Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Mark Twain too racy for high school?

I am always a bit embarrassed and even surprised that I have never read The Adventures of Huckleberry.  When I was in middle school, I thought of it more as a book for boys.  While my brother was off reading about Tom and Huck, I was reading The Little Princess.  Among my small predominantly white school, Huck Finn was considered a racially heightened book, and therefore was always up for questioning to be removed from the reading list.  In other words, Twain just made use of the N-word much too frequently, beyond the school’s comfort level.    

However, it’s equally reassuring and upsetting to realize that the novel instead acts as a progressive story that presents a world that was currently in a state of extreme racial tension, meaning my school’s reasoning for questioning the book’s intent was irrational. 

I love the way Twain is able to use Huck as a lens to look into the changing setting of America, bending and refracting the way that other characters see the very same scenes through the musings of his adolescent narrator.   In chapter six of the book, Huck’s father comments in his thick Mississippian dialect about a mulatto from Ohio who “was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.”  Twain leaves the description with no explanation from the narrator, leaving Pap’s opinionated statements open ended as if he wants the reader to resolve it for themselves.  Throughout the story, Mark Twain uses similar techniques to present situations, to describe a story, allowing the audience to rationalize their own beliefs from the circumstances rather than giving an outright critique or answering all of the questions from his own viewpoint.  He is able to create a novel that includes race, but is not solely about it.    

Mob Mentality

            What’s really sticking out to me in this reading—something that really didn’t hit me in high school—is the sheer rampant, senseless violence.  The Grangerford/Shepherdson feud is the obvious go-to example here, but there was something else that struck me a lot harder.  When the king and the duke stop to con a town, and Colonel Sherburn kills the drunk Boggs, there is moment that stunned me.  A man gets up and reenacts the incredibly (to say the least) recent murder.  What really gets me here is the town’s reaction to the reenactment.
            “The people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect; said it was just exactly the way it all happened.  Then as much as a dozen people got out their bottles and treated him.
            Well, by-and-by, somebody said Sherburn ought to be lynched.  In about a minute everybody was saying it; so away they went, mad and yelling, and snatching down every clothes-line they came to, to do the hanging with.” (Twain 146)

            The mood begins as nonchalant and almost festive, with the crowd lauding the man’s accuracy and offering him drinks.  Then, someone brings up the idea of lynching Sherburn.  Twain’s casual language at this point hit me hard.  “, somebody said Sherburn ought to be lynched.” (Twain 146)  It sounds so causal, as though someone offhandedly said “Say, you know, we should murder that guy, am I right, folks?”  And by the next sentence, the crowd has become so enraged that they’re converting appliances into murder weapons mid-rampage.  It’s a terrifying view of mob-mentality.  At least the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons have a had a few generations to solidify their irrational hatred into the raging life-hazard it’s become, but these townspeople go from “Hey man, nice job on the reenactment, have a beer!” to “KILL THE BASTARD!” in t-minus two sentences.  I’ve yet to figure out how this affects my view of the book’s overall meaning, but it really has shown me how differently I’m seeing the book now that I’m a good six years older.  I had a much more pastoral image of it in my memory which has really been mowed down.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Perceptual Evolution: "Huck. Finn"

     When I first read Huckleberry Finn in high school I focused all of my attention on the relationship between Huck and Jim. In doing this, I overlooked how both of them correspond and deal with other, more minor, characters. For example, I did not notice how perceptive Huck is to the “Duke” and “Kings” antics. He realizes the very presence of these buffoons can be a threat to the success of his and Jim’s escape plan. Huck humors the “Duke” and “King” in order to appease them and to prevent any trouble. This can be seen in the conversation between Huck and Jim in the following passage:
“’It's the way I feel, too, Jim. But we've got them on our hands, and we got to remember what they are, and make allowances. Sometimes I wish we could hear of a country that's out of kings" (Twain 206).
  What I might have previously understood as a normal correspondence between Huck and Jim, I now am aware of how careful, intentional, and layered Huck’s statement is. When he tells Jim, “we got to remember what they are,” Jim’s understanding of “what”, is that they are royalty. However, Huck realizes that “what” these two men really are: dangerous. They are petty criminals who have no morals. Huck realizes that these men would be ready and willing to throw Huck and Jim under the bus in order to advance themselves in a heartbeat. Huck questions to himself, “‘what was the use to tell Jim these warn't real kings and dukes? It wouldn't a done no good; and, besides, it was just as I said: you couldn't tell them from the real kind’”(Twain 206). I now realize that Huck most likely made this decision in order to protect Jim and himself. If Huck exposed the truth to Jim, then how Jim reacted and dealt with the information would be out of his hands. Huck instead reserved the information in attempt to avoid alerting the two criminals and putting them at unnecessary risk. Huck rationalizes that there is no reason to tell Jim because there is no realdifference between these petty criminals and kings. His reasoning covers up to the reader, and maybe even to himself, that Huck’s own purpose of omitting this truth is essentially to protect Jim.  

p.s. the page numbers might not match up perfectly because I used an online book. 

Huck Finn & Changing Perceptions (Or Not...)

This question is really difficult for me to discuss because I have never read Huck Finn before and also had no knowledge even of the basic story line.  Literally the only things I knew about the book were that there is a boy named Huck Finn who is friends with another boy named Tom Sawyer, and that there is another book written about Tom Sawyer...  So as for how my perception of the book has changed, it's more like I'm building my perception of the book, not changing it.

And so for me the first thing that made an impression on me is, rather obviously, the style of writing.  I find it interesting how Twain writes out the dialect.  It makes the book feel as though Huck is really talking to me, telling me about his experiences and filtering them through his own perspective in his own dialect.  It gives me that intimate sense of being in his head the whole time without having to go through a proper narrator first. And that intimacy helped me understand Huck as a character much quicker and much easier, with all his personality quirks.  For example, his beliefs (or lack of belief) about heaven were kind of childishly adorable, like how he "didn't think much of" going "around all day long with a harp and sing[ing], forever and ever."  He rather hilariously has his own logic and writes off things that the grownups say that he believes sound stupid. I just love his character.  The fact that Twain adds little details like this that help form Huck's perspective of the world helps me understand the choices he makes and views he has later on in the story.

What Counts as Social Challenge?

First up, I have a different edition of the text than everyone else, so apologies that I don't have page numbers that are helpful. Moving on, I took particular interest in Huck's deliberation in chapter XXXI.

Here, Huck resolves to go to hell for helping Jim rather than do the "right" thing and allow him to be sold back into slavery.

This whole issue and Huck's treatment of the moral standing of his actions - believing himself to be in the wrong for helping Jim, yet resolving to do it anyway - makes for an interesting close reading of Huck's (and indirectly, the novel's) relationship to race.

While one might suggest that Huck is "doing the right thing" or even challenging racism or slavery by deciding to assist Jim, Huck's own interpretation of his actions clearly stand against this view. He clearly articulates that he "would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't."

While we might see this merely as an internalization of social standards about ethical conduct involving blacks/escaped slaves at the time, that Huck has merely been exposed to, we also must note that he does not make a point to reject this interpretation of his actions as wrong.

In fact, rather than seize the opportunity to grow morally and condemn society's treatment of blacks, slaves, escaped slaves, or anything along those lines, Huck goes a ways to enforce his actions as morally wrong, by saying that "if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog."

While I originally read this deliberation as progressive on Huck's part, I can't help but think it's morally ambiguous at best.

Huck seems to fundamentally lack the ability to see past moral judgement's he's absorbed from his surroundings, despite actively working against them in some capacity. And by absorbing them and articulating them by judging his own actions as immoral, Huck enforces those views almost more so than he fights them.

I don't think the temptation to read this section under the light of "actions speak louder than words" is sufficient justification. I don't think we can read Huck's choice as socially progressive, and am inclined to say that we ought to read it as harmful.

To illustrate this, I think it's fair to transpose Huck's deliberation to another social issue. Imagine a comparable case:

Workplace Gender Discrimination: X, a woman in a corporate job, is paid significantly less than her male peers, gets fewer benefits, and receives less leniency from her superiors than her male peers, for no other reason than her gender. X's boss is eventually replaced by a new boss, call him Y, who notices X's predicament. Y belongs to an unusual religious group that has taught him to believe that women are fundamentally inferior to men, and should not be treated as equals. In fact, Y believes it is immoral, damning even, to treat women on the same plane as men. Despite this, Y likes X, and decides to treat her the same as her male peers. Y openly bemoans this in his private writings, admitting that he thinks it's likely he'll go to hell for doing something so immoral.

In a case like this, can we really be convinced that Y, because of his actions, is a social progressive, or an aid to feminism? Do his actions in any way outweigh his intentions? I think not. In fact, I think in both cases we ought to be convinced that the intentions even outweigh the actions of both parties, and that on the whole, both are more oppressive than they are liberating.

Jim owns himself and Huck decides he's gucci going to hell

"Well, it's all right anyway, Jim, long as you're going to be rich again some time or other."
"Yes; en I's rich now, come to look at it.  I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars.  I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

This quotation reflects a development in Jim's relationship with himself and his self worth. There are two distinct aspects of Jim's statement, the first being that he acknowledges his independence and the second being that has been labeled with a monetary value.  "I owns myself" is a powerful statement that illustrates the autonomy he has won by breaking from the bondage of slavery. The statement is clouded, however, by his knowledge of the pricetag that was placed on him. The 800 dollars complicates the reading as the sum is juxtaposed against the priceless nature of freedom. Reading it from my 21st century vantage point it is difficult to comprehend how one can simultaneously appreciate one's self-worth while juggling that with societies warped economic evaluations.

c08-72.jpg (61K)

"I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now.  But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.  And went on thinking.  And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time:  in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.  But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.    
It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"—and tore it up."

This is a critical shift in the novel where Huck finally determines the course of his moral compass, rejecting oppositional contemporaneous ideologies.

Ummm... Yeah. Entry

Hello all!

I think that I'm the only one in the class who has lived under a rock because I've never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at any point in my life. I didn't even know close to anything about its content or that it had to do with living on a floating raft for an extended period of time!

So... As for being on the whole "perception of Twain's novel changing from re-reading it" I am totally not on the same boat as y'all cuz this is my first time reading it and actually knowing the story.

But without further digression, I'm gonna continue on with this assignment!

I was thoroughly intrigued while reading chapter 11 when Huck tries to act like a girl in front of the woman Mrs. Loftus. I thought it was interesting because there was switch of power between the roles of gender  in that scene when Mrs. Loftus calls out Huck on his disguise. Right after she gleans from him that he is a boy Mrs. Loftus goes on this tangent explaining to Huck the "lady" way on how to do things on page 80. I feel like here we are getting the typical 20th century view of women because they are trained in a way to fit their feminine gender roles--and all of this is from society. Society is what has the power to tell men and women how to act accordingly to their gender. It's interesting when Mrs. Loftus explains to Huck how by holding the needle still while poking the thread through the whole is "the way a woman most always does" (Twain 80) and how girls throw their knees apart to catch something in their laps and not clench them together (like Huck did with the lead) because it reveals what society has engraved in her. Just that whole paragraph was fascinating for me because it showed her having the upper hand in the situation but already knowing the mannerisms of her sex.

Huck Finn Blog Entry 1 - Jennie Kuhn

I found one seemingly insignificant section of chapter 12 to be particularly telling of the relationship developments between Huck and Jim. In chapter 11, Huck discovers the three hundred dollar reward out for Jim, spurring their spontaneous flight from Jackson’s Island. Huck details the first few days of their travel in depth; he describes that “we catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness” (67). Although their interactions together are “solemn” (67) in this particular section, they come across as unified, and even intimate. Twain repeatedly uses the pronoun “we”, binding them together in name. Huck and Jim’s flight from the island, spurred by Huck’s concern about Jim’s discovery, has brought them together. On the river, they “pass…towns, some of them away up on black hillsides” (67). Their shared rejection of society and conjoined isolation becomes apparent as they drift down the river and observe the little cities as “nothing but just a shiny bed of lights” (67). Stranded on this raft with only each other, running from anyone who might find Jim or recognize Huck, they view the surrounding society from a distance that only non-participants can understand. There is something profound and hopeful about the way that Huck and Jim, in the very midst of escaping their previous lives, still look at those towns together and “see the whole world lit up” (67).

the style= :)

I’ve never read Huck Finn before this class. Considering I thought it was about a whale when I started it, my views are rapidly changing as I read.  I am mildly obsessed with the writing style.  I love how it feels like Huck is just telling me a story out loud.  It gives me the feeling that he is just spitting out details that he remembers and doesn’t realize the larger picture to what he’s saying, but I as the reader can make larger inferences than it seems like he is while he's telling it to me.

It reminds me of a friend telling a story where the patterns of their experience aren’t clear to them, but by speaking it aloud the patterns end up being clear enough to me that I can give advice back or maybe just a summary of what they did in a funny way to make them come to some sort of realization about their experience (this is much less guidance counselor-y than it sounds).  

My reading is evolving to recognize those patterns better and therefore get to know the characters better.  One example is on page 51, where Huck Finn describes what Pap is doing.  There is no dialogue, but you really can almost hear Pap talking in the way Huck describes it.

For instance when he says, “He said he was down to town, and everything was going wrong…but then there was ways to put it off a long time, and Judge Thatcher knew how to do it” and again when he says, “…he polished off with a kind of general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name, when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing” (51). 

Huck Finn Blog Entry- Jonathan Lawrence

 Hey everyone,
                                It took me some time to think about the passage that I wanted to choose for this particular post, but the one that struck me as I was going back through my notes was the conversation between Huck and Jim in Chapter 8, pgs. 67-69. Here they are talking about being “rich” and the failed investments that Jim had undergone throughout his life. What has interested me the most I guess overall, is the fact that right now I’m trying to look at the way race is brought up within the novel, but to focus more on the morality and values of Huck and Jim. I think this particular passage comments on the importance of being “Spiritually” alongside being “Monetarily” rich. Jim has a dream about “Balum” (Twain 68), where I think this question of morality is raised. If the dream tells Jim that the “Lord, en boun’ to git his money back a hund’d times” (Twain 68), I think Huck and Jim alike miss the point and significance of the dream. Huck and Jim can only see the monetary gains of being a rich person, because being rich leads to more opportunity. However, at the end of the chapter Jim brings up the fact that he is now technically free since he has run away, and “owns himself.” But then again he brings up the fact that he wishes he had the money that he is worth. The point I’m trying to make is there are many times in the novel in which the questions of being moral and what is right and wrong are addressed head on. However, the society in which Huck and Jim grow up is oppressive, and the ability to have money, instead of looking for some sort of spiritual gain seem to be brought up heavily in this novel. I think that this idea of morality coincides really well with the issue of race, in terms of the common humanity that both Huck and Jim start to feel for each other as they go on their journeys. 


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Meredith's initial post

I'm really looking forward to our discussion on Tuesday. I've been thinking carefully about the question I posed to you:

Discuss something in your studies or your personal experience that caused you to fundamentally change, or deeply rethink, or simply question,  your understanding of a work of literature. (For clarification, this needn't be an exclusively academic experience: it could be a conversation with someone, travel to a particular place, re-reading a book at a different moment in your life, and so on.) How did you previously view the work? What happened that prompted your thinking to change? How did you view the work after this experience?

I have a couple of particular examples from my own experience that I'll probably share in class, but I really look forward to hearing what you have to say about this issue. I'll ask the first set of bloggers to elaborate on this question, and the first set of commenters to respond to it.  As far as my own blogging, I'll probably elaborate in writing tomorrow night on what we discussed in class.