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David Tomlinson <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 5 Jun 1994 15:15:54 -0400
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          Tom Quirk, _Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn:
          Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man_.  University of
          Missouri Press, 1993.  $24.95.  Distributed in Canada
          by Scholarly Book Services Inc.  $31.95 CDN, cloth,
          176pp., index.  ISBN 0-8262-0920-3.


     Nobility out of Tatters: The Writing of _Huckleberry Finn_
     Life Imitating Art: _Huckleberry Finn_ and Twain's
          Autobiographical Writings
     "Learning a Nigger to Argue": Quitting _Huckleberry Finn_
     The Realism of _Huckleberry Finn_
     Huckleberry Finn's Heirs
     Is _Huckleberry Finn_ Politically Correct?

     Tom Quirk's essays on Huckleberry Finn make even an academic
suffering from essay overload experience nirvana.  He handles the
form with such ease and grace, that the journeys are every bit as
interesting as the intended destinations.
     In the introduction, Quirk maintains that the essays are
"specimens of a familiar scholarly inquiry and humanistic
criticism."  He is right, of course; but many offerings which use
the scholarly conventions and a humanistic approach fall far
short of the Quirk's mark.  His success depends not only on his
keen insight but also on an approach which treats his readers as
companions rather than ill-taught pupils and on an a critical
perspective which aims clearly at understanding Twain rather than
trying to belittle or supplant him.
     He can claim,"Only once, and then only for a moment, did I
ever feel that I really knew how Mark Twain's imagination
worked;" but Quirk comes far closer to that goal than most.  He
is able to see how events might have led Twain to imagine or
interpret his characters to bring them to life.  In this
enterprise, Quirk is both convincing and inspiring.
     Of the half dozen essays included in the book, only one is
new.  That essay, "Huckleberry Finn's Heirs," examines the work
of Ring Lardner, Willa Cather and Langston Hughes searching for
debts these authors might have owed to _Huckleberry Finn_.  At
first glance, Lardner seems the most similar. Quirk's examination
leads to a different conclusion.  While Twain brings Huck and Jim
to life by treating them with respect and love, Lardner, who also
depicts characters from the lower rungs of society, laughs at
them, putting himself in the peculiar position of ridiculing the
children of his imagination.  Willa Cather and Langston Hughes,
neither of them much like Twain on the surface, do each exhibit
some facets of Twainian creativity.
     "Is _Huckleberry Finn_ Politically Correct?" has, by its
very title already commanded attention on the Twain Forum.
Quirk, early on, concedes that he does "not intend to answer the
question [his]... title poses."  If he does not spend the whole
essay answering that provocative question, he does assert that
"by and large we prize _Huck_ for its incorrectness; it is an
incorruptibly incorrect book in nearly every particular."  He
assumes quite rightly, I think, that few will contest that
judgment.  Having disposed of that point in the first page and a
half, he then considers the more difficult thesis that "our
response to works of the imagination has a great deal less to do
with political or social realities as such than with an
imaginative identification with heroism, courage, nobility, and
so forth."  It seems a pedestrian point to make until Quirk
begins to make it.
     His examination has everything to do with the way in which
we, as critics, approach Samuel Clemens himself.  Quirk deplores
the ink wasted in trying to make a Clemens, who may have had
racial attitudes unacceptable today, into a sensitive guy of the
1980's or 1990's.  Rather than protect the writer's reputation on
untenable grounds, Quirk says he is "far more interested in
protecting Twain from the charge of being a sensitive guy."  He
believes that what makes _Huckleberry Finn_ work is not Twain's
views on race, his antisentimental, anti-Southern or
antiaristocratic views but his imagination.  It was an
imagination which created characters who were and are real,
characters for whom we have human sympathy and feeling.  He
created "Jim not as a representative of the Negro, the oppressed,
or the wretched, but as Jim."  It is this magic of creation which
leads us after more than a hundred years to read and enjoy
reading the novel.
     The most dated of the essays is "Nobility Out of Tatters:
The Writing of _Huckleberry Finn_."  Appearing four years ago,
the essay does not account for the finding of the first portion of
the _Finn_ manuscript.  After the discovery, Quirk decided "that
perhaps it is better (and certainly more honest) to let the
essays stand the way they were written instead of trying to
repair the damage."  Admitting that "many of the points I make...
having specifically to do with the composition of _Huckleberry
Finn_ are simply untrue" in light of the discovery, Quirk amends
what he had already written by summarizing the most important
changes in thinking the manuscript requires in his introcution to
the book.
     "Nobility Out of Tatters" remains a magnificient essay in
spite of the few necessary alterations because it seeks to show
"how Twain's achievement in the book outran his qualifications to
write it."  Stunningly, Quirk is able to demonstrate how Twain
produced human characters from lifeless words, and in doing so,
he performs that most valuable office of a critic, bringing
renewed appreciation.
     Another essay "_Huckleberry Finn_ and Twain's
Autobiographical Writings" makes a similar point from a slightly
different perspective.  Twain creates a flat character in Huck
but breathes life into him as he comes to understand the boy as
social pariah, as a creature blessed with freedom and as a person
of moral integrity.  It is Huck, he argues, who helps Twain
understand his own moral ambivalence toward the Civil War; and it
is in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" that Twain
is able to resolve that ambivalence twenty years after the war
     In "The Realism of _Huckleberry Finn_," Quirk argues
convincingly that the book and the boy are real, not because they
uphold the conventions of literary realism but precisely because
they present the reader with conflicting emotions and actions.
Huck is sometimes a realist, sometimes a sentimental soul, often
merely a confused person.  Twain's book achieves greatness
because it flouts programmatic realism and confronts us with the
ambiguities and confusions of life which are the nature of
     What Quirk argues for in most of the essays is a kind of
irreducible complexity of _Huckleberry Finn_.  That
irreducibility is precisely what he champions in "'Learning a
Nigger to Argue': Quitting _Huckleberry Finn_."  Neither the
relationship of Huck to Jim nor that of Twain to Jim is without
difficulties.  Indeed, Quirk asserts that "part of Twain's
problem with finishing his book... was his indecision about what
to do with Jim."  Part of the difficulty of composition may have
been with whether Jim should have been offered as a sacrifice to
a lynch mob.
     Even more explosive is Quirk's assessment of what words
Twain wrote last in the novel.  They are not the words which
appear at the end of the book but rather the ending of the King
Solomon episode where he has Huckleberry say, "You can't learn a
nigger to argue.  So I quit."
     What this ending means, according to Quirk, is that Twain
experiences despair with Jim's intellectual limitations.  It also
throws the warm glow of relationships at the climax of the story
in doubt.
     Quirk's essays are not of the ivory tower kind.  That is,
his provocative ideas are the kind meant to spark classroom
discussion.  I intend to use my well-marked copy of the text to
do just that.

David Tomlinson
U. S. Naval Academy