Bear with me. I’m subjecting you to some of the same torture I have been compelled to study for my upcoming exam tomorrow. I won’t bore you with trivial details but you must know that, while I love literature and analyzing literature and discussing literature, my brain consistently works against me when I must remember dates, times, etc. (just ask my mom, or my 7-year-old nephew). It’s not all bad. Just when studying for huge exams where there is a section with three “date” questions so, if you miss one, you basically flunk that section. No pressure. . .
Like I was saying, not remembering dates, times, and so on can be a good thing. Just about every year on March 25th, I unwittingly blunder through the day not cognizant of the date until a well-meaning family member (ahem) inquires with a concerned look on her face, “Are you okay, honey?” The blank stare she gets in response followed by, “Oh crap, did you have to remind me?” lets her know some things are better left unsaid. There are days I have to remind myself how old I am. Not that I don’t recall or care really. After thirty, I simply stopped counting. Which brings me back to Huck Finn and Twain a.k.a. Samuel Clemens.
Here’s the deal. Many people slap it with an iconic, American label. I get that. Huck Finn is as American as cherry pie, fireworks on July 4th, and the Mississippi River. It is in The Cannon after all. A canon of traditional literature left relatively unperturbed on its pedestal of superiority (until recently). Some critics have begun questioning these texts’ god-like statuses and have accordingly been perceived as sacrilegious (consequently, they should be burned at the literary stakes). Critics, like Julius Lester, question the use of the “n” word (mentioned over 213 times in the text) because it is not clear that the offensive, vulgar term is just that. . .offensive and vulgar. Unlike, in Frederick Douglass‘ narrative, where the “n” word surfaces a few times but it is blatantly obvious that the word is vile. Then there are critics that say the text remains true to the historical time period and the “n” word should be in there (213 times).
The critic Myra Jehlen argues that Huck Finn should be viewed through the lens of gender as social construction, nature vs. nuture, ideology vs. biology. She gets hammered by Frederick Crews, a good ole boy, who states she is annoying, nagging, and making a fuss about nothing. She, according to Crews, isn’t sticking to the empirical facts (what facts? he doesn’t say of course). Then, the good stuff. Leslie Fiedler, in 1948, mentions homoerotic crush (gasp!) not as overt sexuality but instead chaste, innocent love between two men, or in this case a black man and a 14- year -old adolescent. Kinda like the locker-room, butt slapping that goes on between males during games (you get the drift). Christopher Looby jumps in and says that, when Huck dresses up as a girl to try and escape society, he is inverting gender and this action precludes homosexuality and heterosexuality being classified as two rigid categories. Wow! I dare anyone who says literature is boring to reread the texts and follow-up with some critics (remember, these conversations are taking place in college classrooms, NOT elementary schools).
My mom constantly asks, “Why do you study that stuff? Can’t you just read a book and put it down and be done with it?” To which I reply with an emphatic, “No!” She doesn’t get it and it’s all right. While cramming for an exam in which I must remember dates (sigh), recall critics (ugh), connect the critics to the text (yikes), and keep track of which critic is lambasting which opposing critic, I am conscious of the reality that I love this stuff. And these diverse ideologies, philosophies, and historical contexts are some of the good things in my life. The good stuff that keeps my brain occupied from everyday stress. So, while this post may come off as a bit whiny (which it is), and even though I’m overwhelmed because of this test (which I am), I can close with a nod to great literary authors who, as Walter Wellesley said, sat down at typewriters and opened up veins. Thank-you Clemens (but, tomorrow night, you’re booted out of my bed).