A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

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