Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mark Twain: The Badge of Servitude

Scott Eric Kaufman has been organizing and participating in The Valve's ongoing book event on Amanda Claybaugh's The Novel of Purpose. His recent contribution is worth a close read. I'm going to take the opening his reading of the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers me to follow up on an invitation from Claybaugh herself and say a little bit more about my views on Hawthorne and 19th C reform movements.

In "The Power of Blackness and the Device of Race: On the Compromises of 1850 and 1877," the third chapter of my manuscript, American Studies and the Race for Hawthorne,

I turn to three major nineteenth-century writers who have offered assessments of Hawthorne’s racial politics as rigorous as any professional reviewer or scholar. Specifically, I examine how Herman Melville, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850), Henry James, in Hawthorne (1879), and Mark Twain, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), offer implicit readings of Hawthorne’s racial politics, and, in the process, comment on the racial politics of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Instead of studying Hawthorne’s relation to other major nineteenth-century writers in terms of source, influence, or intertextuality, that is, I examine what certain major responses to and revisions of Hawthorne’s texts reveal about the historical moments in which they were written. After considering how James’s and Melville’s criticism helps specify the race and Hawthorne problem that I identified in the previous two chapters, I turn to the controversial ending of Mark Twain’s novel and its puzzling allusion to the ending of The Scarlet Letter. As we shall see, Herman Melville, Henry James, and Mark Twain together tell a remarkably consistent story--a story that links the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act with the 1877 Tilden-Hayes Agreement.

This is one of my longest and most-involved chapters and I'm considering sending off parts of it to journals this fall, so I won't give it the Chapter 2 treatment (see the "Old News" category for what I'm talking about). But I will give the set-up and the conclusion to my Twain argument. Here are the two passages that begin the Twain section of the chapter, the first from The Scarlet Letter and the second from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

All around there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate--as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport--there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre it is, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:--

On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.

“On the scutcheon we’ll have a bend or in the dexter base, a saltire murrey in the fess, with a dog, couchant, for common charge, and under his foot a chain embattled, for slavery, with a chevron vert in a chief engrailed, and three invected lines on a field azure, with the nombril points rampant on a dancette indented; crest, a runaway nigger, sable, with his bundle over his shoulder on a bar sinister; and a couple of gules for supporters, which is you and me; motto, Maggiore fretta, minore atto. Got it out of a book--means, the more haste, the less speed.”

“Geewhillikins,” I says, “but what does the rest of it mean?”

And here's the intro to the Twain section:

Huck Finn is as perplexed by Tom Sawyer’s insistence that Jim inscribe his coat of arms on the wall of his cell at Phelps Farm as he is unsure of that armorial device’s meaning. And he remains as dissatisfied with Tom’s evasion of his questions about the meaning of Jim’s coat of arms--“We ain’t got no time to bother over that”--as he is with Tom’s eventual admission of ignorance--“Oh, I don’t know. But he’s got to have it. All the nobility does” (322). Still, Huck decides to trust Tom and goes along with his efforts to devise a plan “romantical enough” to “set a free nigger free” (294, 358). “Tom said we’d got to,” he reports: “there warn’t no case of a state prisoner not scrabbling his inscription to leave behind, and his coat of arms” (321).

Tom Sawyer’s romantical plan, in which Jim is figured both as nobility and as state prisoner, has been the subject of much critical controversy. But given Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s point that critics of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have “built an increasingly solid case that the last portion of the novel may be read as a commentary on American race relations in the post-Reconstruction era,” the more productive question now is, what kind of commentary? There is no better way to answer this question, I propose, than to consider the meaning and significance of Jim’s coat of arms. For where it is fairly clear that Tom Sawyer’s motto (“the more haste, the less speed”) could well have been a slogan for the nation’s recent repudiation of Reconstruction, the significance of Huck’s question (“What does the rest of it mean?”) is less clear. As we shall see, answering Huck’s question can help us determine what kind of commentary Mark Twain was making, not only on the racial politics of his own times but also on the author the entire episode seems designed to confront--Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It may seem that Clemens’s transformation of The Scarlet Letter’s heraldic motto, “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules,” into Tom Sawyer’s description of Jim’s coat of arms--“crest, a runaway nigger, sable, with his bundle over his shoulder on a bar sinister; and a couple of gules for supporters, which is you and me”--is simply a joke at Hawthorne’s expense, a parody of the romance in the name of American realism, a rejection of Hawthorne’s gloom in the name of American humor. But if it is a joke, it is an eminently practical one.

And here's how I conclude the section:

In the end, then, Jim’s coat of arms suggests the source of Mark Twain’s critique of America in 1885. Whatever racist hatreds and pleasures the coat of arms encodes, it is also a critique of the nation’s turn against Reconstruction and turn toward race as a mark of distinction and badge of servitude. By making Jim’s coat of arms harken back to Hester’s ambiguous position between enslavement and freedom, Clemens points to the bitter resentments, frivolous emancipationist impulses, and uncomprehending perplexity that went into the construction of race. But even as he draws on Hawthorne’s imagery, Clemens also criticizes his politics, for the final implication of the allusions to The Scarlet Letter is to link the Fugitive Slave Act with the Tilden-Hayes Agreement. Mark Twain implies that a similar political coalition to the one that produced the Compromise of 1850 resulted in the Compromise of 1877; he quite consciously superimposes antebellum and post-Reconstruction ideologies of race in order to suggest that a new form of racial oppression as insidious in its own way as slavery was taking shape in the wake of Reconstruction. To borrow a figure Clemens might have appreciated, then, a major message of the evasion scene in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that the same horses that Hawthorne backed in 1850 were pulling ahead again in 1877.

What happens in the middle is a survey of the uses of heraldry in Hawthorne's fiction and in The Scarlet Letter (see my posts in the categories for The Scarlet Letter and Beloved for some arguments at CitizenSE that draw on this section of the chapter); a consideration of the similarities and differences between Hawthorne's and Clemens's characters that the quoted passages from both novels suggest; a close reading of the coat of arms itself and of Kemble's illustration of it for the three political narratives inscribed in it; a comparison of Tom's, Huck's, and Jim's responses to it and them; and soon, a consideration of John Edward Bruce's journalism and activism for the light it sheds on Clemens and Hawthorne.

So, how does this connect to Scott's post and Amanda's book? Come back tomorrow, fearless readers!

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