Mark Twain was the first critical theorist of the American race (opinion)

People reading this essay who are looking for an unqualified defense of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, its author or the language it uses will be disappointed, as will those wishing to cancel Mark Twain and his fictitious offspring.

Most Americans, many of whom have never read Mark Twain’s fiction, place him at one ideological extreme or another: either he is a secular saint, the quintessential icon of healthy, sarcastic and humanistic American values. , or he epitomizes white privilege, a white man in a white suit whose pleasure – reflected in his love of racial caricature and racist vocabulary – is an inverse measure of someone else’s pain. Both extremes indulge in kinds of moral absolutes that Mark Twain found to be as dangerous as they are simplistic and regressive.

Instead of invoking false dichotomies, what we hope to accomplish here – using Twain’s handwriting as a single example – is to demonstrate how American it is to struggle with “critical race theory,” a an expression that Twain would have found as heavy as it is imprecise. Nevertheless, it is a concept that inspired his major works. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, the last of Twain’s novels set in the Mississippi Valley of his youth, Twain suggests that race is simply a “fiction of law and custom.” Yet in his previous novel Adventures of Huckleberry FinnTwain made it clear how dangerous this fiction can be, especially for black Americans. While Twain sometimes showed the obvious truth that all humans are created equal, he also revealed, particularly in his treatment of his black characters, that “human beings can be terribly cruel to each other.

Politicians and opposition groups are now targeting Critical Race Theory as a disruptive narrative in American culture, presenting it as newly conceived, the child in love with MSNBC and the Black Lives Matter movement, designed only to create trouble. civics and make white Americans uncomfortable. The truth is, trying to untie the knot of race, racism, and American history has been a central concern of American culture since the first enslaved black person was brought to these shores in 1619.

In almost every expression of American art, letters, music, politics and culture – from Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes to Toni Morrison’s shoes. The bluest eye, from Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers to Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda – Americans grapple with the nature of race and the scars of racism. The American habit of rationalizing oppression began long before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and continued until the beginning of the 20th century, when, in a speech at the First Pan-African Convention, WEB Du Bois said: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Du Bois’s words have never sounded truer than in the current skirmishes over the overhaul and teaching of American history.

Mark Twain was the first critical theorist of American literature as well as the greatest American writer. His most famous work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a nihilistic satire on systematic racial and sexual oppression, a rejection of sanctioned education and religion, and a searing metaphor for the failure of Reconstruction. But for over 130 years no one got the joke, so to speak, or, if they did, their voices were not heard. Instead of, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was turned into a comic book, a boat ride on the Disney River, a movie vehicle for Mickey Rooney’s gambling addiction, and Ken Burns’ slow pan. The joke that Twain so skillfully and ironically conceived was that America was a nation of freedom and equality where everyone had “inalienable rights.” And since Adventures of Huckleberry finnin 1886, besides being one of the most frequently banned novels, it was constantly and carefully misread by generations of scholars who, consciously or not, collaborated in the whitewashing of literature and history. American. Twain’s secret and disruptive meanings were as submerged as the steamboat wreck Walter Scott, and his audiences then and today were inclined not to look beneath the muddy surface of the Mississippi.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been hijacked by contemporary white American popular culture, which is deliberately ahistoric and homogenized. This becomes even more evident when you consider that the main action of the novel begins with a little boy so terrified of his drunk and murderous father that he points a shotgun at him while he sleeps, intent on killing him. ‘he wakes up. To escape his father, Huck shoots and empties a pig to fake his own death and runs to the safety of the Mississippi River and Jim, Miss Watson’s runaway slave. As Huck and Jim drift the wrong way in Mississippi, they hear of a drowned, transvestite woman floating in the river (a runaway slave, according to Ellen Craft), witnessing the generational gun violence of the Shepherdsons’ feud. and the Grangerfords, and meet the threatening and bankrupt Duke and Dolphin. At the end of the novel, when the next generation of the well-educated southern gentleman and slave holder, in the person of Tom Sawyer, show up to re-imprison Jim for fun before admitting he was freed two months ago, Huck has had enough. Jim is not free, only “released”. Huck, an orphan with little education and less religion, decides to get out of this existential hell and light up for “The Territory before the others, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I won’t. can’t take it. I had been there before.

We react to humor by reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Twain was a brilliant satirist and that’s what satire allows us to do – laugh at the unspeakable. It was a difficult novel to write for Twain. He was the son of parents who owned slaves and he briefly served as a Confederate soldier in the Marion Rangers. (He then satirized his service, saying he deserted after a few weeks because he was tired of retreating.) Twain wrote the novel over seven years in three periods, 1876 (towards the end of reconstruction), 1880 (three years after President Rutherford B Hayes withdrew Federal troops from the South) and 1883 (one year after his return to Hannibal and the Deep South). During these years, political and legal protections for black people were dismantled and lynchings became a form of public entertainment. Twain would continue to write The United States of the lynching in 1901, an essay which was not published until 1923: “The lynching reached Colorado, he reached California, he reached Indiana – and now Missouri! I can live to see a burnt nigga Union Square, New York, with 50,000 people present, and not a visible sheriff, not a governor, not a police officer, not a colonel, not a clergyman, not a representative of law and order of any kind.

Twain also supported the concept of repairs, providing financial assistance to Warner T. McGuinn, one of Yale University’s early black law students, and Charles E. Porter, a black painter specializing in painting from still lifes and living in Paris. In 1906, he shared the stage with Booker T. Washington at Carnegie Hall to raise funds at a sold-out benefit evening for the Tuskegee Institute. Like many Americans today, Twain struggled to do – as Spike Lee might have – the right thing, while sometimes choosing to do the easy thing. He chose not to publish The United States of the lynching, feeling that the country and, more specifically, its readership was not ready to hear the truth.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reflects those same conflicting impulses, though in his heavy conclusion, Twain resists the pressure he must have felt to sell us a happy ending. Generation re-enslavement.

Still, they all missed the joke. Critics and audiences alike demanded a happy ending, but Twain refused to provide it because there wasn’t one. So, in the American way, there was a “Homer nods” gentlemanly accord, and American culture has come to its own end through movies and comics and, in an infamous failed experiment there is a decade, editing and publishing a sanitized version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the racial epithets removed – in fact, continuing the laundering of the last century and promoting the mistaken concept that art is fungible.

The tragic truth that Twain satirized in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was that there was no safe place for Huck or Jim. Huck’s alternative solution – abandoning civilization – was doomed to failure, and the novel’s ending violated America’s expectation of a happy shutdown. By writing a satire on the failure of Reconstruction, Twain proved that it is only through fiction that the truth about American racism, brutality, and systemic inequity can be revealed. When it comes to teaching American history, Twain should have the final say: “A historian who conveys the truth must lie. Often he has to magnify the truth by diameters, otherwise his reader will not be able to see it.

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