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.


oldfatherwilliam said...

Grand Slam. Thank you.

Will Divide said...

Appreciate you saying so.