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In 'Huckleberry Finn,' A History In Echoes

Is there anything left to say about Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn?

That is the question that animates big parts of Andrew Levy's Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain And The Era That Shaped His Masterpiece, a richly researched, copiously annotated, fascinating argument that in all the debates over the book's treatment of race and despite its position as both a widely banned book and a widely assigned book, we tend to miss some of the most important things it teaches.

Levy argues that while the 1885 book is certainly reflective of Twain's powerful but complicated feelings about race, it is perhaps even more a book about childhood and especially boyhood, conceived and written at a time when the American mind was preoccupied with panic over dangerous and violent boys and with vigorous debates over the proper role of public education. Levy's bracing thesis is that close attention to both the race aspects and the childhood aspects of both the book and Twain's authorial approach lead to the same conclusion: that things change less than they seem to.

Twain, Levy argues, was tweaking those who worried then (as they do now) that boys were suddenly being turned violent by popular media (then, the dime novel; now, the violent video game). And despite frequent arguments about whether the book is racist or anti-racist, neither Twain nor the novel is easily placed along an arc of steady progress in racial enlightenment — an arc Levy argues is mostly illusory. Through those two lenses, he says, we can see in Huck Finn the way history – as Twain is widely quoted as having said, whether he did or not – may not quite repeat itself, but frequently rhymes.

This theme of recurrence, of nothing new under the sun, repeats as to both small points and large ones: for example, the first time Huck Finn was removed from schools for "passages derogatory to negroes" was not in some newly hypersensitive post-hippie modern day – it was in New York in 1957. (A response in the Harvard Crimson at the time sounds, aside from a few word choices, like it could have been written in the last 12 months were the book removed from a reading list now.)

And the book, which would later become for many an icon of wholesome Americana, had been removed from libraries for other reasons – of crudeness and rebellion, for instance – almost from the moment it was published. For many, Huck wound up as a lovable scamp, but he started as something far more intentionally and genuinely unnerving. (If you read the book again, you'll indeed find that compared to the text, its reputation for idyllic river travel and life philosophizing is exaggerated relative to its reputation for gore. In fact, Huck speaks of how you feel "mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" just after he witnesses and barely escapes a bloody murder.)

Levy is not engaged in only literary theory, but also in history and biography: Much of Huck Finn's America is taken up with tracing Twain's book tour, known as "Twins Of Genius," undertaken in late 1884 with southern pro-integration writer George Washington Cable. During the tour, Cable published the controversial essay "The Freedman's Case In Equity," which became for a time a bigger focus of attention, and certainly a more overtly charged text about race, than anything Twain was presenting.

The book tracks how Twain, at least sometimes, changed readings he gave for different audiences. He points out that, for instance, while Twain may have only used the word "nigger" on stage when reading in character as Huck, when he appeared in front of at least one black audience in Hartford, he chose different readings so that he didn't say it at all.

The inclusion of that story uneasily suggests that while Twain considered his performance of both Huck's voice and Jim's to be perfectly just and undoubtedly didn't consider himself a racist, he may have known exactly what students in schools would say a hundred years later: that his renditions of those voices, however intended, would not sound the same to everyone. That even if he thought he was offering a measure of understanding, he may have been uncomfortable doing so in the presence of people who might receive it as something else. Levy does an exceptional job of not overexplaining these small facts when they appear in the story: they lock into place as pieces of a much larger picture. Like any good biographer, he is adept at arranging information, even not strictly chronologically, so that it adheres naturally to a meaningful frame.

Huck Finn is full of contradictions: Huck comes to appreciate Jim's kindness and ultimately proves willing to "go to hell" to free him – but he treats Jim as exceptional, a worthy person because he's not the way Huck expects a black man to behave. As he puts it after Jim extends compassion to Tom Sawyer, "I knowed he was white inside." On the one hand, it's an extension of respect. On the other, it's equating integrity with whiteness. Its basic racism and its wisp of understanding are both real; they're both sitting right there.

Contradictions about Twain and complexities in the readings he and Cable were doing on tour are there, too:

Those contradictions are not simply curious; they are analytically significant. Levy points up Twain's genuine affection for black culture and the ways it echoes, he says, in performances today from white artists who confront accusations of something like minstrelsy and counter with heartfelt admiration for forms like hip-hop.

In one of the most intriguing parallels between Reconstruction-era culture and culture now, the book is unsparing in its description of Twain's view of black culture and especially dialect as something he had the right to translate and present, from well before Huck Finn:

And later:

Levy draws a comparison, in fact, between the way people he calls "amateur and professional anthropologists" sometimes saw children and the way they saw black people: as unsophisticated but privy to special, almost magical knowledge that it was the place of "a civilized and mature white person" to make sense of and to be good enough to pass along. It is cultural appropriation as an act of imagined generosity; it is very nearly appropriation as a duty. And while Levy says Twain was not much for playing the adult, he did take it upon himself to present stories and dialects he'd taken from others to curious paying audiences.

Ultimately, for Levy, Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – and a careful reading of it and the history around it – demonstrate a lot of stasis. By noticing how we still struggle with much of what troubled Twain about race as well as what's troubling in what Twain himself was doing, he argues, we see the limitations of progress. And by noticing that we've always thought the things kids loved would ruin them, and we've always argued over how much the state should meddle in their development (and thus over the size of government and the balance between acting collectively and individually), we see the limitations of any notion of modern decline – particularly decline based on the influence of popular entertainment and the scandalous state of young people.

It's a provocative stance, not only because it declines to try to resolve some of the most common arguments about whether Huck Finn is appropriate to assign to students for reasons of language, but because it suggests that those arguments – while hugely important, deeply felt and entirely legitimate – are incomplete as ways to engage with such a complex text, both as literature and as history. Levy specifically says, in fact, that one temptation with Huck Finn has been to "uncomplicate" it in some direction or another, much as adults tried to uncomplicate young Huck himself. (Perhaps a metaphorical bridge too far, but perhaps also ... a little true.)

Trying to find firm ground from which to analyze culture is not a challenge that arises only with Twain. It's true of many pieces of mass entertainment that while they can't be understood as separate from their historical moments, they also lose value if treated as if they're still inside those moments. A book like Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn comes to readers now having both marked the last 130 years of American history and cultural argument and been marked by them.

And what's unnerving is that every day alters those marks in both directions. Decisions made by one writer before the beginning of the twentieth century become part of 21st-century conversations about language and racism. Modern understandings of traditions like minstrelsy – which Levy argues has a history more complex than the one often credited to it, and pieces of which are often recognized throughout the structure of Huck Finn – reach back in time to continue to shape not just our sense of Huck but our sense of Twain. Both those things are right and inevitable, and both are kind of humbling.

This is what can be frustrating about analyzing popular culture while it's still happening. In theory, parts of what Levy highlights about the book and about Twain – and what countless other scholars across decades have said about both – could have been visible then to a keen eye, although at least in book reviews, many of them were rarely raised. (He says, for instance, that almost none of the book's reviews published at the time saw anything noteworthy or particularly provocative in its discussion of race.) He cites again and again the vast landscape of writing that's already been done on Huck Finn, and the notes and bibliography occupy half the book's heft, so Huck Finn's America perhaps even argues existentially for the validity of cultural writing as a continuing project.

And when it is a continuing project, even Huck Finn finds new – or nominally new — conversations to invade. For instance, as Levy points out, 1885 was before the full flowering of a separate industry of children's literature, and it was more common then than now for books – and especially for authors – to write for adults sometimes and kids sometimes, even within books. Would it have been undignified, then, for an adult to read Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, into which Twain poured social satire invisible to children, simply because it was about children and written in a young boy's identifiable voice? (As is often the case now, the conversations Twain had about making it a children's book versus an adults' book sound more like marketing discussions than literary ones.)

This is a debate we have had culturally just this year. Even if we were to condemn adults for reading YA fiction for its purely literary excellence, what about reading it for its connection to culture and its relationship to the national and international mood? Might that have been one of the reasons for adults to read Huck Finn? And can merit and relevance, art and currency, really be separated so cleanly?

Whatever Levy is saying about Twain and Huck, he is implicitly saying this, too: there is no particular value in cracking open a piece of culture, agreeing on its value or right interpretation, and freezing it under glass. It's not a new theory, but one always worth a reminder, that it's when we constantly visit and revisit classics and do not allow them to fall to a straightforward and stone-carved notion of What They Mean, perhaps established before we were born, that they bump up usefully against developments they could not have anticipated: the value of fiction that might seem to be for children, or the appropriation connection between Mark Twain and Macklemore.

Of course, of course, we can argue that Great Literary Icon Huck Finn is not Katniss Everdeen for the purposes of something like dignified reading for adults, but in 1885, an awful lot of folks didn't think Huck Finn was Great Literary Icon Huck Finn, either.

As hard as we may try, we cannot substitute scholarship and sophistication for the perspective that time, and interaction with its passage, will place on Katniss – and The Sopranos, and The Simpsons, and Madonna – in 130 years. We will offer the best analysis we can for now about what one book or one show or one film means about The Way Things Are. And the irony, Levy would perhaps argue, is that the more time passes, the less The Way Things Are will seem different from The Way Things Always Were.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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