‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy

Huckleberry Finn / SmokingBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2015

The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”

In “Huck Finn’s America,” a capacious, companionable study of the novel, some 20 years in the making, Andrew Levy allows that, “One doesn’t say anything new about Huck Finn — a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to observe.” But in sifting through the scholarship, he discovers contemporary readers might have been misconstruing the book. We understand “Huck Finn” as a story for children and also a serious book about race. But in Mark Twain’s time, it was the other way around: The novel was regarded as lighthearted minstrelsy that contained a pointed and controversial critique of how childhood was being debated.

“The current fight over ‘Huck Finn’ is most recognizably a fight over the ‘n-word,’ ” — which appears more than 200 times in the book — “and whether or not the book ought to appear in secondary school classrooms,” Mr. Levy, an English professor at Butler University, writes. But in the 1880s, another noisy public discussion reigned.

Children were being conceived of as a social class for the first time. Public playgrounds and pediatricians had started appearing. The number of public schools increased, and compulsory attendance came to be enforced. There were battles over corporal punishment and whether dime novels (the video games of their day) were a dangerous influence. With “Huck Finn,” Twain “was contributing something more than a lighthearted ‘boy’s book,’ ” Mr. Levy writes. “He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at risk children and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor.”

Debates about race simmered at the time, too — Reconstruction began collapsing in those years — but Mr. Levy says Twain was less central to that conversation. “He was somewhere nearby, ingenious, outraged, self-interested, vastly more interested in how many Americans play with race than in how they rise above it, or render its terms obsolete at the ballot box.”

Twain began composing “Huck Finn” in the summer of 1876, Mr. Levy writes, in a “little octagonal study filled with cats” in Elmira, N.Y. Life seeped into the writing; Twain’s small daughter Susy, a terrific liar and a terrible speller, acted as partial model for Huck, and the book’s central plot derived from a real incident. A friend of Twain’s once found a fugitive slave hiding out on an abandoned island and tried, and failed, to help him. The slave was caught, mutilated and murdered.

Mr. Levy shows that much of the violence in the book, abhorred by critics at the time, was ripped from life. Twain’s childhood was filled with gothic horrors — he watched his father’s autopsy through a keyhole — and the newspapers of the day served up a steady fare of thrilling savagery. “I have to have my regular suicide before breakfast, like a cocktail, and my side-dish of murder in the first degree for a relish and my savory assassination to top off while I pick my teeth and smoke,” Twain wrote.

The papers at the time were especially excited by a new menace: feral boys, “made morbid by the habit of reading,” an editorial cautioned. “Victims as well as the patrons of the literature of crime.”

One of the most sensational stories of the day bore some resemblance to “Huck Finn”: the case of William Berner, the “boy murderer” of Cincinnati, who, with an accomplice, an older black man named Joe Palmer, robbed and killed their employer with so many different methods that multiple counts of murder were issued. Riots followed the trial, and editorials blamed another black man for inciting the violence, suggesting that, as with the “boy murderer” case, black men “seemed to open the gates to civil unrest, just or criminal. And boys, especially white ones, were always ready to rush through.”

Reformers began calling for more public schools, which gave rise to a fresh set of worries (all of them very familiar). Was the family being supplanted by schools and media? Was the new education system breeding pampered narcissists?

At the time, taking children’s stories seriously — by “writing about children as children alone meant taking sides with the reformers,” Mr. Levy writes. But Twain’s fictional children were victims and villains, sanctified by their unruliness, blasphemy and self-sufficiency — and openly contemptuous of becoming “sivilized,” as Huck might say, let alone suffering the indignities of standardized education.

Mr. Levy is excellent on Twain, on his drawl, his gait, his evolution on race matters — from youthful racism to passionate believer in the reparations owed former slaves — and even better on his contradictions. Twain, Mr. Levy reminds us, a friend to Frederick Douglass and benefactor of black college students, also commissioned the grotesque drawings of Jim for the novel and had a cheerfully proprietary relationship with black culture. “He saw that you could play with race: you could produce blackness. And you could make money making blackness.”

The novel, though, too often feels like a shadowy presence in Mr. Levy’s book. We don’t get nearly enough of the text, which creates a curious distance — as if a doctor were examining a patient from the next room. Without the story closer at hand, Mr. Levy seems to pronounce and exalt rather than to delve and persuade. He repeats himself; chapters eddy instead of build.

But Mr. Levy lands his crucial point with feeling. The book, though familiarly cast as a fable about youth or racial progress, is, in fact, a brutal story about vulnerability, abuse and violence (some 13 bodies are very imaginatively dispatched) and a more deeply conflicted book about race than most readers realize. “These two mistakes are really twins of one mistake,” Mr. Levy has said in an interview. “Both signify that we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.”

It’s peculiarly American amnesia, he says, a way of forgetting built into the very architecture of “Huck Finn.” In the sourest happy ending in literature, Huck learns from Jim that the brutal father he has been running from was long dead, that he has essentially been moving in circles. His last words to us are bitter, “I been there before.”

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