The following review appeared 5 October 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Joseph L. Coulombe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The University of Tennessee at Martin
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Any new collection of essays on Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is quite welcome. With the continuing debates over the novel and its relevance in the classroom, easy access to a variety of viewpoints can only help readers arrive at their own decisions. Katie de Koster's anthology serves this purpose, offering a range of perspectives from the date of Huckleberry Finn's publication to the present.
In the Series Foreword, the general editors state that the essays for each volume are chosen specifically for "a young adult audience." With this audience in mind, de Koster includes brief summaries of each article in the table of contents, and she groups the essays themselves into thematic sections with descriptive headers. Both arrangements will likely help students locate information and ideas relevant to their interests. On the other hand, many of the essays' original titles have been changed (and this may prove confusing to some scholars), but original publication information is footnoted on the first page of each essay. De Koster has arranged the notably diverse essays into four sections: "The Storyteller's Art," "Images of America," "Issues of Race," and "The Problematic Ending." Each section includes four or five essays.
The first section includes opinions by Brander Matthews, Victor Doyno, James M. Cox, Alfred Kazin, and Ralph Cohen. Matthews' 1885 review provides a practical starting point for understanding the novel as well as its shifting literary and historical significance. Matthews not only praises its realism, the vernacular dialect of Huck, and its humor, but he also admires Twain's depiction of Southern blacks and Tom Sawyer's treatment of Jim in the final chapters. Doyno's selection--excerpted from Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain's Creative Process (1991)--focuses on how Twain painstakingly revised the manuscript to shape the individual personalities of each character. Doyno's excellent and detailed analysis, however, might have served better after Cox's and Kazin's more general discussions of Huck's personality and choices and of Twain's artistic discoveries and social purposes. In the final essay of this section, Cohen highlights a topic of probable interest to many college-age readers: the games, tricks, and superstitions of Huckleberry Finn.
In the second section, "Images of America," de Koster chooses essays/excerpts by Horace Fiske, Andrew Hoffman, Gladys Bellamy, and Jay Martin. Fiske's 1903 appreciation of Huckleberry Finn tends toward summary, paraphrase, and long quotation rather than interpretation, and it seems somewhat out of place in the collection. On the other hand, Hoffman examines Huck as a representative of the nineteenth-century social and political ideals associated with Andrew Jackson. The excerpt by Bellamy purports to discuss Huckleberry Finn as a satire on American institutions, but the section on the institution of slavery has been removed, and the expressed opinions about race often come across as dated. For example, Bellamy writes that Twain "shows us the African in Jim, imbuing him with a dark knowledge that lies in his blood" (97). Such pronouncements are not well calculated to illuminate young readers' understanding of Twain's novel. In the last essay of this section, however, Martin provides a useful and nuanced explanation of Huck's vacillating position between Nature and Civilization.
The third section, "Issues of Race", contains essays by John Wallace, Richard Barksdale, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Eric Lott, and Jane Smiley. Wallace's oft-quoted essay, in which he describes Huckleberry Finn as "racist trash," raises several valid concerns regarding the use of the novel in American high schools, but lacks strength in its textual analysis. Nevertheless, his major concern is taken up effectively by Barksdale, who places the novel within its historical context to show both the ironic intentions of Twain and the difficulty of learning and teaching those ironies in the classroom. Fishkin then explains not only the indebtedness that Twain had toward African American sources, including "Sociable Jimmy," black spirituals, and personal acquaintances, but also the impact Twain had on subsequent American writers. Exploring this further, Lott discusses how Twain's reliance upon blackface minstrelsy both allowed the complex achievement of Huckleberry Finn while simultaneously making it "perhaps unteachable to our own time." In the final essay of this chapter, Smiley compares "Twain's moral failure" in his characterization of Jim to Harriet Beecher Stowe's unequivocal anti-racism in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Overall, this section is the strongest.
That these complex understandings of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn often tend toward the negative comes as something of a surprise after de Koster's preface. De Koster introduces this collection within the context of the current racial controversy, but then offers a rather emphatic but largely unsupported series of statements. For example, after recounting Huck's famous decision to "go to hell" and free Jim, she writes, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is clearly antislavery. The reader is supposed to believe Huck made the right choice when he helped an escaped slave" (13). Instead of telling the reader what s/he is supposed to believe, de Koster would do better to explain her reasoning within the complicated matrix of ideas in her collection. On a more positive note, her preface also includes a 20-page biography of Samuel Clemens that provides a useful introduction for students unfamiliar with his life.
In the final section of the collection, "The Problematic Ending," de Koster includes opinions by Joyce Rowe, José Barchilon and Joel Kovel, Carson Gibb, and Richard Hill. Rowe argues that Twain intentionally destroys the "fictional comforts of verisimilitude" in the final chapters to expose the "grotesque" values of society, including those of the readers. Barchilon and Kovel offer a psychoanalytic interpretation of the escape, interpreting Jim's prison as a womb, his chains as an umbilical cord, and the Mississippi River as Huck's loving mother. Gibb justifies the ending as an intentionally bad joke that reflects the culture that Huck seeks to escape, yet the 1960 essay is most noticeable for the repeated use of the word "nigger" without quotation marks. Gibb seems to feels justified in this usage because he has explained that Huck and Tom "believe niggers and people are two different things" (177). However, its use is unnecessary to his argument and also insensitive to the extreme. Because of this, the essay itself seems inappropriate for a collection aimed at young readers. Finally, Hill presents the most formidable vindication of the final chapters to date, arguing that Huck's response to Tom is plausible for a boy, and that Jim's response shows an intelligent manipulation of contemporary stereotypes to exert at least some control over a delicate and dangerous situation.
All in all, de Koster's collection offers a useful variety of opinions. It will doubtless contribute to current debates of Twain's Huckleberry Finn and its place in our classrooms.
About the reviewer: Joe Coulombe grew up in the Mississippi River town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin (mentioned briefly in Life on the Mississippi, ch. 30). After earning his PhD at the University of Delaware in 1998, he began a tenure-track position at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is currently expanding his dissertation on Mark Twain and the American West into a book that explores the interconnections of masculinity, wealth, and race in Twain's Western persona and writings. He has also published essays on the literary indebtedness of Walt Whitman, the frontier romances of Emerson Bennett, and the construction of masculinity in Edith Wharton.