50 Books: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I didn’t read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I was 22 years old. I tested out of the freshman English class that would have assigned it to me in high school, thereby embarking on a career of being too smart to actually learn anything. I’m kind of glad I first encountered this novel as an adult, though, because I’m not sure 15-year-old me would have appreciated its charms. It’s about a kid, but it addresses a fundamentally adult theme: the way ignorance feels like knowing everything for certain, and actual wisdom feels like doubt.

Huck Finn is wise about only one thing, and it plants a seed of doubt in him that germinates over the course of the novel. He wants to help Jim get free. Every moral authority he knows has convinced him this desire is wrong, and he wrestles with it clear down the river. He tells himself that he should report Jim to Miss Watson or turn him in at the nearest town; he upbraids himself as an abolitionist and searches his character for some germ of decency good enough to betray his friend. When he gets to Arkansas and still can’t find it, he casts off the project of goodness entirely. “All right, then,” he thinks, “I’ll go to hell.” The reader cheers, because we know that Huck is actually doing the right thing. The whole effect of this novel turns on understanding what he does not.

The reliability of this comic device—ironic tension between what the reader knows and what a character doesn’t—is why Huckleberry Finn is still funny a century and a half after it was written. I don’t mean funny the way people routinely call novels “wickedly funny” or “laugh-out-loud hilarious,” i.e. contains identifiable attempts at jokes. I mean actually funny. Maybe my favorite gag comes when Huck and Jim are hiding on an island in the northern part of the river, swapping wisdom. Jim says that if a beekeeper dies, the bees must be told before sundown, or they will quit working and die. Huck adds that “Jim said bees wouldn’t sting idiots; but I didn’t believe that, because I had tried them lots of times myself, and they wouldn’t sting me.”

This joke is perfect. Huck dismisses Jim’s claim on the certainty that he is not an idiot, even as he tells us that he routinely hassles bees. The certainty of idiots is the wellspring of humor in Huckleberry Finn, whether it’s the Duke’s self-taught impersonation of quality or Tom’s convictions about how a prisoner must be freed. Jim is the only character wise enough to think of himself as ignorant. The rest, from the robbers on the steamboat to Tom’s relatives down south, are proud and suffer the comedy to which pride invariably descends. The novel is essentially a series of sketches on this theme. What elevates it to the level of art—above Twain’s many other humorous sketches and even his novel-length works—is that it centers on the deadly-serious topic of slavery. In the same way the nation’s was a decade before the novel was written, Huck’s soul is at stake. Fortunately, he has staked it on the one thing he isn’t wrong about.

It’s a good thing Twain has this inexhaustible source of tension to hold the novel together, because the plot is a wreck. It’s a picaresque, basically, but the Duke and Dauphin characters metastasize into the whole second act. Just as they become the most important antagonists in the novel, though, we leave them behind. By that point the reader is not sad to see them go—and neither is Twain, it seems—but their departure signals the beginning of the novel’s infamously bad ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it turns on the sudden (improbable) appearance of Tom Sawyer, who insists on a harebrained scheme whose very premise is that it is unnecessary. Twain is a master, and he makes it work as well as it can, but the sense of anticlimax is overwhelming. Huck’s struggle with his conscience has been real, and so has his relationship with Jim. Once these emotional stakes are established, they make Tom’s hijinks feel like a waste of time.

Huckleberry Finn might be my favorite novel. I would even go so far as to argue it is the best American novel of the 19th century, since that is a deceptively soft field. But the bad ending raises unsettling questions about the comic novel as a form. Twain is surely among the funniest to ever do it, and his skill at the sentence level is particular and underrated. Yet even he had to resort to picaresque, which is not a plot so much as a structure, and he still couldn’t stick the landing. If Huckleberry Finn is one of the best comic novels of all time, we may be forced to concede that such novels do not operate on plot. That’s a troubling possibility for those of us who believe the best comedy comes from characters and events. If there are reliable comic plots beyond the farce and picaresque, they have yet to be established.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature, and boy, are we running behind schedule. Work money blah blah. In order that we might not read 20 books in December, we’re going with something quick next: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. Join us!

“Kidnap” came from 17th-century abductors of the Virginia Company

A boatload of prospective wives arrives at Jamestown.

Now that school is starting up again, it’s time for children across America to return to claiming to read books. Of course, it’s vitally important that no person—child or adult—read a book for real, lest they become a nerd. Yet knowing things continues to have value. The trick is to get other people to read books and then explain the good parts to you. In this way did I learn an amazing fact from Slate’s Osita Nwanevu via Twitter, about the origins of the word “kidnap.” Nwanevu is reading The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette, from which he excerpts this passage:

When the new “partners” of the Virginia Company arrived in America, they found to their dismay that they were conscripts, coerced into gang labor under martial law. Everything they produced was to belong to the company, so they had no incentive to work. Half or more of them died shortly after arrival. As word got out that Virginia was a death trap, agents, popularly known as “spirits,” went combing the street for potential indentured servants for the colony—a process that included abducting children, bringing the phrase “spirited away” into popular usage, as well as the word “kidnap.”

Now there’s a robust argument for privatization. Never forget that the United States began as a for-profit venture, and that for the first couple of centuries, more Americans were descended from abductees than from yeoman farmers. Also, the period the Sublettes describe roughly coincided with the writing of Shakespeare’s last plays.

If you want to understand early American history, the thing to remember is that it was the English Renaissance without the learning. The urban poor who composed the bulk of early colonial immigration were not much more than medieval. Particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area, where the Company emphasized profit above all else, they were woefully unsuited to life in a rural environment. The first rounds of settlers failed to plant crops or otherwise provide for the coming winter, in many cases just wandering off into the woods to search for gold.

In Jamestown, the death rate during the winter of 1607—known as the “starving time”—reached 68 percent. Better planning and a continual influx of willing immigrants, abducted English, European servants and African slaves kept the Chesapeake Bay colonies going for the next three decades, but the mortality rate hovered around 28 percent. Virginia was an investment for the Company and an abattoir for almost everyone else. Even as the introduction of tobacco farming gave the colony a sustainable economy and, eventually, a modicum of decent living, the distinction between rich and poor shaped everything.

Consider Bacon’s Rebellion. By 1676, Jamestown had a robust tobacco industry that continually moved settlement west. Tobacco quickly depletes the soil, and this depletion combined with increasing land prices near the coast to push newly freed members of Virginia’s growing servant class into Indian territory. Westward expansion led to conflict with the Doeg, causing poor planters along the frontier to complain that governor William Berkeley wasn’t doing enough to protect them. Led by Berkeley’s rival Nathaniel Bacon, several hundred of these frontiersmen took up arms against the colonial government, driving Berkeley from Jamestown and burning the capitol.

Historians cite Bacon’s Rebellion as a turning point in America’s development as a slave society. Realizing that their reliance on indentured servants kept renewing the class of disenfranchised whites, the wealthy landowners of Chesapeake Bay turned to slaves, who offered the same benefits but never had to be freed. The creation of a new caste of Virginian below the white indentured servant also replaced class conflict with race conflict. Poor farmers and laborers who saw the governing class of Virginia as their enemies now saw them as their fellow whites. The shift from indentured servitude to slave labor was a deliberate effort by the ruling class of Chesapeake Bay to reduce political instability.

Anyway, the colonists came to America looking for freedom, which didn’t exist in England, and were helped by friendly Indians, who definitely taught them to plant crops and love nature instead of groping for gold in the woods until they cannibalized one another to survive. The middle-school version of colonial history is not accurate, but it’s easy to remember. The other, more complete version is useful to remember when you hear some Tea Party type appeal to constitutional values and the spirit of early American “patriots,” whose loyalty to country more strongly resembled a psychotic commitment to profit during for the first couple centuries. The old way worked, in the sense that here we are today, but it was not anything a modern person would call good. The colonies we imagine we remember are mostly an Eden: useful as a metaphor for our failure to live up to our present ideals, but not something that actually existed.

Friday links! Half-remembered pasts edition

Parker Posey in Kicking And Screaming

Parker Posey in Kicking And Screaming

First of all, sorry for scaring everybody yesterday. I’m still vertiginous, and the Missoula health care system is still unwilling to care for my health on shorter notice than it takes to quit a job at Taco Bell, but I have not given up on life. One reason I will not just sicken and die is that I live in a tower of iron will. Remember the six months in 2007 when I broke my hand, dislocated my shoulder and tore my transverse abdominus? This is not as bad as that, although I’m pretty sure music was better then. It’s hard to remember, because drugs were better, too. Today is Friday, and I suspect that everything was easier in the past, but I can’t prove it. Won’t you compare epochs with me?

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Friday links! Recognize I’m a fool and you love me edition


Nietzsche wrote that it is meaningless to say this life is good or bad, because we have nothing to compare it to. I feel the same way about people. It seems like the general run of them is infuriatingly stupid and awful, plus proud, and this feeling only intensifies when you get the internet. But to whom are we comparing them? The dead people we know from history are instances of selection bias, and our selves are not exactly paragons. It’s possible that all men are fools, as Boileau says, and with every effort they differ only in degree. You have to love them, though, because your alternative is to be miserable. Today is Friday, and other people pit our honesty against our happiness. Won’t you try to broker a settlement with me?

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Thursday scary graph jam

If only there were some way to make this graph that did not put percentages on both axes. That would be class warfare, though. You’re looking at a visual representation of historical US income inequality that is A) extremely conjectural in red and blue, and B) terrifying. It’s from this article in the Atlantic, which tentatively alleges that ours is a less equal America than it was on the eve of the Revolution and the Civil War. Numerous qualifications after the jump.

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