How exciting it would be to travel this summer on a riverboat out of Hannibal, Missouri on the mighty Mississippi. Of course, my riverboat was not a real paddle wheel, however, my husband and I did see real barges and Jackson’s Island where a fictional Tom and Huck enjoyed childhood games of escape. Did you know that if you are a child traveling with your family to Hannibal, you, too, can get sucked into painting the white washed fence and paying Tom to do his chores? Further west on our trip, we came into the Wild West and on reaching our destination state of Montana, the Welcome Station encouraged visitors to get the feel of the country by taking a wagon train ride.
As you might note, the experiences suggest nostalgia mixed with history that is part make-believe, erasing the unpleasant aspects of our history. This is one of the key points Andrew Levy makes as he visits the life of author Mark Twain and the controversy around Twain’s most famous book, Huckleberry Finn.
Levy reminds us of Twain’s upbringing in the white dominant, slave culture of Hannibal. Twain loved the black slaves that provided dance, language, and story to him. When minstrelsy was in vogue as a type of entertainment, Twain was drawn to that, too. Was Twain a racist? Yes! The truth is he probably all his life thought of himself as superior to the black man or woman. Did he come to better understand the tragedy of the the backward slide from freedom into a Jim Crow segregation that was equal to slavery, if not worse? Maybe. Twain remembered his childhood love of the slaves of his father and those in his community. His perception was that they loved him. The contradiction of a cruel Jim Crow South and his idealized perception of his childhood where two cultures lived happily side-by-side made him uncomfortable..
I was born in 1946, long before the Civil Rights Movement, and as a lonely three-year old in my grandmother’s house, I followed an African American cleaning woman named Mabel. She was company, and she put up with a three year old following her with questions. At Halloween around the same year, I wanted to be Aunt Jemima, who provided delicious syrup for my pancakes, and I was permitted to wear blackface and the bandana. Speaking of pancakes, I must have read 100 times or more the children’s book Little Black Sambo. From my point of view, the little boy outwitted the tigers and the family was happy and had lots of butter for pancakes. Years later, sometime between the ages of nine and eleven at what was a Congregational church in Cleveland, Ohio, I took part in a minstrel show that included youth and adults. Several years ago, I finally destroyed the slide of me in minstrel garb and blackface, but I remember the experience of participating in that show as fun. I learned songs I did not know from a culture I found interesting I had no idea of the racist aspects of the experience. My confessions come in response to connections I made as I read Levy’s book about Twain’s love of black culture and minstrelsy.
Twain’s growth in understanding of racism as Levy describes it involved first his love of black culture. Then Twain married into a historically abolitionist family from Elmira, New York where he met many of the famous abolitionists such as the Beechers. He became aware of the backward movements of his country in the sad realities of Jim Crow. Finally, he encountered the nastiness received by George Washington Cable, the “twin” in the “Twins of Genius” tour that Twain did with Cable to sell his book, Huckleberry Finn. Cable came out strongly against the racism of his time. Twain must have felt the honesty of Cable, but he was envious because Cable took attention away from him. .
Another article would be required to cover Levy’s chapter on childhood and education as he interprets it through the eyes of Mark Twain. Twain focuses in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the big issues with which childhood must wrestle. Huck did have a brief realization when Jim cried for his family that Jim must feel about his children and family as white people do for theirs. This was a revelation to the child, Huck, but despite Huck’s vow to “go to hell” rather than turn Jim in, he eventually and rather easily, with only a brief feeling of guilt, went back into play mode, making Jim suffer the trials of incarceration in a cell while playing the child’s game of releasing him. Huck is willing to follow Tom and have fun, but he has somewhere buried the pain of his own experience of a father who abused him and saw him as “property.” The convoluted ending has the boys declaring Jim is “white inside” at one point, treated as a “king” for helping the white boys at another. One moment life for Jim is horrible, the next he is treated like a king; yet, only in brief flashes is his humanity uncovered or acknowledged. Huck, in the end, decides to go out west – for another adventure, or to get away from feelings that come close to something he can’t just toss away into a world of Tom’s “happily ever after” fantasy.
In Levy’s interpretation of Huck Finn, what Huck teaches is that “like good Americans who want to live up to our best myths about ourselves, we’ll want to do something, anything, rather than repeat the past.” (Levy, Andrew (2014-12-30). Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (p. 196). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. ). Huck set out to begin again as many modern Americans would like to. Yet, for all our American yearning and desire to do it “right” this time, we constantly repeat the past. Power, greed, and a desire to be a child again throw us backward. Levy notes that from the “military presence in the Middle East” to the “debate over the national debt,” and other concerns of our nation and culture, we continue to repeat the past (Levy, Andrew (2014-12-30). Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (p. 195). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition). Says Levy,”One hundred years from now we might recognize that electing an African-American president was the National Equivalent of Huck’s vow to go to hell. It was thrilling at the moment, but signified no structural breakthrough in the relationship between blacks and whites . . . ” (Levy, Andrew (2014-12-30). Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (p. 194). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)
Twain posed the problem in a story that makes the message complex. Levy suggests Americans want to live in a positive myth much like Tom Sawyer. My experience of our tourism describes history as a myth, a nostalgic children’s trip to the fantasy of the past. When will be ready to become adults, to understand we need to really make change happen, not simply retreat to our childhood fantasy and see Levy’s symbolic “red sky in the morning”(Levy, Andrew (2014-12-30). Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (p. 194). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) as the fantasy of a “red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”