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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Peter Salwen <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 10 Sep 1996 00:26:54 -0400
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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A propos our earlier discussions of Huck Finn, the September 1 broadcast of
the public radio program "Breakfast at Random House" included a roundtable
on the book moderated by Harold Evans, president of the Random House trade
group, with Daniel Menaker, editor of the new comprehensive edition of
"Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain scholar Victor Doino, John Kenneth Galbraith,
Sister Souljah, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

For anyone interested, here's my rough transcription of some of the

Arthur Schlesinger:  "I can well understand why an angry *white* man would
object to Huckleberry Finn.  The great theme in the book is the contrast
between the raft and the shore.  The shore is populated mostly by white men.
Mostly hese white men are murderers, lynchers, con men, hypocrites, liars,
and so on.  So I can see why angry white men would do everything they could
do to suppress Mark Twain's obviously mordant picture of how slavery
corrupted Southern society."

Sister Souljah:  "I don't think when you're writing a story you have to
reach certain politically correct standards when you are creating a
character.  I think that characters are supposed to be a reflection of the
same types of people that you see in real life.  And I think that you saw
the contradiction not only in Jim's character, but you saw the
contradictions in so many of the characters who were white in the book as
well.  And I think that if we start to look at literature as something that
characters have to be one particularly way, it loses its artistic and its
creative value.

"I thought that there were a lot of great things that were achieved in the
book.  I thought it was interesting the way [Twain] showed that Huckleberry
Finn had a taste for adventure, while for Jim it was a matter of life and
death.  And a lot of times this is a theme that is still active today within
the white political community.  You have blacks who consider these issues to
be very serious and very matter of life-and-death, and white liberals who
get involved in these issues maybe as something for their resume, or a
short-term involvement, or sometimes as an adventure . . . .

"I thought it was interesting when Huckleberry was considering turning Jim
in.  Because he got along fine with him as long as the relationship was,
'I'm young Huck and you're Nigger Jim.'  But when Nigger Jim started to show
an inclination to want to be self-determined, and to want to be free and
want to talk about his vision for his life and [his concern] for his wife
and children, that became somewhat offensive to Huck, even though he didn't
understand it within himself as a young person.  And I think that as long as
these race relations are one where they're paternalistic, a lot of times
it's comfortable for white society.  But when it becomes a thing where you
want to control your own thoughts and your own culture, and your own money
and your own education, then it becomes somewhat offensive.  I think the
good thing is that ultimately he does decide that it's in his best interest
and in the best interest of morality to *not* betray Jim, because I think
that that's a good lesson for other whites who want to do well, or who want
to do justice, and feel that same sense of uncertainty about whether or not
they should be all the way committed to the things that they know are

Daniel Menaker: "I actually think it may be a slightly racist book, and that
Twain probably was struggling with his own feelings about race.  And so
that's one of the exciting things, to me, about it -- to see a man of that
day and age who's trying to come forward to a decent view of an issue that
was so horrific, for so long, in this country.  It was the beginning of
white America's attempts to come to terms with what they'd done."

Arthur Schlesinger: "He himself once described the book as 'a conflict
between a sound heart and a deformed conscience.'  By 'a deformed
conscience' he meant the conventions of the day.  I mean, this was a great
struggle.  When Huck Finn says, 'I'll *go* to hell, then,' it was a triumph
of the sound heart over the deformed conscience.  Underneath the humor, he
was a man with a kind of desperate disillusion, disenchantment about the
whole human race -- 'the damned human race,' as he called it."

Sister Souljah: "You have to give any good author credit for being clever --
the ability to have and hold certain political beliefs, and express them
through the characters you create.  As an example, [Twain] shows how Huck
will say, for instance, 'You know, the niggers are so superstitious,' and
then he'll spend three or four pages showing how superstitious *Huck*
actually is.  And the person in the book who is actually the most ignorant
and the most racist is Huck's father; but then he'll show how Huck's father
is completely against education or any type of exposure to anything that's
positive.  So it's a commentary on what he sees in the actual society, and I
think that it's something that is done intentionally, and not by

Daniel Menaker: "Jim is a much stronger, braver character [in the recently
published comprehensive edition].  When Tom Sawyer is wounded, Jim comes
right forth and says, 'Here, I'll help.'  And that means he's going back
into slavery.  And if you know what that means in terms of physical
punishment . . . .  The people who catch slaves usually got a third of the
slave's value, and they usually got to whip the slave, too.  So you see,
every society has sort of a job for psychopaths."

Sister Souljah:  "When you read 'Huckleberry Finn,' you have to be conscious
of the fact that you have two characters who are both oppressed -- Huck as a
child of an abusive, alcholic father and a dysfunctional family, and Jim as
a runaway slave.  And so I think what this book does is put forth some type
of a vision that in times of mutual desperation there can be some point at
which we can unify around some better and brighter goals and objectives."

Victor Doino speculated about Mrs. Clemen's possible role in "censoring" the
1885 version:

"Sam [Clemens] would read to his wife and children each day after he'd done
some composition.  And the story is that when things would be displeasing to
her, the page would be turned down and then that would be taken out.  It's
not easy to know if this is true or not.  There are parts of the book,
particularly in the manuscript first half, that are darker, rougher, harsher
social criticism than what survived in the finished first edition, published
manuscript.  But it's hard to know if Sam did it himself, or if he did it
with Livy's coaching.  But that was a fine marriage, and he relied on her a
great deal -- because he was himself an outsider."

John Kenneth Galbraith raised what he termed a "literary point" -- "To what
extent do you have to enter a thought of reservation that Mark Twain, in
some measure in this book, hides behind a juvenile speaker, and that this to
some extent is a device for escaping the harder compulsions of English

Prompting Arthur Schlesinger to respond, "Oh, I think not.  I think it's a
great challenge -- the resources he discovered in the American colloquial
idiom, by which he could convey the sublest perceptions, the most wonderful
aesthetic sense of the flow of the river.  I mean, he showed the resources
of the American language in an extraordinary way."

Finally, host Harold Evans concluded by quoting a comment by critic Lionel
Trilling on "Huck Finn":

 "One can read it annually, and each year find that it has changed only in
becoming somewhat larger."

Pete Salwen