Off the Raft: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jane Smiley's the All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

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In the long history of Harper's magazine, the most letters ever received about an article was in response to a 1996 essay by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley entitled "Say It Ain't So, Huck"(Berube 693). In this now-notorious piece, Smiley took on the exalted critical status of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, questioning its preeminent role in American literary history and positing Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a superior model for American literature. For Smiley, the most notable problem with Huckleberry Finn was that Twain took the public question of race and removed it to the private sphere. It was only on the raft floating down the Mississippi away from societal constraints that Huck was able to overcome the racist attitudes of his culture and understand Jim as a man. But far from being a solution, Huck's change of heart simply illustrates the problem for Smiley.

If Huck feels positive toward Jim, and loves him, and thinks of him as a
man, then that's enough. He doesn't actually have to act in accordance
with his feelings. White Americans always think racism is a feeling, and
they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans, it seems more
honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably
fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black
Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American
culture, American politics, and the American economy. To invest The
[sic] Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with "greatness" is to underwrite a
very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is and to promulgate
it, philosophically, in schools and the media as well as in academic
journals ("Say" 63).

This extended quotation captures the force of Smiley's argument as well as much of what proved controversial following the article's publication. In attacking Huck's personal transformation, Smiley doesn't simply say the novel fails (by now a familiar debate); she argues instead that the problem of the novel is where it succeeds. By placing Huck's feelings at the center of the book, Twain derails any kind of structural understanding of racism. Racism becomes a personal matter rather than a political one, allowing readers to substitute feeling for action.

It is precisely the opposite quality that stands out in Uncle Tom's Cabin for Smiley. She claims that the broader scope of Stowe's novel allows Stowe to present a range of voices--whites who are pro- as well as anti-slavery, blacks who emerge as heroic as well as psychologically wounded by their enslavement--so that the issue never boils down to a question of individual attitude. Even more crucially, in Uncle Tom's Cabin personal relationships are never removed from politics. The racist structure of slaveholding society supplants, in many cases, bonds of friendship, of loyalty, and, most importantly, of family.

Stowe never forgets the logical end of any relationship in which one
person is the subject and the other is the object. No matter how the two
people feel, or what their intentions are, the logic of the relationship
is inherently tragic and traps both parties until the false subject/
object relationship is ended. Stowe's most oft-repeated and potent
representation of this inexorable logic is the forcible separation of
family members, especially of mothers from children (65).

Essentially, what Smiley admires is that Stowe's novel takes place "off the raft." In Uncle Tom's Cabin, there is no space where relations of power can be transcended, no space where the personal is not also always political. For Stowe, all personal interactions, even of the most intimate nature, are implicated in power relationships and reflective of the unequal distribution of power under the regime of slavery. For Smiley, this makes Stowe's novel a more thoughtful and more meaningful meditation on the place of slavery in nineteenth-century American culture. …