Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

A Partial "Reassurance of Fratricide": Redefining National Unity in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

A Partial "Reassurance of Fratricide": Redefining National Unity in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Article excerpt


In his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson writes that Mark Twain provided "the first indelible image of black and white as American 'brothers': Jim and Huck companionably adrift on the wide Mississippi" (203). This remark is included in a section entitled "The Reassurance of Fratricide," in Chapter 11, "Memory and Forgetting," and, for Anderson, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is clearly an archetypal example of how culture can strengthen-and help create-national unity through a rewriting of history in which previous tensions and divisions and, indeed, bloody conflicts are re-presented as part of "family history" (201). This type of re-imagining and redefining of the national community is a typical, and even necessary, process, Anderson suggests, in a period after the initial creation of a nation-state, in which it is "no longer possible to experience the nation as new, at the wave-top moment of rupture" (203), and, one might add, even more necessary after a period of major internal conflict.

That culture is an important and indeed integral part of creating, maintaining and defining national unity is widely acknowledged. As Anthony D. Smith points out, "In the Western model of national identity nations were seen as culture communities, whose members were united, if not made homogenous, by common historical memories, myths, symbols and traditions" (11). Smith specifically mentions "novels, plays and journals" as some of the "popular modes of communication" that help create national consciousness and, ultimately, na- tions (60); and Anderson, not surprisingly, also sees novels as one of the forms of expression, along with newspapers, that "provided the technical means for 're-presenting' the kind of imagined community that is the nation" (25). The shared national culture, created in part with the help of novels, lends legitimacy to the nation-state, reinforcing the impression that its control rightfully extends over the country's entire population, no matter how diverse. And while culture can address a wide variety of aspects potentially related to governmental legitimacy, an important one in the Western conception of the nation, as Smith also points out, is "the acceptance that, in principle, all members of the nation are legally equal and that the rich and powerful are bound by the laws of the patria" (10).

It is, in fact, this idea of equality that Anderson implicitly focuses on in his remarks about Huckleberry Finn. IfTwain presents Jim and Huck "companionably adrift on the wide Mississippi," it is, in part, through a rewriting of history, which suggests that the American community has been redefined and enlarged, transforming, in the world of the novel, formerly opposed groups into members of the same "family," now presented on an equal footing, reflecting the American nation as it was supposedly fundamentally changed by the Civil War.

The novel's presentation of race relations, however, is more ambiguous than Anderson suggests. If Huck does seem to accept the escaped slave Jim as a "brother," all of the implications of this fraternal attitude-notably a complete and genuine equality-are not fully realized. Huck, in fact, retains much of the white racist outlook of the Southern antebellum setting of the story, suggesting that Twain was well aware that a romanticized rewriting of history, by itself, couldn't completely transform fratricide into fraternity, at least not at that point in time.

Furthermore, it is significant that the novel, first published in England in 1884 and in the United States in 1885,' was written over the relatively long period from 1876 to 1883, thus during a time when the rights of blacks in the South were actually declining after a brief phase of improvement during the years immediately following the Civil War. Twain's work, in fact, also includes a severe, though veiled, criticism of the race relations of the post-war period and, more specifically, the post-Reconstruction present of its composition. …

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