Twain in the 21st Century

One of the meta-ironies of the late, lamented Colbert Report was that some conservatives had difficulty perceiving its, well, irony.  In other words, they thought the right wing bloviator Stephen Colbert was an O’Reilly rip off instead of an O’Reilly satire.


This left me wondering.  What about earlier satirists?  Did they also experience meta-ironies?

What, for instance, were Southern readers thinking in 1884 when they ordered a copy of Mark Twain’s forthcoming The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which promised, in large type, to be a “MINE OF HUMOR” and, as an “amusing book . . . . A CURE FOR MELANCHOLY.”



They were expecting laughs.

So what was going through their minds when, in chapter 16, they read “Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

Those still harboring racist sympathies – in other words, most Southerners – yet who were capable of empathy would squirm a bit.  It’s one thing to live with the memory that buying and selling children was as natural as breathing a mere sixteen years earlier; it’s another thing to see it in black and white.  This early chapter primes readers for the moral journey of Huck’s gradual – though ultimately limited –realization of Jim’s humanity[1], a journey completed under the protective cloak of satire.

In their review the venerable Springfield Republican recognized the “bitter vein of satire” in his work, but bemoaned its “degenera[cy] into a gross trifling with every fine feeling.”  In other words, they blamed the messenger not for the message but for how he said it.

Twain’s satire carries through to the much maligned final chapters where it seems that many modern critics (starting with Leo Marx[2]) miss the “bitter” satire of Jim’s prolonged enslavement – and endangerment – at the hands of Huck and Tom.  To me, the final third of the novel is a metacommentary on the life of blacks in the Jim Crow South: free, but still imprisoned by people like Tom, who could not separate fact (blacks are human) from fiction (blacks are sub-human and deserving of second class status – separate and not equal).  This captures the zeitgeist of the South where a creeping tide of racial violence led Twain to write – but never publish – “The United States of Lyncherdom.”


This 1901 essay sheds light on Huck’s complicity in Jim’s treatment – and our own conflicted times.  Twain argues that most people, like Huck, are intrinsically moral, but lack the courage of their convictions . . . and they’re always looking for an excuse to pile on the hate.

Why does it [the crowd at lynchings] lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor’s disapproval–a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death. When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No–they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.

Thus when Huck is beached in Arkansas and finds out Jim is at the Phelps’ place, he first considers writing to Miss Watson and letting her know where Jim is.  What stops him is, as Twain notes above, “his neighbor’s disapproval.”  Huck is worried that “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame” (Chap. 31).  For Twain shame, at first, triumphs over morality.  But it’s “thinking” that saves him.  Remembering all their good times on the river, and the resulting bonds of affection, moves him to renounce what he sees is his Christian (read, social) duty to treat a man like property and instead make a conscious decision to “go to hell” (Chap. 31).

After this big reveal, why go on?  Why allow Jim, at the end of the novel, to suffer indignities at the hands of Tom?

The problem, again, was people.  As long as Huck is out of the orbit of Southern convention (on Jackson island, on the raft) he follows the dictates of his innate morality – which Twain in “Lyncherdom” believes we all possess.  It’s when Huck is caught in the gravitational pull of imagination, hate, and envy that he loses his way and becomes a satellite, caught in the web of delusions that dooms Tom, and later the South, to keep a free man enslaved and fight a war for an idealized and toxic vision of chivalry.

And this is where the past become present.  Tom and the rest of the South, like some people today, was/is lost in an imagined past.  He wants to make America great again by transforming it to the fictional world of his romance and adventure novels.[3]  But the novel points out the problems with living in a mediated world.

In Chapter 3, Huck recounts his disillusionment with Tom’s “reality,” a reality based on romantic fiction and wholly disconnected with the world they live in. This is so delicious it deserves to be recounted in full:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it. One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready. He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

So here we find a leader, Tom, imposing his fantasy world onto the real world.  What’s interesting here is that Tom and his gang are so blinded by their delusions, that even in this most religious of times and locales, they 1) attack a Sunday school class; 2) steal religious texts.  It’s almost like imagining a political candidate today leading a hedonistic lifestyle – running casinos, serial marriages, bragging about groping women – and finding support from Evangelical Christians.  Twain, getting the jump on cognitive theorists, understood that for people like Tom the power of a narrative – particularly one you want to believe – trumps even religious values.

Twain makes clear that such ideals lead to chaos; consider the name of the steamboat wrecked and sinking into the Mississippi: The Sir Walter Scott.  In Life on the Mississippi, the book about his life on the river completed while working on Huck Finn, he writes that the Southern infatuation with the world depicted in Scott’s books

sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.

Instead of living in this world of fiction that was the antebellum – and Jim Crow – South, Huck prefers the realities of the frontier.  The last words of the novel, where Huck plans to “light out for the Territory” — on the surface a light hearted jest about his rejection of the “manners” of the South — could also be read as a rejection of its mores: he’d “been there before,” and would rather go to hell.

An imagined past today?  Complete with “decayed and swinish forms of religion . . . decayed and degraded systems of government, . . . [and] sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds”?  Sure, let’s make America great again.  But just when were we great – as opposed to being great all along?[4]  The years are all over the map, but many of those who think Jim would look best in an orange jumpsuit believe that the mid 1960s were the best – and that it’s all gone downhill from there.

Funny, just a few years later – the 80s – is when the gap between the wealthy and everyone else started increasing.  And he who reigned over said spread? King/Demigod Reagan. He made everyone feel good while he oversaw a massive transfer of wealth (via tax de/reform) from the working class to the wealthy.  Like the Duke and the Dauphin during their con of the Wilkes daughters, he was able to fool most of the townspeople, except for the elites, Dr. Robinson, the lawyer Levi Bell, etc., who when faced with fraud called it out – and even laughed in its/their face/s.

And when confronted with the expert opinions of Robinson and Bell (who had actually heard an English accent and could tell that the Dauphin was a Cracker masquerading as a Briton), what did the townspeople do with this information?

They called it fake news and handed the farm to the fraudsters.

After the face off in the Wilkes’ parlor, where Dr. Robinson warned the sisters against the Dauphin, Mary Jane Wilkes votes with her feelings, thrusts a bag of money into the Dauphin’s arms, telling him “Take this six thousand dollars, and invest for me and my sisters any way you want to, and don’t give us no receipt for it” (Chap. 25).  And in case readers miss the What’s the Matter With Kansas comparison of people not acting in their best economic interests Twain generously sets up for future generations of readers, he includes a gloss on Hofstadter’s later history of anti-intellectualism in America.  In the following chapter he makes clear how the hucksters feel about the rubes: the Dauphin confides to the Duke “Cuss the doctor!  What do we k’yer for him?  Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?  And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” (Chap. 26).

Ahhh. . . . majorities.  Particularly electoral majorities who reject the advice of doctors and others who they perceive hold them in contempt . . . .

business insider

This is where it gets interesting for readers today.  You know the minority of Americans who voted for Trump as change agent?  Well the change they see coming ain’t so good – and they know it.  Pew Research notes that “fewer Republicans say ‘people like yourself’ will gain influence in Trump’s presidency than said this before Bush took office (45% now, 56% then).”  Now get ready for an obvious bomb: 80% of Republicans believe that businesses and corporation will gain influence under a Trump presidency[5].  Apparently, the Americans who voted for Trump are looking fondly back to those times when more government influence by businesses and corporations meant a windfall for “people like them.”  Now when was that again? . . . . The 1890s . . . the 1930s . . . the 2000s . . . well those certainly were years of strong corporate influence and a rise of the plutocracy.

How did it end for the “people like yourself” – the Regan Democrats who put Trump into office?  Unless you’re in the top 10%, cue minor chords, thunder – and add a bolt of lightning.

But don’t sit back and wait for a great awakening: people will endure grievous afflictions to nourish their imaginations.  It’s worth remembering that at the end of the novel “Tom was the gladdest of all because he had a bullet in the calf of his leg” (Chap. 40).

I’m left now wondering how “readers” of current politics understand irony.  For instance, are Trump supporters squirming, like Twain’s nineteenth century readers, when they discover that fears of foreign influence by Hilary have morphed into investigations of Russian contacts by Trump?  Now that it’s been revealed that Vice President Pence used a private email server during his time as governor, will crowds at Trump rallies start chanting “Lock him up!”?  When Trump spends a quarter of Obama’s total travel expenses during the first few months in office, will they start telling him to get back to work?


Or will they, like the conservatives who failed to see the irony and satire in Colbert, pile on board the Sir Walter Scott/HMS Fox News and sail down the Mississippi?

Me?  I’m lighting out for the territory.



[1] That limitation, of course, is the idea that the only way for Jim to become a man is to lose his race.  As Huck says here – and in Chapter 42 after Jim selflessly stays with the wounded Tom Sawyer – Jim is “white.”  As James Baldwin later observed in Notes on a Native Son, before white America can “accept” blacks, it insists “they at once cease to be Negroes.”

[2] Marx, Leo.  “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling and Huckleberry Finn.”  American Scholar, 1953.

[3] Tom to Ben Harper:

“I don’t know.  But that’s what they do.  I’ve seen it in books; and so of course that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“But how can we do it if we don’t know what it is?”
“Why, blame it all, we’ve got to do it.  Don’t I tell you it’s in the books?  Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up?”
“Oh, that’s all very fine to say, Tom Sawyer, but how in the nation are these fellows going to be ransomed if we don’t know how to do it to them?—that’s the thing I want to get at.  Now, what do you reckon it is?” (Chap. 2).

[4] With, of course, the acknowledgement that this greatness is qualified according to when, where and who you are.  I’m guessing Jim didn’t think merica’ was too great in the 1830s.

[5] And a stat to file in the “Scratching My Head” folder: the same survey found that 43% of Republicans believe that “Poor People” will gain influence under a Trump presidency.