Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Seven Recent Commentaries on Mark Twain. (Essay-Review)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Seven Recent Commentaries on Mark Twain. (Essay-Review)

Article excerpt

Jonathan Arac. "Huckleberry Finn" as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Ken Burns. Mark Twain. Television documentary, 2002.

Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in "Huckleberry Finn." Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Leland Krauth. Proper Mark Twain. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Stacey Margolis. "Huckleberry Finn; or, Consequences." PMLA 116.2 (March 2001): 329-43.

Elaine Mensh and Harry Mensh. Black, White and "Huckleberry Finn": Reimagining the American Dream. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Carl F. Wieck. Refiguring "Huckleberry Finn." Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

It seems like such a simple scene: two white boys and a black man whose name is Jim escape to a raft, but one of the white boys and the black man decide to stop their flight because the other boy has been wounded and needs a doctor. The passage has no Melvillean hieroglyphs or Jamesian secret codes. Surely late-twentieth-century literary criticism, with all its state-of-the-art sophistication and jargon, would be able to establish interpretive norms for a plausible reading-explaining why the characters behave as they do, and what it all means. Yet just the opposite is the case. Critics cannot even agree on why Jim says what he does, much less whether the whole scene is ironic or not, or what kinds of historical contexts should help us have a coherent conversation about it.

The book in question, of course, is Huckleberry Finn, and the scene the ending of chapter forty. Consider the following excerpts from recent books attempting to interpret this passage. Each is intelligently argued, but together they are about as mutually incompatible as two readings can possibly be.

 
   Vowing to risk his freedom for Tom, Jim asks, rhetorically: if Tom 
   were being set free and "one er de boys wuz to git shot," would Tom 
   say, "save me, nemmine `bout a doctor f'r to save dis one?" You can 
   bet "mars Tom Sawyer" wouldn't. Having evoked his torturer as his 
   model, Jim swears fidelity to him: "No, sah--I doan' budge a step 
   out'n dis place, 'dout a doctor; not ef it's forty year!" 
   (chap. 40). That Jim identifies himself as "one er de boys" reveals 
   a self-image acquired from the black image in the white mind. Once 
   a man with plans to bring his wife and children out of slavery, he 
   is now too young even to think of family. He is also young enough 
   to assure the junior master forty more years of servitude. 
   Bizarrely juvenilized, he is also grotesquely feminized. In a dress 
   again when captured, he is praised by his captor, the doctor, for 
   his faithfulness and exemplary nursing.... [W]hile the slaveowners 
   may believe blacks are encoding dangerous messages, the reader knows 
   it is Tom who decides what Jim will say, blocks out the letters, 
   and ... leaves him "nothing to do but just follow the lines." 
   (chap. 38) 
 
      If one considers only the behavior of the whites during the 
   ending, one might agree ... that the ending "satirize[s] the 
   principle and practice of white supremacy." In reality, though, it 
   is impossible to satirize/subvert the myth of white supremacy while 
   reiterating the myths of black gullibility, passivity, dependency, 
   and so forth. (Mensh and Mensh 93-94, 97) 
 
   Their faith in Tom was properly placed, degrading though it was. 
   In this respect, Tom accomplishes more than the region he 
   represents accomplished as an integrated "new South." 
 
   But Twain pushes us into a second reversal so rapidly that we race 
   past this point. Tom has been injured, and Jim and Huck's rejoicing 
   quickly ends. The pair turn their immediate attention and concern 
   to Tom. How characteristic of these two, as we have come to know 
   them! … 
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