“Huck And Tom in Minnysota” — Robert Coover

“Huck And Tom in Minnysota”

An episode from Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West

It was up in Minnysota that Tom made up his mind to give over cowboying and take on the law. Becky Thatcher was the daughter of a judge and maybe she give him the idea how to set about doing it. Before that him and me was mostly adventuring round the Territories without no thoughts about the next day. We run away from home all them years ago because Tom was bored and hankered to chase after what he said was the noble savages. At first they was the finest people in the world and Tom wanted to join up with them, and then they was the wickedest that ever lived and they should all get hunted down and killed, he couldn’t make up his mind. Some boys in a wagonload of immigrants we come across early on learnt us how to ride and shoot and throw a lasso so that we got to be passing good at all them things.

That story turned poorly and we never seen what was left of them afterward, but ending stories was less important to Tom than beginning them, so we was soon off to other adventures that he thought up or read about in a book or heard tell of. Sometimes they was fun, sometimes they warn’t, but for Tom Sawyer they was all as needful as breathing. He couldn’t stand a day that didn’t have an adventure in it, and he warn’t satisfied until he’d worked in five or six.

Once, whilst we was still humping mail pouches back and forth across the desert on our ponies, I come on a rascally fellow named Bill from near where we come from. He was also keen on adventures and he was heading back east to roust up a gang of bushwhackers in our state to kill jayhawks over in the next one. The way he told it, he had a bunch of swell fellows joining his gang and he wondered if Tom and me might be interested. With the war betwixt the states starting, there were lots of gangs forming up and making sport of burning down one another’s towns, which seemed like sure enough adventures, not just something out of books, so maybe we was looking in the wrong place. But when I told Tom about it the next time we crossed up at a relay station, he says he reckoned he’d just stay out west and maybe get up a gang of his own, because he couldn’t see no profit in going back. But I knowed that warn’t the real reason. The real reason was he couldn’t be boss of it.

Read the rest of “Huck And Tom in Minnysota” at Conjunctions.

“Twain Is the Day, Melville the Night” — Roberto Bolaño on U.S. Writers

The following excerpt comes from Raul Schenardi’s 2003 interview with Roberto Bolaño, conducted at the Turin Book Fair just months before the author’s death. The interview is written in Italian (although I’m not sure if it was conducted in Italian). The translation work is the result of two programs (Google Translate and Babel Fish) and a few dictionaries; I also used this Spanish translation as a second source for comparison.

. . .  in all Latin American writers is an influence that comes from two main lines of the American novel, Melville and Twain. [The Savage] Detectives no doubt owes much to Mark Twain. Belano and Lima are a transposition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It’s a novel that follows the constant movement of the Mississippi. . . . I also read a lot of Melville, which fascinates me. Indeed, I flirt with the belief that I have a greater debt to Melville than Twain, but unfortunately I owe more to Mark Twain. Melville is an apocalyptic author. Twain is the day, Melville  the night — and always much more impressive at night. In regard to modern American literature, I know it poorly. I know just up to the generation previous to Bellow. I have read enough of Updike, but do not know why; surely it was a masochistic act, as each page Updike brings me to the edge of hysteria. Mailer I like better than Updike, but I think as a writer, a prose writer, Updike is more solid. The last American writers I’ve read thoroughly and I know well are those of the “Lost Generation,” Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolff.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: One of Our Favorite Challenged Books

E.W. Kemble's frontispiece to the original 1884 edition
E.W. Kemble’s frontispiece to the original illustrated edition

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, undoubtedly one of the Great American Novels, ranks a healthy #5 on the ALA’s list the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Young Huck’s casual colloquial use of the word “nigger” and the cruel hijinks Huck and Tom play on Jim at the novel’s end are two reasons that many have sought to suppress Twain’s masterpiece, including educator and critic John Wallace, who famously called it “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever given our children to read.” Wallace went so far as to suggest that “Any teacher caught trying to use that piece of trash with our children should be fired on the spot, for he or she is either racist, insensitive, naive, incompetent or all of the above.”

I guess I should’ve been fired on the spot, as I’ve used Huck Finn in my classroom a number of times, almost always in conjunction with excerpts from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, some Philis Wheatley poems, and a UN report on modern human trafficking. Context is everything.

While I can concede readily that Huck, the voice of the novel, says some pretty degrading things about Jim, often meant (on Twain’s part) to create humor for the reader, to expect Twain’s treatment of race to be what we in the 21st century want it to be is to not treat the material with any justice. And while Huck Finn may be insensitive at times, it handles the issues of race, slavery, class, and escape from the dominant social order with the complexity and thought that such weighty issues deserve. Ultimately, the novel performs a critique on the hypocrisy of a “Christian,” “democratic” society that thought it was okay to buy and sell people. This critique shows up right in the second page. Consider these lines (boldface mine):

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them,—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Huck’s dream is of a delicious mix, a swapping of juices — integration. Additionally, his disregard for the dead Bible heroes reveals that the white Christian society’s obsession with the ancient past comes at the expense of contemporary value. Huck, an orphan, and Jim, separated from his family, will symbolically echo Moses in the bulrushes as they use the great Mississippi as a conduit for escape, for freedom. Huck (or Twain, really) here points out that it’s not enough to look at dead words on a page, on old dead lawgivers–we have to pay attention to the evils and wrongs and hypocrisies that live today.

Twain even tells us how to read his book from the outset:

Now, it’s impossible to read a book–a good book–without finding its plot, searching for its moral, or caring about its characters, and Twain knows this. His “Notice” is tantamount to saying “don’t think about an elephant”–he uses irony to tell us we must find motive, moral, and plot here, and that we must do so through this lens of irony.

But of course, you have to read closely for all these things. I suppose it’s technically easier to call something trash, throw it in the garbage, and not have to devote time and energy to thinking about it. Who knows? You might learn something–and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this piece in September of 2008].