, for all the racial interpretations we can give his character is basically a representative of the adult world. The solution to Injun Joe by other adults is to lock up the cave, essentially imprisoning their most conspicuous problems. But even when not so dramatic, we are given to see the rules and antics of the adults as ridiculous and certainly not conducive to a free environment.

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One thing that Tom Sawyer does that we should learn from is that he turned work into play. As readers of my blog already know, I am post-leftist in my attitude toward labor. The primary purpose of technology, in my view, is the abolition of work. Most work that is being done now should be covered to various forms of play. This is what Tom achieved in the white-washing scheme, but it is rather impure, which leads me to think that Tom would (unfortunately) grow up to be a boss or a lawyer or something. He tries to convince others to do his work for him, by suggesting to them that it is play. Is this not the approach of many managers (think of the antics of Michael Scott from The Office)? Still the philosophy behind this, when not used for exploitation is valuable. “If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would not have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that Ply consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (20)

Tom Sawyer is an example of infrapolitics at work, almost all of the time. He is in constant rebellion against authority and he has no shortage of strategies to manipulate the powerful toward his will, or simply finding pleasure in them. Whether it is evasion of school, methods of recalling Bible verses (and maybe getting a free Bible in the process), or finding ways to pleasurably hack the strange rituals and sentiments of adults, Tom Sawyer was an expert. Sometimes they very much reflect the weapons of the weak and take the form of foot dragging and open declarations of exhaustion and frustration. At times, his resistance was more open and courageous, such as his open confession: “I STOPPED TO TALK TO HUCKLEBERRY FINN.” (49) Combined, however, various forms of infrapolitics created the space within which Tom Sawyer was able to craft his world.

There is a moment in the early part of the book, where Tom Sawyer ponders the questions that all children get at one point in their life: What do you want to be when you grow up? He goes through several options, such as becoming an Indian, a soldier, or a clown before settling on his future as a pirate. One way to look at this is that Tom Sawyer is not being as creative as I am suggesting above. It seems he is copying the archetypes (heroic and villainous) that he had picked up from the adult world, through literature and stories. But I do not think it is that simple. Because we cannot deny the role of play in constructing the meaning of these professions for Tom and his friends. If on the one hand, Tom Sawyer was using play to train himself to be a pirate, learning sword fighting and how to ransom prisoners. On the other hand, Tom was also re-creating the meaning of being a pirate. Even when engaging with texts (Tom liked to complain that a certain response is not how it is done in the books), he is pushing the boundaries of these heroic ideals, as in the gang’s decision at the end to tradition of stealing. And for those who say that Tom could not have ever grown up to be a pirate, I need merely point out the long tradition of outlaws in the Wild West, which really came alive during the Great Depression.

Something should be said about Huckleberry Finn.  If we can imagine Tom Sawyer growing up to be a lawyer, it is because he is still within the realm of the civilized. He may grumble and chores or going to Sunday school, but he still shows up eventually—even if always in some mode of resistance. Huck Finn exists completely in the world created by himself and the other children. The consequences of this is one of the major tensions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The opening description is worth reading (and should be required on all naturalization examinations instead of a list of presidents). “Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim. . . Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anyone.” (45) It goes on, but you get the point. Please look up the entire description yourself. Bear in mind, this is the narrator’s (apparently adult) point of view, not that of Tom or (as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) Huck himself. That narrator is a nostalgic adult who looks back on his childhood as containing a lost freedom. Huck is important because he is the freest in this social space, exactly because he is the only figure that is totally de-institutionalized.

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In short, Huck is able to be establish himself as more free than Tom (in both image in reality) because he was able to free himself from the adult world entirely. At the end of the day (or the end of the adventure) Tom goes back to Aunt Polly. Huck goes back to the barrel.

One area where the freedom of the children of St. Petersburg is particularly strong is in culture. This is not uncontested, as the chapter dealing with Sunday school suggests. One child was even became an “idiot” after memorizing 3,000 useless Bible verses. Certainly there are efforts by the adults to control how the children view the world, but they also cannot keep form them the stories of pirates and robbers that so inspired their play. The children are also deep believers in superstition and tend to put value in odd places. Examples of this include the odd collection of valuables that Tom collected during his whitewashing scheme and Huck Finn’s belief that dead cats (one of which he owns) cures warts. As Twain explains in the brief preface, these were beliefs that were common “among children and slaves in the West.” He is hinting at not only a biracial culture, but also a strongly vernacular one.

Although this post is long enough, I really cannot move on until I say a few words about Injun Joe. Like Huck, Injun Joe is a notorious outsider. His physical strength, his racial otherness, and his use of violence make him a much more dangerous outsider. If we do not suspect that Huck will grow up into another Injun Joe, it is because of the later’s racial otherness and Huck’s good nature. As The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells us, the people of St. Petersburg were willing to invest great resources to “redeem” Huck. No such investment is given to the total outsider Injun Joe. I still want to read Injun Joe as a mirror image of Huck. The fact is, given “civilization” Huck cannot remain free. There is a dark cloud over our joyful appreciation of the children’s freedom. They must grow up. Even Huck must grow up. If he remains socially isolated he is really at risk of becoming a criminal outsider (not just a notorious one). Again, the sequel shows that he does not respect the social rules when he tries to free Jim—who he wrongfully believed was still a slave. We imagine he would be a good-hearted criminal. Twain paints Huck and essentially good and Injun Joe as essentially vile. However, who is to say the result of years of exclusion and built up resentment. At the very least, we can see that Injun Joe is a possible result of forced exclusion. Huck Finn (in his youth at least) is an example of exclusion by choice.
(I am ambivalent about this train of thought.  If anyone can help me, please comment below.)

The solution to this is to make growing up unnecessary. I think we can start by turning work into play, but this may be a job we need to leave to the young.