Monday, March 30, 2009

A Master Passes

R.I.P. Helen Levitt

Changes in neighborhood life also affected her work. “I go where there’s a lot of activity,” she said. “Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XVI


Resuming work on the manuscript after a hiatus of two or three years, Twain uses this very busy chapter to highlight the moral and legal trouble Huck is in. What started as a boy's adventure tale is now something else completely.

He and Jim spend the night after their run through the fog looking for Cairo. Jim talks excitedly about his intentions to, once free, work to earn enough to buy his wife from her owner and then, if need be, steal his children with the help of an abolitionist. Huck is terrified to hear such talk and blames himself for allowing Jim to get away. Jim thinks every shore light they see is Cairo and, as day breaks, Huck says he will go off in the canoe to find out where they are, intending instead to turn Jim in.

As he rows away, Jim calls across the water one of the most moving single lines in American literature:

"Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim."

The ole true Huck gets a chance to betray Jim soon enough. Two men in a boat hail him looking for five runaway slaves. They demand to know if that is his raft, who else is on it, and if they are black or white.

Huck lies, says the man with him is white, and when the men say they intend to check tells them that it is his very sick father, and begs their help. As Huck intends, the slave hunters suspect smallpox and so keep away from him and the raft. (Note that the illustration here, from the first edition, misrepresents the distance between the two parties.) In one of the novel's several instances illustrating the blinkered kindness of those who have no trouble treating blacks as sub-human, the men float two $20 gold pieces, an astonishing sum, to Huck on a piece of wood, to help care for his father.

Back on the raft, Huck splits the money with Jim and then justifies his conscience in a way completely at odds with the morality of the day, another immortal passage from Twain:

I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right [....] Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad -- I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that.

They travel another night and, after Huck encounters a belligerent fisherman, they realize from the way the river is running clear on one side and muddy on the other, that they missed the entry of the Ohio into the Mississippi in the fog two nights before.

They land the raft to sleep. When they wake up, their canoe, which appeared so mysteriously to help Huck escape Pap, is gone the same way. (More rattlesnake-skin bad luck of course.) They shove off to look for a landing where they can buy another one to paddle back and up the Ohio.

But in drifting in another fog that night, they encounter an enormous side-wheel riverboat with almost no warning. The boat smashes into the raft. Huck dives under its thirty-foot draft and comes up as the boat heaves out of sight. He calls for Jim but gets no answer.

Huck clutches some drift wood and is carried by the river a couple miles to the left-hand (surely Kentucky) shore. Hiking up the river bank he soon comes to a large log house, rousing two vicious guard dogs who surround him to end the chapter.

___

Much has been made of how Huck wrestles with his conscience here, and how Twain uses the honest observations of a child to lay bare an utterly hideous society:

[Jim] was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell." Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children -- children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm.


A contemporary African-American scholar has suggested that throughout this scene, Jim is keenly aware of Huck's ill feelings and so calls out to de ole true Huck as he leaves for his intended betrayal to force him to reconsider. That this reading is utterly consistent with what we know of the characters' inner lives is just more evidence of Twain's remarkable craft.


Last Week, an intermission
Regarding Chapters XIV & XV
Next Week: Chapter XVII

--------------
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, First Intermission


On a bright autumn day in '05 I went to Elmira, New York to see the Mark Twain landmarks there, specifically his burial spot and the small building in which he wrote most of his novels; once a pavilion on his sister-in-law's nearby farm and now on the grounds of Elmira College.

It is worth noting that the man renowned for his books set on the Mississippi wrote his great works about it in central New York State. Indeed, people can easily overlook the fact that Twain is probably still the most widely-traveled of all American writers. Leaving aside the lecture tour around the world and his long residence in Europe in late middle age, and even before his trip by steamship to the Holy Land, and the book about it which made him permanently famous, Twain had seen more of the globe than his closest literary rival for travel laurels, Henry James.

Leaving home as an itinerant typesetter, Twain lived in St. Louis and New York City before he was 17, ending up in New Orleans where he became first an apprentice, then fully-vested steamboat pilot, traveling the navigable length of the river, as far north as Minneapolis. Rather than fight for the Confederacy, Twain went to Nevada with his brother, a Lincoln political appointee, eventually to try his hand at mining, then another foray in the newspaper trade there and in San Francisco, where he gained assignments that took him west to Hawaii and east to Washington, DC.

Fame and marriage to the pious heiress of an upstate New York coal company fortune settled our literary lion, mainly in Hartford, Conn., where his lavish home is open to the public for part of the year. (One of my favorite spots on earth, I will pass without further comment regarding the dumb administrative decisions which have brought this national landmark to the edge of insolvency.) It was hard getting writing done in Hartford however and Twain, who could usually rely on a prodigious daily output, found the summer vacations on his in-law's farm on a hill outside Elmira to be perfect for working. Mr. and Mrs. Crane had this lovely retreat built for him about 100 yards uphill from the main house. He would open the windows to the winds, he reported to one friend, and write with his papers weighted down by what he called brickbats.

Donated by the family and moved to the Elmira campus in the early '50s, Twain's study sits on a leafy quadrangle of the small liberal arts college. Though locked during my off-season visit, it seems to have the same table, as near as I can judge comparing my pictures with a couple archival photos--including the one above, that Twain used.
(Experts may correct me in comments if need be.)

Though I doubt he worked with a small bust of himself at his elbow (though with Mark, you never know), I'd like to think that the pipe and cigar box are also his and what we see here is the sturdy umber red table on which Huck and Jim, held down by brickbats, came into the world.

Last Week: Chapters XIV & XV
Next Week: Chapter XVI

--------------
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bonus Rounds

I've been meaning to weigh in on the AIG affair, but decided two or three days ago that the story itself resists interpretation. Better to think that with the enormity of the disaster facing our econo-political system that our nominal guards have regressed to become inmates. We pay attention to this angry business of the deserving rich because reality can no longer be successfully modeled any other way.

What's really interesting is how the bonus question has fractured both sides of the aisle; more divisive in a way than Limbaugh for the GOP, and the first genuine test of the Dem's moderate/progressive fault line. Our politics are changing, which is what the noise for now mainly obscures.

What no one considers in all of this, as far as I can tell, is what sort of system we'll have once all the dust from the collapsing pillars has settled in two-three years' time. I'm sure that a lot of the players, ignoring that the last 28 quarters were modeled on helium, think it'll be back to biz-as-u. For those of us without a vested interest, or axe to grind, that is hard to see. Indeed the whole AIG imbroglio can be seen as the different players attempting to force their will upon future events, that certain things SHALL happen because those in charge, whoever they are, SAY so. I think this is called magic.

What is clear is that among the think-out-loud crowd certain news stories can blow up fast from unexpected quarters. (Britain has its own version of the story right now, regarding the very lavish retirement allowed the busted Bank of Scotland's chairman.) And under the circumstances there is a sense of wondering who is in charge when these things happen.

I'm willing to cut the Prez a large amount of slack. He can't, and should not be, in charge of everything. Erring on the side of caution (which is always the job description of a chief executive of a large enterprise) predisposes him to chart a course that leaves dumb and greedy institutions largely intact, for now. I'd like to think their unwinding will come, and so perhaps am postponing my disappointment. We shall see. The trouble with not removing the apes from the switches is the certainly of them fucking-up again. Should that happen within the next year or so, I expect the president will have alternatives neatly waiting.

Where I do fault the president is going on chat shows. Though not in-and-of-itself a bad thing, the problem comes in trying to be as glib as the setting demands, and saying something petty and dumb which you need to apologize for hours later. The beast is now feasting on distraction, and a big part of his job should be to feed it as little nonsense as possible.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XIV & XV



Chapter XIV is little more than a dialogue in the minstrel show convention; that is, a racially-grounded exchange mocking social customs by blurring common sense and nonsense in the speech of plain-talking country bumpkins. Twain adored minstrel shows, probably as much for their additional blurring of identities, white performers pretending to be black, even black performers pretending to be white pretending to be black, along with the corny jokes.

Here note that the dialogue is prompted by the examination of certain books on European royalty taken from the wrecked steamboat gang. In a bit of foreshadowing which we will discuss in greater detail when the time comes. Huck tells Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, which is news to the former slave. The only king he's heard of is Solomon, and he, Jim says, had too many wives to be considered wise. And the notion that he'd solve a problem by cutting a baby in two probably meant he also had too many children.

They move on to the subject of the son of the executed king of France, how maybe he died in jail (Po' little chap says Jim) or maybe came to America. The chapter ends with some raillery directed at one of Twain's favorite targets, the French.

Back in Chapter VIII, Twain followed some earlier minstrel show banter with one of his most trenchant punches regarding Jim's humanity. The pattern is repeated here as Twain offsets one of Huck's more immature observations (I see it warn't no use wasting words -- you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.) with a sequence which will burn a great deal of Huck's immaturity away.

Shortly before they reach their intended destination of Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi, and where they plan to sell the raft and book passage up to the free states, they run into a fog bank. Huck is in the canoe with a line hoping to tie the raft to a towhead to stop it from drifting blindly. He fails, the raft tears away the small tree Huck tied it to, and the two get lost in the impenetrable haze. Twain describes an almost supernatural disorientation.

I shot out into the solid white fog, and hadn't no more idea which way I was going than a dead man.

Thinks I, it won't do to paddle; first I know I'll run into the bank or a towhead or something; I got to set still and float [....] I whooped and listened. Away down there somewheres I hears a small whoop, and up comes my spirits. I went tearing after it, listening sharp to hear it again. The next time it come I see I warn't heading for it, but heading away to the right of it. And the next time I was heading away to the left of it -- and not gaining on it much either, for I was flying around, this way and that and t'other, but it was going straight ahead all the time.
[....]
I throwed the paddle down. I heard the whoop again; it was behind me yet, but in a different place; it kept coming, and kept changing its place, and I kept answering, till by and by it was in front of me again, and I knowed the current had swung the canoe's head down-stream, and I was all right if that was Jim and not some other raftsman hollering. I couldn't tell nothing about voices in a fog, for nothing don't look natural nor sound natural in a fog.


Let us note that the image of a solid white fog was taken up later by African Americans as one metaphor to describe the life they were forced to live in the segregated United States. I would not be surprised if Twain himself had something like this in mind. The white fog separates the two friends--Huck has no [...] idea which way I was going, like a dead man--and, when he at last finds the raft, he plays his cruelest, and last, joke on Jim.

Finding the man asleep, in a posture of despair, Huck lays down and waits for him to awaken. He tells Jim, who is overjoyed at the sight of him, that he has been there all along, and that getting lost in the fog must have been only a dream Jim had.

"... I hain't seen no fog, nor no islands, nor no troubles, nor nothing. I been setting here talking with you all night till you went to sleep about ten minutes ago, and I reckon I done the same. You couldn't a got drunk in that time, so of course you've been dreaming."

Jim insists. Huck tells him repeatedly that he's mistaken. Jim gets quiet for a while, then says Huck must be right, he did have a dream and then interprets it,

because it was sent for a warning. [....] The lot of towheads was troubles we was going to get into with quarrelsome people and all kinds of mean folks, but if we minded our business and didn't talk back and aggravate them, we would pull through and get out of the fog and into the big clear river, which was the free States, and wouldn't have no more trouble.

And the litter of branches and rubbish on the raft? Huck unwisely points to the debris left over from the raft's blind trip through snags, and asks what it all means. Jim lets him have it:

. . . he looked at me steady without ever smiling, and says:

"What do dey stan' for? I'se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin' for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no' mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun', de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo' foot, I's so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed."


Jim comes as close as he cares to calling Huck white trash, a very charged epithet at the time, then goes into the wigwam. Mortified, Huck apologizes: It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.

The two characters have now come completely to life.

___

According to Ron Powers, it was around here that Twain put down the manuscript for a couple years. The characters had begun to rebel against the logic of the plot he had initially devised. For one thing, he could not decide what they would do once reaching Cairo. The solid white fog also stands for his indecision and, as we shall see, is responsible for our heros missing their initial destination altogether. In honor of Mark's hiatus, I'll be taking next Sunday off for a small side excursion readers may enjoy, then its back down the river the week after.

Last week: Chapters XII & XIII

--------------
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Copyright Infringement Theater Presents

How things used to be. . .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Bender Over

Mr. Kunstler last Monday went to the heart of the matter of what's next for our economy:

If the answer is a return to an economy based on building ever more suburban sprawl, on credit card over-spending, on routine securitized debt shenanigans in banking, and on consistently lying to ourselves about what reality demands of us, then we are a mortally deluded nation. We're done with that, we're beyond that now, we've crossed the frontier and left that all behind, and we'd better get our heads straight about it.

Implicit in the critique which recent events themselves have made on our insane social conventions is the final corroding of the philosophical underpinnings those conventions rested on. The wisdom of markets? Trickle down? Lower taxes? Deregulation? The noise and confusion being thrown up in Washington and on TV around the President's rather level-headed liberal (in the old fashioned sense) agenda says to me that parties involved will not, or cannot, face the fact that every day carries them further past the palace of pure entertainment, that place where they thought they had everything they needed and wanted.

Mr. Jon Stewart's thorough deboneing of that nitwit Cramer blew up with such force and speed that, rather that coming from no where, suggests it had been building for a while. One wonders if Cramer and the whole CNBC brand, like their parent GE, can survive as currently constituted now. My guess is no. Stewart has a fine sense of striking through the self-satisfied armor of con men and bullies (just ask Tucker Carleson.) A million tiny decisions are made every hour, and as the nation's self-regard turns rather more sober and prosaic, the old fun we used to have will seem more and more like the bender it really was, and all those TV finance jerks become the addict friends we can't be around anymore.

UPDATE: Wow. Stewart catches a perfect wave of anger. Watch it all here.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XII & XIII



The journey begun, Huck provides details about life on the raft. They travel at night, seven or eight hours at four mile-per-hour. The days are spent hiding among the dense brush and timber along the bank. Jim raises a deck on the raft and builds a wigwam with an open dirt hearth to allow keeping a fire that can't be seen from outside. They make a steering oar and set up a pole to hang a lantern for a running light in case they encounter a riverboat.

Their slow progress is rendered beautifully as Huck describes what they do and see:

We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed -- only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all -- that night, nor the next, nor the next.

Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see. The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up. In St. Petersburg they used to say there was twenty or thirty thousand people in St. Louis, but I never believed it till I see that wonderful spread of lights at two o'clock that still night. There warn't a sound there; everybody was asleep.


Huck goes ashore each night to buy provisions, sometimes lifting a handy chicken or melon or corn too, which prompts a debate on morality between our two heros.

Five nights below St. Louis a storm hits. Illuminated by flashes of lightning they see the wreck of a steamboat which the raft soon nudges against. Huck, thinking of Tom Sawyer and adventure, clambers aboard, a reluctant Jim with him. In one of the book's more pointless and melodramatic episodes, they sure enough discover two members of a criminal gang terrorizing a third. Huck, again unseen by others nearly touching him, overhears the men's plans to escape and leave their victim to die on the boat as it breaks apart. Then, their raft carried away by authorial misconduct, Huck and Jim have another narrow escape stealing the skiff belonging to the desperadoes--leaving all three in peril of their lives--and eventually find their raft downstream.

Huck rows off to find a ferry captain and concocts an implausible tale of his family marooned on the wreck, which the good captain rushes off to save. But not in time:

Well, before long here comes the wreck, dim and dusky, sliding along down! A kind of cold shiver went through me, and then I struck out for her. She was very deep, and I see in a minute there warn't much chance for anybody being alive in her. I pulled all around her and hollered a little, but there wasn't any answer; all dead still. I felt a little bit heavy-hearted about the gang, but not much [....]

Responsible now for the apparent death of three men, Huck rejoins Jim. They set up on an island and slept like dead people.

___

These two chapters can be fairly described as offering the best and worst of the novel. There is the beauty of the descriptive passages, the pleasure we take in seeing how the two shift for themselves (the wigwam Jim builds another Native American detail), the sly fun of their moral decisions regarding stealing from farmers.

There is also sloppiness on Twain's part; Huck says in the first paragraph of Chapter XII how they forgot to put the rifle on the raft in their rush to flee, then relates not three pages later that they shoot waterfowl for food now and again. There is reason to think that Twain planned a longer subplot regarding the criminal gang, which he discarded as casually as he sends the wreck floating downstream at the end of Chapter XIII. What remains leaves the odd impression that Huck and Jim have stumbled into, and out of, a boy's adventure tale, one in which Tom Sawyer would be quite at home, but distinctly at odds with the mainly stark and naturalist story that is their own.

We are coming up to the point where Twain first put the manuscript away for a couple years, and one senses here that his intentions for the book had begun to evolve past his initial, far simpler, design. Turning Huck into a killer certainly gave him a grim autonomy which Tom Sawyer in his own book never had. That Huck and Jim sleep like the dead at the end of this episode points to some kind of definite end and rebirth. I suspect that it was around here that Twain realized that he was writing something far more serious than a children's book. The first portion of the manuscript was certainly the most revised, and is now lost, so we shall never know for certain.

Last Week Chapter XI
Next Week Chapters XIV & XV

--------------
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Slap Happy

When times are good, politics become entertainment. When times turn bad, imploded politics become entertainment. Looked at another way: When reality presents us with a situation we can't understand, a lot of people replace it automatically with something, however tendentious and unapt, which they do.

The current slap festival down at the GOP Hall is unlike anything I've seen in my years of watching politics, which stretch back to a precocious lad following the Johnson/Goldwater contest. It is as if the Republicans forgot their job is to win elections and have become instead some sort of branded utility they expect people to subscribe to, a power company with a TV show, or some kind of Mary Kay network trafficking in a cosmetics of morality.

How did this happen? Well, entertainment is something hard to let go of, especially after it served so well for so long. Ron Reagan was Mr. Hollywood, the first Gulf War was all entertainment all the time, Bill and Hil then Bill and Monica? Whoo. It was entertaining to make fun of dull ol' Al Gore, entertaining to watch the market shoot up, then crash, then shoot up again. Entertaining to watch all those sissy lefties get their dumb panties in a twist over everything. And recall that through it all, Rush, for one, insisted he was nothing more than an entertainer, a Sinatra of Sourness. That has not changed, but everything else has.

I'm not sure when the entertainment began to drain out of GOP land. I think the bubble broke apart in several places: Mission Accomplished, the Katrina flyover, the Terry Schiavo soap opera (interesting that all three featured that little war criminal in a plane going somewhere). But drain out it did, which is not to say that the parched inhabitants of the Repub desert isle are not still thirsty for it. Hell, their lives once depended on it and now it is mostly all gone.

The current plight of the GOP is exhibit A in the case of How Systems Collapse (the broader republic is perhaps several not-irreversible-steps behind, so let us watch and learn.) They fight yesterday's battles, spout nonsense as an incantation of power, value style over substance, argue about who's in charge, and cannot admit that they're responsible for their own sorry state. Right now, I have to admit, the sight of that is very entertaining, but it can't be for much longer. Even the freak show has to close down if no one buys tickets.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XI


In one of the more famous episodes in the novel, Huck unsuccessfully attempts to pass himself as a girl, traveling on foot to a relative's, to learn what's happening in town. The woman in the rat infested cabin has only just moved in with her husband. They are apparently reduced in the world and looking for a place to start over. In talking to her, Huck forgets his fake name, and then reveals himself though a series of gender-specific physical tells the woman elicits from him. She assumes, however, that he is a runaway apprentice, and Huck carries on with that lie and another fake name, which the woman warns him not to forget..

During Huck's imposture, he learns that his father disappeared from town in the company of some rough characters shortly after the boating search party, that Jim was discovered missing the day after Huck was "murdered" and is now wanted for the crime, with a reward of $300, and that the woman suspects he is on Jackson's Island after seeing smoke there one day.

Her husband has gone to get a friend, she says, and the two, seeking the reward, plan to go to the island that midnight to look around. Huck makes up a story to allow a quick exit, hurries back to the island, and awakens Jim yellng, There ain't a minute to lose. They're after us!" They pile their belongings onto the raft section they salvaged and, after Huck canoes out to look for observers, push off down river, past the foot of the island dead still -- never saying a word.

___

Not a tremendous amount to say about this chapter. The woman is one of several characters in the novel who are kind to Huck--indeed assumes he is a runaway indentured servant--and treat Jim as not exactly human. In this instance, however, Jim is wanted for murder with a bounty on his head, a fine plot twist that requires him to flee along the river rather than take his chances in the free state of Illinois. (The runaway slave law was enforced sporadically in the north before a law enacted in 1850 energized the issue, leading inevitably to the Civil War. Be that as it may, Jim's surest refuge was Canada.)

Several critics have noted that Huck now assumes Jim's predicament as his own. They're after us!, he says, when in fact They think Huck is dead are only after Jim.

Their trip gets underway under cover of the stars and shadows and in silence.

Last week: Chapters IX & X
Next week: Chapters XII & XIII

--------------
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.