YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 31, 2012

The Numbers Game, sadism, and the Decline of Magic

The “real” John Murrell

One of the virtues of the progressive movement in America was the increased deployment of statistics (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics). Before that, the political culture could rely on wild claims about the nature of the opposition, without deploying expert-developed “scientific” charts and graphs to prove a point. (Not that economists use the same sets of numbers or rely upon identical economic models.)

The reason I bring it up today, is the ongoing appeal of gory stories about the American past that I have found in both fiction and in the writing of history. While reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), I came across his account of the bandit and slave-stealer, “Murel,” but this turns out to be a heavily embellished “tall tale,” according to Wikipedia’s entry on “John Murrell (Bandit).” One cannot discount the public appetite for stories depicting in graphic detail dismembering, disemboweling, decapitations, defenestration, flogging, gouging, cannibalism, vampirism, and every atrocity known to our evil species. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and White-Jacket may appeal to the sadomasochist public more than we know.

After reading about the disgusting “Murel”, I was about to apologize for my reproach to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for if Murel could perpetrate his massive crimes, why not the horrid characters who murder each other on the borderlands of the Southwest, described by McCarthy?  To be clear, I doubted that records existed that would have matched McCarthy’s imagined violence with real events, especially since McCarthy, unlike the poet-historian Paul Metcalf, did not give a note on sources for the history he purported to represent. The reader may object “but he never said it was history.” That only  makes matters worse to me, for if not grounded in fact, then the author is playing to blood lust in the reader, and to be frank, so does Mark Twain. Why anyone thinks of him as primarily a jolly humorist is beyond me. His work rather suggests a violent, antimodern and misogynistic imagination, larded with a huge dollop of cultural pessimism, (not to speak of internal contradictions). I don’t know how much Life on the Mississippi was influenced by Melville’s synoptic look at industrializing America, also located on the great river, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), but the bleakness and accounts of mercantile fraud are common to both. And the Wikipedia article that surveys the many uses of statistical reasoning quotes Mark Twain as a nea-sayer: statistics were damned lies. Here is a sample from chapter nine of Life on the Mississippi that demonstrates a mixture of pride in mastering the technique of piloting a steamboat, but then lapses into regret that the world has been disenchanted by [science]:

[Mark Twain:] “…The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [End, Twain excerpt]

[Clare:] Many a romantic author (e.g. Wordsworth) has enunciated the same sentiments: “Science”  has disenchanted the world.  Melville made the same complaint in his journal (1857-58), this time blaming the loss of poetic imagination on the higher Biblical criticism. During my graduate school training in history, I remember one tendency among the cultural historians to deplore “fact fetishism.” Such a nosy search for hard evidence was held to be a symptom of feminization, hence the decline of masculinity. The “feminist” demand for “no secrets” was outrageous (again, see Melville’s fear of being caught by the probing female gaze). Similarly, many conservatives rail against “the nanny state.” Are the real men all “lighting out for the territories?”


January 21, 2012

Huck Finn and the well-whipped child

cleansed edition of Huck FinnWe all know about the controversy about the use of offensive dialect in the writings of Mark Twain. This blog is not about the triumph of the language police, but about a deeper and more sinister subject: the inability to stand up to illegitimate authority. [For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/]

But first take a look at this teaching guide to one of the masterworks of American literature: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/index.html.

This is one of many teaching guides on how to handle the “hand grenade” of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885). Here is a hipper one that gives a mini-biography of Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel became a major text for New Left literary critics. (In this essay, the story is told that Hemingway confronted Fiedler (the maverick critic who was the first to use the term postmodernism), over his reading of Huck Finn: http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_03/posnock.html). The issue for Hemingway was obviously manliness and Fiedler’s suggestions of androgyny and feminization in the American psyche.

Although Fiedler makes more of the homoeroticism of the relationship of Jim and Huck than I would, at least he addresses the retreat into Nature, a nature that is protective and nurturing, unlike the sadistic “Pap” (father of Huck) or the hypercritical, chatty Calvinist female relatives, upholders of slavery themselves, who drive Huck into primitivism.

I advise my readers to read Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Connecticut Yankee (1889) together, but the latter first. See also the passage from Yankee on poor white acquiescence in the institution of slavery that I quoted in https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/, for it is my hunch that 6th century Britain is a transposition of the antebellum South that Twain experienced as a boy, with the slave-owning classes analogous to the endless and irrational violence of the alliance between the aristocracy and the medieval Catholic Church—a force that, in Twain’s book, cannot be vanquished, even with modern technology, for men, with few exceptions, seek the traditional rule of abusive authority, not freedom.

The rest of this blog continues the theme of gender difference, with Twain (b. 1835), speaking through the poor white Huck, unable to break through the pervasive moral law existent in the slave states: that slavery was a positive good that uplifted savages: such was “civilization” in the slaveholding states. Huck’s is the lesson of the well-whipped child, a theme that pervades much of popular culture: that even as an adult, the rebel against illegitimate authority is too weak to overthrow the oppressor. The farthest that the rebellion may go is to identify with evil, with Satan, and thence to experience the depression that such an adventure into the dark side perhaps? necessarily? confers.

As the issue of manliness is not always discussed in the scholarly literature (as opposed to white racism), I shall quote from the two key chapters, 16 and 31, that reveal Huck’s moral prison, one from which he cannot escape even with wildly improbable plot devices.

[From Chapter 16. Huck hears Jim celebrating his imagined freedom if he gets to Cairo: “…He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife…and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

“It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t even dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, ‘Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.’ Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

[But then Jim rejoices:] “Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t even ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.” (pp 126-27)

[Huck is about to turn Jim into the hands of two slave-catchers who demand to know what is the color of the other man on the raft:] “I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says: ‘He’s white.’” [my emphasis]

Huck pretends to be a ghost

A man, in Huck’s imagination, obeys the law that disallows Jim belonging to himself. (But in the preceding chapter Huck had humbled himself before Jim, for his “mean tricks” that impelled Jim to reproach Huck for worrying him that Huck might have drowned during the great fog. “And I warn’t ever sorry for it [the apology] afterwards, neither.” Huck/Twain has actually acknowledged Jim as an equal, momentarily at least.)

Shortly after the interchange in chapter 16 (quoted above), Huck continues his self-examination and concludes that he would feel just as bad doing right (turning Jim over) as doing wrong (breaking the law), “and the wages is just the same.” A few pages later a steamboat capsizes the raft and Mark Twain puts down the manuscript for several years. (Henry Nash Smith says three years, relying on Walter Blair’s scholarship in reconstructing the composition of the ms.). After many chapters in which Jim leaves the narrative, the two runaways are reunited, and Huck, pretending to be Tom Sawyer, is comfortably lodged on the Phelps plantation (with Jim hiding on the raft nearby, then captured by Phelps), where his Southern conscience is once more goaded into a proposed action. This is where Huck unites with Satan as the only felt outcome for the well-whipped and indoctrinated child/man. Huck composes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson:

“Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

“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 happening so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” Huck then reminisces about their friendship, emphasizing Jim’s protectively maternal aspects, and utters the often quoted lines: “’All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and 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.” (Ch. 31, p.278-279).

And is one of the wicked things, Huck’s collaborating with Tom Sawyer’s sadistic pranks during the concluding chapters, sadistic because Tom knew that Miss Watson had already freed Jim in her will? By what circuitous route does Huck move from a vow to saving Jim again, to allowing Tom Sawyer to control his actions, in effect, tormenting Jim, perhaps reminding the reader that Twain the author killed off Hank Morgan and his modernization project at the end of Yankee? Having bonded with perfect evil (Satan) in chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn, was this bond not the juice that enabled the writing of the Jacobin and Promethean Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? And if so, how could Twain’s next big book not have had a depressing and depressed denouement? We may be fascinated by bad boys, but they are not marriage material.

I do not know what punishment Mark Twain’s father meted out to his children, for the role of yelling or caning in early childhood and youth is rarely taken up in literary histories. We do know that Twain’s father was a slaveowner, an attorney and a judge who died when Samuel L. Clemens was only 11 years old, surely a trauma in itself. Twain mentions his father in Life on The Mississippi as follows: “My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men, and could hang anybody that offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing; but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.” (Ch. IV) In the novel, an unnamed judge sides with Huck’s Pap, returning Huck to certain death in his father’s hovel. I have written a very personal, speculative blog. One thing is for certain: Mark Twain was not the name given by the author’s parents. (For more on the Clemens household and slavery see http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/terrell_dempsey_searching_for.aspx. )

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