Sunday, May 31, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXVI

The two con men and Huck are given accommodations in the Wilks family home, the King and Duke take rooms belonging to the sisters, while Huck, posing as their servant, Adolphus, (a detail that had slipped through earlier discussion) gets a pallet in the attic. Half of this chapter is taken up by the longest piece of dialogue in the novel, in which Joanna, the youngest Wilks sister, with the hare-lip, sitting with Huck in the kitchen after the two serve dinner to the rest, asks him questions about life in England. He is nearly undone by the number of flimsy lies he needs to tell, though is finally saved from further scrutiny when Mary Jane enters and tells her sister to be kinder to their guest.

The kindness moves Huck to act to protect the girls from his two companions. Searching the King's room later, in yet another scene where others are unaware of his near presence, Huck finds out where the gold is hidden and overhears the plans of the two. The Duke is in favor of a quick exit with the money they have. The King wants to run the scam to the end--sell the property and clear out with the full tally. He convinces the Duke to go along noting that the property will be returned to the estate once the fraud is discovered.

After they leave, Huck takes the gold from the King's room and goes up to bed, waiting for a chance to hide it outside after everyone is sleeping.

We may note certain sympathies Huck has had up to this point for the two scoundrels. He seems to serve them without complaint, here and earlier on the raft with Jim. This has a lot to do, I think, with his admiration for their mild outlaw status and ability to live by their wits--on the fringes of showbiz at that. They have also done a pretty good job covering for Jim, as much as he dislikes their company.

Now, however, their victims are a kind and mainly helpless family, and Huck feels honor-bound to help them.

It is worth noting here that we have yet to encounter any intact families in the novel. Not Tom, nor Huck, nor Jim, not the window nor her sister, are members of whole families. The Graingerfords and Shepherdsons, though plentiful, were constantly hacking at each others' branches. We even got to see one of them wiped out and, shortly following that, a man shot dead in front of his daughter. The social landscape of this supposedly heart-warming American classic is in fact one of almost total dislocation up until now.

Part of this mistaken view of the book is that people tend to conflate it with the optimism found in Tom Sawyer, part has to do with a deliberate intention of Twain's to soften the perception of the novel with the illustrations of the first edition, which I have used throughout my discussion here. Huck is made to resemble a child of eight or nine (see illustration above) when he is surely at least 12. The long dialogue in this chapter, for example, reads more sensibly if Huck and Joanna are close to the same age, not the difference pictured above.

There is also a stoicism to Huck's narration in which much is seen but sometimes little said. He also seems incapable of dwelling on the past, or finding much complaint with his sometimes onerous present. Let's note that these are examples of what might be called frontier pluck, surely sentimentalized as the frontier was closed. These were also stoic virtues which Twain almost completely lacked personally. More than just telling a story, Twain is inventing, or at least codifying, an American character here, one we meet again and again in novels and western films.

And before we quit, let's note the nigh impossibility of the King and Duke's imposture working at the time the novel was published in 1884. The telegraph, for example, would have neatly fixed the problem of quickly contacting the brothers in England. The silliness of the plot here, as well as the notion of Huck's accent passing for English, is best seen in light of an evocation of a far simpler and more socially isolated time which probably helped the book's first audience to appreciate it in a nostalgic light impossible to grasp now, one contemporary readers might feel for a story set in the 1950s.

Last week Chapts. XXIV & XXV
Next week Chapts. XXVII & XXVIII

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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXIV & XXV

There is rather more exposition than action in these two chapters, as Twain sets up a rather melodramatic sequence regarding the King and Duke's efforts to fleece a family of orphaned girls of their fortune. What keeps it interesting is Huck's exasperated narration and the details he includes of the small river town's life and gullible populace.

Briefly, the problem with what to do about Jim is solved by dressing him in costume and blue makeup and putting up a sign at the raft warning of a sick Arab, harmless when not out of his head. Dressed in store-bought clothes, and trolling for new opportunities, the King and Huck encounter a man making for a riverboat landing, beginning a journey to Brazil, who tells of a local man, Peter Wilks, who died leaving his orphaned nieces, a fortune in gold, and two brothers in England--Harvey and William--whom no one has seen in decades, and who had only recently been notified of his illness.

The King pumps the man for all pertinent social details and, the hick safely on his way south, connives with the Duke to impersonate the missing brothers. Rowed a few miles up the river by Huck, they hail a big boat out of Cincinnati to carry them the short way to the little town, so as to arrive in something like style. Upon landing, they are immediately taken to be the long-lost brothers--the King being Harvey, a minister, and the Duke William, a mute.

Well, the men gathered around and sympathized with them, and said all sorts of kind things to them, and carried their carpet-bags up the hill for them, and let them lean on them and cry, and told the king all about his brother's last moments, and the king he told it all over again on his hands to the duke, and both of them took on about that dead tanner like they'd lost the twelve disciples. Well, if ever I struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.

Up at the dead man's house the two are immediately embraced by the three girls. Mary Jane, 19, Susan, 15, and Joanna, born with a harelip, 14. The King as a line of talk for all:

[... he] managed to inquire about pretty much everybody and dog in town, by his name, and mentioned all sorts of little things that happened one time or another in the town, or to George's family, or to Peter. And he always let on that Peter wrote him the things; but that was a lie: he got every blessed one of them out of that young flathead that we canoed up to the steamboat.

The two frauds are given a letter from Peter Wilks which divides his estate, properties, and business, between his brothers and nieces. Included is a sack of gold coins, its hiding place revealed to be in the cellar of the house, which the two, with Huck holding a candle, go off to retrieve. They discover the bag contains $400 less than the expected $6,000 and make up the difference from the money they took with the Royal Nonesuch. They decide to present the girls with all the money in the sack rather than just their alloted half. This they do to much acclaim, after counting it for all upstairs to see.

In beguiling the crowd, the Duke attempts a British accent, which leaks at every seam. Now in his grand oration inviting the people to a memorial meal at the home the following evening, he refers to the deceased as the diseased, and the funeral obsequies as orgies. (The last he tries to smooth over after being tipped via a note passed to him by the Duke.) The town doctor sees them for the frauds they are and calls them out on the spot. This only serves to cause an incensed Mary Jane to walk into their trap and give them the whole bag of money to invest for them.

The doctor warns everyone within listening that they will regret this day.

Huck recollects all of this with something like an ill fascination. We are not sure why he suffers to stay with these criminals, nor does he give any hints. He may simply be interested in the power of their lies. The nature of the grip the two con artists have on the town's imagination (and Twain was clearly fascinated by the topic of public delusion) is seen after their arrival, when the King

[...] thanks them out of his heart and out of his brother's heart, [...] and then he blubbers out a pious goody-goody Amen, and turns himself loose and goes to crying fit to bust.

And the minute the words were out of his mouth somebody over in the crowd struck up the doxolojer, and everybody joined in with all their might, and it just warmed you up and made you feel as good as church letting out. Music is a good thing; and after all that soul-butter and hogwash I never see it freshen up things so, and sound so honest and bully.

Presented with mawkish sentiment, the crowd strikes up a hymn (!!), sanctifying the charlatans. Business as usual, according to Twain.

Last week Chapts. XXII & XXIII
Next week: Chapt. XXVI

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vacationing In Absentia

This used to be a cranky political blog operating in general contempt of the stupid and venal members of the GOP. I'd still very much like that to be so, but between considering Huckleberry Finn and working on a nearly endless outside writing project does not leave me with a ton of gumption to tackle the smaller details with any kind of regularity here. And besides, there is not a lot going on which I did not call here a long time ago. I get tired of repeating myself and crowing about how right I've been.

The GOP is dying before out eyes, and good riddance to a bunch of useless schmucks (and I am speaking here about the vast majority of their elected leaders, not the good people who thought to vote for them) who never gave a fuck about anyone but themselves, and their paymasters. The swaggering, self-absorbed nastiness that was an indelible mark of the brand has now been focused on its last, and most logical target, which is inward.

The truly interesting bit is how the MSM is failing at nearly the same clip and for almost all the same reasons. If nothing else, this twin system failure highlights the symbiotic relationship which has characterized the two institutions since, gee, certainly the end of WW2. Walter Pincus wrote a very interesting, if blinkered, appraisal of the decline of newspapers a couple weeks ago that is worth reading. One thing he got absolutely wrong was the idea that somehow newspapers, before the media consolidation of the 80s, were vigilant small-market crusaders for the clean and good across the bosom of the Republic (the waxed eloquence is mine, not Walter's.)

To this I say, banana oil. Nearly every small and medium sized newspaper, not to mention small-to-big market radio and TV station, was a megaphone for the white, Christian, middle-class, local Chamber of Commerce status quo. The only somewhat mitigating difference in that simpler time was a greater sense of corporate modesty, and a loftier, if wrong-headed, vision of the public good. Well, Nixon on the one hand and corporate consolidation on the other swept away any ideas of optimism in government and what constitutes a good return on investment. What appeared in the wake of both were these nauseating daily lifestyle and trash entertainment delivery systems, thoroughly market-researched, of large corporate interests that cared very deeply about, and worked very intimately for, the success of the Republican project for the last 30 years.

Digital technology has not only changed how people understand and feel about current events, and how they reply to them politically, it has also isolated and exposed newspapers (and TV networks are not far from their own dates with destiny) as the utterly boring and pointless exercises in public relations messaging they deeply and truly committed themselves to be. It is by no means coincidental that the last places where the Grotesque Old Party holds any real influence and popular standing is on the editorial pages and in the TV studios of their old partners in crime. Once upon a time that relationship would have been enough to weather a Democratic administration and Congress, now it is something like a suicide pact.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXII & XXIII

The lynch mob goes boiling to Sherburn's house. And though their immediate target is a white man, Twain, I believe, gives a hint about what his real intentions are here: [. . . ] there was nigger boys in every tree, [emphasis mine] and bucks and wenches looking over every fence; and as soon as the mob would get nearly to them they would break and skaddle back out of reach. Damn right they do. Huckleberry Finn was written just as the southern lynching project was revving up. And while mobs occasionally strung up caucasians, mainly immigrant Italians and jews, taken from jails, the oceanic majority of victims, for over 80 disgusting years, were African Americans.

(Please see Twain's rather more corrosive, and unpublished, essay on the subject, The United States of Lyncherdom, written in 1901.)

For my money, this is the scene of the book. It arrives at the nearly exact center of the text, and shows one man against--literally looking down on--a mob. What's more, the man wears a white suit, a style of dress which Twain himself took up as he got older. This, I submit, is the unvarnished Mark speaking directly to his countrymen. And the scorn still blisters:

"Do I know you? I know you clear through was born and raised in the South, and I've lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man's a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South [....] newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people -- whereas you're just as brave, and no braver[....]"

Is there a more venomous speech in American literature? Is there another one that rings as true today? Do I know you? I know you clear through This is why we read Twain. This is why he still matters, why we forgive his faults as a popular artist and a human being: His stinging wit, his brutal candor, his vivid rage, the clarity of his voice, above all, his confident knowledge as to what makes people tick, that gift for character, still has no equal. Let's note that Sherburn does not call his neighbors brutes or monsters, but cowards--a far more honest and therefor irrefutable charge--and in so doing calls out the Klan:

"Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they'll bring their masks, and fetch a man along. Now leave -- and take your half-a-man with you" -- tossing his gun up across his left arm and cocking it when he says this.

The crowd bolts. Huck says he could have stayed if he wanted to, but he didn't. Instead he goes to the circus.

And consider Twain's skill here. After showing us the worst in people, he immediately reveals some of the best; as affectionate and pleasurable a portrait of public entertainment in that vanished time as you will ever read:

It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable -- there must a been twenty of them -- and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely. And then one by one they got up and stood, and went a-weaving around the ring so gentle and wavy and graceful, the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight, with their heads bobbing and skimming along, away up there under the tent-roof, and every lady's rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol.

Huck goes on to describe some inspired acrobatic clowning, and, circus over, tells us about the King and Duke's Shakespearian showcase. It bombs, of course. So the Duke cooks up a scheme for the next night: something called a Royal Nonesuch, advertised at 50 cents a ticket and, crucially,


"There," says he, "if that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!"

Let us skip over the lovingly described, and very rude show, a scam with legs whereby those men gulled the first night connive to gull their neighbors the second, with community retribution for the lousy actors on tap for the third. Of course, the two con artists remain figuratively and literally steps ahead of the yokels. When the time comes our adventurers slip away on the raft $465 richer.

Jim asks Huck, in what is now a well-worn comic path in the book, if all kings are as crooked as these rascals, and smell as bad. No, says Huck, most kings are a far sight worse, and provides details from something like history.

A dramatic shift of tone follows hard upon. Huck realizes Jim carries a tremendous sorrow, homesick and mourning the loss of his children, and voices another one of those lines the book sends from the depths of naive ignorance to hit like a punch in the eye: I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so. Jim gives a heart-wrenching account of the burden of guilt he carries for a stupid act of corporal punishment towards his four-year-old daughter, utterly pointless domestic violence that most certainly reflects the never-ending brutality directed at Jim's dignity as a man.

Twain lifts a very heavy veil here, and quickly lowers it. The subject of black domestic violence is so radioactive with rage, self-loathing, and remorse--the internalized cost of slavery levied on its victims and passed in horrible links from parent to child--that a white writer of even Twain's supreme skill probably cannot undertake its reckoning. (I suppose to his credit he would eventually try, and fail utterly, in Puddin'head Wilson.) Twain here takes us as far as his powers can, and it is enough. The boy tells us what he sees and thinks, and he only witnesses what his adult friend gives away in his most unguarded moments of private despair.

One could do worse as a critic than consider Jim to be the soul of the novel, and his heartbreaking tale coming here reintroduces the entwined subjects of family and slavery that will occupy the balance of the story.

Last Week, the second Intermission
Previously, Chapt. XXI
Next Week, Chapts. XXIV & XXV

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

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Second Intermission

Two years ago, while doing research for a work of family history, I was astonished to discover in the main Erie County Library in Buffalo, New York, a small exhibition room (pictured in reflection here) dedicated to Twain which, along with some memorabilia and photographs, contains the existent autograph manuscript of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Understand that for the likes of me it was like finding that lamp with the genie in it at a yardsale in Houston. And, indeed, the manuscript itself had been lost and forgotten out west for over a century.

In 1869 Twain used the success of his first book, The Innocents Abroad, to court his future wife, Olivia Langdon, and purchase a controlling interest in the Buffalo Express newspaper. Before his marriage he lived in a rooming house near his office downtown in what was still a booming frontier port city, probably not unlike St. Louis. As a wedding present, Olivia's father, a New York State coal tycoon, presented the couple with a fine home in the city's best neighborhood.

Twain quickly came to hate Buffalo and left after two years. The newspaper business was dull, the city a dirty and dreary welter of slums, industry, and transient humanity. (A city map of the time shows that Twain's exclusive neighborhood was near a lead smelter and a short walk from the county home for destitute women.) The damp and cold winter, not to mention what was probably poisonous air pollution, ruined the family's health. Olivia was almost constantly bedridden during and after her pregnancy, and their infant son, born prematurely like his father, lingered close to death for weeks. (Never strong, he would die at age three.) The literary world was headquartered back east, in Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, and Twain took his rising star to the latter locale as soon as he could.

He was a good citizen of Buffalo while there, however, and supported the private association which became a few years later the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. He must also have maintained some personal contacts in the city, for after Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published almost 20 years later, the library's chief curator asked Twain if he would donate the manuscript, which he graciously did, at least that part of it--being the second half--still in his possession.

Now the story gets interesting. The curator died before he could have the manuscript bound and the loose handwritten pages remained in a small steamer trunk in his effects. Years later, his heirs moved to Los Angeles taking the trunk with them. It wasn't until the death of his, I believe, granddaughter in 1991 that anyone thought to open up the trunk, which had been sitting in an attic for most of the 20th century, to see what was inside. Kudos to the kids for realizing what they had.

The Buffalo library was able to prove ownership and the manuscript now rests in that hard-used city. It sits in a case with one page on display, the size of a leaf of stationary, being that point in Chapt. XXXI where Huck famously chooses an eternity in Hell over betraying his friend Jim.

I wish I had a better photograph of the page in question to show. However you can see how clear his handwriting was and how tidily he set it on the page. The missing first half of the autograph manuscript is supposed to have been lost by the printer. While I have not researched the subject more closely, it appears that other manuscripts exist (three versions of the book's opening lines have been documented, for example,) and I cheerfully welcome anyone with fuller knowledge of the subject to provide details in comments.

But what is known is that after wrestling with the nature of the story in its first half (note that the episode we will consider next week marks the physical center of the book) Twain knew from this point on exactly where he wanted to go with it. I suspect that this half of the manuscript was by far clearer and better organized than the half putatively lost by the printer, and probably reads like--and resembles--a long, entertaining letter to a friend.

Last Week Chapt. XXI
Next Week Chapts. XXII & XXIII

Now in print! Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, newly edited for publication, and available online from The Cliffhanger Press.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXI

And on they float. The Duke rehearses the Dauphin in the fine points of Shakespearian bombast and, after several days, they come to a town well down the state of Arkansaw where there seems to be a good amount of activity. The circus is in town and the Duke has some playbills printed up to advertise their show that night: Direct from London, Mr. Garrick and Mr. Kean (Two renowned English actors. If the action here is in 1835 Garrick had been dead for 56 years, Kean for two.) in three of Shakespeare's greatest scenes!

After handing out the advertisements Huck then takes in the sights of the mangy, jerkwater town:

The stores and houses was most all old, shackly, dried up frame concerns that hadn't ever been painted; they was set up three or four foot above ground on stilts, so as to be out of reach of the water when the river was over-flowed. The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn't seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson-weeds, and sunflowers, and ash piles, and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played-out tinware.

The main street is a venue for louts--with their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching -- a mighty ornery lot--and pigs:

The hogs loafed and grunted around everywheres. You'd see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazying along the street and whollop herself right down in the way, where folks had to walk around her [....] And pretty soon you'd hear a loafer sing out, "Hi! so boy! sick him, Tige!" and away the sow would go, squealing most horrible, with a dog or two swinging to each ear, [...] and then you would see all the loafers get up and watch the thing out of sight, and laugh at the fun and look grateful for the noise. Then they'd settle back again till there was a dog fight. There couldn't anything wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dog fight -- unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.

The moral rot of the town might be seen also in how the river treats it: Sometimes a belt of land a quarter of a mile deep will start in and cave along and cave along till it all caves into the river in one summer. Such a town as that has to be always moving back, and back, and back, because the river's always gnawing at it.

The entertainment in this rotten berg perks up considerably when old man Boggs comes tearing in on his monthly bender, yelling and threatening everyone in sight, including Huck. A bystander tells him not to worry though, the old fool has never harmed anyone.

Boggs by now has turned his ire towards a local businessman, one Sherburn by name, calling him a swindler and a dog and vowing satisfaction. He draws a crowd in front of the man's shop with his ranting, and it continues until Sherburn, a proud-looking man about fifty-five -- and he was a heap the best dressed man in that town, too -- steps out of the store, and the crowd drops back on each side to let him come. He says to Boggs, mighty ca'm and slow -- he says:

"I'm tired of this, but I'll endure it till one o'clock. Till one o'clock, mind -- no longer. If you open your mouth against me only once after that time you can't travel so far but I will find you."

Then he turns and goes in. The crowd looked mighty sober; nobody stirred, and there warn't no more laughing.

It is 12:45 and of course folks try to get Boggs to shut up, but he won't, at least at first. Twain is not especially clear if Boggs' yelling carries past 1 PM, only that In about five or ten minutes here comes Boggs again, but not on his horse. He was a-reeling across the street towards me, bare-headed, with a friend on both sides of him a-holt of his arms and hurrying him along. He was quiet, and looked uneasy; and he warn't hanging back any, but was doing some of the hurrying himself. Somebody sings out:


I looked over there to see who said it, and it was that Colonel Sherburn.

Sherburn has a rank now, and a pistol, and, standing in the street, he levels it at the unarmed drunkard and shoots him twice, in sight of the man's daughter hurrying to protect him. She screams and runs to the fallen man. Sherburn tosses his pistol in the dirt and walks off. Boggs is taken to a drug store where he quickly dies, his only treatment being one bible placed under his head and another on his chest. The daughter, 16, is led away hysterical.

First-time readers of the book might find this scene familiar, as it has been played out with minor variations in hundreds of westerns for the last 90 years. Whether Twain was polishing certain pulp conventions with his particular genius here, or if these conventions grew from his acute artistry I will leave for qualified PhDs to determine.

A crowd of voyeurs quickly forms (Twain's notebooks indicate he witnessed a similar scene as a boy in Hannibal, the dying man taken to his father's shop) struggling to see the corpse and reenacting the killing. A lynch mob quickly forms, snatching down clothes lines and heading for Sherburn's house as the chapter ends.

Needless to say, a public grudge killing of an unarmed man in a hateful little town, rapidly followed by the appearance of a lynch mob among the shiftless citizenry, is not the sort of warm-toned Americana that has come to stick to Twain's memory. Huck Finn especially is a serial catalogue of village cruelty--another characteristic it shares with Don Quixote--very much at odds with how the country wants to regard its past. That a fond halo of nostalgic sentiment has settled over the book is the highest testimony to Twain's subversive genius.

One mark of the care Twain took in crafting the narrative is that it is here, remarkably enough, that he again put the manuscript away for another stretch of time. Apparently he could not decide what was to happen between the mob and Sherburn. So we shall honor his time off to think about it with another intermission next week, one more side excursion I hope readers enjoy, before we rejoin the vigilantes the week after.

Last 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.

Friday, May 01, 2009