Sunday, August 23, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, An Afterword

Modern readers tend to assume that the Territory which Huck says he is lighting out for is a metaphoric place, an uncharted wild west free of law and responsibilities. In fact Indian Territory was on the map, a Native American "homeland" set aside in 1834 by a Congress in the process of removing native nations from their lands east of the Mississippi. In 1907 Indian Territory became, in one more legislated theft, a large part of the state of Oklahoma.

Native American arts lace subtly through Huckleberry Finn, from the empty canoes which appear--or vanish--on the river, to Jim's raft wigwam, to the landscape itself and the mystic agents whom Huck says he hears sometimes. As noted earlier, Huck himself is based on Twain's childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, reputedly half Native American. Consequent of these effects is Huck's yearning for the Territory feels innately right, a subliminal expression of character that serves to make his itch to run off ring beautifully true. Where else could Huck go but the Territory?

General readers don't know that Twain began a sequel to Huckleberry Finn the year it was published, picking up exactly where the novel ends. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, follows the two, with Jim attending, on Tom's proposed Indian Territory expedition. But the project was utterly stillborn, and Twain quit after about 10,000 words.

The sequel disregards much of what makes Huckleberry Finn so compelling. First off, Huck picks up writing another book not long after vowing he never would again. His voice lacks the idiomatic snap of the novel (though clearly Twain did not spend much time getting it right in what was a first draft, we do get an idea of how much effort he did put into Huck's great monologue.)

Unfortunately too, Huck has not struck out on his own, like he said he would, but in the company of the ever-tiresome Tom. Least forgivable is that instead of allowing Jim to return home to work for the money to deliver his wife and children from slavery--his cherished dream in the first book--Twain brings him along as a comic third wheel. A very stock love story is also set up between a beautiful pioneer girl and a handsome horseman of the trail, exactly of the sort of junk infesting pulp novels of the time-- movies soon enough--and for the next hundred years.

The pulp idyl soon ends. Indians attack, massacre the pioneer girl's family, and abduct her and Jim, prompting a rescue by the boys and dashing cowboy. The story slams to a stop after the searchers find unmistakable evidence, greatly foreshadowed, that the girl had been staked to the ground spread-eagle and raped. This, as far as Twain was concerned, was what happened to white woman captured by Indians, and, clearly, that would not do, even for America's literary bad boy.

Clouding over the story is Twain's obvious hatred of Native Americans (see the otherwise delightful Roughing It), a prejudice he recognized and regretted late in life. While Twain was intimately acquainted with the shades of goodness and wickedness among whites in a slave holding society, and the radiant soul of black folks, he could not begin to imagine the humanity of people he considered beasts.

He instead used the aborted novel to mock Tom's romantic ideas of Indians, gained from the novels of Fenimore Cooper, a writer he also despised unfairly , to better condemn a people he did not understand (and let's agree that the man responsible for Puddin' Head Wilson has no call to ridicule Cooper's literary offenses.) Instinct probably told Twain his notion of Indians was wrong, but not why that was or by how much. He put the manuscript away, like he put Huck Finn away, only never to go back to it.

By considering the creative dead end of Among the Indians we can appreciate how great Huckleberry Finn really is. For one thing, even Twain could not surpass it--and he knew it. (The Tom and Huck potboilers to come ten years later, riffs on Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes, are not worth further mention.) But Huckleberry Finn is not a happy accident. Written at the height of Twain's powers, just before financial ruin began to haunt his days, and warp his work, the novel is a sly, deliberately crafted and precise vision of a time and place in the world, socially and psychologically true.

Another facet of this greatness is how it still resides in the minds of readers after almost 130 years. I'm not sure how this is accomplished exactly; how any book can last so long. Something to do, I'd say, with the exhibition of an intimate knowledge of particular things that somehow extends to an expressed totality of life as it is lived, something recognizable in the real world.

With Huckleberry Finn Twain shows how well he knows the people, the land, the language. He also knows his audience and exactly which rules to follow and which to break. He knows the American violence, arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed that led to the deaths of half a million men in the Civil War. He also knows, and shows, how goodness and mercy work in the human heart, how people are resilient and steadfast, how they will stand up for what's right no matter what others think. These qualities are very American too, and ever lead our nation further away from the original sin at its founding.

Huckleberry Finn, of low estate and rudely told, stands in the highest rank of world literature. Not only does it tell the central American tale of bondage and freedom, of lighting out into a world of danger and bad luck to find a new home; in its pages Twain turned the first-person narrative into a living thing, a genuine voice in which for the first time how the story is told is as crucial as anything in it. It is impossible to imagine what American literature--what American life--would be like now without it.

Last week: Chapter XLII & Chapter the Last

Update: January, 2011 -- A word about that word.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Nate Silver, as is his wont, has a pretty sharp rundown of where things stand from a political perspective in the healthcare campaign. My own exasperation, moderate but persistent, is with the drowsy nature of the public offensive in favor of the prez's program. It seems to me his side could be a bit more organized, on point, but what I've seen of his town halls has, minus a couple spoken gaffs by the big guy, been pretty good.

There's always a first time, of course, but I will remind readers (as I have at least twice before now) that the political landscape is littered with the rusted hulks of those men and women unwise enough to underestimate Mr. Obama's capabilities in a fight. Missing so far from the entire media coverage of GOP efforts to torpedo the bill is the merest hint of a whisper of a glimmer of the idea that, just maybe, there will be a steep political price to pay for opposing healthcare reform.

Part of that is certainly because the administration has not bruited the notion in public, but the logic that the Repubs and Blue Dogs can ride back to electoral Fat City next year by blocking this thing flies in the face of a certain demographic logic which I do believe will become clearer as the weeks pass.

But-but-but all those angry people at those meetings! All those meatheads with guns outside the hall! All the cheap talk on TV! A certain type of cultivated worrier has no shortage of bad vibes to account for now, no question about it. But I am sticking to my hunch that the noise from the streets and broadcast studios are the sounds of something dying. (For someone fond of pointing out just how bad business has been for Rupe's News Corp for some time now, the word last week that the Dirty Digger is now renting out his enormous yacht was pure catnip. The price quoted is gargantuan. Let's see if it comes down.)

The crystal ball has cleared enough for me to make a few predictions. The first is that someone from the right-wing vigilante crowd will do something stupid and innocent people will die. I hope it isn't many, but that is the logical conclusion of all this playing with firearms, and it's not as though it has not happened before. Second, what with all the fun the GOP has been having lately with the knuckle draggers, there's a good possibility that someone from their team will be tied, probably by way of an expressed solidarity before the fact, to the violent perps. I reach this conclusion from observing how crass and luckless the GOP cause has become and the confident knowledge of what can happen when monumentally dumb and selfish people act out their desires.

Three: I do believe the other side has overplayed its hand and that Senate passage will be via a reconciliation vote lacking a few Dems and with at best two GOP votes. What will pass is still a big unknown. And I suspect several potential sticking points dear to us progressives shall be winnowed away. However, I think the Prez wants some dispatch in getting the legislation through because, Four, the economy (or what's left of it) is ready to drop off another cliff this fall.

A lot of people know this, some of them even in Washington. The evidence is everywhere, this week coming out of Asia. The American Consumer Show, upon which so much was riding, has shut down and is not reopening anytime soon. Health reform is needed not only for solid business reasons, to get some kind of small-bore manufacturing economy up and running in a couple years, but also because stuff has been breaking down for so long now that a genuine public health collapse, one inevitably tracking the economic decay, cannot be ruled out or wished away.

UPDATE: I'm pleased to report that Mr. Drum kinda thinks like me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In Which I Speak Ill Of The Dead

The late Robert Novak was a scoundrel and bully, and so a coward by definition. Few did more to cheapen the national discourse over the last 25 years than that arrogant lickspittle of entrenched power. I was pleased to hear that he died, am deeply sorry he lived as long as he did, and believe the nation is that much better for his absence.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XLII & Chapter the Last

The letter which Silas got from the P.O. is from Sally's sister Polly in St. Petersberg though before it can be opened Tom is spotted being borne home on a mattress by a crowd which includes a bound Jim (wearing one of Sally's calico dresses) and the doctor. Tom is barely conscious.

As the others go tend to Tom, Huck follows the crowd of men holding Jim, who pretends not to know him. Though Twain is obviously winding towards a happy ending, he is nevertheless pleased to remind his readers just how walking-sick people can be:

The men was very huffy, and some of them wanted to hang Jim for an example to all the other niggers around there, so they wouldn't be trying to run away like Jim done, and making such a raft of trouble, and keeping a whole family scared most to death for days and nights. But the others said, don't do it, it wouldn't answer at all; he ain't our nigger, and his owner would turn up and make us pay for him, sure. So that cooled them down a little, because the people that's always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain't done just right is always the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him.

The local farmers beat and curse the black man, dress him in his old clothes, shackle his arms and legs and bolt him to the wall on a length of chain.

The doctor soon comes to say Jim should be treated fairly, that he came out of hiding when he saw that the doctor needed help to cut the bullet from the leg of the delirious boy.

I judged he must be a runaway nigger, and there I was! and there I had to stick right straight along all the rest of the day and all night. It was a fix, I tell you! I had a couple of patients with the chills, and of course I'd of liked to run up to town and see them, but I dasn't, because the nigger might get away, and then I'd be to blame; [...] I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he'd been worked main hard lately. I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars -- and kind treatment, too.

Note that the doctor thought it was more important to keep an eye on a runaway slave than to treat patients, also how casually he monetizes Jim's good soul. One more good person,Twain shows us, bent by slavery. Of all the white folks in the book, only Huck makes it through with his humanity unscathed.

Huck says: I was mighty thankful to that old doctor for doing Jim that good turn; and I was glad it was according to my judgment of him, too; because I thought he had a good heart in him and was a good man the first time I see him. Then they all agreed that Jim had acted very well, and was deserving to have some notice took of it, and reward. So every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn't cuss him no more.

I do believe that this is the first time in the book Jim is specifically referred to--by anyone--as a man instead of a nigger. It's a subtle touch, easy to overlook, but this is a subtle book. Indeed Huck's humanity has been enlarged by knowing Jim.

Tom takes almost two days to come back to his senses, Aunt Sally at his bedside. Huck is there when he does. Expressing surprise at being home, Tom immediately admits to Sally his elaborate plot to free Jim. After finishing, he is told that Jim did not get away.

Tom looks at me very grave, and says:

"Tom, didn't you just tell me he was all right? Hasn't he got away?"

"Him?" says Aunt Sally; "the runaway nigger? 'Deed he hasn't. They've got him back, safe and sound, and he's in that cabin again, on bread and water, and loaded down with chains, till he's claimed or sold!"

Tom rose square up in bed, with his eye hot, and his nostrils opening and shutting like gills, and sings out to me:

"They hain't no right to shut him up! Shove! -- and don't you lose a minute. Turn him loose! he ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth!"

"What does the child mean?"

"I mean every word I say, Aunt Sally, and if somebody don't go, I'll go. I've knowed him all his life, and so has Tom, there. Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and she was ashamed she ever was going to sell him down the river, and said so; and she set him free in her will."

"Then what on earth did you want to set him free for, seeing he was already free?"

If readers, as I believe they should, regard Tom's elaborate rescue fantasy as an arch parable on the work of well-meaning whites to grant full citizenship to black people, what, then, are we to make of this? Twain might be saying that a certain type of do-gooder is very reluctant to admit that freedom is an innate and simple thing, easily denied by custom and law, which should be just as easily granted.

Such simple gifts are apparently beyond the grasp of many decent people with a high opinion of themselves (recall that Tom shot down Huck's no-fuss plan on freeing Jim weeks ago), and that their exalted ideas of what's right can bring a rain of misery on the very people needing help.

More overtly, Twain is also declaring that slavery was a forced commercial fiction, needing nothing more than a paper fiat to invalidate. This was a point of no small contention at the time and one easily overlooked by modern readers--that a vast number of white Americans believed for centuries that slavery was sanctioned by the Almighty and was vested upon sub-humans who clearly needed, deserved--and in fact, for the most part, wanted it.

Just as Tom finishes his explanations, Aunt Polly, fresh off the boat from St. Petersberg, appears. She's come down after a letter from Sally mentioned how much she liked having Sid (Tom) there. As Sid was with her, and not having any of her own letters answered, she means to find out what mischief Tom is so certainly up to.

Huck, hiding now under Tom's sickbed, is given his true name back. Sally says he can still call her Aunt.

And his Aunt Polly she said Tom was right about old Miss Watson setting Jim free in her will; [...] and I couldn't ever understand before, until that minute and that talk, how he could help a body set a nigger free with his bringing-up.

Recall Huck's amazement when Tom told him he'd help free Jim, that his friend would so casually become a criminal. Tom is, in fact, the all-American show-off, one who really risks nothing; a jerk.

Confirmation of this comes not long after when Huck asks, in the closing pages, what Tom's intention was if they'd managed to get away. Follow the river to the end having adventures, he says:

and then tell [Jim] about his being free, and take him back up home on a steamboat, in style, and pay him for his lost time, and write word ahead and get out all the niggers around, and have them waltz him into town with a torchlight procession and a brass-band, and then he would be a hero, and so would we. But I reckoned it was about as well the way it was.

So Tom's ambitions, from a theatrical perspective, are not that much different from the King & Duke's (whose place in the narrative he very neatly took) that is: pay Jim for his pains and put him on display to those most interested (as an example of what exactly?) at every river town they land in, to popular acclaim.

As it is, Tom gives Jim $40, and we hear Jim speak for the first time since Huck left him to fetch the doctor:

"Dah, now, Huck, what I tell you? -- what I tell you up dah on Jackson islan'? I tole you [...] I ben rich wunst, en gwineter to be rich agin en it's come true; en heah she is! Dah, now! doan' talk to me -- signs is signs, mine I tell you; en I knowed jis' 's well 'at I 'uz gwineter be rich agin as I's a-stannin' heah dis minute!"

Of course on Jackson Island Jim told Huck he was rich because he was worth $800 and, after running off, he now owned himself--an observation he does not care to repeat in front of the white people now assembled.

Tom now wants to go have adventures in Indian Territory, though Huck allows he doesn't have the money for an expedition, being that pap has probably claimed his fortune from Judge Thatcher by now. Tom says that, far as he knows, there's been no sign of pap all this time. Jim then solemnly tells Huck that pap is never coming back, that the man they found face down dead in the drifting house, who Jim told Huck not to look at because of bad luck, was his father.

With this, the story ends. Our chronicle of drift has found home at last, the family restored, Huck in its midst, the need for lies gone. We hear no more about Jim, likely on his way back to wife and children as Huck writes the tale.

Twain closes his work, this greatest of American novels, with a perfect hymn to national restlessness, a coda which might have done as much to certify the book's stature as any passage that's come before:

[...] if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

The End. Yours Truly, Huck Finn.

Last week Chapter XLI
Next week: An Afterword

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

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XLI

Huck gets the village doctor, a kind older man, out of bed and tries to explain how his companion got a bullet in the leg.

I told him me and my brother was over on Spanish Island hunting yesterday afternoon, and camped on a piece of a raft we found, and about midnight he must a kicked his gun in his dreams, for it went off and shot him in the leg, and we wanted him to go over there and fix it and not say nothing about it, nor let anybody know, because we wanted to come home this evening and surprise the folks.

[....] after a minute, he says:

"How'd you say he got shot?"

"He had a dream," I says, "and it shot him."

"Singular dream," he says.

An awkward boy, trying desperately to lie his way out of a jam, comes up with an enduring, wry comment on the Pursuit of Happiness, one which, in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, was apt for idealists north and south. "He had a dream," I says, "and it shot him." Huck knows Tom too well, has witnessed his latest mania close-up, and in the midst of a lie, can't help but voice a supreme truth. Tom made his dream a reality and has been knocked down by it.

While the American Dream was not coined as a phrase for another half century, Twain certainly recognized early on its outline--the promise, the lift and the all-too-frequent fall back to earth--and the individuals who believed in it. He saw it in the particularly frustrated lives of his father and older brother, in the fates of the men he knew on the Mississippi, in the Nevada silver camps, in the dandies and plungers who drifted through San Francisco. He neither criticizes nor condemns, the line isn't even a warning (and in his own life it vibrates with as much prophecy as knowledge.) It is rather a simple fact tucked in at the end of our greatest novel: the dream has consequences.

The doctor is unsure if the canoe will carry the two of them safely across the river. Huck, saying it has held all three of them, awakens further suspicion from the old man and he insists on paddling out to the raft by himself. Huck has no choice but to let him go then falls into a deep sleep that lasts until mid-morning.

No sign of the doctor and Tom, Huck resolves to get to the island when he runs into Uncle Silas in the village. Huck makes up another story as to his whereabouts the night before and Silas takes him home after getting a letter at the post office.

At home the neighbors are sitting talking with Aunt Sally. One has been to Jim's cabin for a good look around.

"Well, Sister Phelps, I've ransacked that-air cabin over, an' I b'lieve the nigger was crazy. I says to Sister Damrell -- didn't I, Sister Damrell? -- s'I, he's crazy, s'I -- them's the very words I said. You all hearn me: he's crazy, s'I; everything shows it, s'I. Look at that-air grindstone, s'I; want to tell me't any cretur 't's in his right mind 's a goin' to scrabble all them crazy things onto a grindstone, s'I? Here sich 'n' sich a person busted his heart; 'n' here so 'n' so pegged along for thirty-seven year, 'n' all that -- natcherl son o' Louis somebody, 'n' sich everlast'n rubbage. He's plumb crazy, s'I; it's what I says in the fust place, it's what I says in the middle, 'n' it's what I says last 'n' all the time -- the nigger's crazy -- crazy 's Nebokoodneezer, s'I."

So Tom's fantasy, which he promoted with the cry that everyone knew that such things needed to be done, has been discovered by the intended audience, who don't get it. What's more, Jim, who had to acquiesce to every one of Tom's nutty ideas, is regarded as the crazy one. The tiresome biddy's opinion about Jim's sanity was a common enough evaluation of black people made by clueless whites for years and years, as well as an all-too-true reality for many blacks indeed driven insane by the institution of American apartheid. (Maybe not coincidentally, That Nigger's Crazy is the title of a 1974 comedy record by the great Richard Pryor, who also happened to win the very first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.)

Aunt Sally, in reviewing the events of the night before with the neighbors, remembers she locked the boys in their room for safety, and looks at Huck suspiciously. He volunteers to go out to look for Tom, and is made to stay put as Silas goes back to town. He returns at 10 that night with no news. Sally puts Huck to bed and sits talking with him for a long time, worrying about Tom's well being and, now aware that Huck can sneak out of the house, asking him not to.

He promises, though he does climb down the lightning rod twice that night to see her sitting up waiting, tears in her eyes, next to a candle in the window. At first dawn he finds that she has fallen asleep, apparently resting on the sill. The Civil War is recalled if only temperamentally; the figure of the grieving, grey-haired mother of a missing and wounded boy, with light in window, being probably the central sentimental popular image of that time.

Last week Chapts XXXIX & XL
Next week Chapt XLII & Chapter the Last

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

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

Last time out (it seems like only yesterday!) I forgot to mention a large, perhaps the central, driving force behind the ginned-up rightist outrage brigades, being specifically ratings. The MSM in general, and ol' Rupe in partic., desperately need eyeballs.

Let us savor briefly the latest bad financial news over at the Dirty Digger's shop: a $200+ million loss on the MySpace business. Unmentioned in the piece are declines elsewhere in the Asshat Empire: such as wildly overpaying for the Wall Street Journal a year before the crash (one hears that the staff there are waiting for the blades to start dropping), the money drain that is the FUX financial channel, not to mention the $1 million lost each and every week for years now at the NY Post. Next posit the putative %20 drop in advertising over all and one sees the drastic need for juicing the brain-dead brands. Now think where the d-bag might be in six months' time if nothing turns around.

Now I am just an old magazine biz refugee, living on a quiet Chicago back street, writing my books and going slowly broke; which is to say a mere bystander. Which is to say, take all I have here with a grain of salt. But I bring it up in the first place because few will do it elsewhere. To put it baldly, TV will never tell you that fewer people are watching TV. No one wants to go into too much detail about Rupe's problems because a) he'll do his best to make them regret it and b) his problems are their problems too. (Any one know how many cable boxes have been switched off in the last year? I'm curious.) Former high rollers fallen on their uppers slide by on bullshit just as long as they can. While there is never a shortage of that enduring lube, the machinery of commerce and fear it is so often applied to breaks down all the time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Muddle Managers

I began my guide to Huckleberry Finn to coincide with the first half year of Barack Obama's first term mainly because I felt there was very little else to talk about. Public events were rolling along pretty much as I'd foreseen and, unlike James Kunstler, I get tired of repeating myself. (This, btw, is not a knock on JHK. His grasp of what's so dreadfully wrong in our country is pretty tight, and far more informed than mine.)

Anyway, my literary project is finishing up in time for healthcare reform, so I'll just note that Our Man has it, details pending, in the bag.

How am I so damn sure? For starters, gaze upon the opposition, and laugh. There does not seem to be a coherent GOP political apparatus anymore, that is--a body that coordinates messages, policy, and legislation leading forward to the next national elections, and beyond in two-year increments. What's in place, in true Burkean style, are a variety of hot-button propaganda shops wired around certain, sometimes overlapping issues: right-to-loafers (I meant to write 'lifers' but will let that stand), john birthers, race nuts, gun butts, immigration screamers, israel dreamers, low taxers, Christian yakkers, and free market backers.

If you sense a certain boutique-ing afoot in Redland, give yourself a gold star. For let us appreciate in hindsight that the GOProject, from the Goldwater disaster onward was relentlessly test-marketed, thoroughly focus-grouped, and image-shopped to create that melange of petty grievances and grand aspirations that they have cooked with since King Ronnie. Problem is, once you feed your people What-You-Desire-is-What-You'll-Get long enough a certain reality principle intrudes. Interests wane and splinter, short-term goals predominate, cynicism rules the leadership, common goals become secondary, and when the system stops producing as advertised--which is what we are seeing now--panic roars in the wake of failure.

For all those touching idiots standing up yelling in town halls this month is one big, tone deaf admission that that ol' black magic don't work so well anymore, the political equivalent of an electric shock for a dying heart.

What has happened is that real life has left the GOP behind. Those of us around for the killing of the Clinton health reform program should remember a job very smoothly done, accomplished mainly because industries, even those like auto manufacturers which would have benefitted from guaranteed government health care, opposed it on philosophical (if the assumptions of power can be called such) grounds.

Guess what? While I have not seen this exactly bandied about in Blue Dog dispatches, vested commercial interests against healthcare reform have pretty much disappeared. Auto makers (I think there are a couple left, along with other vestiges of heavy industry) need it, the AMA (a very conservative lobby ) is on board, insurance companies, perhaps to stem the loss of hundreds of customers daily, or taking certain lessons from the AIG rescue, are ready to deal. If there's a small business option in the works, you might even see a couple Republican votes.

Looked at another way, the interests of the Gone Old Party are now at drastic odds with more than several of their traditional corporate overlords. The wild success of the Cash-for-clunkers program, a life-line to failing car salesmen, a traditional Republican cadre if ever there was one, is a sterling case in point. One notes that GOP opposition to extending the program was reflexive, shocked, and short.

If you see the GOP broadly, as one ought, as a branded politico/marketing/entertainment industry--something it very deliberately modeled itself into--then you will understand that their need to halt healthcare is really a fight to keep the lights on in their own mall. Their problem is, as it has been since that squalid little man lied about Iraq and left New Orleans to drown in filth, that mall has become a place no one--well, outside the old Confederacy--much wants to be seen in anymore. And sending out day labor to advertise the joint by yelling at the competition, which has far better products and an excellent CEO, is a monumentally stupid idea, one which worked very poorly the last time they tried.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXIX & XL

In their zeal to complete Tom's set design for Jim's prison cell, the boys capture, then lose in the house, a healthy supply of rats and snakes which terrorize Aunt Sally. The boys collect more vermin for Jim's cell and it is soon enough teeming:

and you never see a cabin as blithesome as Jim's was when they'd all swarm out for music and go for him. Jim didn't like the spiders, and the spiders didn't like Jim; and so they'd lay for him, and make it mighty warm for him. And he said that between the rats and the snakes and the grindstone there warn't no room in bed for him, skasely; and when there was, a body couldn't sleep, it was so lively, and it was always lively, he said, because they never all slept at one time, but took turn about, so when the snakes was asleep the rats was on deck, and when the rats turned in the snakes come on watch, so he always had one gang under him, in his way, and t'other gang having a circus over him, and if he got up to hunt a new place the spiders would take a chance at him as he crossed over. He said if he ever got out this time he wouldn't ever be a prisoner again, not for a salary.

Uncle Silas has not heard from the non-existent Louisiana plantation regarding Jim and decides to advertise the runaway in the St. Louis papers, which Huck fears will quickly render the truth of Jim's case. All the props of Jim's great prisoner adventure are in place, so now to bring the escape fantasy to a needed end Tom sends a series of messages warning the Phelps of trouble. The first note Huck slips under the front door while the family is sleeping, dressed--as Tom insists--as a serving girl. The second is a drawn skull and crossbones which Tom pins to the front door the next night. The evening following Tom, in a repeat of the trick played on Jim in Chapter II, leaves a letter on the person of a sleeping slave, posted to guard duty, saying that a gang of cuttthroats is planning to come take Jim the night after, when the boys are planning to finally set Jim free and escape to the raft.

While this, and all the nonsense of the preceding chapters, are related in Huck's very entertaining vernacular, let us pause for a bit to consider how the cause of the imprisoned man plagues the family. Everyone, except Tom, is miserable and on edge. The living quarters of all are alive with pests. (Might this be Twain's version of a house divided against itself?) Domestic thefts are rife and now the household has been put in genuine fear of their lives. Why? Because of slavery, and a conniving boy with an overactive, nearly sick, imagination.

That night the boys find out that Tom's image of Jim's captivity is not a game after Huck, sneaking into the cellar for butter for their getaway meals, is discovered by Aunt Sally and made to wait in the parlor, which is full of armed men. Fifteen neighbors have come to protect the home from Tom's imaginary gang of desperadoes. (Though the word abolitionist is unspoken here, any such raiding party at the time would have been seen as such. The system of slavery, always in danger of going to pieces with escapes, raids, and uprisings required constant vigilance, and finally the Civil War, to defend.)

Tom is waiting in Jim's cabin when Huck is finally able to sneak away and warn him of the armed neighborhood watch. Tom is delighted:

His eyes just blazed; and he says:

"No! -- is that so? Ain't it bully! Why, Huck, if it was to do over again, I bet I could fetch two hundred! If we could put it off till -- "

"Hurry! Hurry!" I says. "Where's Jim?"

The blazing eyes are a common enough 19th century trope meant to signal insanity. I am pretty sure that Twain means us to see that Tom is crazy by now, one more white guy who's lost his mind in projecting a fantasy upon the body of a black man. Note too that Tom is about to say he wants more time to draw more men against them when Huck cuts him short, nearly in a panic, to recognize the seriousness of the moment.

They hear men talking outside who try the lock on the door. Quickly slipping under the wall and sneaking out of the lean-to, the three are almost away when Tom snaps a sliver on a fence rail. They are discovered. Men yell, bullets fly. Our heros take to their heels as the hounds are let loose.

Because they know the boys, the hounds pass by without bothering them and our three heros get to the canoe, push off into the river and soon gain the raft. Huck speaks:

"Now, old Jim, you're a free man again, and I bet you won't ever be a slave no more."

"En a mighty good job it wuz, too, Huck. It 'uz planned beautiful, en it 'uz done beautiful; en dey ain't nobody kin git up a plan dat's mo' mixed-up en splendid den what dat one wuz."

We was all glad as we could be, but Tom was the gladdest of all because he had a bullet in the calf of his leg.

The notion that Tom could have run through the woods with a ball in his leg is best given a pass. The novel's essential realism reasserts itself quickly, however. Tom begins to talk off his head in earnest now and Huck and Jim quickly decide he needs a doctor; Jim indeed insisting that he will not budge a step until one is found. This steadfastness calls up Huck's unfortunate observation that he knew Jim was white inside, meant as a compliment, though very much at odds with the novel's earlier depiction of the color as something indicating sickness (pap's skin), confusion (the fog), and overweening pride and arrogance (the dress suits of Colonels Grangerford and Sherburn.)

Invisible whiteness is, of course, not white at all, and Huck's stray comment--a vulgar, if sincere compliment in America well into the 20th Century--now serves to underline just how pointless such distinguishing characteristics are.

Tom, of course, protests the seeking of medical attention and, as Huck leaves, gives him very specific instructions as to how to bring the physician--a farrago of adventure novel mummery with paranoid overtones. Jim, for his part, says he will hide in the woods once he sees Huck return with the doctor.

Last week Chapts. XXXVII & XXXVIII
Next week Chapt. XLI

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