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Vern Crisler <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 10 Dec 1998 18:58:03 -0700
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Here are some thoughts that I had about Kim's book review.  One may agree
with my points or toss them into the circular file, as one has a mind to.

At 11:16 AM 12/10/98 -0500, Kim M Long wrote:

>Chadwick-Joshua--as a Southerner, an African-American descendant of
>slaves, a rhetorician, and Twain scholar--makes a compelling and
>convincing argument for keeping Twain's book on the top shelf of American

I'm not sure what relevance Chadwick-Joshua's geographic location or race
has anything to do with making a "compelling argument" but certainly,
defending *Huck Finn* is a noble scholarly goal.  Nevertheless, I'm not even
sure why a case even *has* to be made for HF in the first place against the
modern day philistines of political correctness.

>She eloquently answers the critics who would ban the book by
>demonstrating Twain's method, if not his madness, of using Huck's
>vernacular language to convey respect, humanity, and dignity. Rather than
>argue that the use of the word _nigger_ brings the book down to a level of
>base racism, Chadwick-Joshua expertly shows how the use of the word (and
>other racist discourse) contributes to Twain's satire of the racist
>19th-century South.  What many of us who value the book know and feel,
>Chadwick-Joshua makes us see and understand.

Those who wish to ban books in general or Huck Finn in particular are not
"critics"; they are just dimwits.

>The challenge to face these sensitive issues
>offers us all a great opportunity to realize our highest potential as a
>thoughtfully integrated culture" (xiv).

Uggh.  Academy-speak.

>Chadwick-Joshua says that her
>book seeks to confront directly _Huck Finn_'s critics and detractors; she
>claims that the book's opponents have misinterpreted Jim.  She seeks to
>examine him closely in order to reveal his heroic nature, his
>resourcefulness, and his humanity, the "true visionary center of the
>novel" (xx).  As Chadwick-Joshua claims, until "we embrace Jim and all
>that he represents, . . . we will forever pale as a people, will be
>historically colorless" (xxii).

We should not be reactionary in interpreting Jim; that is, we ought not to
-- out of a desire to defend him against poltroons -- turn him into more of
a character than he actually is.  Friendship is the primary quality that
distinguishes Jim, and talk of a "visionary center" sounds a lot like
academy-speak looking for some facts to correspond with.

>The first titled chapter of the book, "Reading Race: A Dilemma," presents
>Twain as a rebel writer, not afraid to embrace the darkness of the
>American past (alluding to Toni Morrison), one who forces readers to
>think.  Chadwick-Joshua surveys older and more recent criticism of _Huck
>Finn_: here you'll find Brooks, Trilling, Marx, et al., as well as Kaplan,
>Fishkin, and Smiley.  But, as Chadwick-Joshua claims, the "time has long
>since been propitious to reexamine the text of this work in light of
>difference.  The difference cited here is a rhetorical one. . ." (8).

"Embrace the darkness of the American past"?  How about the notion that
Twain is embracing the *light* of the American past?  Huck Finn is a work
that embraces the best American values and shows how Huck and Jim are
examplars of those values.  That's why the satire is so cutting, because it
takes the very values Americans of the south affirmed -- freedom,
friendship, humanity -- and by humorous means, shows how such Americans (and
the racists among them) fail to live up to their own ideals.  The humanity
of Jim and his friendship with Huck is a reductio ad absurdum to the notion
that some of us are more equal than others.

>She acknowledges that many modern readers, especially African-American
>readers, have trouble seeing Jim in the novel as anything but a grotesque
>caricature; she explains that modern audiences (especially high school and
>college audiences) may need adequate preparation and guidance through this
>work in order to understand Twain's carefully constructed satire, "which
>distorts values" (9).

Well, in some ways Jim *is* a grotesque caricature; he is no ur-Martin
Luther King, Jr.  Yet, despite all the humorous and clownish things Jim (and
all the whites for that matter) get into, the quality of friendship in Jim
and his love for Huck never gets lost.

And I don't see Twain as one who "distorts" values, but rather one who
reaffirms them (especially in *Huck Finn*).

>As Chadwick-Joshua suggests, because "the wound [of slavery] is yet open
>or because of unconscious denial, a significant number of
>African-Americans today do not wish to confront and explore the issues and
>language Twain depicts" (26).  She challenges and even demands that
>African-American audiences be willing to explore what the novel has to say
>to them, not to shrink from it or to keep it from their children. This
>chapter seeks to address the controversy directly in order to open minds
>for the careful explication of the book within the rhetorical context that

Are there really a *significant* number of Americans of African descent who
really get upset by Twain's language?  Or is it just a few who would judge a
book by its language rather than by its content?

>In Chapter Two, "You Can't Learn a Nigger to Argue': Verbal Battles,"
>Chadwick-Joshua argues that Jim, when viewed "in the context of classical
>rhetoric, proves to be an important and profound agent of social change"

Yikes!  More academy-speak.

>She asserts that _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ is a classic
>Menippean satire that seeks to expose the "evil and absurdity of the
>slavery system, class hierarchy, and religious and filial hypocrisy" (42,
>citing Frye 309).

Really?  Given that slavery was already gone when Twain wrote his book, one
would think that "exposing" it as evil and absurd would be a somewhat
redundant exercise.  Twain was writing a continuation of *Tom Sawyer*, not a
political treatise; a story of friendship, not an abolitionist sermon.  I
also don't see "class hierarchy" as a target of *Huck Finn*.  (Indeed, just
about everyone in the novel seems either in poverty or just a step away from
it.)  Satire on class hierarchy was reserved for such works as *Connecticut
Yankee* or *Prince and the Pauper*.

>Chadwick-Joshua examines four logomachies, or verbal
>battles, that occur in the novel (the conversation between Huck and Jim
>about King Solomon, for example), showing through rhetorical analysis that
>Jim "wins" with his superior logic.  This examination and (re)formation of
>Jim as a strong, vital force in the novel supports the book's argument
>that _Huck Finn_ is not only worth keeping in the canon, but is a powerful
>book for African-American empowerment.

Comic dialogues are "battles"?  This gives a bad name to overinterpretation.
*Huck Finn* as a "powerful book for African-American empowerment"?  Huh?

>Chadwick-Joshua ends her book with the idea that "Twain never meant for
>this novel to be painless" (134), and throughout _The Jim Dilemma_, she
>demonstrates the art and the science of Mark Twain's masterpiece. She
>addresses the race question head-on, without emotionalizing or
>sensationalizing. Her credibility and her sensitivity are evident on every
>page.  Yes, we do need another book about _Huck Finn_.

The book review does not convince me that Chadwick-Joshua has written
anything worth reading, but perhaps the fault lies with the book review --
and its odd absence of criticism -- rather than with the book itself.
Perhaps only the most high-minded sentences in the book were quoted, giving
the impression the book is filled with academic cliches.

But the basic problem is with the premiss -- that Twain's masterpiece even
needs to be defended against politically correct bozos; rather it's these
"critics" of *Huck Finn* who need to defend themselves.