Read an Excerpt
From Robert O'Meally's Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
As an African-American who came of age in the 1960s, I first encountered Huckleberry Finn in a fancy children's edition with beautifully printed words and illustrations on thick pages, a volume bought as part of a mail-order series by my ambitious parents. While I do not remember ever opening that particular book-as a junior high schooler I was more drawn to readings about science or my baseball heroes-I do recall a sense of pride that I owned it: that a classic work was part of the furniture of my bedroom and of my life. Later I would discover Twain's ringing definition of a classic as "something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read."
Like many others of that generation-and then I suppose of every American generation that has followed-I was assigned the book as part of a college course. Actually I was taught the book twice, once in a course in modern fiction classics (along with Cervantes, Mann, Conrad, Wolfe, Faulkner), then in a course tracing great themes in American literature, including those of democracy and race. In both these classes, Mark Twain and his Huckleberry Finn appeared as heroic and timeless exemplars of modernism in terms of both literary form and progressive political thought. Here was an American novel told not from the standpoint or in the language of Europe but from the position of the poor but daring and brilliant river-rat Huck, whose tale was spun in lingo we could tell was plain Americanese-why, anybody could tell it, as the boy himself might say.
His was a story of eager flight from the rigidities of daily living, particularly from those institutions that as youngsters we love to hate: family, school, church, the hometown itself. That white Huckleberry's flight from commonplace America included a deep, true friendship with black Jim, who began the novel as a slave in Huck's adopted family, proved Huck's trust of his own lived experience and feelings: his integrity against a world of slavery and prejudice based on skin color. Huck's discovery that he was willing to take the risks involved in assisting Jim in his flight from slavery connected the youngster with the freedom struggle not only of blacks in America but of all Americans seeking to live up to the standards of our most sacred national documents. Here was democracy without the puffery, e pluribus unum at its most radical level of two friends from different racial (but very similar cultural) backgrounds loving one another. Here too was a personal declaration of independence in action, an American revolution (and some would say also a civil war) fought first within Huck's own heart and then along the Mississippi River, the great brown god that many have said stands almost as a third major character in this novel of hard-bought freedom and fraternity, of consciousness and conscientiousness.
I understood these themes as supporting the civil rights movement of that era, and, further, as significant correctives to sixties black nationalism, which too often left too little space, in my view, for black-white friendships and, alas, for humor, without which no revolution I was fighting for was worth the sacrifice. In those days, Huckleberry Finn was also part of my arsenal of defenses against those who questioned my decision to major in literature during the black revolution; for me, it served to justify art itself not just as entertainment but as equipment for living and even as a form of political action. For here was a book whose message of freedom had been so forcefully articulated that it was still sounding clearly all these years later, all over the world. What was I doing in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond that was as courageous and selfless (and yet as individually self-defining)-as profoundly revolutionary-as Huck's act of helping to rescue Jim?
And yet I do have to say that even in those student days of first discovering this novel, I was troubled by the figure of Jim, with whom, from the very beginning, I found it impossible to identify. Though as a college sophomore or junior I wrote an earnest essay in defense of Jim as a wise man whose "superstitions" could be read as connections to a proud "African" system of communal beliefs and earned adjustments to a turbulent and dangerous new world, it was definitely Huck whose point of view I adopted, while Jim remained a shadowy construction whose buffoonery and will to cooperate with white folks' foolishness embarrassed and infuriated me. Then too the novel's casual uses of the word "nigger" always made my stomach tighten. Years later, when I read about black students, parents, and teachers who objected to the novel's repeated use of this inflammatory word, I knew just what they meant. Lord knows, as a student I had sat in classes where "Nigger Jim" (that much-bandied title never once used by Twain but weirdly adopted by innumerable teachers and scholars, including some of the best and brightest, as we shall see) was discussed by my well-intentioned white classmates and professors whose love of the novel evidently was unimpeded by this brutal language. (Did some of them delight in the license to use this otherwise taboo term? What might that have meant?)
Using some of these ideas about democracy and race (including some of my doubts and questions), for fifteen years I taught Huckleberry Finn at Howard, at Wesleyan, and then at Barnard. And then somehow my battered paperback, my several lectures, and my fat folder of articles by some of the novel's great critics-Eliot, Hemingway, Ellison, Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Henry Nash Smith-all were set aside. I suppose that one problem was simply that the book was taught too much-that students came to me having worn out their own copies already. And too often they seemed to respond not to the book itself but to bits and pieces of the classic hymns of critical (and uncritical) praise, grist for the term-paper-writer and standardized-test-taker's mill. In recent years, when I wanted to teach Twain again, I turned to the novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, with its own tangled problems of racial and national masks and masquerades; to short fiction and essays (including perhaps his funniest piece of writing, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"; see "For Further Reading"), and to The Mysterious Stranger, in which wry, darkly wise Satan drops in on a hamlet very much like the ones of Twain's best-known fictions, including Huckleberry Finn. One of Satan's messages is close to Huck's, too: that it is better to be dead than to endure the ordinary villager's humdrum (and very violent) life.