Reinventing the World and Reinventing the Self in Huck Finn
Kravits, Bennett, Papers on Language & Literature
When Huck Finn reaches the "freedom" of Jackson's Island he believes he has fulfilled his American destiny by imposing his will upon the world. Indeed, Huck evaluates his situation when he arrives on the island as follows: "But the next day I was exploring around down through the Island. I was boss of it; it all belonged to me, so to say, and I wanted to know all about it; but mainly I wanted to put in the time" (64). After staging his own death, Huck arrives on the Island convinced he will be able to abandon civilization and refashion himself in a world of his own. Unconsciously, however, Huck has latched on to one of the most prominent American Dreams, one that appears--in Pierre Macherey's terms--in the margins or the "non-dit" of the text: the dream of domination in the guise of creating a new world, or settling a virgin land (85-88). By setting out to construct a new world--one in which he will become an active self-fashioner rather than the passive participant he had been in the Widow's "sivilized" world--Huck imagines he will be able to avoid the very conflicts Twain has assembled for him throughout the novel. Feeling "pretty satisfied," as he so often does at the beginning of a new adventure, Huck believes himself free of the major interpersonal conflicts that pursue him consistently throughout his quest. No longer will he have to resolve the dilemmas of freedom versus friendship, solitude versus solidarity, and Christian, Puritan conscience versus the natural, pagan values of the "noble savage." But Huck undermines himself in the very passage in which he claims to be "boss of it" all. Huck ends his rumination with the idea that he is "put(ting) in the time." At the very moment Huck seems to control his world, he admits that his main objective is to keep busy and avoid the feelings of loneliness and solitude that attack him whenever Twain decides that Huck is feeling too satisfied.
The image of the virgin land in new-world and American ideology needs no introduction. From Columbus and the Puritans, through the destruction of the Native American tribes, new-world settlers have imagined a green, virgin space waiting to be taken over by yet another version of God's chosen people. Twain, it seems, was aware of this American fantasy, and the rich and complex themes of Huck Finn appear to revolve around this central "unsaid" theme. Though Twain may on occasion have disparaged American Indians in his writings, it does not mean he was unaware of or opposed to his ancestors' hegemonic behavior towards native Americans and even the European settlers who were not orthodox Puritans. (1) In an 1881 speech given to the New England Society of Philadelphia, Twain portrays an understanding of the initial American mission that would only begin to gain acceptability in the American mind close to a century later. The tolerance for the Other implicit in his treatment of America's "errand into the wilderness" should remain a lasting testimonial to Twain's attitude toward one civilization impinging itself upon another in the name of freedom:
My first American ancestor, gentlemen, was an Indian--an early Indian. Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. Later ancestors of mine were the Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, et al. Your tribe chased them out of the country for their religion's sake; promised them death if they came back; for your ancestors had forsaken the home they loved, and braved the perils of the sea, implacable climate, and the savage wilderness, to acquire the highest and most precious of boons, freedom for every man on this broad continent to worship according to the dictates of his conscience--they were not going to allow a lot of pestiferous Quakers to interfere with it. Your ancestors broke forever the chains of political slavery, and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none!--none except those who did not belong to the orthodox church. Your ancestors--yes, they were a hard lot; but nevertheless, they gave us religious liberty to worship as they required us to worship, and political liberty to vote as the church required; and so the bereft one, the forlorn one, am here to do my best to help you celebrate them right. …