The following review appeared 24 March 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Joseph L. Coulombe <email@example.com>
The University of Tennessee at Martin
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-imaging the American Dream, by Elaine Mensh and Harry Mensh, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of race in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It should serve as a useful companion piece to recent works like Jonathan Arac's Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target (1997) and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua's The Jim Dilemma (1998). Mensh and Mensh tend to align themselves more closely with Arac than Chadwick-Joshua, and they approach Huckleberry Finn with a view toward locating and discussing its often ambiguous and shifting racial messages. Moreover, they manage to focus on the novel's difficulties without compromising its worth. Rather than accept Huckleberry Finn as strictly anti-racist, they contextualize it using 19th-century slave narratives and racial attitudes, and then they interpret specific scenes and passages in relation to these documents. Since many educators advocate Huckleberry Finn as an accurate account of slavery in the 19th century, the Menshes' historicization of Twain's novel seems well justified. Their close readings--and their discussion of the place of Huckleberry Finn in American high schools--make this book a useful tool for scholars, teachers, and students.
The Menshes begin by reminding readers of the circumstances under which Huckleberry Finn first gained its status as a classic as well as the historical conditions that propelled it to the center of a racial controversy in the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, Twain's novel was promoted primarily by white male academics. During the civil rights movements of 1950s, however, some African American students felt compelled to voice indignation with its mandatory use in many high schools. This dissension resulted from far more than the pervasive use of the epithet "nigger." The Menshes write: "[I]t became ever more evident that the argument over fictional black-white relations was also an argument over nonfictional black-white relations; over black images in white minds, unequal authority along racial lines, conflicting perceptions of black-white amity, and--because of the classic's unique place in the national consciousness--differing interpretations of the American dream" (2). Thus, the discussion of Huckleberry Finn reveals as much about 20th-century attitudes about race as about representations of race during Twain's time. Since one informs the others, the Menshes spend the greater portion of the book (and the most useful) evaluating Huckleberry Finn in light of 19th-century documents written by and about slaves and masters as well as free blacks and non-slave-holding whites.
By focusing on the passages that pose interpretive problems, the Menshes hope to explain whether Twain's novel subverts or upholds racist beliefs. They place the character Huck Finn at the crux of the controversy because he serves in two wholly different functions: he acts as the spokesperson for some of Twain's views; and he represents a cultural product whom readers are supposed to recognize as misled and naive. To the Menshes, his fluctuating purposes not only hinder any possibility of a definitive interpretation but also obstruct a clear understanding of Twain's racial perspective. Because Huck's inconsistencies do not always function as an indicator of his character's growth (or potential for growth), the Menshes ask "the question of the degree to which Twain's own eyes, clear and penetrating as they could be, were not also thus shadowed" (18).
In this book, Huck's (and Twain's) characterization of Jim becomes the major focus. For example, the Menshes revisit the scene in which Jim fabricates a story about witches riding him, an episode sometimes interpreted as an example of Jim's ability to create narratives that gain him a degree of power and freedom. Although Huck fails to recognize Jim's shrewdness at this point, critics who uphold this interpretation identify 19th-century black folk-tales as Twain's source for his positive characterization of Jim. The Menshes, however, take issue with this interpretation. They argue that these tales showed African Americans overcoming or evading the supernatural spirits that chased them. Moreover, the stories themselves reflected their knowledge that the "spirits" were actually masquerading white people hoping to frighten supposedly superstitious black people into submission. As the Menshes point out, Jim does not successfully escape those harassing him. Rather, his role in each successive version of the story becomes more and more helpless and abused. Twain's characterization of Jim is thus more aligned with the minstrel-show type; he is a comic figure whom Twain encourages us to laugh at. Whether readers agree with the Menshes or not, the authors provide a new understanding of an known historical source that complicates interpretations of this episode. In fact, the Menshes relish pointing out inconsistencies in Twain's depiction of antebellum America. They take issue, for instance, with Twain's suggestion that black people could come from miles around to hear Jim tell his story when, in fact, white people used night patrols and written passes to prevent blacks from traveling without their master's consent.
The Menshes use a similar approach to appraise Jim's flight for freedom. When Jim reaches Jackson's Island, his choices fail to tally with the desperate chances taken by real fugitive slaves in the 19th century. He simply remains on the island, content with his pipe and tobacco for three days, despite the free state of Illinois beckoning him from across the river. Its dangers would seem an enticing alternative to waiting hopelessly on Jackson's Island. Again, the Menshes connect these unrealistic choices to 19th-century minstrelsy. Jim's willingness to trust Huck notwithstanding evidence that he should not--points to his naive dependence on white people and results from the blending of the "two antithetical traditions" involving fugitive slaves and comic blackface (45). Twain was well aware of both traditions, and the Menshes' explication of these early scenes shows the complex influences at work within Twain's novel. They explain their perspective using textual evidence, historical influences, and recent critical opinions, particularly those of Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Robert Sattelmeyer, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
Throughout the middle chapters, the Menshes admire the verisimilitude of Huck's unenlightened stance toward Jim. His pranks, arguments, and crises portray him as a boy who cannot easily reconcile himself to helping a black man escape slavery. However, they continue to question the characterization of Jim. For example, after Huck concocts the small-pox lie to save Jim from the slave-hunters, the Menshes argue that Jim essentially "renounces his struggle for his own freedom"--rather than redouble his efforts to reach safety--by accepting the inevitability of the snake-skin's continuing bad luck. His choices becomes even more untenable after the raft is smashed and Huck and Jim become separated. Jim waits patiently for Huck, a boy whose faithfulness he has reason to doubt. Then he repairs the raft to continue floating south, even deciding to take the raft further south by himself if Huck gets killed in the feud. The Menshes write, "[H]is behavior becomes willfully antithetical to that of a fugitive slave" (61). His odd behavior results from Twain's inability to imagine realistically the motivations and choices of a black man who hopes to free himself and his family. While Huck effectively embodies the traits of a white boy at this time, Jim fails to exemplify those of a black man.
The Menshes also present challenges to other popular interpretations of Huck and Jim's journey down the Mississippi River. For example, they underscore how the King and the Duke do not invade the raft and its supposed sanctuary. Rather, Huck invites them onto the raft and thus endangers Jim again. The Menshes make a compelling counter-argument to the critical stance that views the Duke-and-the-King episodes as delightfully comic shenanigans satirizing the ignorant people of the Mississippi River Valley. Whereas Huck is able to identify with the white con-men, Jim reacts to his increasingly precarious situation with a mixture of fear and anger barely hidden under a subservient mask. The Menshes also question the historical accuracy of Twain's information. For example, after the King and the Duke separate and sell Mary Jane's slaves, Huck gives his assurances that they will be returned once the sale is exposed as fraudulent. Not only is it likely that the slave traders supplied fake identities (to con, in their turn, the King and the Duke), but, as the Menshes argue: "One trader took the mother to New Orleans, the other took the sons to Memphis--or so they said. The traders would have sold the family members, either in the slave markets in those cities or elsewhere, to two or even three buyers, who may have kept them or resold them; the unknown owners, whose identities may also be open to question, could then have taken the grieving family members anywhere" (83). Although this may seem like a relatively minor detail within the novel, it exposes another set of false assumptions that guides Huck. The Menshes accuse Twain of encouraging readers to adopt Huck's statement as truth, writing: "the novel undergoes a seismic shift: instead of demonstrating that cruelty and deceit lie at the heart of the society, it tells us that the society undoes fraud and mends heartbreak" (84-85).
The final chapters of Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-imaging the American Dream explore the controversial ending as well as the sometimes contentious discussion surrounding it. Rather than seeing the "evasion" chapters as a flawed departure from earlier developments, the Menshes find thematic links that facilitate the ongoing narrative. Huck's apparent delight at Jim's discomfort (as a result of the rats, spiders, snakes, chains, etc.) originates, according to the Menshes, from his annoyance that Jim has exacted revenge upon the King and the Duke, for whom Huck continues to feel great sympathy. They regard Huck as "an often good-hearted but abidingly racist boy who feels bound to a commitment he was loath to make" (92). Jim finally redeems himself in Huck's eyes by sacrificing his freedom for the wounded Tom, an act that earns him the dubious honor of Huck's statement: "I knowed he was white inside" (94). Their discussion of Huck's final thoughts and actions show the complex psychological and historical influences at play within Twain's work, a novel that gave us the character they label--for better or worse--"America's child" (101).
This study ends with a useful discussion of the continuing controversy over the novel's place in America's schools. The Menses take pains to distinguish the student-initiated efforts to remove Huckleberry Finn from required reading lists from those rare efforts to ban the book entirely. This distinction shows the falseness of linking today's reaction to the Concord book banning in Twain's time. Concord officials sought to protect white children from the bad influence of Huck, whereas efforts today are prompted by the children themselves who are rebelling against the supposed authority of an adult classic. According to the Menshes, these students are acting in the true spirit of Huck Finn and Mark Twain: "Those who brush aside these children's pain and protests no doubt believe they defend Twain's legacy, may even believe they speak on his behalf. We do Twain a grave injustice, though, if we presume he would agree" (115).
About the reviewer: Joe Coulombe grew up in the Mississippi River town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin (mentioned briefly in Life on the Mississippi). He completed his PhD at the University of Delaware in 1998, and he currently teaches American literature at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Among other projects, he is finishing his manuscript, Mark Twain and the American West, 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.