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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Lynd Ward, “Wild Pilgrimage” (1932)

It was in the depths of the Great Depression that Lynd Ward created his the masterpiece of pictorial narrative, Wild Pilgrimage.  Its narrative reminds us of Gods’ Man, with a frustrated laborer fleeing the city for the countryside.  The difference is that in Wild Pilgrimage, the countryside is far from idyllic and the protagonist returns to the city to struggle against the enemies of his class.  It is a pessimistic rejection of individual escape and what we might no recognize as lifestyle politics.  The title derives from Arturo Giovannitti.  Ward included a passage of his writing as an epigraph: “Thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.”  Ward discussed his inspiration in a 1974 essay on the work.  “At no time was the impulse [to flee civilization] more evident than during the thirties, but because of the nature of the times it operated in a variety of ways.  There were some who sought a way out for themselves alone.  There were those who fled the urban and industrial wastes and sought a hermit’s refuge in whatever place there was a hint of sanctuary.  There were others who, seeing so much hunger and so little work close at hand, roamed aimlessly across the land, hoping that in some far-off place they would find at least some work and less hunger.  And there were those who, equally disenchanted, felt that while flight might provide an answer for a few, for the many there was no choice but to stay, and that by confronting one problem at a time, dealing first with the one closest to hand, a day might come that would be better.” (794-795)

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The novel has no internal divisions but is divided into seven parts, each separated by images of the protagonist’s mental realm printed in off-red (I will call them “dreams”).
Scene 1: A factory closes and the workers return home. Some visit prostitutes, some listen to a communist, others go home, but the protagonist wanders through his working-class town.  He sees a funeral procession and imagines a world outside of the factory and the small town for himself.  He fears it might be his last chance before he dies.

Dream 1: Industrial society is a prison for the protagonist.  He hopes to break down the bars and escape to the wilderness, where he will find a nymph for companionship.

Scene 2: The countryside is not what he imagined in his dream.  He comes across the lynching of a black man.  In sad despair he picks a small flower but members of the lynch mob perform the same sentimental act.  He finds a farm and begins working for the farmer.  At the end of the day he enjoys some contentment for performing meaningful work, enjoys dinner with the family, and finds a place to sleep in the barn.  He looks on a woman (the farmer’s wife or daughter we do not really know).  An ugly man with no family of his own, he cannot contain his yearning.

Dream 2: The man fantasizes about a life with the woman.  Recreating the idyllic paradise he imagines in the first dream.

Scene 3: He approaches the woman who screams in fear.  The farmer arrives and throws the man out of his home.

Dream 3: He imagines himself as being chased by the lynch mob and sees several previous victims.  He sees the noose set up for him.

Scene 4: Lost in the forest, the man comes upon another farm.  He steals some carrots.  The farm owner catches him and puts him to work.  At night they enjoy the carrots for their dinner.  The farmer introduces him to a book that seems to have radical anti-capitalist themes (the cover shows a man impaled on a knife).  He ponders the lesson.

Dream 4: He imagines himself in a pit of fire and the farmer pulls him out.  He turns around and notices several others in the fire, with ropes around their necks.  These ropes are controlled by allegorical figures of capital.  The protagonist and the farmer uplift the pit of fire, which is actually a giant ball, and throws it into space.  It is a clear symbol of the ability of a unified people to overthrow the oppressive system.

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Scene 5: The man and the farmer are at work.  He enjoys an evening of relaxation by the fire.

Dream 5: He imagines himself at work and observers an overseer.  He uses his sledgehammer to chase the thug away.  He flees to his master on top a long stairway.

Scene 6: The man leaves the farm.  On his way home he passes a shanty town.  His arrival at home comes right in the middle of a strike (or some sort of class war fought between the police and the workers of the town).  The protagonist immediately enters into the fight.

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The Final Dream: He imagines a final clash between himself and capital.  After his victory he lifts up the head of his enemy and its is his own.

The Final Scene: He struggles against a police officer, which ends in his death.  The final plate shows a woman in sorrow looking at the dead bodies, left behind after the brawl.

Ward is expressing some degree of ambivalence.  The violent confrontation, imagined by the protagonist to be between himself and capital, turns out to be between two sets of working people, police and the factory workers.  Another unavoidable theme is the relationship between thought and action.  Previously I had looked at William James, who argues that action informs thought and our conception of free will.  Ward is of the old-type here, believing in the necessity of thought, discontent, and vision as the springboard for action.

Having looked at three of Ward’s novels, we can also make an observation about assumptions about the roles of men and women.  In all three novels, the exploited are men (the artist, the slave, the striking workers, the protagonist in Wild Pilgrimage).  Women emerge as objects of sexual desire, protectors of a stable home-life, or denziens of idyllic scenes better positioned in a Greek tale.  As frustrating as that is, we can still find in Ward part of the collective frustration felt by Americans in the 1930s, grappling with the logical consequences of inequality and capitalism.

 

 

Arna Bontemps, “Black Thunder” Slave Revolt in a Global Context

Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder is a celebration of revolution presented through a historical novel of the 1800 Gabriel’s Revolt.  It failed as did not US slave revolts, but it can at a moment of revolutions exploding across the Atlantic.  Bontemps reminds us that slaves were not immune from the Atlantic Revolutions.  The context of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson’s struggle against the Federalists (culminating in the “Revolution of 1800”), and most importantly the revolution in Saint-Domingue, that would lead to independent Haiti.  More than anything else, Bontemps is celebrating revolutionary violence at a time when many black writers were attempting to construct a place for themselves within the cultural industry of America.  Was the Harlem Renaissance, despite its radical themes, essentially a cultural movement, without the political and revolutionary energies exhibited in the attempted revolution of Gabriel Prosser, a simple blacksmith and slave?  Arna Bontemps’ rejection of the cultural industry as he found a place for himself teaching and in persevering the black heritage through his library work may suggest his frustrations with the efficacy of writing alone.

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The novel is a fairly reliable account of Gabriel’s revolt told through the perspective of the rebels themselves, white observers (fearfully paranoid about any potential of slave resistance), and the legal structures charged with putting down the revolt and punishing the leaders.  Bontemps is quite equivocal about he justice of Gabriel’s cause and the necessity for violence.  Every mediation on that questions leads to the conclusion that the revolt must go on. Every opposition is eventually set aside.  This is brought home in the end in the closing pages of the novel, with the execution of Gabriel.  For a regime based on violence and enforced through violence could not be brought down without at least the threat.  Bontemps makes clear the proportionality of the violence as well (26 rebels were executed despite the failure of the revolt to get off the ground)

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A fascinating part of the novel is the global perspective of the rebellion.  Gabriel and his followers moved to rebellion out of local conditions and offenses, but much of their inspiration came from across the sea.  They passed around a letter from Toussaint L’Ouverture.  “My name is perhaps known to you.  I have undertaken to avenge your wrongs.  It is my desire that liberty and equality shall reign.  I am striving to this end.  Come and unite with us, brothers, and combat with us for the same cause.” (655)  We are also faced with a comparison between Gabriel’s struggle for liberty and white America’s debate about the “Alien and Sedition Acts”, which helped bring Jefferson to power.  The Federalists used the revolt to attack the Jeffersonian, for bringing in “French” ideas and general talk of equality and liberty.  Their recklessness with ideas, in the Federalist view, gave slaves the wrong idea about their place in the young republic.  Both desires — to save America from becoming a new Saint-Domingue or to convince the people that they do not really mean to include blacks when they speak of “the Revolution of 1800” made suppression inevitable.

As a part of the Harlem Renissance, Black Thunder is a fairly lonely call for resistance and militancy.  While some sighed as they described inequities, prejudices, and inanity of working class or peasant class black life and others called for “art as propaganda,” cultivating and promoting the vision of the most education, sophisticated, and progressive elements in black America, Bontemps called for fire.  He clearly wanted his reader to be inspired by the history of resistance.  This debate would not be resolved even after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.

For all of us, black or white, Black Thunder has us ask a question.  If violent resistance works to inspire us, or created fissures in oppressive institutions in the past, why are we so fearful of theses strategies?  Is non-violence, really the answer to being kicked in the face?  It seems that many of our radical ancestors did not think so.  And their efforts inspire us.  Is it that too few of us have the courage to face the gallows?  Half measures and half revolutions are safe.  But are they effective?