A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Last days of summer

The final days of summer — a long summer — are upon us, and glancing over the past few months, I find they’ve been not been spent poorly. My own corona malaise therapy has consisted of Mark Twain (I just finished The Prince and the Pauper, a fine tale for children of all ages), Scott Joplin (my wife has taken up my encouragement to study a few of his compositions to offer on a possible program or recording), and my children (guiding them through what has been a difficult season for all of us; so far, so good). In New York, we look forward with some trepidation to the fall: a few days of school a week at most, and I continue to work from home. I admit this has not been a productive time, an admission to which the lack of new posts on this blog should be adequate testimony. But onward, ever onward, if not often upward.

In the meantime, a little news from the usual suspects that I’d like to share. Tomorrow night Christoph Mueller, who’s been a frequent subject of these posts, will celebrate the opening of Matters of Mind, a retrospective of his work at the Ludwig Forum in his home town of Aachen, Germany. Alas, I will be unable to attend this feast of original artwork and painstakingly constructed miniatures of Sassafras County’s Green Valley in the early 20th century (a town reminiscent, perhaps, of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio), but anyone on the continent who finds themselves on the westernmost edge of Germany through January 10 of next year, when the exhibition closes, may wish to drop in. More information on the exhibition can be found here; he is also contributing the cover art to the next issue of the fine Mineshaft magazine, due in the next month or two.

Another Mineshaft contributor, R. Crumb, may be looking forward to the publication of Crumb’s World in January 2021, a catalogue that documents the fine exhibition of the artist’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery last year. (I originally wrote about it for this blog, but alas the short essay has gone rambling off.) Curator Robert Storr provides essays about Crumb’s career, setting much of this sometimes difficult work in the context of the culture in which Crumb found himself. Speaking of which, Crumb’s opinion of the current GOP candidate can be found here.

Mr. Crumb plays a mean ukelele, which itself can be heard on Live at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Vol. 1 from Eden and John’s East River String Band. Just out on both CD and vinyl, this brand new release features the best of their live performances at the Jalopy Theater over the past decade; Crumb, Eden, and John are joined by a variety of other excellent musicians, such as Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, Geoff Wiley, and Jackson Lynch. The vinyl goes for about 24 smackeroos, the CD for about half that. I’ll be ordering this when the next paycheck comes in, but in the meantime I can keep up with John Heneghan through his highly recommendable John’s Old Time Radio Show. I first wrote about the ERSB here.

Kraus in English

Update: Speaking of Kraus’s play The Last Days of Mankind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Austrian artist Deborah Sengl’s 2014 “staging” of the play at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuberg bei Wien — with, somehow appropriately, stuffed rats. Marjorie Perloff also contributed an essay to the book about the exhibition.


This week Yale University Press released a complete translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms of Karl Kraus’s late masterpiece The Third Walpurgis Night. Formerly available only in excerpts, the anti-Nazi polemic was written in 1933 but withheld from publication, to be published only in 1952, almost two decades after Kraus’s death. It is a diatribe against the Nazis, of course, but it’s also a diatribe against the media, both left and right, that created them. Writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction:

In the Age of Trump, Kraus’s book could hardly be more timely. … In its brilliant and cruel dissection of the Nazi media of 1933, The Third Walpurgisnacht is … a truly prophetic work.

It’s winging its way to me now, per Barnes & Noble, though you’d best order it through bookshop.org. I wrote about Prof. Perloff’s fine Edge of Irony, in which she discusses about Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, in 2017; that review is below.


I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire from the University of Chicago Press. The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. She writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, their origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.

Les Choses De La Vie

Christoph Mueller‘s The “Mighty” Millborough: Les Choses De La Vie, published by 6 Pieds Sous Terre just last year, collects over a hundred of Mueller’s adventures of the contemplative isolate Millington F. Millborough, resident of Sassafras County in the 1930s. A polite middle-aged bachelor with a taste for drink, Millborough spends quite a lot of time alone, a solitude that leads him to contemplations about landscape and his place in it. “Some feelings words cannot express,” he muses, meditating on a New England hillside. “Nor music, art or act — only landscape can.” Indeed, a great deal of Les Choses De La Vie considers how the man makes the landscape, and the landscape makes the man. And the book itself, its extreme width and minimal depth, encourages us to approach each page itself as a landscape.

Mueller’s style seems the unholy love child of Little Nemo‘s Winsor McCay and Mutt and Jeff‘s Bud Fisher — backgrounds are lavishly detailed, and his human figures are vaguely ridiculous against it, especially Millborough’s, traipsing through Sassafras County with cigar in hand and lost in self-conscious thought. Of course, it’s this self-consciousness that renders Millborough ridiculous, if sympathetic; it’s the artist who draws character and background together, not the character himself. Although Millborough doesn’t have much luck with the modern world — his battle against automobiles especially is doomed to comic failure — he nonetheless values man-made architectural elegance and grace (more obvious in an earlier, full-color portfolio of Millborough’s adventures). The natural landscape in Millborough’s eyes is prone to surreal transfigurations, as is Millborough’s body in that landscape, the McCay influence; the comic loping bodies of the strip’s characters are straight from Bud Fisher. Millborough’s friends respect him if they don’t understand him — maybe a degree of tolerance we’ve lost in contemporary America, as we’ve lost valuable Millboroughs themselves. Mueller reminds us of what we’ve lost with them.

The “Mighty” Millborough: Les Choses De La Vie has no American publisher, alas, but is available from the French publisher here. (Don’t let the French language deter you; Mueller’s work is just as eloquent without English.) I previously wrote about Mueller here, and tipped my hat to his recent New Yorker cover; a video preview of this particular book is below. It is a gorgeously made collection, inside and out. Pester your American publisher friends, please, about Mr. Mueller’s “Mighty” Millborough.

Tuesday music: Wall Street Rag

About “Wall Street Rag” (1909), from Edward A. Berlin’s King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (Oxford University Press; second edition, 2016):

“Wall Street Rag” [is] a piece that refers to the Wall Street Panic of 1907, and may reflect on employment he reportedly had at the time. … Joplin may have personally observed the distress of Wall Street workers as, according to unconfirmed, but plausible, information, he had been playing piano in a restaurant in New York’s financial district, possibly Fraunces Tavern, at 54 Pearl Street, the historic site where George Washington made his farewell address to his officers. …

“Wall Street Rag” is a highly unusual work. First, it has a programmatic narrative that assigns a different mood to each of the four strains:

A–Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy
B–Good times coming
C–Good times have come
D–Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares

Modest as this narrative is, it reveals several points about Joplin’s perception of ragtime: not all ragtime is “genuine”; only the African American creation is authentic; and genuine ragtime is a happy music, endowed with the power to alter moods.

The program indicates that the piece should begin in a melancholy mood. The obvious musical device to suggest melancholy is the minor mode, but Joplin avoids the obvious. Instead, while in the usually “happy” key of C major, he introduces modal ambiguities and dissonances. Over a C pedal point he presents tonal vagueness with diminished chords, a prominent repetition of the dissonant and tonally ambiguous tritone interval of C–F-sharp, and a suggestion of the minor mode with a flatted sixth degree of A-flat. The final strain is dominated by unprecedented dissonances. These are off-beat discordances — at times, actually tone clusters — placed in a high register. The programmatic intent is probably to suggest the twanging sound of ragtime banjo strumming.

Below, William Appling performs “Wall Street Rag,” from this important collection.