U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pap’s Rant

I took up your challenge and read more than half of Huckleberry Finn over the weekend (well, actually I listened to a free audiobook while on a road trip).

A few things struck me: this is the prototype of a genre that drives me crazy–white kid saving black adult (or more generally a story about black folks being told through a white kid’s eyes as if we always need a white moderator to understand the experiences of blacks), and yet as is sometimes the case this version is much better than those that have followed (Secret Life of Bees, The Help, others not on the tip of my tongue. Both of those were phenomenally successful).

What makes Twain’s novel better is because Huck is not somehow magically exempt from the culture he’s raised in. It takes time for him to recognize Jim’s humanity. He feels guilty towards the beginning about helping Jim run away because he is in effect “stealing” from the widow, who’d been good to him. He thinks it unnatural that a black slave family sold apart would mourn it as much as a white family that had been forcefully separated. I started The Help two Christmases ago because it was lying around and it drove me crazy that the main character was yet another white person somehow magically exempt from the social norms of her Southern society and perfectly representing today’s understanding of racism during the Jim Crow South. I asked when would someone write something popular with a racist white Southern protagonist! And here Mark Twain had already done it.

I still wish on some level that Jim was a more complicated character (he is more complicated than he might have been, but still fairly uni-dimensional)

Another thing that is fascinating is the complicated moral and ethical thought processes that Huck twists himself through. He starts off the book pledging an oath to Tom Sawyer’s gang that he will murder and steal and is then sad that they are just playacting instead of doing it, yet he spends much of the book guilt-ridden about some action or inaction he or others have taken.

But to the point of the present controversy. I wonder how the professor who replaced all instances of “nigger” with “slave” could possibly justify it in this passage. It would be nonsensical and also deny the fact that there were free-born people of color during the slave era. This is a drunk rant by Huck’s Pap:

“Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him–a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment! That ain’t all, nuther. The law backs that old Judge Thatcher up and helps him to keep me out o’ my property. […]

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane–the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote ag’in. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote ag’in as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t ‘a’ give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–what’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the state six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the state six months.” (36-38)

(Picture from here).