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Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the…

Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His…

by Andrew Levy

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I found this fascinating. According to Levy, my recent disappointment with the ending of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck allows Jim to remain imprisoned for weeks and contributes to his misery by putting snakes, rats, spiders in his cell and making him write messages in his own blood when Huck could easily set him free, merely so that Tom Sawyer, who knows Jim's owner freed him at her death, can enjoy an elaborate game of “free the prisoner,” was actually a result of my misunderstanding of the sort of story Twain was writing. Andrew Levy's intriguing book offers a more nuanced understanding of Twain's classic, tracing Twain's changing views on race throughout his life, and most particularly from his early years to the time he finished Huckleberry Finn, as well as on racial attitudes in America at the time, but also pointing out the extent to which childhood and child-rearing, more than race issues, were Twain's focus in the book. Part One of the book focuses on issues related to childhood, while Part Two concerns 19th century debates on race.

Levy's explanation goes a long way toward explaining the rather jarring shift in tone which occurs in Chapter 33, when Tom Sawyer reenters the story. Huck's willingness to allow Jim to serve as a prop in Tom's rather sadistic “suffering prisoner” game is certainly plausible, however narratively unsatisfying, in light of his oft-expressed admiration for his socially superior, better educated friend. Given the episode early in the book, in which Tom, with Huck's cooperation, tricks Jim into believing he's been ridden by witches, Tom's later, elaborate game with Jim gives the book a certain circularity. Despite this, when I recently read Huckleberry Finn I found the ending a “cheat” – a descent into slapstick and a reversion by Huck to treating Jim as an inferior whose abuse was acceptable if it provided entertainment. By Levy's interpretation, however, the ending, which apparently, was not a “rush” job, but actually a part with which Twain was particularly pleased, was consistent with the book he intended to write. He was interested in improving the situation of African Americans, certainly, but he was also very concerned with portraying children rebelling against conventions and rules, and with writing an entertaining story of independent, high-spirited boys. And he had a lifelong affection for minstrel shows, aspects of which, Levy shows us, appear in various guises throughout the book. Reading the book through the lens Levy provides clears up certain aspects of the book which otherwise seem inconsistent, and the insights he offers into 19th century concerns are interesting just for themselves!

Levy reminds us that concerns about the impact of media on impressionable youth were as prevalent in Twain's day as they are in ours. The news stories he cites suggest a time no more idyllic than our own, in which boys and teenagers commit acts of horrific violence and commentators blame the corrupting influence of violence-filled media.

In the midst of an ugly presidential election year, when racial issues are once again in play, it is difficult to deny Twain's prescience.

”The consensus of the twentieth century made one simple mistake about Huck Finn, but it echoed: they believed that it made a difference when Huck said he'd go to hell to free Jim. And they figured Twain failed when it didn't – or, like Ronald Reagan or Arthur Schlesinger, they figured he didn't fail at all. And as they told this story, they told the bigger story for which they made Huck Finn stand in: that the “final emancipation” of African-Americans, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1948, was “real and historical.” But that was exactly what Huck Finn was not saying. And mistaking a dark comedy about how history goes round for a parable about how it goes forward is a classic American mistake. Writing in the aftermath of the Civil War, surveying all that blood and treasure spent to free slaves, and then Reconstruction collapsing, convict-lease, the rise of the Klan, Jim Crow, lynchings – Mark Twain eventually dedicated Huck Finn to the proposition that, contra Lincoln, there was no new birth of freedom.”

Levy's exploration over the course of his book of 19th century ideas about parenting, education, juvenile delinquency, criminality, and race issues, and his examination of Twain's changing attitudes on these topics through his personal and public writings, offers new insights into the unexpectedly complex themes of Twain's masterpiece. If that makes the book sound excessively scholarly, it's because I'm putting it badly, as it is really a very enjoyable read for anyone interested in 19th century American literature and history. ( )
1 vote meandmybooks | Mar 16, 2016 |
Interesting overview of the writing of one of the classic American novels. After having created the Huckleberry Finn character (which was based on a friend from Twain's childhood) as a foil in THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, the author began a novel about him after the Tom Sawyer novel was published. After writing 400 manuscript pages, Twain shelved the project before completing it seven years later.
As he was putting the finishing touches on the Huck Finn novel, Twain embarked on an ambitious national speaking tour (billed as "The Twins of Genius") with New Orleans-based writer George Washington Cable. Andrew Levy uses both the Huck Finn novel and the speaking tour to explore what was going through Twain's mind.
Unlike many critics, Levy downplays the racial overtones of the novel. What he finds interesting is Twain's views on the roles that schools play in educating children and preparing them for the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood ( )
  dickmanikowski | May 25, 2015 |
A special thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece delivers an exploration of the character with a fresh new contemporary look of the American literary Classic Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Have we missed some critical points in the classic and controversial novel over the years?

“Maybe we have misread Huck Finn on matters of race and children especially, for the same reason we repeat the cultural and political schema of the Gilded Age-because the appealing idea that every generation is better off than the one before conceals our foreboding that we live in a land of echos. And yet we read, after all these years, because the foreboding speaks to us anyway. “

There was a serious debate about how to raise and educate children in the American 1880s. Twain was contributing something more than a lighthearted boy’s book to that debate. He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at-risk children, and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor. There was also a serious debate about the future of race relations in the American 1880s, as well. But possibly not as much a part of it as we tend to think.

Twain offered Huck Finn to a country where parents, educators, and politicians worried that children, especially boys were too exposed to violent media, that they were too susceptible to amoral market forces that made them violent themselves. The twenty-first century reader lives in a country worried about the exact same things, only with fresher media. In fact, Levy reiterates the debate over children has changed so little over the last century.

In this light, it matters that we have been misreading Huck Finn because that misreading is both wasted opportunity and metaphor for our larger failure to recognize our close relation to the past.

Richly researched, well-developed and insightful, Levy dives into controversial issues of race, violence, and parenting. Levy brings to light Twain’s focus on race was less about civil rights than the role of race in entertainment and culture. Levy reveals sides of the 1884 fiction that few of us ever noticed.

A fascinating re-discovery and thought-provoking narrative, Andrew Levy breathes new life into an American classic, giving modern readers a fresh understanding of Huck Finn's colorful world.

Recommended for fans of Twain, African and American history, American literature, and books about writers and books about books. ( )
  JudithDCollins | Mar 14, 2015 |
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Mr. Levy is excellent on Twain, on his drawl, his gait, his evolution on race matters — from youthful racism to passionate believer in the reparations owed former slaves — and even better on his contradictions. Twain, Mr. Levy reminds us, a friend to Frederick Douglass and benefactor of black college students, also commissioned the grotesque drawings of Jim for the novel and had a cheerfully proprietary relationship with black culture. “He saw that you could play with race: you could produce blackness. And you could make money making blackness.”
added by rybie2 | editNew York Times, Parul Sehga (Feb 4, 2015)
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"A groundbreaking and controversial re-examination of our most beloved classic, Huckleberry Finn, proving that for more than 100 years we have misunderstood Twain's message on race and childhood--and the uncomfortable truths it still holds for modern America"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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