The following review appeared 5 June 1994 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
David Tomlinson <email@example.com.
U.S. Naval Academy
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Tom Quirk's essays on Huckleberry Finn make even an academic suffering from
overload experience nirvana. He handles the form with such ease and grace,
the journeys are every bit as interesting as the intended destinations.
In the introduction, Quirk maintains that the essays are "specimens of a familiar scholarly inquiry and humanistic criticism." He is right, of course; but many offerings which use the scholarly conventions and a humanistic approach fall far short of the Quirk's mark. His success depends not only on his keen insight but also on an approach which treats his readers as companions rather than ill-taught pupils and on an a critical perspective which aims clearly at understanding Twain rather than trying to belittle or supplant him.
He can claim,"Only once, and then only for a moment, did I ever feel that I really knew how Mark Twain's imagination worked;" but Quirk comes far closer to that goal than most. He is able to see how events might have led Twain to imagine or interpret his characters to bring them to life. In this enterprise, Quirk is both convincing and inspiring.
Of the half dozen essays included in the book, only one is new. That essay, "Huckleberry Finn's Heirs," examines the work of Ring Lardner, Willa Cather and Langston Hughes searching for debts these authors might have owed to Huckleberry Finn. At first glance, Lardner seems the most similar. Quirk's examination leads to a different conclusion. While Twain brings Huck and Jim to life by treating them with respect and love, Lardner, who also depicts characters from the lower rungs of society, laughs at them, putting himself in the peculiar position of ridiculing the children of his imagination. Willa Cather and Langston Hughes, neither of them much like Twain on the surface, do each exhibit some facets of Twainian creativity.
"Is Huckleberry Finn Politically Correct?" has, by its very title already commanded attention on the Twain Forum. Quirk, early on, concedes that he does "not intend to answer the question [his] . . . title poses." If he does not spend the whole essay answering that provocative question, he does assert that "by and large we prize Huck for its incorrectness; it is an incorruptibly incorrect book in nearly every particular." He assumes quite rightly, I think, that few will contest that judgment. Having disposed of that point in the first page and a half, he then considers the more difficult thesis that "our response to works of the imagination has a great deal less to do with political or social realities as such than with an imaginative identification with heroism, courage, nobility, and so forth." It seems a pedestrian point to make until Quirk begins to make it.
His examination has everything to do with the way in which we, as critics, approach Samuel Clemens himself. Quirk deplores the ink wasted in trying to make a Clemens, who may have had racial attitudes unacceptable today, into a sensitive guy of the 1980's or 1990's. Rather than protect the writer's reputation on untenable grounds, Quirk says he is "far more interested in protecting Twain from the charge of being a sensitive guy." He believes that what makes Huckleberry Finn work is not Twain's views on race, his antisentimental, anti-Southern or antiaristocratic views but his imagination. It was an imagination which created characters who were and are real, characters for whom we have human sympathy and feeling. He created "Jim not as a representative of the Negro, the oppressed, or the wretched, but as Jim." It is this magic of creation which leads us after more than a hundred years to read and enjoy reading the novel.
The most dated of the essays is "Nobility Out of Tatters: The Writing of Huckleberry Finn. " Appearing four years ago, the essay does not account for the finding of the first portion of the Finn manuscript. After the discovery, Quirk decided "that perhaps it is better (and certainly more honest) to let the essays stand the way they were written instead of trying to repair the damage." Admitting that "many of the points I make . . . having specifically to do with the composition of Huckleberry Finn are simply untrue" in light of the discovery, Quirk amends what he had already written by summarizing the most important changes in thinking the manuscript requires in his introduction to the book.
"Nobility Out of Tatters" remains a magnificent essay in spite of the few necessary alterations because it seeks to show "how Twain's achievement in the book outran his qualifications to write it." Stunningly, Quirk is able to demonstrate how Twain produced human characters from lifeless words, and in doing so, he performs that most valuable office of a critic, bringing renewed appreciation.
Another essay, "Huckleberry Finn and Twain's Autobiographical Writings," makes a similar point from a slightly different perspective. Twain creates a flat character in Huck but breathes life into him as he comes to understand the boy as social pariah, as a creature blessed with freedom and as a person of moral integrity. It is Huck, he argues, who helps Twain understand his own moral ambivalence toward the Civil War; and it is in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" that Twain is able to resolve that ambivalence twenty years after the war ended.
In "The Realism of Huckleberry Finn, " Quirk argues convincingly that the book and the boy are real, not because they uphold the conventions of literary realism but precisely because they present the reader with conflicting emotions and actions. Huck is sometimes a realist, sometimes a sentimental soul, often merely a confused person. Twain's book achieves greatness because it flouts programmatic realism and confronts us with the ambiguities and confusions of life which are the nature of reality.
What Quirk argues for in most of the essays is a kind of irreducible complexity of Huckleberry Finn. That irreducibility is precisely what he champions in "'Learning a Nigger to Argue': Quitting Huckleberry Finn. " Neither the relationship of Huck to Jim nor that of Twain to Jim is without difficulties. Indeed, Quirk asserts that "part of Twain's problem with finishing his book . . . was his indecision about what to do with Jim." Part of the difficulty of composition may have been with whether Jim should have been of fered as a sacrifice to a lynch mob.
Even more explosive is Quirk's assessment of what words Twain wrote last in the novel. They are not the words which appear at the end of the book but rather the ending of the King Solomon episode where he has Huckleberry say, "You can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit."
What this ending means, according to Quirk, is that Twain experiences despair with Jim's intellectual limitations. It also throws the warm glow of relationships at the climax of the story in doubt.
Quirk's essays are not of the ivory tower kind. That is, his provocative ideas are the kind meant to spark classroom discussion. I intend to use my well-marked copy of the text to do just that.
Nobility out of Tatters: The Writing of Huckleberry Finn
Life Imitating Art: Huckleberry Finn and Twain's Autobiographical Writings
"Learning a Nigger to Argue": Quitting Huckleberry Finn
The Realism of Huckleberry Finn
Huckleberry Finn's Heirs
Is Huckleberry Finn Politically Correct?