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!

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