Sunday, July 26, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXVII & XXXVIII

The highjinx continue as the boys lift more items from the farmhouse to dress up Tom's fantasy of Jim's imprisonment. In a distinct, if unintended, rebuke to modern life, where people are certainly not expected to remember how many pants or dresses they own, the loss of a single shirt, sheet, candlestick, or spoon is noted with dismay in the Phelps household, and is enough to send Aunt Polly into a towering rage.

Upon reflection, maybe this was intended to be a jab at the new American materialism during what Twain himself named the Gilded Age. Be that as it may, we are left to appreciate the simplicity and rigor of farm life, along with the closeness with which everything, and everybody, was held. We might also see in this episode, as the boy's thefts are discovered, something like the ur sitcom: the family at home, dim dad and feisty mom, kids underfoot, and the ongoing calculations of two lovable scamps. All that's needed is a laugh track:

[...] a hard piece of corn-crust started down my throat after it and got met on the road with a cough, and was shot across the table, and took one of the children in the eye and curled him up like a fishing-worm, and let a cry out of him the size of a warwhoop [....]

[...] "Ther's six candles gone -- that's what. The rats could a got the candles, and I reckon they did; I wonder they don't walk off with the whole place, the way you're always going to stop their holes and don't do it; and if they warn't fools they'd sleep in your hair, Silas -- you'd never find it out; but you can't lay the spoon on the rats, and that I know. [...]"

[...] Then he says: "But he done us a good turn with the spoon, anyway, without knowing it, and so we'll go and do him one without him knowing it -- stop up his rat-holes."

There was a noble good lot of them down cellar, and it took us a whole hour, but we done the job tight and good and shipshape. Then we heard steps on the stairs, and blowed out our light and hid; and here comes the old man, with a candle in one hand and a bundle of stuff in t'other, looking as absent-minded as year before last. He went a mooning around, first to one rat-hole and then another, till he'd been to them all. Then he stood about five minutes, picking tallow-drip off of his candle and thinking. Then he turns off slow and dreamy towards the stairs, saying:

"Well, for the life of me I can't remember when I done it. I could show her now that I warn't to blame on account of the rats. But never mind -- let it go. I reckon it wouldn't do no good."

And so he went on a-mumbling up stairs [....]

In Jim's cell, Tom continues to insist on enacting details drawn from romantic novels and histories, asking Jim, who cannot write, to carve inscriptions and his coat of arms into a grindstone, because the log wood walls just won't do.

In a funny, and very odd, bit of action, Jim easily slips out to render a goodnatured assistance to the boys with getting the grindstone into the cabin, resuming then his role as prisoner. I submit that everything dealing with the freeing of Jim from the cabin can, and should, be read on a symbolic level as pertaining to the post-Reconstruction civil emancipation of black Americans. Twain, I think, signals in this bit of action that Jim, still shackled, is somewhat complicit, because of his trust and loyalty, in his own bondage; that what keeps blacks from full civic freedom has as much to do with attending to idiotic white fantasies as being forced to obey unjust laws.

On another level too, by drawing such absurd parallels with works of European romance, Twain is very bluntly saying that his book ain't like them, no sir, and that it's stupid to expect it to be. In another thumb in the eye of cultivated good taste, Tom's nutty design for Jim's coat of arms, rendered nearly in double-speak, may well stand for this new American book:

[...] with a dog, couchant, for common charge, and under his foot a chain embattled, for slavery, with a chevron vert in a chief engrailed, and three invected lines on a field azure, with the nombril points rampant on a dancette indented; crest, a runaway nigger, sable, with his bundle over his shoulder on a bar sinister; and a couple of gules for supporters, which is you and me; motto, Maggiore fretta, minore otto. Got it out of a book -- means the more haste the less speed."

My Italian dictionary defines the motto as "The greater the speed, the smaller the act (atto)", which does not exactly coincide with the more common English translation: "Haste makes waste". Remember that Twain, who could knock out books very quickly, invested years in constructing Huckleberry Finn, and we might consider if he is here hinting at his work's importance. And about that bar sinister, the meaning of which Huck asks about and Tom can't answer? In that it symbolically presents Jim and his two friends, could it be the author's representation of himself? Considering that, in heraldic terms, the bar sinister represents descent from a bastard, the answer is very possibly yes. (All the nobility has one, explains Tom.)

Back in the cell, Tom, the do-gooder, shows that those he helps must suffer greatly first, to better aid the glory of their rescue. So, in spite of the man pleading with him not to, Tom promises to fill Jim's cabin with spiders, rats, and snakes for the poor prisoner to beguile with music. He then has the temerity to ask Jim to water a flower with his tears. Jim expresses reservations with all the nonsense. Tom scolds him for being ungrateful and Jim relents.

Last week Chapts. XXXV & XXXVI
Next week Chapts. XXXIX & XL

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

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXV & XXXVI

The novel, which until recently has been following a steady course down river, now circles 'round and 'round Jim's cabin cell. These two chapters are an aggravating catalogue of Tom Sawyer's silly escape fantasies, all plucked from books. Any easy or straightforward way of freeing Jim which Huck might think of is discarded, at least at first, in favor of methods taken from works of high romance:

"Why, you just said a body could lift up the bed-stead and slip the chain off."

"Well, if that ain't just like you, Huck Finn. You can get up the infant-schooliest ways of going at a thing. Why, hain't you ever read any books at all? -- Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henri IV., nor none of them heroes? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that?

(Tom also references Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (1847) and The Count of Monte Christo (1845) which would push the chronology of the story close to 1850.)

Remarked here several times to this point is Twain's debt to Cervantes, and Tom's obsession with enacting passages from adventure novels, as style guides, is most certainly drawn from the Quixote, and leaves us to conclude that Tom is in fact crazy.

If he is not a 50-year-old man driven mad by loss and solitude, we might appreciate Tom's orphan status and small-town isolation as the possible roots of his monomania. We may also consider a wider southern, slave-owning agrarian society of the time which drew its notions of chivalry from Scott's novels. What's striking about Tom's crazy behavior is how easily the other characters, especially Huck and Jim, are drawn into it.

And so the two boys dig into Jim's cell from the adjoining lean to--which delights the captured man--and contrive to smuggle him items they steal from the farm house with which he can send messages or write his memoirs in blood (though Jim is illiterate) as they enact Tom's elaborate rescue fantasy.

What exactly is the point of all this? Let me propose that Twain is here mocking a certain kind of do-gooder, those enamored of their own capabilities as actors rather than the grubby, often unrewarding if not onerous, details of fighting injustice. Here's Huck to Tom:

"[....] When I start in to steal a nigger, or a water-melon, or a Sunday-school book, I ain't no ways particular how it's done so it's done. What I want is my nigger; or what I want is my watermelon; or what I want is my Sunday-school book; and if a pick's the handiest thing, that's the thing I'm a-going to dig that nigger or that watermelon or that Sunday-school book out with; and I don't give a dead rat what the authorities thinks about it nuther."

Is Twain here indicting those great and the good white folk in charge at the time the novel appeared with maintaining and extending civil rights for African Americans who, like Jim, had been recaptured after the brief liberty of Reconstruction? I think so:

Tom was in high spirits. He said it was the best fun he ever had in his life, and the most intellectural; and said if he only could see his way to it we would keep it up all the rest of our lives and leave Jim to our children to get out; for he believed Jim would come to like it better and better the more he got used to it. He said that in that way it could be strung out to as much as eighty year, and would be the best time on record. And he said it would make us all celebrated that had a hand in it.

Let's see--eighty years following the publication of the novel takes us to. . . 1964. Sort of brings chills, doesn't it?

The passage ends with more minstrel show nonsense between Tom and Nat, Jim's attendant, in which Tom convinces the terrified man that a pack of hounds running into the cabin through the hole the boys dug is more work of witches, thereby contriving for Nat to deliver Jim more fantasy props, baked into a pie, for his imprisonment. As action, this is nearly unspeakable. As symbolism, it is devastating.

Last week Chapts. XXXIII & XXXIV
Next week Chapts. XXXVII & XXXVIII

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXIII & XXXIV

Sure enough, Tom Sawyer is on a wagon coming from the river. Huck hails him and after assuring Tom that he is not a ghost quickly explains his situation. Tom comes up with a plan that has Huck take his trunk back to the farm (which he will do too, leaving Uncle Silas to believe he has a hundred-dollar horse.) On hearing about Jim, Tom almost exclaims something then stops. After some consideration promises Huck he will help deliver Jim from bondage, which Huck cannot believe:

Well, I let go all holts then, like I was shot. It was the most astonishing speech I ever heard -- and I'm bound to say Tom Sawyer fell considerable in my estimation. Only I couldn't believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger-stealer!

"Oh, shucks!" I says; "you're joking."

Back at the farm, Tom shows up on the wagon a half hour after Huck's return, and as his ride heads back to town, inquires if Silas is Archibald Nichols, in fact a neighbor who lives three miles away. No, says Silas, but stay for dinner before I take you over there. During dinner there's some tomfoolery (sorry) before Tom tells the amazed family that he is really his brother Sid, who begged to come with Tom to visit (one more plot device which hinges on the slow means of communication at the time.)

During dinner Huck and Tom unsuccessfully try to pick up a clue as to where Jim is being held until one of the children asks Silas if he and the two visitors can go to the show in town that night.

"No," says the old man, "I reckon there ain't going to be any; and you couldn't go if there was; because the runaway nigger told Burton and me all about that scandalous show, and Burton said he would tell the people; so I reckon they've drove the owdacious loafers out of town before this time."

So, those who betrayed Jim are fittingly betrayed by him. After the family retires for the night, the two boys sneak out of the house and head to town, Huck with the idea of warning his two tormentors. He is too late. Huck and Tom see the King and Duke covered in tar and feathers in the hands of a mob who are carrying them out of town astraddle poles. (A fitting end for kings?) And consider, given the time and place, and presuming first- and second-degree burns from the hot pitch, how long it would take to clean-up and recover from something like that--all the while homeless and begging for handouts. A cruel and unusual punishment, and Huck shows compassion for his two tormentors.

Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn't ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

And then, in another of Twain's fine psychological strokes, Huck tells us he feels bad for feeling guilty that he couldn't help the two scoundrels:

But that's always the way; it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I would pison him. It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides, and yet ain't no good, nohow.

Upon reflection the two figure that Jim is being kept in a small padlocked cabin where they've seen a slave carrying a plate food entirely fit for a dog if not for a slice of watermelon along with it. They plan the best way to save the man. Huck suggests getting the canoe ready the next night, stealing the key to the padlock from Silas when he's asleep, dart to the raft and shove off, running nights as before.

Too simple, says Tom, and describes what they should do insead.

I see in a minute it was worth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied, and said we would waltz in on it. I needn't tell what it was here, because I knowed it wouldn't stay the way, it was. I knowed he would be changing it around every which way as we went along, and heaving in new bullinesses wherever he got a chance. And that is what he done.

Reconnoitering the cabin they find a high window boarded up, easy to get Jim out of Huck says. Too easy, says Tom. Searching a leanto attached to the cabin, they find a dirt floor: Tom was joyful. He says:

"Now we're all right. We'll dig him out. It'll take about a week!"

At breakfast the next morning they find the slave bringing Jim's breakfast, and ask him if he's feeding a dog. Yes, the man answers, a curious one too. Want to see him?

In the cabin, Jim is delighted to recognize Huck and Tom, calling them by name. Silas's slave is astonished Jim knows them, but Tom, in what to me is the cruelest exchange in the book, easily convinces the simple and superstitious man that the words he heard Jim speak were instead the enchantment of witches, a trick Jim readily plays along with. Then Tom voices perhaps the most hateful lines in the book, though meant to conceal his plan, all the more awful for being something within the realm of common thinking for the time.

"I wonder if Uncle Silas is going to hang this nigger. If I was to catch a nigger that was ungrateful enough to run away, I wouldn't give him up, I'd hang him." And whilst the nigger stepped to the door to look at the dime and bite it to see if it was good, he whispers to Jim and says:

"Don't ever let on to know us. And if you hear any digging going on nights, it's us; we're going to set you free."

Early on I remarked on the sadism inside Tom Sawyer, a manipulative fabulist whom, if grown up, Twain would have likely despised. What is endearing in a boy can be hateful in a man, and--without giving too much away--I propose that we are to see the increasingly delusional and dangerous machinations of Tom in the chapters to come as a pointed criticism of a certain kind of deranged dreamer, a type which American culture has prized from Twain's day up to our own.

That said, the pointless, minstrel-show ridiculing of the Phelps family's slave in this chapter, albeit at Tom's cruel hands, really is Twain at his worst. We might best leave it by considering if the whole book had been filled with bilge very like, however artful, Huckleberry Finn would have been forgotten a century ago.

Previously Chapter XXXII
Next Week Chapter XXXV & XXXVI

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

Friday, July 10, 2009

Many Are Culled

Robert Reich puts into sober prose what J M Kunstler has been harping on now for yonks: ain't gonna be no stinkin' recovery.

To be honest, the most discouraging thing about the past half-year is not the Obama team's struggle for a somewhat more equitable version of the previous status quo (as little as I agree, I understand how a responsible executive needs to hew to incremental change.) No, what has me smacking my gob in dismay is the moronic cheerleading for the way things were, for their version of reality, by putative guardians of the commonweal. I refer to our now hopelessly compromised press.

I know, I know, few more than I have harped more on the age-old connection between the vested interests (i.e. advertisers) and our daily journals of news and opinion. And I've said here a couple times previous that what we are witnessing in that department is nothing new, only, because of the digital transformation, more obvious. But Jesus Farking Christ, a glance at the NYT will show it is still fluffing Manhattan real estate. Listening to NPR news (which I do very rarely--for reasons outlined here) will often reward you with the phrase extreme interrogation techniques, which some critics label "torture". (Ira Glass, you smug prick, quit your job now.)

Being away in far northern Vermont in the days before the Fourth, and because the radio gave the only news I could get, I gave a concentrated ear to Spalin's resignation speech that Friday, via NPR, and was utterly appalled that none of the All Things Considered personalities (two reporters and an anchor whose names will be familiar to all who listen regularly to that waste of time) could bring themselves to say what was bleedingly obvious, that we were being treated to an open-air nervous breakdown.

Now in fairness to the show, it played extended clips from that ga-ga address, and the anchor edged as close as she could to saying the "crazy" word, but neither of the political reporters could bring themselves to mention anything other than it was unexpected, that her life and family had been upended this last year, that it had something to do with 2012, that it was a game changer. Honestly, it was no better than the drippingly dumb AP story of a couple days later, in which everything looked upside for that foxy challenger.

Now, Sully sees something like conspiracy in the MSM's refusal to tag Spalin as the ding-dong belle she is. (For my money, the Anonymous Liberal had the best take on the dreary affair.) I see it somewhat differently. Spalin is only the most recent, extreme, worst, and very likely last product of a senile system gone to ground, the SUV of GOP politics.

I should not have to point out that a very large system had a lot invested in the SUV, and so clung to it far past its time in the sun. I think the MSM is sticking with Spalin this summer to show that what it does still matters, that the mojo still works, that the recovery will be V shaped, when it won't, it won't.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Franken's Time

Little remarked on, in the national press at least, is how much of Al Franken's political career has been inspired by the late Paul Wellstone, which to my way of looking at things is a great and wonderful thing.

Wellstone was my senator for six years and I remember where I was when I heard his plane and life (and the lives of his wife and daughter, two aides, and two pilots--one of them stunningly incompetent) were lost. I also remember voting in Minnesota for the first time after moving there and feeling so pleased that I could vote for someone like Paul Wellstone.

Senator Wellstone was the main obstacle to passage of the infamous bankruptcy bill which the financial "industry" so wanted, putting a permanent hold on legislation which made it harder to file for bankruptcy in the first place and placed further restrictions to zeroing out debt. His sudden, some would say mysterious, death ended that opposition. I fully believe that once the banking goons knew they had the population firmly by the short and curlies that the predatory lending began in ernest--as did an economy built upon the backs of wage slaves which has only recently come crashing down.

I'm not prepared to dig up the charts to prove it, and I'm not especially regarded for saying so, but I do believe Senator Wellstone would have lost that election to the Oleaginous Boob anyway. The last vote he cast in the Senate was against the Iraq War resolution ("I cannot vote for war", he said in the chamber) and the mood in the country, and especially the dingbat suburbs of the Cities was all for kicking some furrin ass.

Ambassador Mondale, as the last-minute DFL standard-bearer, polled marginally better in Duluth and the Iron Range than Wellstone did six years earlier, and just as well in the Cities and Rochester. The election was decided in those suburbs (a portion of which, remember, also returns Michelle Bachmann to DC every couple years.) Could Wellstone have done better in these rotten boroughs that year than Uncle Walter? Color me skeptical.

Also little remarked outside MN was how much, and how well, Senator Franken campaigned across the state over the last couple years. (Local boy made bad--then good, David Carr noticed however.) He could talk about growing up there (which Ole Boob could not), and knew how to sit at a spaghetti supper in Fergus Falls, was at ease in a VFW hall in Cloquet. It was really close, and he lost a big lead along the way, but he won.

Al is taking the oath today on the Wellstone family bible. I expect great things from him, mainly because I get the feeling he has an example which allows him to expect great things from himself.