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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Fri, 16 Jan 2015 09:37:55 -0600
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 The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac


_Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece_.
By Andrew Levy. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Pp. 342. Hardcover. $25.00. ISBN
978-1-4391-8696-1 and 978-1-4391-8698-5 (ebook).

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

Kevin Mac Donnell

Copyright (c) 2015 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Jonathan Arac, one of the many scholars cited by Andrew Levy in his new
book, _Huck Finn's America_, wrote that "talking about _Huckleberry Finn_
has made many smart people say foolish things" (215.xxiv). Levy himself
says "writing a provocative book about _Huck Finn_ and Mark Twain is about
the least provocative thing one can do . . . one doesn't say anything new
about _Huck Finn_--a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to
observe. There are original insights in this book, or, at least, original
juxtapositions of older insights [and] there is an effort to bring
arguments known within the academic community to a larger audience" (197).
Levy need not worry about joining the ranks of smart people saying foolish
things. Far from it. He succeeds brilliantly by drawing together the large
body of existing critical analysis of Mark Twain's masterpiece, brightening
the beams of those insights by focusing them together, and then broadening
the resulting illumination with flashes of insight of his own. The seasoned
Mark Twain scholar will blink in pleasant surprise to see familiar themes
in new ways, and the general reader may very well be blinded by the light.
Every reader will appreciate Levy's graceful fluid writing style--free of
scholarly jargon and peppered with elegant turns of phrase--that achieves
an admirable level of concision and clarity.

Levy's very readable writing style is a sign of respect for his reader,
just as medical personnel are increasingly trained to avoid medical
nomenclature as a sign of respect when talking to patients. But this
enjoyable reading experience should not mislead anyone into thinking the
author has not done his homework. His 70,000 word text (approximately
200pp.) is followed by 50,000 words of endnotes (approximately 100pp.) and
a 30pp. bibliography that comes close to being a comprehensive gathering of
the best writings about _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. His endnotes,
filled with interesting commentary, form a very readable narrative of those
writings on _Huck Finn, and this reviewer suggests two ways of approaching
this book: Mark Twain scholars might enjoy reading the endnotes first, and
then reading the main text, while general readers might best enjoy this
book by reading the main text first, referring to the end notes as little
as possible, and then read the endnotes separately. This may seem like
strange advice, but to answer the anticipated question: yes, the endnotes
are that good, and fun to read by themselves.

The book is not flawless, but the factual errors are few and have no
bearing on the gist of the text. Most result from Levy repeating factual
errors from previous scholarship. For example, Twain is described as
joining the Confederate army rather than a state militia (34), the Author's
National Edition is dated 1912 instead of 1910 (164), and he refers to the
Mark Twain and George Washington Cable lecture tour of 1884-85 as the
"Twins of Genius" tour (13, and chapter 7). This apparent error was
introduced into scholarship by Twain's own lecture agent James Pond in 1900
and it was first brought to light in January 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum
by Benjamin Griffin of the Mark Twain Papers who attributed the error to
Pond's own faulty memory. Such mistakes only serve to remind us all that
factual errors, once introduced into the published record, can have very
long lives and effect the very best work of later scholars who rely upon

Levy begins by reviewing Sam Clemens's own life and the broader historical
context that led up to the writing and publication of _Huck Finn_. He
notes, as have others, that Mark Twain's racial views evolved as a result
of his travels, and adds that his views on childhood evolved as a result of
experiencing parenthood (48). He next reviews "bad boy" literature like
George Peck's _Peck's Bad Boy_ and dime novels, and how they were seen as
both reflections of and influences on boys' behavior (51). This has been
studied before, but Levy uncovers contemporary newspaper accounts of crimes
and incidents that are startlingly close to those depicted in _Huck Finn_.
He next makes the observation that Mark Twain "was more radical talking
about children than talking about African-Americans" (56) and later
explains how contemporary reviewers reacted to the book more often as a
depiction of childhood than a depiction of the racial divide (155).

Things heat up when Levy focuses on "Boy No. 2" (William Dean Howells's
name for Huck Finn) in chapter five. Levy says "Tom needs grown-ups. But
Huck does not" (65) and that "Huck wasn't just a bad boy. He was a specific
type, the child . . . who compulsory attendance laws and school finance
schemes like the Blair Education Bill were supposed to repatriate into
society . . . the boy outside the system" (70) and that Tom was "another
type [of bad boy]: the boy on whom literacy was wasted, who read too many
dime novels" (70-1). Tom and Huck have been viewed by many scholars through
the prism of "bad boy" literature, but Levy brings those observations
together with nineteenth century trends in progressive education reform,
nineteenth and twentieth century minstrelsy traditions, dime novels, the
sensationalizing of crime in the media, and other contexts that echo down
to us today. Readers laugh at Tom Sawyer's gang when they attack a Sunday
school picnic (72), but Levy cites numerous gang crime incidents from 1880s
newspapers that are not funny at all, including a robbery and murder
committed by a young white boy and a black man (6-8).

Levy also points out that the models for Tom and Huck were not just the bad
boys whose crimes were making the news, but two of Mark Twain's own
daughters, Clara and Susy, and explains how parenthood and his different
attitudes toward boys and girls came into play (73 et seq.). Levy describes
Mark Twain's fascination with how children develop a conscience, and how
Mark Twain traces this development in his log "A Record of the Small
Foolishnesses," examining both his own moral growth and that of his
daughters. Read side-by-side with _Huck Finn_, new insights and connections
between the two manuscripts emerge. Levy also describes how the manuscript
to _Huck Finn_ was often "closer to the fire than the writing desk" between
1876 and 1883 (83), and how his further writings about children, especially
_The Prince and the Pauper_, brought him back to work on _Huck Finn_. The
conventional view is that writing _The Prince and the Pauper_ drew Mark
Twain's attention away from _Huck Finn_, but Levy draws close parallels
between the youth themes of those two works (84).

The Mark Twain and George Washington Cable 1884-85 tour has been the
subject of two books and many articles, but Levy approaches that famous
tour through a close reading of Cable's various writings--his fiction,
essays, and speeches (113 et seq.). From Mark Twain's perspective, the
point of the tour was to promote his forthcoming book, _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_, and things started out well enough, with the men
performing a sort of minstrel act without blackface (119). However, Mark
Twain did not fully comprehend what it meant when "Cable sang like a
minstrel but wrote like an abolitionist, and that he was going to offer the
American public a straight line to racial integration--with no codes, no
winks, and no hedging [while instead] Twain was going to test the black
voice behind a white face" (120). Levy calls upon the ever-expanding
research into minstrel show traditions and how they are reflected in _Huck
Finn_, often in unexpected ways. It may come as a surprise to some that
blacks sometimes put on white face to mock whites, that blacks attended
minstrel shows, and that some shows included actors wearing faces that were
half white and half black (225-228). Levy also marshals a well-established
body of scholarship to make the case that the famous "evasion chapters" of
_Huck Finn_, from which Mark Twain read during the tour, were packed with
coded language and are a parody of the "convict-lease" programs of the day
that essentially re-enslaved black men (137-8). But when Cable's 'The
Freedman's Case in Equity' was published in the same issue of _The Century
Magazine_ as a chapter from the forthcoming _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_, it drew more attention to Cable than Mark Twain, and Mark Twain's
parody and code language seemed pale by comparison. Cable was pilloried in
the south while black newspapers praised him (145). Mark Twain
simultaneously admired Cable and was jealous, but expressed his annoyance
in other ways (153).

_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ was published at a time when the
newspapers were full of stories about children committing violent crimes
inspired by reading the wrong things, and when books written for American
children were clearly emerging as a separate genre (168). Levy explores
both that context--Huck and Tom as bad boys, and _Huck Finn_ as a book
about childhood--and then traces the "off-spring" of _Huck Finn_ in Mark
Twain's other works featuring characters like Joan of Arc, young Satan, the
teen soldiers in _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ (160 et
seq.). He also traces Huck's off-spring in film, music, and cartoons
through the twentieth century (166) and links Huck to modern depictions of
youth in _Home Alone_, _Ferris Bueller's Day Off_, the Harry Potter films,
and other movies (170, 276). He also discusses how _Huck Finn_ is taught
today (207-8) and even cites in his bibliography a dozen papers written by
Butler University students (326-27). This leads to insights into Huck Finn
and modern theories of childhood development (172) and Huck and Tom as
examples of psychological disorders now referred to as ADD/ADHD (174), and
Levy reminds us that by "canonizing _Huck Finn_ the way we do, we . . .
canonize a raft of ways to think and argue and worry about children that
make neither them nor us freer. It is not too late to recognize that we
have been trying to shake free the 'real' child from the stereotypes of
childhood for so long that the effort itself has become a stereotype"
(175). This problem comes into clear focus when Levy compares Victorian and
modern responses to _Huck Finn_ (176 et seq.). In this context, Levy points
out that when the "evasion chapters" are ignored the emphasis of _Huck
Finn_ shifts to race, but that when it is remembered that Mark Twain read
from those very chapters during the Mark Twain-Cable Readings "was it not
possible that the 'minstrel show stuff' and 'evasion' were the places where
Twain was making his point, and not running from it?" (182).

Levy concludes by asserting that "Mark Twain and _Huck Finn_ teach us that
American history is 'echoic' (a word he credits to Victor A. Doyno), not
progressive. A healthy dose of humility for the sojourner in Twain's world,
then, for the problems about which he writes become your problems" (197).
Earlier along in his narrative, Levy comments that Twain wanted "to
re-create the first moment many whites saw something positive, something
they wanted to emulate, in blacks, and to relive the complicated subversion
of that moment [when] white Americans might experience racial others
without mediation" (118). But Levy may be overly hopeful when he says "good
Americans want to live up to our best myths about ourselves, we'll want to
do something, anything, rather than repeat the past. In that moment, we'll
understand what _Huck Finn_ teaches" (196).

At the time _Huck Finn_ was first published, Jim Crow laws separated black
and white America, the "convict-lease" programs were perpetuating slavery,
race-baiting was widespread in the media and in politics, and the word
"nigger" wasn't used in polite society, but everyone used it everywhere
else. This reviewer will leave it to others to debate what separates black
and white America today, what forms of slavery are being perpetuated even
now, how much race-baiting infects the media and body politic, and what
words people use outside polite society. But Mark Twain's child, Huck Finn,
has something to teach us, as every reader of this book will understand,
and that's a good beginning.