Classics and the Western Canon discussion

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments This is a thread to start discussing the themes of HF. Zeke and I decided that rather than set up separate theme topics ourselves, it would be better to start with a summary topic, and if there is any particular theme that seems to be attracting attention, break it out into its own topic.

A couple of questions off the top of my head which might be of possible interest:

How did Twain's decision not to send Huck and Jim up the Ohio to freedom change the nature of the book?

What is the significance of the river? One critic suggested that the river (including the towns along it) is really the main character in the book. Do you agree or disagree?

Does this novel fit most closely in the romantic or the realistic genre?

Feel free to explore any themes which you found of interest in the book. And if you want a separate topic for a particular theme of special interest to you, feel free to ask Zeke or me to start it, or just post the topic yourself if you feel confident in doing that.


message 2: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4617 comments Everyman wrote: "How did Twain's decision not to send Huck and Jim up the Ohio to freedom change the nature of the book? "

An interesting question. The Mississippi is a center of gravity in this book. It keeps pulling Huck and Jim south, further into slave country, along with everything else -- wrecked ships, murderers, bounty hunters, and a house with the corpse of Huck's Pap. And when Jim's moment of opportunity arises, the fog rolls in, the raft is shattered, and the moment is lost. There seems to be nothing good about the river except the hope that there might be something better around the bend. In the end that hope doesn't seem very realistic -- the story book ending is one of Tom Sawyer's "lies."


message 3: by Jan (new)

Jan (auntyjan) | 43 comments Some thoughts about the river and it's significance. I see the book as a whole operating on two levels, on the one hand there is the boys' own adventure story; on the other a parable of life and the choices one must make along life's journey. In this parable the river represents our journey through life....moving ever onward, encountering obstacles and moral dilemmas along the way.
And just a thought about the house floating down the river. While it's certainly true that houses do from time to time get swept downstream, this is usually when a river is in full flood, and the incredible force behind such an event would make it almost impossible to get near a house, even if it was temporarily wedged against an island or some other obstacle. If you imagine the power of the water, it's difficult to also imagine that someone could get across to the house. Did anyone else find that part a little hard to believe?


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Jan wrote: "Some thoughts about the river and it's significance. I see the book as a whole operating on two levels, on the one hand there is the boys' own adventure story; on the other a parable of life and th..."

I love your explanation of the multiple levels of the book, Jan. I think it's exactly right and it meshes nicely with Thomas's explanation on the other thread.

The house thing seems possible to me. It's pretty easy to get strong flooding upstream of a big river like the Mississippi and only a small rise in the overall river current.


message 5: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Kate Mc. wrote: "love your explanation of the multiple levels of the book, Jan. I think it's exactly right and it meshes nicely with Thomas's explanation on the other thread.

The house thing seems possible to me. It's pretty easy to get strong flooding upstream of a big river like the Mississippi and only a small rise in the overall river current. "


I agree with both comments. Jan's analysis is, for me, right on. And I do think that a house could get washed into the river from erosion, maybe in a tributary, and float down the major river just like a raft or floating steamboat with its power off. Twain knew the river and its characteristics well, so I suspect that he was pretty accurate about that.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Jan wrote: "Some thoughts about the river and it's significance. I see the book as a whole operating on two levels, on the one hand there is the boys' own adventure story; on the other a parable of life and the choices one must make along life's journey. In this parable the river represents our journey through life....moving ever onward, encountering obstacles and moral dilemmas along the way."


That's really good! And add to that the fact that due to unforeseen circumstances, we're often swept by life right past the all-important (as we thought) turn we intended to take. And then we have to give up the idea of life as we had imagined it would be post-turn, and start improvising like mad as the new circumstances require. Goodbye Ohio River; hello Mississippi, southern section! If only we could always handle such "misses" as gracefully as Huck and Jim do.


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Interesting comments above. And M's point about missing key things until it's too late is one I've heard referred to by the proverb: "Too soon old; too late smart." And, remember the reason they missed the Ohio--the fog.

On the house. I don't think we have discussed fully Jim's decision not to let Huck see Pap and not to tell him until the end of the book that Pap is dead.


message 8: by Selina (last edited Dec 05, 2010 02:53PM) (new)

Selina (selinatng) | 62 comments Zeke:Jim's decision not to let Huck see Pap and not to tell him until the end of the book that Pap is dead.
Could there be a selfish reason to it ? For example, Jim may be worried that Huck wanted to bury the body, report to the police, find out who killed his father, and Jim could lose Huck's help and support. At the very least, there would be significant delay for Jim's escape.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

The introduction to my edition of the book brought up those possibilities. But I never saw anything in Jim's character that would lead me to believe he would be so sneaky. He is always so straightforward with Huck. I thought he was just being protective and kind, keeping what he thought would be sad news away from the orphaned child.


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Selina and M have brought out the two poles of interpretation on this. I'll try to sharpen Selina's point; please Selina say so if I am misrepresenting what she things rather than adding to it.

Huck ran away because he feared Pap. Remember he was adjusting pretty well to life with the Widow and sneaking off with Tom. If Huck knows Pap is dead there is no reason for him to go down the river with Jim. Much less can he believe that Huck will eventually decide to "go to hell" on his behalf.

A bit of background is intriguing. Read the following lines from Chapter IX carefully:

Then we looked in at the window. We could make out a bed, and a table, and two old chairs, and lots of things around about on the floor, and there was clothes hanging against the wall. There was something laying on the floor in the far corner that looked like a man. So Jim says:

"Hello, you!"

But it didn't budge. So I hollered again, and then Jim says:

"De man ain't asleep -- he's dead. You hold still -- I'll go en see."

Originally, Twain had Huck call into the window. He changed his mind but forget to take out "again." He had decided to hold the information that it was Pap until the end of the book.

The first half of the manuscript was only discovered in the 1990s. In it is a long section of this chapter in which Jim tells Huck that the first ghost he saw was when he saw a cadaver move as he was sent to the college to warm for the medical student son of his then-Mistress. If he has just told this story, we would presume he'd be unlikely to volunteer to go into the house.

M. states the more positive, and more widely accepted reading clearly. I don't disagree with it, but I am troubled that it makes Huck's learning about his father's death kind of anti-climatic.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

The two motives aren't exclusive of one another. Jim may well have had both at the same time. He wanted Huck to continue with him down the river and he also wanted to protect Huck from the gruesomeness of his father's death. Sort of two birds with one stone, here. If you protect Huck you get the side benefit of keeping him with you on your journey. Or for the more cynical, if you keep this from Huck so he stays with you, you have also protected him from an unpleasant scene. Win-win.

I thought the whole ending was anti-climactic. Jim's having been freed and Huck's father having been killed were echoes of each other. It's really the twisted end of this story that makes it intriguing and trivial at the same time.

Part of me thinks that this was the Twain pointing out one of the absurdities of life. How do we know what's real? How many of the things we struggle against are products of our own imagination? The other part of me says Twain turned it back into a safe boy's adventure story to avoid it being too controversial or uncomfortable. (My own cynicism is obviously showing there)


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Kate, I fear I share your cynicism. Whatever else he was, Twain was a "brand" even by the time he wrote HF.

In his defense though, let me offer something he wrote in his notes about Thackeray's Essay on Jonathan Swift:

The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness--your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture--your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the unhappy...He comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life about. He takes upon himself to be the weekday preacher.

How well did he succeed in this mission himself?


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Zeke wrote: "Kate, I fear I share your cynicism. Whatever else he was, Twain was a "brand" even by the time he wrote HF.

In his defense though, let me offer something he wrote in his notes about Thackeray's Es..."


How about damning with faint praise? I think he tried, but he got in his own way. Whether it was that his "branding" prevented him from taking real risks with the story, that he felt that this was primarily a story for young boys and he wanted to appeal to their sense of adventure, or the subject of slavery was too important to him, I don't know.

He seems very conscious of his audience here, like he is telling the tale to a circle of entranced kids, watching their reactions and adjusting accordingly. If they look like they're going to get upset by the dead body in the house, he has Jim go look at it and not tell Huck. If Jim is captured and looks like he's done for, turn this into a bit of silliness with Tom and his playacting, etc.

Twain had to balance the unpalatable and the macabre in HF with humor, but his humor seems forced here. Much more sporadic than in, say, The Prince and the Pauper or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Both those were full of social commentary, but the acerbic humor shines through. Not so much in HF.

I wanted to read this again because although I'd always liked Twain, I didn't like HF when I read it as a child. My vague recollection was that it was "boring" and I wanted to know what 40 years of distance would do for the book. I hate to say this, because I know many people find this to be his best work, but I don't think my opinion has changed much.


message 14: by Jan (new)

Jan (auntyjan) | 43 comments Kate, I enjoyed Huck Finn when I first read it 42 years ago, and I enjoyed it again this time, both as a good yarn, but also as social commentary, comedy and parable of our journey through life. And of course reading all the thoughtful comments and contributions of the members of this group has greatly enhanced the experience. Thankyou all, especially Zeke.

Now Zeke, that quote raised a question for me re Twain's dislike (is that sufficiently strong)of Jane Austen.

The humorous writer professes to awaken your love, your pity, your kindness--your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture--your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the unhappy...He comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life...

Now, in my opinion, Jane Austen fulfils this lofty aspiration superbly. Take her portrayal of the pretension of the Bingley sisters in P&P. Her families may not be exactly poor, by the standards of the day, but the Bennetts were under threat of losing the roof over their heads because of a will and the lack of a male heir, so the Bennett girls faced certain poverty unless they could marry well. And certainly she deals with all the passions of life in a warm-hearted and humorous way. And she makes superb use of irony, a favorite device of Twain's. All this leaves me wondering, since Jane Austen is a writer who so well meets Twain's requirements, why does he so despise her despise her writing? I have a theory, something which just occurred to me, and I might be completely wrong, so would value the thoughts of others on this. My theory is that Twain so despised Austen's books because there was a predominance of female characters...there's just too many girls for his liking! Now I haven't read widely about the man, so do you think my theory has any validity whatsoever?


message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Jan wrote: "Kate, I enjoyed Huck Finn when I first read it 42 years ago, and I enjoyed it again this time, both as a good yarn, but also as social commentary, comedy and parable of our journey through life. An..."

I'll second Jan's thanks to Zeke. A superb job and lots of work to provide all the background material and prod us with interesting questions.

Twain's dislike of Austen is kind of interesting. She definitely represented a social class he didn't think much of, so maybe he resented someone of her ilk being able to use the needle of subtle humor as well as he could himself. And horrors, to use it while writing romances of all things!


message 16: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Jan wrote: Now Zeke, that quote raised a question for me re Twain's dislike (is that sufficiently strong)of Jane Austen.

The humorous writer professes to awaken your love, your pity, your kindness--your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture--your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the unhappy...He comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life...

Now, in my opinion, Jane Austen fulfils this lofty aspiration superbly.


Exactly! Emma jumped immediately into my mind.


message 17: by Jan (new)

Jan (auntyjan) | 43 comments And Kate mentioned romances! So perhaps he admired Austen's skill, and at the same time, couldn't stand the girls and the romances and the social niceties!


message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Not having read Jane Austin, I can't respond to whether she is also a "weekday preacher" or to Twain's anitpathy towards her. He travelled all over the world, and made his reputation first as a travel writer. In Innocents Abroad he says, “Travel is fatal to prejudices”." But I wonder.....


message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Patrice wrote: " ... Twain was all about being real. ..."

Patrice, I know I'm taking your quote out of context here, so forgive me for that, but I just wanted to use it to illustrate a point about Huck Finn. If Twain really wanted to "make it real", which seems to be the general perception of him as an author, then he shouldn't have relied on the goofy plot device of having Huck show up at -- my, what a coincidence! -- Tom Sawyer's relatives house way down the river, and on the very day Tom was due to arrive. It's fun when it happens, as part of the "boy's adventures" story, and I like it as part of the "circular" structure of the book I learned about in high school, but it's about as realistic as an episode of "Three's Company".


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

M. finds more nourishment in Huck Finn but compares the conclusion and the coincidences about as realistic as a sit-com. It's a fair challenge to those of us who consider the novel an example of the "realist" genre. Are there other elements beyond the plot that contribute to realism ? One example: haven't you ever awakened from a nightmare with the momentary belief that it was "real." Maybe even more real that reality? What made you feel that way?

We might also consider realism as a term of comparison to other styles of writing. Are there elements of Huck Finn that are realistic in ways that previous works are not?


message 21: by Erica (new)

Erica Re: Jim keeping Pap's death from Huck for selfish reasons...

I'm not sure I share the cynicism here. It seems to me that Jim was improvising quite a bit, especially in those first couple of days after he ran away, and I'm not sure it would have occurred to him that Huck's knowing about his father's death would cause him (Jim) a problem. Remember, they didn't really consider going down the river until Huck found out that people were going to search the island. Also, keep in mind Jim believes the Widow is about to sell him down the river; would he trust someone like that to take care of Huck? Maybe he believes Huck would be better off on his own. At the end of the book, once the Widow's true character is revealed (i.e., Jim was set free), THAT'S when Jim reveals the truth.


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

I know; I deliberately took your quote out of context in order to make a different point. :-) I agree about the natural/realistic language used by the characters.

I should also point out that the issue of the extreme coincidence that the plot relies on so heavily was also mentioned in the Intro to my edition of the book, to address the question of whether the novel is "realism" or not.


message 23: by Jan (new)

Jan (auntyjan) | 43 comments "Twain was all about being real." Really? Is a life where you can live on a raft floating down a river, 'borrowing' from other people and imagining you are some kind of pirates or French revolutionaries escaping from a dungeon more 'real' than people living in houses who worry about their daughters' future and have to go to rescue one of the daughters when she runs off with a man who has no way of supporting her? Surely the reality depends on who you are and where you live. It could be argued that Huck Finn is pure escapism. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I think it is a great piece of writing. I did find the ending a bit anti-climactic ...almost as if Twain had come so far with his characters and had to bring it to a conclusion somehow, so he just finished off. But as to realism...if this is realism, then I think Austen's books would also have a claim. But then great books can't always be placed exactly in one category or another, I prefer to judge each on its merits, rather than categorise.


message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Patrice wrote: "Jan wrote: "And Kate mentioned romances! So perhaps he admired Austen's skill, and at the same time, couldn't stand the girls and the romances and the social niceties!"



That's why I don't care f..."


But the manners and pretensions were a part of that era and that class of society. Austen is actually more realistic in her approach than Twain who tends to inject something of the fabulous or unbelievable into his stories.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

In #22 Erica takes me to task for suggesting that Jim keeps Pap's death secret to serve his own purposes. I raised the topic to be a bit provocative and she if anyone would dispute it. Actually, I agree with Erica's position (not that the other possibility couldn't be argued) about Jim. He is a caring family man. No one else had portrayed a black character as a full person at this time; in my opinion Uncle Tom and the others in Stowe's book are more characterized in an effort to gain the reader's sympathy. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) We learn about Jim's love of his family through him telling the story of hitting his daughter.

And Jim's decision to sacrifice any chance at freedom by coming out and helping the doctor tend the wounded Tom Sawyer is morally equivalent to Huck's decision to go to Hell by assisting Jim. In fact, I think it is superior since Huck at least liked Jim, while Tom has just spent the past weeks tormenting Jim.


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Early in our discussion, Patrice did a great job of showing some connections between Huckleberry Finn and the philosophy of Rosseau. I know next to nothing about a philospher who was Twain's contemporary. Does anyone know enough about Friedrich Nietzsche to offer a few comments?


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Patrice: Twain's writing is less refined, but the language and dialects are "real" in the sense that they reflect the way people in that time and place really spoke. How do we know that people in 18th century England really spoke that way? People don't write the way they speak, generally.

And, even when authors they were writing the way people speak, they weren't. We're so used to it now, that I think we tend to forget how revolutionary Huck must have seemed.


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Zeke wrote: "Patrice: Twain's writing is less refined, but the language and dialects are "real" in the sense that they reflect the way people in that time and place really spoke. How do we know that people in ..."

You're right. I hadn't realized how innovative Twain's use of dialect was until I watched Ken Burn's PBS videos.


message 29: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 07, 2010 03:51PM) (new)

Patrice wrote: "I haven't read the entire thread but another thing that Twain might not have liked about Austen might have been the materialism and class structure. I know that bothered me a lot. If Twain was al..."

LOL Patrice. Good point on class, except Twain's personal life becomes problematic here when it comes to materialism, because he was very much aware of wealth and pursued every get rich quick scheme that came his way. He was horrible with money and couldn't manage his investments for beans, but he seems to have internalized the American axiom that money is the measure of a man.


message 30: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Kate Mc. wrote: "I'll second Jan's thanks to Zeke. A superb job and lots of work to provide all the background material and prod us with interesting questions."

I'll third, fourth, and fifth that! I'm enormously grateful to Zeke for taking on this somewhat controversial text and bringing so much richness and background to the discussion. The discussion isn't over yet (and the threads here never close, so those who want to can keep discussing the book on and on), but it's not too soon to give my very great thanks to Zeke for covering for me so superbely during a somewhat challenging period in my own life.


message 31: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments M wrote: "If Twain really wanted to "make it real", which seems to be the general perception of him as an author, then he shouldn't have relied on the goofy plot device of having Huck show up at -- my, what a coincidence! -- Tom Sawyer's relatives house way down the river, and on the very day Tom was due to arrive. It's fun when it happens, as part of the "boy's adventures" story, and I like it as part of the "circular" structure of the book I learned about in high school, but it's about as realistic as an episode of "Three's Company". "

Highly improbable coincidences are a staple of much fiction, particularly pre-WWII fiction. (Consider for just one of thousands of example, Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle showing up at Pemberly when Darcy isn't supposed to be there but just happens to show up unexpectedly.) Dickens is full of totally implausible coincidences.

I see realistic fiction as being something other than that -- works which try to present a realistic picture of the world. His picture of the Mississippi, for example, seems to me highly realistic and not at all affected by unjustified romanticism.

But your point raises an excellent question. To what extent is Huck Finn intended by Twain to be realistic, to what extent is it intended to be allegorical, to what extent is it intended to be satirical, and to what extent is it intended to be something else, and what something else?


message 32: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4617 comments Patrice wrote: "I haven't read the entire thread but another thing that Twain might not have liked about Austen might have been the materialism and class structure. I know that bothered me a lot. If Twain was al..."

Every once in a while I think about the question posed by a student during a class on Pride and Prejudice: "Why do these people not have jobs?"

I can't judge the realism of either book (even though I lived a few blocks from the Mississippi when I was young, I lacked a raft and a reliable source of tobacco.) For me the difference is one mainly of tone, and in that respect Twain and Austen are worlds apart. If Austen is a string quartet, Twain is a Dixieland Jazz band. Twain apparently didn't appreciate Austen's idiom -- or maybe he just thought it needed more percussion. I tend to agree.


message 33: by [deleted user] (new)

Thomas: For me the difference is one mainly of tone, and in that respect Twain and Austen are worlds apart. If Austen is a string quartet, Twain is a Dixieland Jazz band.

For me, that may be my favorite comment of all time.


message 34: by [deleted user] (new)

Thomas wrote: "If Austen is a string quartet, Twain is a Dixieland Jazz band. Twain apparently didn't appreciate Austen's idiom -- or maybe he just thought it needed more percussion."

Prize of the day goes to Thomas. Beautiful!


message 35: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 07, 2010 06:26PM) (new)

Kate Mc. Prize of the day goes to Thomas. Beautiful!

Indeed. Because for both better and worse, Huck Finn was written as an improvisation. Twain seldom knew as he was writing what would come next. That is why he got stuck at various points and had to "pigeonhole" the work. Frankly, I have some problems with this approach (in literature not in music) but it is what it is.


message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Thomas wrote: "If Austen is a string quartet, Twain is a Dixieland Jazz band."

Wow! Just, wow. Proust, then, would have to be a whole symphony orchestra.

On reflection, though, I think Austen has more bite to her than your average string quartet!


message 37: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments M wrote: "Thomas wrote: "If Austen is a string quartet, Twain is a Dixieland Jazz band."

Wow! Just, wow. Proust, then, would have to be a whole symphony orchestra."


Making Milton the Royal Albert Hall Organ?


message 38: by Selina (new)

Selina (selinatng) | 62 comments M wrote: "Proust, then, would have to be a whole symphony orchestra."

I am trying to start on volume one of In Search of Lost Time. You have raised my expectation on the book.


message 39: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 08, 2010 08:05AM) (new)

Everyman wrote: "Making Milton the Royal Albert Hall Organ?"

Of course! And The Oresteia is a beautiful, melancholy violin solo, played by a virtuoso. :-)


Selina wrote: "I am trying to start on volume one of In Search of Lost Time. You have raised my expectation on the book."

Have fun! You might be surprised to see how downright hilarious Proust can be. Have you met Aunt Leonie yet? Anyway I hope you will enjoy the sumptuous feast that is ISOLT. In my view, it's even better on re-reading than it was the the first time around, as is the case with most classics. But I know it's not everyone's cup of tea w/ madeleine, so to speak. ;-)

>>> end of off-topic digression w/ apologies to all ... <<<


message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

I think that at this point we would all agree that using Huck as the narrator is the masterstroke that has people still reading this book. A distanced narrator would undermine the power of the novel.But it is still only one perspective on the events described.

My question --before I post something tomorrow or the next day--is how might the story be different if it were told through Jim's eyes? Are there incidents or observations that he might see differently from Huck?


message 41: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Zeke wrote: "Are there incidents or observations that he might see differently from Huck? "

Perhaps the more appropriate way to ask the question is whether there are any incidents or observations he would see similarly to Huck? I would imagine that a black slave running away into the unknown with a price on his head would see very few things the same way as a somewhat educated free-spirited boy.


message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

In 1990 an academic named Gerry Brenner published an article titled More Than a Reader’s Response: A Letter to ‘De Ole True Huck.’ In it, he imagines Jim’s son, John Isaac Hawkins, has discovered a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which he then reads to his father. He locates Huck –“no easy matter”—and writes a letter describing his father’s reaction to Huck’s account. This is an ingenious approach for Brenner to use: is he really giving us what he imagines would be Jim’s response? Or is he slyly giving us his own reading of the novel?

As James Phelan argues in an essay published with Brenner’s is crucial It is the distinction between an “inventive rereading” which offers alternate and enriching possibilities and a “subversive rereading” which denigrates the motives of the original.
You would have to read Brenner’s entire essay to determine which you feel it is. If you have access to JSTOR it can be found there. Jim is hard on Huck. Or is it really his son who interprets Jim’s account harshly? This gets complicated and intriguing! Basically, Jim (or John Isaac; or Brenner) sees Huck as exemplifying white arrogance and taking advantage of Jim’s dependence on him to go on a Tom Sawyer like adventure down the river at great risk to Jim’s –but not Huck’s safety. In this way the ‘evasion’ scenes fit perfectly into an account where African Americans are not treated as equals.

He dismisses Huck’s reflections and decision to “go to hell” as “nuffin more than a pair o’ moral galluses. Dey keep his pants f’om fallin’ down en showin’ dat he wuz a bare-rumped boy out fer de wick’dst fun he could fine.” Jim resents Huck’s failure to “ruffle any of the feathers” of Tom’s tormenting him. He finds Huck’s insertion of Jim’s story telling about his ride around the world with the ghosts an effort to make the raft trip look better by comparison. He argues that he saw the King and the Duke for what they were before Huck did. He wanted to ask, but “judged it bes’ not to” at the time, why didn’t warn Buck Grangerford: “Why he didn’ keep his eye peeled like he alwuz did when we was on de river.” He claims he faked his gratitude to Huck when he finds out he’s free. His son goes on to write to “Mr. Finn” that in future years when he and Mammy would look at episodes in the book they “marvel at Pappy’s resourcefulness. How quickly he could size up a situation and fall with it.” And he scolds Huck for forgetting all about Jim when “some better adventure came along.”

In his companion essay Phelan praises Brenner’s success with Jim and notes that Brenner’s “innovative means serve his traditional ends beautifully. By giving Jim a voice that is not controlled by Huck, Brenner moves Jim out of his inescapably subordinate—and I use that term in several senses—position in Huck’s text.”

I don’t agree with Jim’s/Brenner’s reading and I certainly know Twain didn’t intend it. Noted black commentators who praise the book like Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes would probably also dissent. But, on the other hand, it reminds me that as a white man I will never be privileged to know how my actions are really viewed by African Americans.

What I do agree with is the closing of John Isaac Hawkins’ letter.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you‘ll only laugh and call my notions ‘sentimenteering.’ But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that pappy’s ‘alive’ thanks to your book. And maybe, if your book doesn’t die, other readers will learn to read signs the way pappy could, the way pappy, bless him, the smartest man I ever knew, taught me to read them too.”

Our job as readers, in my opinion, is to take those "signs" we encounter on the page, the words, and make them our own.


message 43: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Interesting post and questions, Zeke. It's not just, I think, that we can't read the book as black people, but of course women can't read the book as the male characters, 21st century readers can't read the book as 19th century readers did, etc. Each of us comes to a book as a different person and reads it in the context of our own life experiences.


message 44: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4617 comments Zeke wrote: "Our job as readers, in my opinion, is to take those "signs" we encounter on the page, the words, and make them our own.

."


I think the best writers are able to use signs in such a way that they lead the reader to a conclusion that isn't made completely explicit. It allows the reader to have an experience with and feelings for (or against) the characters in a novel, while the author disappears into the background. Huck's careful consideration of his relation to Jim and his final decision to "go to hell" is perhaps the most powerful "sign" in the book. Dismissing it is really unfortunate.

Brenner's take is an interesting thought experiment, though I think it has as little to do with Twain as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has to do with Shakespeare. (And while I love Rosencrantz, I find Brenner's re-vision sort of annoying.)

Thanks for sharing it though. At the very least it shows how deeply thought about this novel is.


message 45: by [deleted user] (new)

@Thomas: In Brenner's defense, he justifies the dismissal of the "go to hell" reflections by saying that they are ex post facto, and made after Huck knows that things ended with Jim free.

And, yes, the reason I shared it was not to persuade anyone to this particular reading--nor to any particular reading; rather as an example of the kind of "deep thought" about the novel that you cited.


message 46: by Rhonda (new)

Rhonda (rhondak) | 221 comments Zeke wrote: "I know next to nothing about a philospher who was Twain's contemporary. Does anyone know enough about Friedrich Nietzsche to offer a few comments? "
While I regret that other projects have kept me from taking part in this spirited discussion of HF, concerning Nietzsche, Twain said someplace, I think about Zarathustra, (which he borrowed from his secretary) something to the effect of Nietzsche's inability to write a lucid sentence to save his soul. On the face of it, therefore, it would seem that they had very little in common although Twain had certainly read him.
This of course is rather funny considering that Nietzsche's prose is quite lovely in comparison to the dozens of other philosophers one could name. No doubt Twain considered it too gilded or ornate. Still I recall that Twain seems to have paraphrased the comment by Nietzsche (and memory fails me exactly where at this moment) that when one gazes too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you. However I see this, correctly or not, as a critical and recurrent issue with Twain and the Mississippi River.
Concerning the issue of reality on the river, I believe that I read that twain took most of his situations, such as the house caught on a snag, from newspaper stories of the time. In fact I seem to recall a picture from the era of this very instance. Of course, reality is far more difficult to portray than fiction, by and large, simply because of its fantastic nature.


message 47: by Gail (new)

Gail | 19 comments Rhonda, you are so right: no fiction could possibly rival the odd nature of reality.


message 48: by [deleted user] (new)

The reason I asked about Nietzsche was that I saw something where it said that they shared the view of man as alone in the universe or, put a different way, "the death of God." What interested me about that was that, if it is true, they drew quite different conclusions about its ethical implications.

Didn't Nietzsche argue that man must "make something of himself?"

Twain, on the other hand, increasingly turned to a totally deterministic fatalism. He decided man was nothing more than a "machine."

Anyway, I am probably totally botching my understanding of this. But it seemed fascinating that at roughly the same time, they would draw such different conclusions from the same "insight."


message 49: by [deleted user] (new)

Whatever else it is, Huckleberry Finn is an American icon. Even people who haven't read the book are familiar with it and some have strong opinions about it--even if they haven't read it since high school. As our discussion nears conclusion, I wonder how those of you who read the book (or read it again). feel about it.

In the run-up to selection lots of opinions were shared. Now that we've read it, in your opinion:

How does it stack up?

Did your opinion about the book change from before or from what you expected of it?


message 50: by Rhonda (new)

Rhonda (rhondak) | 221 comments Zeke wrote: "The reason I asked about Nietzsche was that I saw something where it said that they shared the view of man as alone in the universe or, put a different way, "the death of God." What interested me about that was that, if it is true, they drew quite different conclusions about its ethical implications."
After you asked the question, I began thinking about the implications at large, especially about those concerning psychology. I think that it could be said, for example, that three giants of the age, Nietzsche, Twain and Freud, each regarded Christianity as mankind's greatest evil. One can only thank each for his observations as they were acute and necessary if not always without prejudice.
You are also correct in thinking that Nietzsche believed that creativity and progress, as it were, could be made only by the artist. One could see how that might be divined as pessimism also.
While this all may simply be the natural outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking, I believe that you are correct in thinking that of the three, Twain was indeed the greatest pessimist. Freud and twain seem to have a great deal in common, not the least of which in developing some of the ideas of Nietzsche. Even when Freud used Twain's story about stealing a melon, Freud seems to hold out some hope for the moral growth of the superego. Twain's Letters From the Earth, in which the Germans at large took a very great interest, always seemed as if it were closest to a character expressing his own perplexity and sense of futility about the human race. One of Twain's aphorisms was something to the effect that the only thing sadder than a young pessimist was an old optimist. From his notebooks, he said, The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.


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