Light Out for the Territory
Huckleberry Finn | CCA Wattis Institute, 2010
Huckleberry Finn was recently on display as one among a series of exhibitions based on American literature at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts; I didn’t see the exhibition, but I do intend to review the catalogue. Some may question the wisdom or usefulness of this. I would say that, in the first place, the catalogue is a very fetching book and I wanted to have it: It’s bound in green cloth, the cover is adorned in gold with the Edward W. Kemble design from the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and inside one will find a fold-out map of Huck and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi. Second, one’s opinion should not be denied merely because it has no basis in experience. Before starting this review, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I still would have told anyone who bothered to listen that I believed it was the greatest American novel of all time, and for that matter, that Mark Twain was the greatest American of all time, topping F.D.R., Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Abraham Lincoln. It turned out that I was right (about the book, at least), and my opinion is now that Huckleberry Finn, although it drags in parts, is that good. In fact, it is so good that the exhibition from which it takes its inspiration looks a little pale in proximity.
The show’s weakness is not for lack of star-power: Andy Warhol, Kara Walker, and Glenn Ligon are among the artists in the show. But only Ligon’s piece—a fugitive slave poster with his own name on it—begins to vaguely approach Twain’s humor and sensitivity. There are a number of works that seem to have been provided to provide historical atmosphere and context—a Thomas Nast cartoon and a Henry Lewis lithograph, among others—but their presence feels overly didactic and they don’t enter into real tension with the contemporary works.
The curator Jens Hoffman writes in the introductory essay, “the exhibition was specifically, even vehemently, organized to revolve around one character, Jim, and with that gesture to put the focus of the show on one subject, race.” The decision to focus on Jim is understandable—Huckleberry Finn continues to be a racial bugbear, mostly because of its use of the word “nigger”—but the results are ultimately a little disappointing. The book’s virtues when it comes to race, as well as its shortcomings, are patent: Twain does a magnificent job skewering racism and the despicable romance of the antebellum South, but he does fall a little short with the character of Jim, not giving him enough of a voice. But even on that count, Jim’s minstrelsy is badly exaggerated by the book’s more hysterical opponents. While it’s true that Jim’s stereotyped drawl and ignorance can make one cringe, he is not the crude Sambo figure that some say he is; he lacks resentment but not pride, and he does not hesitate to reproach Huck for a particularly nasty trick. He may not be a fully fleshed-out figure, but neither is he the product of a deeply held, malicious racism. In general, one can say that, in his time, Twain’s racial beliefs were progressive, and today they seem backward. Maybe that’s a summary assessment of the matter, but Twain’s racial thought was not so nuanced as to deny summary, so I believe it’s probably correct.
Given the relative ease with which it’s now possible to navigate through the racial thorns of the novel, one would have wished the show went deeper than the rather salutary and edifying use of Jim as an icon for the “archetypal desire to be free, a wish shared by every human.” I would hazard that Huckleberry Finn is not primarily about race; it is first and foremost about the thorough wickedness of society and an effort to escape its moral squalor. Racism is the worst, cruelest expression of what our culture in its collective non-thought is capable of, and Twain uses it to sum up all of its small-mindedness, its hypocrisy, and its preoccupation with the petty and gross.
It’s laudable that our understanding of racism has become more sophisticated than Twain’s in 1884, but we should not be too quick to congratulate ourselves: we have lost the gumption with which Twain indicted the stupidity of the world at large. It seems old-fashioned to raise a cry against the corrupting influence of civilization, a jejune throwback to romanticism or Rousseau, but it’s still worthwhile. We often question this or that institution, or celebrate “transgression” against restrictive norms, but we scarcely pay attention to somebody who would be simple-minded enough to question the whole enterprise. This kind of simplicity is not necessarily a flaw when it reflects the truth: The world Huck and Jim find themselves in is repulsive and evil, while they are good. They are enslaved literally and figuratively, and they have an almost instinctive need to escape; Huck just will not be “sivilized,” nor will he be kept locked up by his abusive Pap. It’s telling that that word—freedom—seems almost hackneyed today. The real question, which the catalogue does not tackle, is if the ideal of freedom that Twain professes—and that Huck and Jim aspire to—is still a possibility in contemporary America.
We have certainly lost the metaphysical wilderness into which Huck, Jim—or Thoreau for that matter—could “light out for.” Our thoughts are frequently bent toward trying to make a cold society more livable by small degrees or by fostering stifling communities and subcultures; social media directs our focus on our peers at all times, whose previously-concealed combination of inane and trite thoughts we all must gently tolerate in order to not become terrible snobs and misanthropes. And it seems to be widely agreed upon that it is within these numbing forms of public association that our human aspirations are best satisfied. But Huckleberry Finn should remind us that there is something degrading to the spirit about constantly dealing with other people and negotiating conventions, and that what is customary might be concealing what is in truth brutal. Also—and most importantly perhaps—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a very funny book. In the face of all our trifling self-seriousness, our hollow pieties, and what so often lamely passes for irony and satire today, it’s probably Twain’s wit that we most sorely miss.