Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Right To Sing The Blues

Yrs Trly was gobsmacked recently with the polling news that that squalid little man has lost about six percentage points of popularity since he left office! Add to that a parallel decline among those identifying as Repubs.

I am prepared to give two reasons for these signs o' the times. The first one was on display last night, being our calm, thoughtful, and--to a degree rare with the office--candid chief executive. I will propose that, astonishingly, our fellow citizens are listening to what he says, and accepting his explanations as to what we are facing. This might yet come to be called moral authority. If I am right, then his exchange about torture last night changed more minds--no, not changed minds, allowed more minds to finally make a moral judgement on what is probably for most a genuinely confusing topic, than any polemicists on either side.

I suspect that public opinion is beginning to collect around his positions, and will continue to do so as long as he is seen as sincere, consistent, and hard working. While such authority is very hard to institute, once it is in place FUX may as well scrap its propaganda wing altogether.

Second, a party so sclerotic, hostile, and out-of-touch as the GOP has begun an actuarial shrinking, which is to say that more Republicans are now dying, literally, than being born. Something like that is bound to show up in polling sooner or later. A dead party is, when all is said and done, a party of the dead, and it is astonishing how fast it is happening now.

Finally, and though I hate judging on appearances, have you ever seen such a collection of arrogant, middle-brow faces as were in the WH press corps last night? One got a sense that the room was filled with individuals who are only-so-bright and no brighter, earning seats by virtue of their skills at working on deadline and office backstabbing. Only Helen Thomas, especially in the exchange about Specter, looked on with anything like an engaged and fascinated interest (she sees what's happening), which, I propose is the best stance a reporter can take. The rest mainly owned the blank eyes and hard frowns of the chronically incompetent struggling to be taken seriously.

UPDATE: About that moral authority.

Monday, April 27, 2009

100 Daze

I've never heard of David Roberts, Grist contributor, but I do like the cut of his jib. Quit Arguing With Douchebags that Everyone Hates reads the hed of his short essay over at the Huffpo, reducing into so many words the overall theme of my posts on politics for over a year now.

In case the headline isn't clear, there's the sub: Progressives and activists spend a wildly disproportionate amount of time running around like their hair's on fire every time a wingnut goes on cable news or writes an op-ed saying ridiculous things. As I've struggled to explain here on a number of occasions, to believe the MSM can be made to take up a fair and decent narrative of events whereby the hypocrites stand revealed and the traduced are made whole also expects the pig to dine with discretion. It'll never happen, and to expect it might shows an exasperating immaturity that speaks ill of any real progress.

Large forces are at work, me hearties. Try as they might, the GOP are on the wrong side of fundamental changes brought by new technologies. Their attempts to use them only reveal them as the shallow and dim players they have been for a generation now, only lacking the status of their former power. (Same goes for newspapers, in case you are wondering.)

The squawking you hear from the far right is the sound of a political movement based solely on the grievance and anger of white voters going away. Yes, Beck is a hit at FUX; climate change deniers run the roost at the Wash Post. Sure, the GOP is trading in secessionist fantasies cherished by the dim for generations. (Beck in particular seems to have based his appeal on being the bewildered American boy-man, now looking for answers in a world he once believed was his.) The long-term impact of all this, I am here to say, is zero.

It is finally beginning to dawn on the bright people that, quite contrary to conventional expectations, the Repubs are poised for another round of substantial losses in, wow, just 18 months. I have said so ever since that squalid little man and his stupid henchmen treated New Orleans like a toilet someone else needed to clean. (And I would suggest that the recent popularity of Megan McCain is based completely on her being the only telegenic product under the brand willing to say as much in public. If only David Frum had been an Abercrombie model. . . )

The pointless commentariot even now are collecting around the idea that President Obama has done so well in his first 100 days that he is bound now to disappoint. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that so long as he is regarded as working intelligently and earnestly, his failures will not be counted by the people as disappointments. His wake is littered with rivals who expected him to fuck up.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XX

Recall that back in Chapter XIV the subject of European royalty was introduced via books which were part of the haul Huck took from the criminal gang he left trapped on the stranded riverboat. Pure conjecture on my part supposes that Twain at first had plans for the two desperadoes from the boat joining with our two innocent fugitives, plans that soon struck him as unworkable.

However, I submit, he did lay the groundwork for their reappearance here, transmogrified, as the Duke and Dauphin, two far more interesting criminals than mere robbers.

The two want to know why Huck and Jim only travel at night. Is Jim a runaway? Huck comes up with another hard luck cover story involving dead relations. Jim belongs to him now, he says, and they are going to Louisiana, but people looking for runaways keep trying to take his slave from him, so they move by night. The Duke promises to think of something that will solve this problem.

Let us note here a kind of background hum throughout the entire work--the subject of runaway slaves. Not only was slavery a Satanic mess, Twain implies that, like a mess, the system was always falling apart. People constantly escaped, armed vigilantes were ever on the lookout. Connected to runaways too was the never-ending threat of slave rebellion (Nat Turner's uprising was in 1831, no more than three years before the novel opens), which as the century progressed left the Southern states in increasing fits of paranoia and with a violent hatred of any challenge to their ideas of coerced order.

The royalty immediately take over Huck and Jim's sleeping quarters, putting the two outside during a storm, allowing Huck to describe the sight and sounds of the tempest in a way bound to irritate any proper reader of the time:

My souls, how the wind did scream along! And every second or two there'd come a glare that lit up the white-caps for a half a mile around, and you'd see the islands looking dusty through the rain, and the trees thrashing around in the wind; then comes a h-whack! -- bum! bum! bumble-umble-um-bum-bum-bum-bum -- and the thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and quit -- and then rip comes another flash and another sockdolager.

(Certain readers can be forgiven for wondering if James Joyce might have noted the bumble-umble rumbling and grumbling away and decided he could use something like that himself.)

The Duke's main scam is by way of popular entertainment, lectures in fortune telling and gimcrack presentations of Shakespeare. (And oh how the spirit of the Immortal Bard hovers over these four storm-tossed castaways right now.) The Dauphin works the preaching angle, which we soon see him demonstrate up close.

Landing near a small town, they leave Jim hiding on the raft and discover that the place is nearly empty. A sick black man tells them the village has mostly cleared out for the camp meeting a couple miles inland. The Duke finds an empty print shop (no locked doors in this town) a dirty, littered-up place, and had ink marks, and handbills with pictures of horses and runaway niggers on them, all over the walls. (See above) Huck and the Dauphin go to the revival meeting and find it in full swing, hundreds of people there from 20 miles around, in several sheds listening to a host of preachers.

Again, Twain allows us to see this place: the stifling heat, the wagons, the flies, the food, the log benches people sit on, what they are wearing, the screaming and shouting. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the great American novel:

"Oh, come to the mourners' bench! come, black with sin! (amen!) come, sick and sore! (amen!) [....] -- come with a broken spirit! come with a contrite heart! come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open -- oh, enter in and be at rest!" (a-a-men! glory, glory hallelujah!)

And so on. You couldn't make out what the preacher said any more, on account of the shouting and crying. Folks got up everywheres in the crowd, and worked their way just by main strength to the mourners' bench, with the tears running down their faces; and when all the mourners had got up there to the front benches in a crowd, they sung and shouted and flung themselves down on the straw, just crazy and wild.

Note that the early 1830s saw the first wave of radical evangelicalism spread westward from central New York state in a fashion likened at the time to a wildfire. This is an eyewitness account of a very new phenomenon of that time. (In 1925, H.L. Mencken took himself to a revival meeting when he was in Tennessee to cover the Scopes trial. His account, The Hills of Zion, is required reading and owes a tremendous debt to the passage here.)

But these are good people, and the Dauphin fleeces them with startling ease, jumping onto a platform to give testimony to his redemption from a life of high-seas piracy. (!!) He weeps at his salvation and the audience, unbidden, takes up a collection. He thanks them, the people of Pokeville (Poke: a weed common to the south; also a sharp jab; a sack; slang for an act of sexual intercourse) along with their preacher--the truest friend a pirate ever had! He also picks up a jug of whisky from under a wagon as he and Huck make a grateful exit.

Back in town they find the Duke has set up business in the empty print shop, taking cash advances for newspaper subscriptions and work orders, and printing up a hand bill describing Jim as a runaway from a Louisiana plantation with a $200 reward offered. Now, if they are stopped, he says, all they need to do is tie up Jim, show the authorities the handbill and say they are taking him back to collect the reward. Easy, right?

The two con artists compare the proceeds of their afternoon. The Duke's spell of work cleared a neat nine dollars, the Dauphin, $87.75, plus the whiskey. Such are harvests from the fields of the Lord.

The chapter ends with Jim, who has been quiet the whole time, asking Huck if they are going to run across anymore kings on this trip. Huck says he reckons not. Good, Jim says, because these two drunks is plenty.

Last week Chapt. XIX
Next Chapt. XXI

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

Friday, April 24, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

One should feel real sympathy for the president as we head into the weekend. Mainly campaigning on the war, education, infrastructure, and healthcare reform, he won his mandate on the strength of his willingness to tackle the financial collapse in a comprehensive way. And so his focus from day one. What to do exactly about the monsters who populated the former administration, as well as their vicious dogsbodies left behind in Washington, was certainly NOT something he set out to remedy. But here it is anyway.

The poignant fact that he did not ask for this problem, alas, does not excuse him from dealing with it. As noted earlier, I believe something is driving the torture story outside the Democratic establishment, which seems to have had at least a passing knowledge of what was going on when it was going on, and the MSM, which, as usual, only cares about itself. I doubt even all the traditional crusaders have pushed it into the news. No, someone somewhere is leaking the goods. (And here, let me again advise all who expend fury on the media's stodgy hewing to the establishment narrative--no matter how brutally wrong events prove it to be: The press has always been constituted to define the quo status as a thing not far from the needs of the Chamber of Commerce. If the C of C now needs a murky definition of human rights and the accountability of elected officials, no newspaper, and certainly no TV network, will dare presume otherwise.)

Obama's problem here is two-fold: the torture issue is now not going away, and his opponents are all either criminals or knaves. Which is to say that there is no finessing this one. As a boss once explained to me: you have a smart competitor and you both get rich. Obama is not nearly so lucky. The most personally disappointing aspect of the last three months is realizing just how deeply the stupid has saturated the GOP. While most days I'm in the mood to laugh about it, and while I have no doubt the organization as constituted is in its terminal stages, it does not take away the fact that they still make rotten everything they touch, and they insist on touching the flag most of all.

Now recall that a president has nothing to say about the establishment of a congressional body. In other words, though Mr. Obama took a notional step back yesterday from a congressional investigation of the torturers, something like that really isn't his call anyway. All he's accomplished so far is to keep the other side guessing, and pissing over themselves justifying evil.

I don't know. Maybe the poor bastard is just spinning his wheels hoping Dick's ticker will finally give way. I've stopped thinking Obama has a grand plan, which by no means is the same as counting him out. If I'm right, and the story is being driven by elements of the intel community looking to make the Cheney Junta pay, then we'll start seeing nauseating videos, or hearing from the anguished men and women who actually carried out the orders, soon enough.

UPDATE: I scare myself sometimes. Pentagon Agrees to Release Detainee Photos. In writing the above, however, I completely overlooked the invaluable work of the ACLU in driving the story.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Torture Of Liberty

One senses that the torture story, simmering for so long, has flashed up for reasons that are completely out of sight. It became all-too-clear yesterday, in the veiled threats of that nitwit Burton's lecture of Secy. Clinton that the Senate and House leadership--who tend to congregate around the two Intelligence committees--were fully briefed on the inhumane (my word, not Burton's) practices as they were underway, and would be one focus of any investigation into what went so horribly wrong.

To which I say, let's go! I don't think the hearings could have a better kick off than the two majority leaders appearing to talk about their shame in complying with that monstrosity. (Which is the whole point of a truth commission in the first place.) Yeah, call me a dreamer, but I think the Dems have a ton more leeway going forward here than anyone in the Grotesque Old Party, which now seems bound and determined to spend its final days supporting horrors that all normal people find disgusting.

Any congressional hearings, of course, will need some participation from the Repubs, and at this stage I doubt any will cooperate. While I'm sure the president didn't want this thing to flare up (and releasing the memos may have even calmed the situation if Old Dick and his stooges had not then upped and opened their fat war criminal mouths), I also think that he is ever ready to run the board if the other side lets him. And here they are letting him. Why exactly they felt the overpowering urge to scurry in defense of the indefensible is beyond my limited capacity to reason.

I would venture to say that the sickening revelations, and their inane apologists, point to a very strong prop of the rightist psyche, namely the need to be feared rather than merely respected. Everything in their old curiosity shop, from the overbearing righteousness in their congressional delegation, to the belligerence of their fave radio and TV personalities, to the fantasies of authority and rescue in their favorite movies, TV shows and churches, the dumb protest signs and common-man threats in their aggrieved demonstrations, even the loud, puissant graphics and fat sneering white faces of their favorite network are all pathetic attempts to make the rest of the world fear them. Fucking-up some helpless muslim bumpkins in a cell, for mainly their own amusement? Damn right that's what they stand for.

Other brighter and more practiced bloggers than I have noted the complicity of the MSM in allowing the Grotesques to think they are in fact driving the discourse instead of being dragged behind their horses. I would say that the vast majority of Americans know what it's like to be pushed around by mean, sanctimonious creeps. (And not just at work, just ask any of your black and hispanic friends about white cops. Better yet, ask their parents.) And while most citizens would not come out and say most of the poor bastards should be set free and the monsters locked up, neither is there anything more than fringe support of the old junta anywhere in the land.

I would say that the invisible hand moving the story are those unseen elements of the Army/Intelligence community who are mortified and furious at the long-term damage the Cheney junta has done to their institutional structure and reputation. The only players the president seems to have drawn a magic circle around are the intelligence folk, keeping them, in LBJ's immortal dictum, inside the tent pissing out. If that is in fact the case, then the old regime has not a clue, chance, or prayer. Once deeply contrite torturers themselves appear to describe what they did, as some are bound to do, the end of the old GOP, which now seems to have the clueless aplomb of a leper buying a ride on a roller coaster, will be complete.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels V

Where others see equivocation and backtracking in the emerging MO of the president, I tend to find a cagy politics not inclined just yet to hand out any plums to friends or blows to foes. As thin as Geithner and as thick as Summers strike the interested onlooker, my sense is that these two blokes are getting first crack at the problem because to do otherwise would allow Streeters to exercise their political chorus in both parties to a paralyzing degree.

If Wall Street's preferred overseers can't get the job done, by, say, the first quarter of '10, then we get to move on to the real redistributive fun. One of the very smart things the president did in his Georgetown address, on this topic specifically, was to present himself at the middle between two competing philosophical camps, one too disruptive the other too empirically mistaken. Does he want the Geithner plan to work? Of course he does. I take him at his word that saving the financial system is the last thing he wants to worry about. If it doesn't, does he then look over at what's left of the GOP and say, "Gee, you guys were right about the tax and spending cuts"? Ha-ha.

Now of course the P. Krugman's of the world, bless them all, will tell you we don't have time to experiment. Though they are doubtless correct, let me just say: You run for office sometime. In the meantime a recasting of regulations to make credit, banking, and investing clearer, fairer and more modest seems to be in the (heh) cards. And the student loan refinance offer, when it comes, will return a ton of good will.

Just as President Obama is giving the Wall Street clique the chance to fail in support of their own cause, so I would caution Old Dick to keep his fat, war criminal mouth shut. I echo Sully's call: by all means, let's see those CIA memos. We will invariable find the same tendentious justifications and nauseating parsing, all to please the leaders, of what was discovered in the torture rooms.

The strange welter of not-exactly-conflicting statements regarding prosecution of the war crimes in the last couple days lead me to believe that something is certainly afoot and that the president is angling to have the prosecution mainly conducted in Congress. No constitution law scholar could look past the wide and spreading stain those creeps left on the flag. Likewise no sane special prosecutor could tackle the case as constituted now. Far better for a Truth Commission to winnow the evil from the misled, then allow the evil to repent in full view.

Now the only way such a body could act comprehensively would be the threat of prosecution for those found culpable who did not cooperate with the investigation. Nine months of that would probably whittle the number of defendants to about seven, after that my crystal ball gets cloudy. But Old Dick better keep his powder dry for now. That is if he has any left.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XIX

The chapter opens with what critic Harold Bloom calls the most beautifully-written paragraph in American literature. An excerpt:

Not a sound anywheres -- perfectly still -- just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line -- that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away -- trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks -- rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods. . .

Here is the apprentice riverboat pilot on early morning watch. The many hours Twain spent observing the Mississippi are reduced into these several idiomatic American sentences. The essence of his artistry, however, is the immediacy with which he shares his observations with us. We see through his, or rather Huck's, eyes.

The beauty of the passage masks a certain darker undercurrent, as if Huck is willfully concentrating on the glory of the world to avoid thinking of the horror he has just witnessed. Remember, he has just seen the family who as much as adopted him exterminated by a rival clan. He is just drifting now with Jim, who has his own nightmares to deal with, without thinking about time, where they are going, or even putting on clothes:

we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us -- the new clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn't go much on clothes, nohow.

This is, I believe, his last reference to the Grangerfords, and one might never decide exactly what too good to be comfortable really means. The nakedness of the two described here has attracted a healthy amount of critical comment, in particular--paralleling the male nudity described in Moby Dick--for its 19th-century homoerotic charge. Considered in light of traumatic experience, however, Huck and Jim's nudity feels closer to crazy Yossarian in Catch-22 sitting naked in a tree after Snowden dies than, say, the Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass. Clothes are powerful reminders of identity and the past.

The characters' nudity also points to a general loosening of rules in this chapter. Gone is the determined chronology of the book which held until the raft's collision with the riverboat in Chapter XVI (We have no idea how long Huck spent with the Grangerfords, though certainly more than a couple weeks.) Gone too is the goal of the free states. Freedom now is going where the river takes them, and mainly unencumbered by ideas of God.

It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.

Huck ends his elegy to a timeless time on the river: One morning about daybreak I found a canoe and crossed over a chute to the main shore. . .

Consider how shamelessly Twain to this point has given and taken that damn canoe. Consider too that our heros were specifically looking to buy one to paddle up the Ohio just before the crash that led to the Grangerford shore. Huck makes no mention of turing north now, I submit, because going back would bring him to the site of his adopted family's killing, an all-too-real murder scene where, again, others believe he is dead.

Instead, while gathering berries in the canoe--one more Indigenous American referent--Huck offers refuge to two fleeing men, bringing them to the raft. They are con artists, both running separately from the same locale, ahead of men with dogs, where they have been running lucrative religious and medical scams on the recently wised-up yokels. Once on the raft the two, one near 70 the other less than half his age, brag to each other of their skills at extracting money from the credulous, and decide to team up.

We never know their names. But the young one after a heavy sigh, says he is the rightful Duke of Bridgewater, whose grandfather rejected the family title in coming, in freedom-loving spirit, to America years before. . . . [A]nd here am I, forlorn, torn from my high estate, hunted of men, despised by the cold world, ragged, worn, heart-broken, and degraded to the companionship of felons on a raft! Such is life in America.

Not to be outdone, the older man, soon declares he is in fact the Dauphin, Looey the Seventeen, son of Looey the Sixteen and Marry Antonette, the very chap Huck told Jim about back in Chapter XIV.

We will be spending plenty of time with these two bounders in the coming weeks, and I've gone on long enough for today, but note again how well-seen these new characters are. Twain has certainly met them somewhere before. (According to Ron Powers, he had cousins, here satirized, who claimed noble descent.) Following our look at the frontier upper class with the Graingerfords, the European variety gets a venting in these two criminal frauds.

For monarchy, Twain implies, depends on reinforcing lies. For the Duke to call the Dauphin an impostor would be to question his own status. (Bogus claims of identity on the frontier was a favorite jape of Twain's, one he used in a famous after-banquet anecdote poking fun at Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, not long before he began work on this story.) Monarchy also needs willing subjects, which Huck and Jim, apparently out of the kindness of their hearts, are pleased for now to be.

Last Week Chapt. XVIII
Next Week Chapt. XX

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Grant This Day

One of my personal quirks is how highly I rate Ulysses S. Grant, not only as the presiding genius who crushed the Southern Rebellion, but also as the chief executive who, though now known for the GOP corruption which laced his administration, also declared the U.S. would never annex Canada or Mexico (once pretty popular causes), established the national park system, directed that Native Americans be assimilated instead of exterminated, was an early and very influential advocate of a bi-racial--if segregated--Army, oversaw Southern Reconstruction, and opened diplomatic relations with Japan. (He was also the first American president to spend a great deal of time in foreign travel after leaving office, and was widely celebrated everywhere he went.)

Now Grant surely had his drawbacks, including a morbid fear of being poor, and therefor holding an unbecoming respect for the rich. But his enemies, and too many of his friends, had the distinction of being mainly petty and belligerent characters, which the American system has a particular genius in rising up to positions of distinction. Grant also had a mind that encompassed all needed details, as well as a very clear way of expressing himself in writing, not only in dispatches to the men under his command but also in his remarkable Memoirs, written rapidly under the shadow of death to save his wife, for whom he had a life-long devotion, from destitution after their fortune vanished in a Wall St. swindle.

(The unadorned clarity of Grant's prose in the once widely-read Memoirs--admired by Twain, Matthew Arnold, and, later, Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson--is now completely unappreciated and was almost certainly as influential on American letters as any other writer of his time.)

Which makes Grant, to my way of thinking, a very contemporary character. His faintly aggrieved features peer at us every day from the $50 bill, our former commander-in-chief, and bankrupt, as a reminder that what necessarily constitutes greatness has very little to do with worldly success or even the collective good opinion of others.

I could have sworn I made the point here earlier how much our current President reminds me of Grant, but I can't find it in the archives. (Come to think of it, it was probably in a comment over at Prairie Weather.) Both men achieved the White House at about the same age. Both unflappable, with a grasp of the larger tasks they face and a sense that, if properly harnessed, a certain logic of momentum would carry them to a desired end.

Put another way--win or lose a battle, they kept moving forward, gradually forcing their opponents to defend the indefensible. Their victories were less astonishing breakthroughs than a collective recognition of the inevitable. Ask Lee outside Richmond, or Hilary Clinton and John McCain.

I do believe yesterday saw another tactical "sidle" by President Obama, in his remarkable address at Georgetown, less an apparent win than an advantageous adjustment to the terms of engagement. He covered no new ground, as the news reports were bound to declare, only answered his critics in such a way as to define the conflict on his terms, and present the goal he is looking to achieve in a very realistic way, two very necessary steps that his rivals, right and left, have yet to do.

Copyright Infringement Theater Presents

Hank (with young June Carter)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XVIII

We might consider how the progress of Huckleberry Finn itself can resemble the course of a river, at times calm and slow moving, in other sections rushing headlong forward, as it does here. There is matter enough for four chapters in this one, as densely-detailed and full of incident as any in the novel.

In brief, Huck witnesses part of what we discover is the Grangerford/Shepherdson blood feud, as Buck takes a shot in ambush against a lone horseback rider; acts as a go-between for the lovely Miss Sophia Grangerford and her lover among the Shepherdsons (the very rider Buck almost kills); reunites with Jim, who has repaired the raft and is hiding nearby; and watches as the Shepherdons exterminate as many Grangerfords as they can find in a running battle brought on by Sophia's elopement.

The chapter opens with a look at the white-suited Col. Grangerford and the daily habits of the clan, which include whisky in the morning, a mannered patriarchal deference, and a slave to wait upon each of them. We also discover that once there were three other sons in the family who, along with the morbid Emmeline, are now dead.

The Grangerfords are frontier aristocracy. The old gentleman owned a lot of farms and over a hundred niggers. Sometimes a stack of people would come there, horseback, from ten or fifteen mile around, and stay five or six days, and have such junketings round about and on the river, and dances and picnics in the woods daytimes, and balls at the house nights. [....] The men brought their guns with them. It was a handsome lot of quality, I tell you.

They are rivals of the other local family of quality, high-toned and well born and rich and grand, the Shepherdsons (Buck explains that their murderous dispute stems from a killing following a lawsuit some 30 years before), with whom the Grangerfords must share a boat landing and a church, apparently Presbyterian.

It was pretty ornery preaching -- all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don't know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

Religious people, these Grangerfords.

As mentioned, Huck watched earlier as Buck took a shot at a Shepherdson. That Sunday he is sent back by Miss Sophia to the empty church (now, in a wonderful touch, a refuge for hogs) to retrieve a missal she'd left behind. Suspecting something, Huck finds a note in it reading Half-past two, and delivers the book to the girl without letting on.

Soon after, as Huck is alone near the river, the Grangerford slave assigned his well being comes up to ask if he'd like to see a nest of water moccasins, a question he'd asked the day before. Huck is suspicious: He oughter know a body don't love water-moccasins enough to go around hunting for them. What is he up to, anyway?

They proceed a mile, half of it through a swamp, before coming to a small clearing, which the slave directs Huck to enter before he disappears, saying:

I's seed 'm befo'; I don't k'yer to see 'em no mo'."

Then he slopped right along and went away, and pretty soon the trees hid him.

Inside the clearing, on the bank of a creek off the river, is Jim; the raft, which he has repaired, nearby. But Twain also uses this deft and brief passage to reveal something grander, a southern node of the Underground Railroad: the runaway discovered, hidden and looked after by those still in bondage, the code words, the utmost caution with which others are brought in. Jim explains:

Early in de mawnin' some er de niggers come along, gwyne to de fields, en dey tuk me en showed me dis place, whah de dogs can't track me on accounts o' de water, en dey brings me truck to eat every night, en tells me how you's a-gitt'n along. [....]

Dey's mighty good to me, dese niggers is, en whatever I wants 'm to do fur me I doan' have to ast 'm twice, honey. Dat Jack's a good nigger, en pooty smart."

"Yes, he is.
Huck answers. He ain't ever told me you was here[....] If anything happens he ain't mixed up in it. He can say he never seen us together, and it 'll be the truth."

Then, in one of the most dramatic shifts in the novel, Huck allows as how he does not want to talk much about the next day. He tells us though that he awoke that morning to an empty house. The slave Jack tells him the household has cleared out in pursuit of Sophia, leaving him asleep so as not to get him involved. Huck runs up the river road to the steamboat landing. Hearing a commotion and climbing a tree, he sees Buck and one of his cousins outnumbered and under attack by horsemen with whom they trade shots.

Buck and his cousin take refuge behind a wood pile near Huck, who calls to them. Buck says that his father and brothers are dead following an ambush, and that Sophia and Harney Shepherdson have escaped across the river. Then a scene of utter carnage, as witnessed by a child:

All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns -- the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river -- both of them hurt -- and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell all that happened -- it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them -- lots of times I dream about them.

The above is certainly one of the passages that impressed Ernest Hemingway, who famously observed that all of American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. The voice of the child is also that of the war veteran (as the frontier feud is a temperamental reflection of the Civil War to come.) Huck says that to tell us everything he saw would make him sick, and that the scene still frequently haunts his dreams.

Huck hides until dark then races directly to Jim's hiding place. The raft is gone. He begins to wail. Jim is nearby however, about to leave, expecting to hear from Jack, who has reported the fighting among the whites, that Huck has been killed. The two push off into the river, both relieved to be away. Their home has now become the act of fleeing the insane settlements of the shore.

We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

In closing I'll say that not enough can be said about this chapter, an utter masterpiece of concision, observation, and use of dialogue, which presents as clear and complete a portrait of a people, place and time in a bit over ten pages than a lot of books manage in a hundred.

Last week, Chapter XVII
Next week Chapter XIX

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

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XVII

Huck is hailed from inside the house and replies that his name is George Jackson and that he has fallen off a riverboat. A man in the house directs others to defensive posts and then tells Huck to move very slowly through the front door, opened just enough to admit him.

Inside three armed men point guns at him and search him for a weapon until they satisfy themselves he is not anyone they call Shepherdson. A sleepy boy Huck's age joins them, also armed, asking if any Sheperdsons are about. He is told to take Huck upstairs are give him some dry clothes. The boy is called Buck and, as his name hints, quickly accepts Huck nearly as a new brother.

Back downstairs while being lavishly (for the time and place) fed, Huck tells them that he is the only surviving member of a hard-luck Arkansas farm family who had booked solo deck passage north on the boat, and fallen overboard. Taken pity on, Huck is invited to stay in the home--made up of an older couple, two sons in their thirties, Buck, some younger women (unclear if they are wives or daughters), and Betsy, their house slave--as long as he wants.

Huck has landed among frontier aristocracy, and carefully catalogues all the signs of their exalted status: the house is big, with a brass front door knob, no beds in the parlor, an enormous fireplace regularly cleaned and washed in red stain, a pendulum clock on the mantle, porcelain bric-a-brac, some books (including an illustrated Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, the speeches of Henry Clay), framed patriotic engravings on the walls, and (mentioned almost as an aside) plenty of niggers.

Also hanging up are the morbid drawings of a daughter of the family, dead at 15. Here Twain tees up the mawkish kitsch that infected Victorian America and belts it a couple hundred yards.

They was different from any pictures I ever see before -- blacker, mostly, than is common. One was a woman in a slim black dress, belted small under the armpits, with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil, [...] and she was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow, and her other hand hanging down her side holding a white handkerchief and a reticule, and underneath the picture it said "Shall I Never See Thee More Alas." Another one was a young lady [...] crying into a handkerchief and had a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up, [....] These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods. Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.

Her mother keeps the late girl's bedroom as a shrine, one more sign of the family's affluence, with her last unfinished drawing, of unsurpassed weirdness, hanging above the bed. It shows

a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon -- and the idea was to see which pair would look best, and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up, [....] there was so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me.

Of course, the girl was a poet too. And Twain treats us to one of her hilarious, death-obsessed odes. Only after that do we learn her, and her family's, name. Huck observes:

If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain't no telling what she could a done by and by. Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think.

We might stop and think just what prompted an adolescent girl to treat death in such a warm, familiar way. (Buck allows as how Emmeline would almost always beat the undertaker to the homes of the departed with newly-composed memorial verses.) Twain is certainly satirizing the post-Civil War fad for sentimentalized death, something contemporary with the publication of the novel. The reader, however, should also be aware that there's something strange about the remote Grangerford clan, which the inane, creepy--and dead--Emmeline represents.

Huck, though, takes all at face value, and as the chapter ends enthuses about his new home.

Last week: Chapter XVI
Next week Chapter XVIII

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