Copyright © 2003 Mark Twain Forum
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Huckleberry Finn: Antidote to Hate begins with an emphatically presumptuous title. We could only wish it were true. Previous books written by Nicholas Wolfson, a retired professor at University of Connecticut School of Law, include Hate Speech, Sex Speech, Free Speech (Praeger, 1997). Wolfson's current book can best be described as his own personal reactions to and defense of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn against a variety of criticisms.
According to the jacket copy, Wolfson wrote Huckleberry Finn: Antidote to Hate to address those critics who have condemned Twain's book as a bigoted and racist tract. Wolfson writes, "I want to take the book, almost episode by episode, and share with my readers my interpretations of the famous tale" (p. 11). He concedes, "I venture, with trepidation, into an area where learned scholars of literature have mined meaning and substance for decades" (p. 12).
Wolfson's book consists of an introduction, conclusion and three short chapters titled: "We Are Introduced to Huck Finn and Jim--They Light Out in Search of Freedom," "The Feud--The Duke and the Dauphin Take Over the Raft" and "Tom Sawyer Returns--Some Concluding Reflections on the Ending and the Book."
Wolfson assumes that his readers already have a good basic knowledge of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He begins his introduction by comparing the amount of critical commentary generated by Twain's book to the amount of judicial interpretation that has been accorded to the Constitution of the United States. In recounting various episodes of Huckleberry Finn, Wolfson often writes in short staccato sentences that would lend themselves better to oral presentation where a pause carries weight: "Miss Watson tells Huck to pray every day. He tries it out. He prays, but it doesn't work. He gets a fish line, but no hooks. He prays three or four days. It is no use. The fish hooks do not appear" (p. 18). In further describing Huck, Wolfson writes: "Huck is an abused child. His mom is dead. She could not read or write. His father is also illiterate. He tells Huck that he will beat him if he continues with school" (p. 26).
When it comes to defending Twain's plots and storylines, Wolfson's prose hits a smoother stride. In answering critics who complain about Twain letting Huck and Jim continue south down the Mississippi River rather than north to free territory, Wolfson writes that Twain "...is out for bigger game than plot plausibility. His goal is to skewer a racist society. His method is to bring Jim and Huck south down the Mississippi and stop at one miserable town after town, and expose the entrails of a rotten culture" (p. 52).
To answer criticism that Huck never generalizes from his love of Jim to the evils of slavery, Wolfson counters, "The fact that he conquers the demons of racism in his relationship with Jim is an enormous step. Any move by the fourteen [-year]-old-boy toward a coherent wider vision would smack of a kind of crude Soviet-era-cookbook political correctness" (p. 53).
In discussing the use of the "N" word, Wolfson writes, "Mark Twain's use of the word is an essential method to critically highlight the obnoxious use of this word, and in the course of the book, to make illegitimate its usage. As Jim and Huck develop their special relationship, and as the corrupt society is ridiculed, the use of the word acts to harshly portray the diseased culture" (p. 82). Wolfson deftly defers his readers to Jocelyn Chadwick's The Jim Dilemma for further analysis.
Responding to Twain critics who condemned the "evasion" chapters, Wolfson writes, "Mark Twain may have used crude burlesque and jokes in the ending to underline, with bitter humor, the pain and rage he felt about the misery of the damned human race...At some level, perhaps not conscious, he wants in the ending to make the readers squirm and the critics wince as if hearing a nail scratched against a blackboard" (p. 93, 117).
Running throughout Wolfson's commentary is a bit of name dropping for writers and entertainers he feels exhibit traces of a Mark Twain influence--names such as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Monty Python, and Jerry Seinfeld and his cohorts. In describing Twain's chapter about the "Camp Meeting," Wolfson writes, "Today, Twain would have made a fortune at Dreamworks" (p. 63). Writing about the duke and king and their bawdy performance in the "Royal Nonesuch," Wolfson observes, "Perhaps, today the two con artists would have made it as TV producers" (p. 69).
Wolfson is obviously familiar with a broad range of Twain scholarship and he uses it with ease in his arsenal of defenses for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Wolfson's book does not contain a formal bibliography and it has only a minimal index. However, the slim volume contains citations and footnotes to many well-known Twain scholars. Wolfson's citations include Andrew Lang, who wrote a review of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1891; William Dean Howells; Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard DeVoto; Henry Nash Smith; Walter Blair; Victor Doyno; Nat Henthoff; Randall Kennedy; Terry Oggel; Bruce Michelson; Richard Hill; Laura Skandera-Trombley; Tom Quirk; and Lin Salamo and Victor Fischer who edited the current University of California edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Wolfson's book is a product of Xlibris, a vanity publication firm. The book suffers from inherent pitfalls involved in self-publishing when professional publishers, editors, typesetters and proofreaders are not involved in the production process. The printed pages do not have uniform margins; space allotted for footnotes and the font size of footnotes vary; and punctuation is in need of fine tuning. Such flaws give the book a "do-it-yourself" look and feel.
Wolfson presents no primary research in this volume and gives no evidence that
the study or reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn changes attitudes
or cures hate. As to his emphatically presumptuous title--we could only wish
it were true.