The Octagonal Mind of Mark Twain

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.  If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys.  That is the real end.  The rest is just cheating.  But it’s the best book we’ve had.  All American writing come from that.  There was nothing before.  There has been nothing as good since.

Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (1935).

A vigorous discussion with my neighbors led to my rereading of The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnI wrote about this back in January.

In short, the publication of Professor Alan Gribben’s new edition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer touched off a firestorm.  You may remember that Gribben’s version substitutes the word slave for Twain’s word nigger in the text.  The NewSouth edition is intended for young and high school readers.  Gribben does not seek to replace Twain’s original version.

According to my reading journal, the last time I read Huck Finn was in 2002.  And now I have reread the work with an eye specifically toward the n-word.  My feeling is that there are many passages where the word slave can easily be traded in without loss of Twain-ness:

log smokehouse back of the kitchen; three little log nigger cabins in a row t’other side the smokehouse; one little hut all by itself away down against the back fence, and some outbuildings down a piece the other side;


A nigger woman come tearing out of the kitchen with a rolling-pin in her hand, singing out, “Begone! you Tige! you Spot! begone sah!

But, there are other parts where a substitution would clearly change Twain’s meaning and result in a loss of poignancy.  As with Huck’s made-up explanation to Aunt Sally as to why the riverboat took so long to arrive:

“It warn’t the grounding — that didn’t keep us back but a little.  We blowed out a a cylinder head.”

“Good gracious!  anybody hurt?”

“No’m.  Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

So, like most academic arguments, there is no clear-cut answer.

The n-word dispute notwithstanding, this reading of the book changed my impression of it.  I fell in love a little with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Then, I fell out of love.  As Hemingway pointed out in the epigram above, Huck Finn is the greatest American novel.  But, only up to a certain point in the book.

Like the immortal Ernest, for me that point is the end of Chapter 31, when Jim has been captured and held as a runaway slave at the Phelps place.  Although you later learn how the greedy King and cynical Duke get theirs (how else?  on a rail while covered in tar and feathers), the last third of the novel could rightly be severed and retitled The Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Tom shows up a few pages later (how convenient!) and then, for a period of weeks or months (it’s difficult to tell), the boys keeps Jim chained and locked in a cabin under the meanest of conditions when they could easily lead him to freedom at any time.  The reason: Tom needs to concoct a proper adventure because releasing Jim and just helping him to escape is not challenging enough.

In so doing, Tom: tortures poor Jim with snakes, spiders and rats; scares the dickens out of Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas; stirs up the entire town when the townspeople believe that attack from marauders is imminent; steals and ruins lots of valuable property; gets shot and forces a good-natured doctor to neglect his other patients; for a time, keeps Jim on bread and water only.

In the end, it turns out that Jim was a free man all along.  He could have walked away at any time.  Tom then makes it all “better” by giving Jim $40.  Jim is grateful that he is now “rich” again.  Forget the fact that Jim’s freedom is delayed (simply un-American), and that Jim has been missing his children in Missouri all along.  Now that Jim is enriched, all is made right.  What kind of sick fuck is this Twain guy anyhow?

So, why read the novel?  Because everything that came before that portion is wonderful.  The parts on the river with just Jim and Huck (only about 10% of the book) are sublime.  The adventures ashore are fantastic in that they reveal Twain’s view of the hypocrisy and ignorance of his fellow Americans in general and southerners in particular.  Twain derides religion, aristocracy and societal mores.  He reveals scallywags, rascals and downright scary murderers in his inimitable style.

During one adventure, Huck is welcomed into the Grangerford home.  He describes the house and its residents in the grandest terms possible for a young boy of his limited experience in society.  However, Huck then witnesses an absolute bloodbath during the Grangerfords’ feud with another local family.  Huck’s escape, as ever, is to the raft with Jim.

Huck and Jim have much in common.  They are both escapees.  They are both outcasts from society.  They fall in love with each other in the purest sense of the term.

The novel’s greatest passage is undoubtedly Huck’s coming to terms with his religious and moral dilemma over whether to risk hell by helping a slave to escape.  After considerable emotional turmoil, Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson advising her that her runaway slave (Twain uses the other word) is here with him.  Nevertheless, before sending it:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now.

But Huck then begins reflecting on: the good times he has shared with Jim; how Jim has placed Huck’s interests over his own at times; how Huck has saved Jim, and vice-versa; how Huck has become Jim’s best and only friend in the world.

Upon glancing at the letter:

It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.


Two other thoughts:

1)  Huck and Jim’s trip downriver on a raft forever links Twain to Lincoln.  For, it was the future president’s journey down the Mississippi on a log raft that exposed him to a vast section of his country and its people.  This was Abraham Lincoln’s only trip to the deep south.  While in New Orleans (so the story goes) he witnessed a slave auction.  This market supposedly helped to form the Great Emancipator’s view of slavery.  Thus, Twain and Lincoln, the two greatest Americans of the 19th century, are joined by common experience.

2)  Every time that Huck Finn created a new character for himself and spun a yarn for strangers, I thought of Bart Simpson.  However, upon finishing the book, I came to realize that Bart was really based upon Tom Sawyer.  As literary critic, Alfred Kazin, has pointed out, Tom Sawyer is the child of the middle class while Huck is a child of poor, white poverty (like Lincoln).  Tom lies and creates mischief purely to amuse himself.  Huck does so for survival.  In this sense, it is clear that Bart Simpson’s true spiritual forebear is Tom, not Huck (despite Bart’s taking on of the Huck role in one memorable episode of The Simpsons).

In 1874, while vacationing at his in-laws’ estate, Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York, the Langdons built their son-in-law an octagonal study some distance from the main house.  Apparently, the main motivation for this construction was their intolerance of Twain’s cigar smoke.

Twain wrote Tom Sawyer in that study.  Between 1876 and 1879, he polished off sections of Huck Finn in this setting.  Several other of his most famous works were also written in this study.

In 1952 (42 years after Twain’s death), the octagonal study was moved downtown onto the campus of Elmira College.  There it sits to this day, open for visitors.

It have had the good fortune to go inside.  My impression is that the study accurately reflects the great genius of the author.  Mark Twain was not bound by the “four corners” of the conventional mind.

— The Major


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