“His son Rip, an urchin begotten in his own likeness, promised to inherit the habits with the old clothes of his father” – Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819).
Discuss the importance of heredity and of transcending the past in one or more texts from the module.
According to Ernest Hemmingway, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”(Hemmingway, 15). For Hemmingway and its other admirers, many equally revered, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn began a great literary tradition of American realism; a novel narrated by a boy who could only be American and a tale that could only unfold on and around that iconic image of the South, the Mississippi River. Despite this, Huckleberry Finn remains much maligned and debated, mostly for the language and attitude of Huck, and the presentation of the escaped slave, Jim. Twain has been accused of presenting a “white fantasy” where “blacks have all the humanity of Cabbage Patch dolls”(Lester, 44), but such critics miss the point and significance of Jim’s humanity and morality, his love for his family and his sense of paternal responsibility for Huck. It attempts to parody and challenge attitudes toward African-Americans across the pre and post Civil War eras, positioning slavery as an inescapable feature of the American past, and an ongoing contributor to its culture, by showing the impossibility of transcending one’s own history. While journeying down the Mississippi River, Mark Twain’s title character is faced with a variety of challenges to his initial perceptions of race, justice and morality, while encountering a variety of paternal figures that influence his attempts to comprehend the complex culture of the South. He is running away from the past and his father; physically escaping the latter but relentlessly pursued by the former. Huck changes and escapes repeating a lot of his culture’s sins, but some aspects are far too engrained for him to overcome. He succeeds in the great human endeavour to not relive his father’s mistakes, but heredity transcends his conscious actions, forcing a certain level of resemblance in character. Therefore, Huck displays both the benefits and shortcomings in the impossible nature of transcending the past. Through his inability to escape his home and its associated values, Huck is forced, though unknowingly, to address and deconstruct. He forms a more rounded and individual perspective, if not yet one which is without prejudice or limitations. The restrictive nature of Huck’s heredity imposes upon him foundational critical assumptions which are impossible to escape, but provides obstacles in his attempts to rationalise his moral choices. The widening of Huck’s cultural perspective is a critical foundation for the ensuing contemplation of morality, and a vital consequence of his character development, which concludes with the ripping up of the letter addressed to Miss Watson(Twain, 203).
Huck’s changing perspective is grounded in the influence of the various paternal figures of the novel. Initially, and ironically, it is Pap who encourages Huck’s unlearning, an attitude toward discourse which complements his later assessment of Jim and encourages him to put aside the principles of his own father. By menacingly telling Huck to “drop that school, you hear”(22), Pap allows him to engage in the family tradition of being uneducated, as “None of the family couldn’t [read], before they died”(22)1, but also to question the significance and relevance of traditional teaching. Pap’s threat requires little enforcement as their “lazy and jolly”(26) life in the cabin is greatly appealing to Huck in so much as he says “I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn’t like it; but now I took to it again because Pap hadn’t no objections”(26) and didn’t mind that his “clothes got to be all rags and dirt”(26). This process of unlearning and separation from society helps Huck ignore his own father’s authority in running away and going to school to “spite Pap”(25). Therefore, while the Widow gives him a taste of being educated and “civilised”(27) and he learns to “stand”(17) school, Huck embraces the initial few months with his father with much more natural enthusiasm. This could suggest heredity is playing a significant role in Huck’s emerging character, as it is the lifestyle most associated with his father which is most attractive. However, he maintains throughout a seemingly intrinsic want to avoid incidents which “would only make trouble”(4) or result in direct confrontation; a self-preservation and passiveness he certainly doesn’t get from his father, and a trait which justifies his compliance with Pap. Huck is given a choice and an experience of both the civilised and savage world. He is subject to the Widow and Miss Watson’s “a-bothering about Moses”(4) and Pap’s attempts to prevent him “be[ing] better ‘n what he[Pap] is”(22). Along with this, he has Jim “standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me”(203), and showing genuine care and apprehension for his safety, including not leaving when Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords(107). As a result, Huck is able to take, leave and adapt the teachings of these parental figures to that which are the best fit for his natural character and current situation.
Despite his father’s violence and untrustworthiness, Huck appreciates and replicates his economic ingenuity. Huck says “the June rise used to always be luck for me” as it allowed him to scavenge log and “sell them to the wood yards and the sawmill”(32), an idea shown to be picked up from Pap when he does the same(33). The marked difference however is that Huck, while appreciating the idea’s inventiveness and the aspect of fun, already has more money than he “could tell what to do with”(3). Pap, however, has a need for alcohol which equates to a need for money, forcing him into a consideration of life in fiscal terms. His complaints about the African-American from Ohio focus on his “gold watch” and his “silver-headed cane”, as well his not being sold(28). Because his sense of injustice appears in such a form, Pap is seen to perceive a waste of money as much as a man in an undeserved social position. Huck similarly commits the racist slur of portraying African-Americans as commodities when he describes Jim’s children as “children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know, a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm”(87). While, as slaves in slave-trading states, they were commodities, Huck’s description is an example of Pap’s fiscally-driven thinking being evident in his own deliberations; his sympathies are for the faceless white man who would be robbed of valuable assets, rather than for his dispossessed friend. Despite this Huck doesn’t act to rectify the ‘injustice’. While he says his sympathises are with the owner of Jim’s children, his unreliability as a narrator is typified by his inaction. His appreciation and mimicry of his father’s abilities to earn a few dollars from nothing are examples of a level of heredity, but Huck, as Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym suggests, is a much deeper character. For example he possesses an ability- shown to be shared by his father in the dealing with the judge(24)- to lie convincingly and without prior deliberation, but he learns to use more it discriminately after upsetting Jim(84). Consequently, Huck is impaired in his judgement and interpretation of Jim’s emotional situation, but combats this impairment. His companion’s issues conflict with the combined notion of white superiority and financial justice that his father so vehemently promotes, but play to Huck’s overarching compulsion to do the right thing, even if he isn’t yet quite self-aware enough to acknowledge its existence.
Some critics may argue that Huck “is driven to accept the beliefs and pursue the life of the loner”(Donaldson, 32) in his father’s footsteps, and thus is a character dictated to by heredity. There is, however, a distinct difference in sharing basic characteristics, here an attraction to the freedom of the outdoors, away from the rules of society, and having indistinguishable motivations. Pap is at one point “gone three days”(26), presumably drunk. He is unable to find the peace in the river and its banks that Huck embraces and relies upon- Huck says “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all”(112)- and though he provides Huck with basic interests and fundamental attitudes, they remain hugely different people. Huck is often deeply critical, ashamed and wary of his father’s lifestyle; after all it is the violence erupting from Pap’s Laius complex which encourages Huck’s audacious escape. “When Pap is present, Huck braces himself for violence and exploitation; when he is absent, Huck expects his troubles to resume the moment "the ole man" returns”(Pitofsky, 59), suggesting he certainly doesn’t consciously attempt to evoke the thought processes of his father. Robert Paul Lamb labels the elder Finn’s mode of deliberation as “Pap-logic”(480), a means of interpreting morally ambiguous issues with seeming impartiality, but always coming to a self-beneficial conclusion. Derosa argues that this is evident in Huck(163), but his decision to reject the opportunities to turn in Jim is in complete contradiction to such ‘logic’. He follows what he perceives to be the morally correct path, despite the lack of consequences which might benefit him, except possibly the prospect of avoiding guilt. Certainly “Pap-logic”(Lamb, 480) would justify turning Jim in and collecting the reward, highlighting Huck’s decision as the ultimate example of the characteristics which make him distinct from his father.
Huck does show traits and thought processes inherited and learnt from his father, but mostly in the form of instantaneous thought and phrases founded in racial stereotypes and assumptions. These serve to display a use of inherited phraseology in arguments, either with himself or someone else, which he cannot win. He says “you can’t learn a nigger to argue”(78) when failing to explain the difference between French and English to Jim, and “What’s the use in you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”(89). Employment of such expressions, along with the constant use of the term “nigger”, shows how much Huck’s attitude is reliant upon truisms. Derosa argues “that Huck follows the observed behaviour rather than the symbolically transmitted information”(163), yet his use of these phrases implies at least a recognition of this information and its literal meaning and usefulness, if not an understanding of its cultural significance. He uses these assumed truths to generalise, but is unable to act on their meanings. Saying such things would imply an absence of empathy, especially with African-Americans, yet when he initially tries to turn Jim in, “the words wouldn’t come” as he “warn’t man enough”(88), suggesting his conscience gets the better of him. The second time, he is reminded that Jim did “everything he could think of for me”(203). This serves to show that, while Huck is subject to his heredity on a basic level, he knows prejudices are morally wrong. His racism lies in his repeating of common cultural phrases and language, but as his own character comes out, inspired by his break from society on the raft and his experiences with Jim, he is able to make more astute and calculated judgements, rather than simply recycle the racist phraseology he has grown up amongst.
Heredity in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exists as a limitation and a tool for the growth of the title character. Pap, through his fear of Huck intellectually surpassing him and his attempts to prevent such a situation, alienates his son from his way of life, while simultaneously endowing him with shared qualities. As well as being a violent drunk with a Laius complex, Huck’s father is a man of the pre-emancipation American South. As a result, Pap and his contemporaries provide Huck with a dialect which is intertwined with racial slurs and stereotypes. For Huck, every issue can be solved with a turn of phrase, except when it can’t. In these situations, most notably while helping Jim and deliberating aiding his escape, Huck is forced to delve deeper into his own morals. This is not the self-conscious philosophical deliberation seen in the likes of Melville, but an attempt to comprehend specific events and individual choices which have an overarching impact on the perceptions of one’s own moral values. “When Huck declares, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," rather than betray Jim's trust by returning him to his owner, Huck becomes his own person”(Mulhern,222), but doesn’t end his process of “Cultural transmission”(Derosa, 158) as his decision is made with the implication that it is in some way wrong. This sense of wrongdoing is an example of the impossibility of transcending the past. But even in the face of this, even if it’s only for this one moment in time, Huck is able to ignore and repress enough to do the right thing.
Works Cited and Referenced
Bloom, Harold, ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: Updated Edition. New York, NY. Infobase Publishing. 2007. Print.
Burg, David F.. “Another View of Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29.3 (1974): 299-319. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Derosa, Aaron. “Europe, Darwin, and the Escape from Huckleberry Finn.” American Literary Realism 44.2 (2012): 157-171. Project MUSE. Web. 27/11/13.
Derwin, Susan. “Impossible Commands: Reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 47. 4 (1993): 437-454. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Donaldson, Scott. “Pap Finn’s Boy.” South Atlantic Bulletin 36.3 (1971): 32-37. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
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Hawkins, Hunt. “Mark Twain's Anti-Imperialism.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 25.2 (1993): 31-45. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. 1936. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.
Horwitz, Howard. “Can We Learn to Argue? “Huckleberry Finn” and Literary Discipline.” ELH 70.1 (2003): 267-300. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Howe, Lawrence. “Transcending the Limits of Experience: Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.” American Literature 63.3 (1991): 420-439. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Kellner, Robert Scott. “Mark Twain and the Mental Cripple: The Challenge of Myth.” Mark Twain Journal 21.4 (1983): 18-20. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
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Lamb, Robert Paul. “America Can Break Your Heart: On the Significance of Mark Twain” A Companion to American Fiction, 1865–1914: Ed. Lamb and G. R. Thompson. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2005. 480. Print.
Lester, Julius. “Morality and Adventures of “Huckleberry Finn.”” Mark Twain Journal 22.2 (1984): 43-46. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
Mulhern, Chieko Irie. “Hero and Father in Shimazaki Tôson and Western Classics.” Comparative Literature Studies 24.3 (1987): 213-230. JSTOR. Web. 27/11/13.
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Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. Print.
1 Here, Pap’s unintentional and ironic double negative gives the opposite meaning he intends, as it’s obvious he is attempting to say that none of the family could read.