I’ve been reading the annotations and introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn in his “Annotated Huckleberry Finn”. That edition is a tour de force, and entirely engrossing. You want context for Twain’s novel, you get it, in rich detail.
Hearn is not a fan of the final section of the book, in which Tom Sawyer concocts a faux-rescue of Jim based on the kinds of rescue he has read in romantic novels like those of Alexandre Dumas. I said in a previous post why I had a hard time reading this section of the novel.
The section in question is typically referred to as the “Evasion,” which is Tom’s word for the type of rescue that he’s read about in novels.
But the Evasion has its defenders, including among African-American readers – for example Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua in her “The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn”.
I suggested in an earlier post that Twain deliberately fashioned in the Evasion section a kind of mirror that depicted the realities faced by post-slavery blacks. That is a reading of the novel that actually has wide support, as I discovered here in an online essay by Steve Clarke, “Huckleberry Finn’s Conscience: Reckoning with the Evasion.”
I am fairly confident that Twain’s intention with the Evasion section was to hold up a mirror to ugly realities and that the section is not, as some feel, a betrayal of the more-progressive picture of race formed up to that point in the novel.
I know it’s all widely debated, but one thing I keep coming back to is that Twain does not believe Tom Sawyer is doing something good in that last section of the book. Twain obviously is trying to lampoon the ideas about “rescue stories” that Tom has gotten from Alexandre Dumas. If Twain was trying to knock Dumas, he would not intentionally weaken his point by making Tom do things that would look great to the reader. He’s lampooning Tom and Dumas.
But does he let the episode go on too long?
And has he fashioned the episode in such a way as to depend, even subconsciously, on racial stereotypes?
I think all of these are very much live questions.
The Evasion section is widely agreed to be satire, at least, and many readers feel it is also a mirror of ugly post-Reconstruction realities that Twain was portraying with his usual honesty. Either way, it is told in Huck’s voice, with that boy’s imperfect, still-forming, often-backtracking conscience. There is no narrator here who can denounce what’s happening. Jim alone speaks out against the proceedings, but he can’t speak as fully as we might have liked, because he’s still dependent on Tom and Huck for his freedom.
The Evasion section, like the whole book, lacks a narrator who could spell out what was right and wrong. It’s satire, irony, allegory, what-have-you, but not a direct voice. And I think that “Huck Finn” may always be a controversial story because of that voice.
Let me explain.
It seems to me that the criticism of “Huckleberry Finn”, though taking different forms, has always taken the same essential shape: the book is thought to corrupt our children morally because it shows them how to talk improperly and act improperly. That’s what was said by those who criticized or banned the book in the decades after it was first published – that it brought the moral level of our children down. In the 19th century there was more concern than nowadays with corruption of grammar, and the immorality of swear words. No one today looks to novels for grammatical instruction, so Twain is not a problem there anymore. But the moral issues are still live. The N-word is now acknowledged as an immoral word, a swear word; we teach our kinds that it’s one of the bad words, along with “the F-word” and “the S-word.” Hence we abhor intentional use of the N-word (by non-blacks); but occasionally we still have a problem with a novel for using it realistically, or ironically. Large numbers of Americans still want, have always wanted, our books not to be ironic; have had a problem even with books that are realistic, if the books don’t directly show the way out to something better than the ugly realities on the page. Not all Americans, but many, want our books to be didactic, or at least morally transparent and correct.
It’s not that Americans lose sleep over abstract literary debates about what makes great literature. People care about “Huck Finn” who rarely read. The book has the power to offend because irony and realism always make readers uncomfortable. I don’t think there’s any way around that, which might mean that “Huck Finn” will always be a controversial book. If the author doesn’t provide either a narrator or a character who spells out what’s right and wrong, we’re going to be thrown off-balance by what’s on the page; we’re going to have uncertainty about it, going to ask questions about it.
And that’s really the design of irony and realism: to get people to engage the text more deeply. A purely didactic narrative, showing Huck or Tom saying and doing racist things and also telling us that these things are racist, would be far more comforting, but also easier to put down; we would not ask any particular questions; we would merely praise. A book which also went as far as punishing every character’s moral infraction within the story would be even more comfortable, though it would not be great literature and would rarely even be read, much less engaged at a deep level.
I do think a text like “Huck Finn” needs to be read with some sort of guidance, particularly in the case of kids. It’s confusing and potentially harmful, particularly to black kids, if you just read the text without knowing anything at all about the who, what and why of how it came about and what it might be trying to say.
Toni Morrison has a famous essay, “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” in which she details her own troubling experience reading “Huck Finn” as a child in school and talks about her continuing struggles with the book as an adult.
This book, in short, will never be a settled question, and wasn’t designed to be.
After all, that’s what Twain told us, in the famous prologue to his most famous novel:
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.