In fact, though, this post isn't about Hawthorne at all. It's about a book/daddy post reviewing Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, which, as the title suggests, reimagines the life of Huck's "Pap." And it's about the opportunity it provides me with to give you a preview of my American Adam and whiteness chapter from my book manuscript! Here 'tis--I think you'll see why I desperately want to read Clinch's novel after you read the book/daddy review and this post--and get a better sense of where I disagree with Arac's reading of AHF as a literary narrative drafted into a Cold War liberal nationalist project.
The fact that both Tom and Huck assume that they are at fault for attempting to “steal” Jim out of slavery, the narrative of white resentment at black liberation, and the equation between African Americans’ emancipation and avoidance of work that are implicit in the evasion scene are all prominent features of Pap Finn’s infamous diatribe:
“Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him. . . . That ain’t all, nuther. The law backs Judge Thatcher up and helps him to keep me out o’ my property. . . .
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there, from Ohio, a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane--the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? they said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote, myself, if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me--I’ll never vote again as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger--why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?--that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State for six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There now--that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take ahold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger. . . .”
On the one hand, Pap sounds like a pro-slavery Southern secessionist: “Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all. . . . Says I, for two cents I’d leave the blamed country and never come anear it agin.” His complaint that, “A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this” is not only over his custody battles with Judge Thatcher and Huck’s six thousand dollars; it is also over his status as a white man. Because Pap assumes that the government’s role is to maintain white racial status and privilege through protection of the right to hold property in slaves, he sees any incidence of black freedom as a direct attack on white rights. Furthermore, his association of black freedom and black criminality--“a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger”--is itself an ironic confirmation of the anti-slavery notion that the only way out of slavery was to “steal away” even as it enacts the pro-slavery logic that to escape from slavery is to steal yourself (not to mention a foreshadowing of the novel’s end).
Yet there is a more specific context for Pap’s particular configuration of class and racial resentments than the antebellum South. As Eric Sundquist explains, “In the figure of Huck Finn’s father, [Clemens] had, in fact, already painted his darkest portrait of the crude, illiterate white racist authorized by the disfranchisement decisions to vote at the expense of qualified black (male) voters.” Indeed, Mark Twain’s staging of Pap’s diatribe is one of the first analyses of the way that the figure of the black “fop” was used to mobilize racial resentments in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in order to constitute a segregated society. Where the figure of the black rapist signified the inherent savagery of freedmen no longer under the control of the plantation system, the black “fop” signified the inability of African Americans to fit into white civilization and implied that their striving for higher education was motivated by sheer laziness—a desire to shirk work. Pap’s diatribe, however, shows that it was not the failure of freedmen to “become civilized” that so enraged racists; rather, it was precisely African Americans’ success that led to resentment and calls for government protection of white rights.
It bears repeating that Clemens is not simply mocking “white trash” in this passage. That is to say, more is at stake in Pap’s diatribe than his individual ideas, beliefs, opinions, and prejudices--or even the fact of their prevalence among many of his peers. As James Cox reminds us, the point of reading this passage should not be to join in the “self-indulgent public emphasis on the negative character of Pap in order to expose his bigotry to the lash of criticism”--self-indulgent, that is, because after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, most white readers have learned to dissociate themselves from this kind of public expression of overt racism. The idiosyncrasy of Cox’s warning to contemporary readers and critics should not obscure his point about the dangers of treating racism as something out there, as something we have gotten beyond, as somebody else’s problem, as the exclusive property, that is, of “white trash.” Yet Cox’s reading, in its effort to criticize Clemens’s liberal elitism and our contemporary “complacency,” underplays the violence of night riders and the Klan, the virulence of lynching and race riots, the force of mob rule, the extent to which Pap’s views were shared in the North as well as the South (and disseminated by a calculatedly racist media), and, most important, the consistent attack on African Americans’ rights by the Supreme Court, as well as federal and state governments, even before the 1877 Compromise that ended Reconstruction. In other words, as Mark Twain was composing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, calls like Pap’s for state protection of white privilege were being answered; or, more precisely, the state’s interventions were made in the name of people like Pap. In this climate, Clemens’s biting burlesque may well have been the most effective way of foregrounding the widespread investments in Pap’s racism.
To put this point more strongly, Mark Twain’s aim is precisely not to single Pap out unfairly; on the contrary, Clemens makes Pap a representative American man. Recall that Pap’s diatribe is introduced by an apparently off-handed joke by Huck and ends with an apparently inadvertent fall. Upon seeing Pap, Huck jokes to himself, “he had been drunk over in town, and laid in the gutter all night, and he was a sight to look at. A body would a thought he was Adam, he was just all mud.” Not only does Pap, before he begins speaking, remind Huck of Adam, he also reenacts the Fall in the midst of his tirade: “Pap was agoing on so, he never noticed where his old limber legs was taking him to, so he went head over heels over the tub of salt pork, and barked both shins.” Clemens here superimposes the issue of racism on what R.W.B. Lewis has identified as an “emergent American myth” in nineteenth-century U.S. culture. This myth of the American Adam
saw life and history as just beginning. It described the world as starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World. It introduced a new kind of hero, the heroic embodiment of a new set of ideal human attributes. . . .
The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene were suggested by the image of a radically new personality, the hero of a new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.
In effect, Mark Twain uses this myth of the American Adam to comment on what he correctly identified in the early 1880s as a major turning point in American history. Clemens ironically portrays Pap as “a new kind of hero” for post-Reconstruction America--yet he reverses the value of every attribute that the myth of the American Adam affirms. Pap is ignorant of history and jealously protective of the privileges of ancestry, family, and race he fears are being eroded; he portrays himself as self-reliantly standing alone, but is actually appealing to the state. Clemens aims to dramatize the racism and the state investments underlying rugged individualism, as well as to show his contemporaries that rolling back Reconstruction would not produce “a divinely granted second chance for the [white] race.” In short, by implying that Pap is an American Adam, Mark Twain places racism at the very heart of nineteenth-century America. His American Adam is a white supremacist.
Well, there you have it. 100 posts down. How many more to go before the manuscript is done? Before the book is out?
[Update: Well, having finished two posts in less than 45 minutes here at little 'ol CitizenSE, what do I find out when I visit one of my favorite large mammals (that is, if TTLB isn't screwing with his numbers as bad as it's been messing with mine!) has called for a blogwide strike. In solidarity with Scott Eric Kaufman, then, I will not post here until he gets his 500th comment and is forced to write a post on the topic of the commenter's choice. And my first post will be a response to his that somehow brings Hawthorne in while still adhering to my programming schedule. Oh, and I tried to start a pool on date/time and topic for his first post back. It's only a quarter stake, people, so hop to it. I've got May 12 @ 3:45 pm and "explanation of strike."]