Biographers' Twain, Critics' Twain, Which of the Twain Wrote the "Evasion"?

By Henrickson, Gary P. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Biographers' Twain, Critics' Twain, Which of the Twain Wrote the "Evasion"?


Henrickson, Gary P., The Southern Literary Journal


So there wasn't nothing more to write about, and rotten glad of it, and I looked up, and there was Tom Sawyer hangin' over my shoulder. Tom says, "Why blame it, Huck, where's your unity?"

"Unity? What's that?"

"I don't know. But you got to have one; I've seen it in books."

"But how can I put it in if I don't know what it is?"

"How you talk, Huck Finn. You've got to put it in. All the best authorities say so."

"Well, I don't take no stock in it. Mighty soon we'd have the book so cluttered up with unity, there won't be no place for nothin else."

If I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it.

--The Revised Adventures of Huck Finn

Between 1950 and 1991, there were no fewer than 80 publications--articles, chapters, monographs--defending the ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and innumerable discussions in longer works. There have been other controversies in Mark Twain studies, notably the Brooks-De Voto brouhaha, but nothing like this. As John Gerber has noted, "about a third of the work [on Huckleberry Finn in the last three decades has consisted of analyses of the narrative's form, the relation of the parts to one another and to the whole" (9). In a review essay in 1980, Alan Cribben suggested the controversy was, at last, over: "barely one or two articles a year glow red again on the issue of the Huckleberry Finn ending" (107). But his announcement seems to have been premature. As late as 1988, the editors of the Mark Twain Journal felt it necessary to publish a warning: "... the Mark Twain Journal is not looking for yet another defense of the ending of Huckleberry Finn ..." ("Contributions Wanted" 32). And a survey of four major collections of essays published after 1980, by Louis J. Budd (1985), M. Thomas Inge (1985), Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley (1985), and, oddly, Harold Bloom (1986), shows that essays on the "evasion" continued to dominate Huck Finn criticism.

Three out of seven essays in the Bloom collection, seven out of 24 essays in the Sattelmeyer collection, seven out of 16 essays in the Inge collection (in the section titled "Modern Criticism"), and two of the four the Budd collection are, in whole or in part, dedicated to the issue of the ending of Huck Finn. (1) More to the point, perhaps, since collections are inevitably retrospective, virtually all of the Sattelmeyer and all of the Budd essays are new essays. Further, the decade of the 1980s saw no fewer than 29 publications focussed in whole or in part on the ending. Finally, in 1990 the Mark Twain Journal, despite its earlier warning, published a fifty-four page monograph by Dennis Spininger defending the "evasion" episode, and a year later Victor Doyno devoted an entire chapter of Writing Huck Finn to still another defense of the episode. All of which testifies to the durability, perhaps invincibility, of the controversy.

Obviously, a forty-odd year controversy has a long and complicated history; this history will not be discussed here. (2) However, as more than one critic has noted, the birth and growth of the controversy over the ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have coincided with the birth and growth of the New Criticism and its critical offspring. In the beginning of the debate, Leo Marx had remarked the tendency of Eliot and Trilling to feel "obligated" to defend the ending, to reduce the issue of the "evasion" episode to a matter of form. As Huck might have put it, form is "pie" to a New Critic. Better than pie is showing how a text which seems formless is actually a unified whole. And as Hershel Parker has suggested, the New Critical emphasis on form seems to have passed on to succeeding critical theories. According to Parker not just the New Critics but also phenomenologists, structuralists, reader-response critics, deconstructionists, feminists, and post-structuralist Freudians have frequently shown "an overriding compulsion to make sense of the printed text at all costs" ("New Scholarship" 182). …

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