Sunday, November 30, 2008
Happy Birthday, Sam
Today is the 173rd birthday of America's greatest writer (or at least arguably), Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. Twain lived so many places and wrote books of appeal to so many people that nearly everyone growing up in America identifies with him at some level. My own life has always seemed deeply intertwined with that of Twain: growing up in Windsor, CT, and only a few miles from Hartford, from a young age it was an annual rite of passage to attend a school trip to his magnificent house in Hartford. If you have never visited the house - or even if you have - should you find yourself in the vicinity of Hartford, take the time to tour this stone and wood storybook of Twain's own imagining, down to its likeness to a steamboat from certain angles (what's more, you'll help keep it open - like many undertakings, the Twain House museum society is in dire financial straits).
I grew up next to a family named Clemens. The two sisters who lived there - slightly older than my immediately younger brother and I - regularly tormented us in the way that only older girls can do (at least that's how I remember it; I'm sure they'd have a different take). One day they were taunting us that "Deneen" wasn't a famous name at all, and that they were related to Mark Twain. I taunted back, informing them that their last name was CLEMENS, not TWAIN, so they couldn't be related, to which they shot back some cockamamie story about Twain being originally named Clemens. I shot inside our kitchen to ask my all-knowing Mother, who informed me that indeed Twain WAS born Sam Clemens, much to my chagrin. I asked her if WE were related to anyone famous, and she told me that we were, and gave me the lineage. I marched proudly out to those uppity Clemens sisters and told them that we WERE related to someone famous. "Yea, who," they asked. "Adam and Eve," I informed them, repeating my mother's information. It's a wonder I still talk to that woman.
When I was in the fourth grade I took a shine to my Fourth Grade teacher (Mrs. Carenza - where are you now??), and proceeded to finish my whole English workbook way ahead of schedule. She decided that I should have some more challenging reading and gave me copies of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and Puddinhead Wilson. I found the books tough going at first, but eager to please Mrs. Carenza, I plowed through them and eventually caught on to Twain's manner of writing, coming to love the books and reading them many times during my youth. Do we still have teachers like Mrs. Carenza? I'm probably a college professor now at least in part because of her.
In college I happened to take a class with a political theorist named Wilson Carey McWilliams, who it turned out was a great and passionate reader of Twain. Not to be missed were his lectures on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and his fabulous re-telling of Twain's long story "An Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," a story that features a character in heaven named McWilliams from New Jersey and thus which, in Carey's view, must be theologically true.
In August, 2001 - by that point I was a professor at Princeton - Carey asked me if I'd like to attend the Fourth International Conference on the State of Twain Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, NY, very near to where Twain's wife Olivia's family lived and where Twain spent most of his summers and did a great deal of his writing (the conference meets every four years, and thus the Sixth Conference is coming up). I was profoundly honored to spend that time in Elmira with Carey, during which we visited Olivia's house, Twain's writing study (An octagon shaped study since moved to the Elmira campus), and a moving visit to Twain's grave, where he lays with Olivia and several of his children.
For the occasion of that Conference, I wrote a paper that I'd always had tumbling about my brain and had for a time considered for inclusion as a chapter in my dissertation (a study of the political theory of the Odyssey and its reappearances in the history of political thought). You see, it had always struck me that Huckleberry Finn had all the earmarks of being deeply based upon the basic framework of the Odyssey, but some other people had noticed this and the observation was probably not worthy of an entire chapter. But during my graduate study I had the chance to visit the Twain papers at the Huntington Library, and discovered that Twain had written an unpublished, mock review of a new German translation of Homer's Odyssey, which he purported to attribute to a new German author named "Herr Homer" (one of its best lines: Twain objects to its setting in Troy and Ithaca, finding it unlikely that a Greek hero would spend so much time in upstate New York). This review was written just as Twain was finishing Huckleberry Finn, and was for me the "smoking gun" that Twain was indeed thinking of the Odyssey as he wrote his classic, and served as the key evidence in my broader claim that there is both plot and philosophic kinship between the two works. My paper, I must submit, made a bit of a splash, and was subsequently included in a CD-Rom of significant secondary works on Huckleberry Finn and published in the journal Modern Language Studies (Vol. 32, 2003). For those interested in the argument, and who may have a bit of free time on this rainy day on the East Coast, I include the original paper I delivered in Elmira in 2001 (it was somewhat altered for publication), which I still like better because it saves the "smoking gun" for the end. Comprising about 12 typewritten pages (minus additional pages of notes, which I don't include here; should you wish a copy with citations, just holler), it's a moderate read, but I think an interesting one, and my effort to honor the memory of that great American author, Mark Twain, as well as my teacher who so loved Twain, Wilson Carey McWilliams. Happy Birthday, Sam!
Was Huck Greek?: The Odyssey of Mark Twain
Since its publication, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been recognized as perhaps the consummate American novel. This assessment was articulated most famously, and succinctly, by Ernest Hemingway, who declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn … it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that.” The critic William Lyon Phelps intoned in 1920s that “is not only the great American novel. It is America.” Yet more magisterially, Clifton Fadiman anointed Twain as “‘our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Virgil,’ because Huckleberry Finn is the nearest thing we have to a national epic.” Twain scholar David Sloane has recently confirmed these sentiments, noting that “Huckleberry Finn is one of the most steadily experienced projections of America and the American spirit.”
It would seem almost a form of national sacrilege to suggest that Twain’s classic novel could be considered anything other than purely American; it may even appear recidivist to suggest that one of those influences is one of the pre-eminent “dead white males” so widely maligned in the past decade. Yet, Twain’s vision was certainly large and capacious enough to incorporate many streams of influence in his composition of his work, and we might accuse him of either not being prescient enough, or perhaps compliment him for anticipating the need to be willfully resistant toward, contemporary suggestions that one must choose sides in the “culture wars.” For, there is circumstantial evidence, and furthermore, archival proof, to suggest that Huckleberry Finn is not only a consummately American novel, but one that might be viewed as remarkably Greek as well, given its remarkable resemblance to that most ancient of classical epics, the Odyssey of Homer.
The “ancient,” even Homeric qualities of Huckleberry Finn have been long acknowledged, but not as extensively as may be justified. Lionel Trilling compared the place of Huckleberry Finn in the life of an American child as similar to the place of the Odyssey for an Athenian child; Alfred Kazin has suggested that Huck must “become our American Ulysses in order to survive; T. S. Eliot has also noted the similarity inasmuch as “we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet, and other great discoveries man has made about himself.”
It is not difficult to perceive the immediate similarity of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey: both are books about long journeys held loosely together by adventurous episodes at various stops along the way. Both journeys unfold over water, and water is portrayed in each work as both a friend – providing escape and comfort – and as a foe, threatening destruction and death. Each work seems holds out a tension between the attractions of “home” – whether the settled life of “civilization” or Ithaca – and the temptations of undiscovered land. Just as Huck returns to “civilization” at the end of the novel, only to indicate that he intends to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (229), in a similar fashion Odysseus must take up a journey anew to a wholly unknown place so far inland that its populace is unfamiliar with the purpose of an oar, mistaking it for a “winnowing fan.” Tradition holds that Odysseus takes up this new task with some relief, as he is likely to feel as constrained by “civilization” as Huck after having beheld the wonders of his journey.
Yet, beyond these most obvious features, upon further comparison the similarities multiply and deepen. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like the Odyssey, is a sequel to a successful earlier work. A secondary figure from each earlier work – Huck Finn and Odysseus – becomes the main, even title characters in each sequel. There are narrative similarities in each sequel: like Huckleberry Finn, told in the first person by Huck, a significant portion of Odysseus’s tale is told by himself before the court of the Phaiakians, from Books 9-12 (in contrast to the third-person, omniscient voice of the narrator in both Tom Sawyer and the Iliad). Both works rely heavily on cultural oral traditions, the Odyssey literally performed from memory by rhapsodes, and Huckleberry Finn drawing extensively from dialects of the south, as Twain points out in the “Explanatory” statement at the beginning of the novel.
Along with such structural similarities, there are more specific similarities in character between all the works, original and sequel alike. Tom Sawyer, the main character in the original novel, is, like Achilles of the Iliad, concerned almost above all with honor. Consistent with his portrayal in Tom Sawyer, Tom declares in Chapter 35 of Huckleberry Finn, while speaking of “stealing” Jim, that “there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head” (188). Achilles, of course, is also concerned with the perception that his actions are honorable, and seeks recompense for his great deeds, which have been withdrawn by Agamemnon:
“Yet still the heart in me swells up in anger, when I remember
the disgrace that [Agamemnon] wrought upon me before the Argives…
as if I were some dishonoured vagabond."
By contrast, both Huck and Odysseus are supremely concerned with the efficacy of their actions, and not, in the first instance, with the perception by others that their actions are honorable. As Huck declares in response to Tom’s elaborate machinations for freeing Jim, “as for me, I don’t care shucks for the morality of it, nohow. When I start to steal a nigger, or a watermelon, or a Sunday-school book; and if a pick’s the handiest thing, that’s the thing I’m agoing to dig that nigger or that watermelon or that Sunday-school book out with; and I don’t give a dead rat what the authorities thinks about it nuther” (194). Similarly, Odysseus is not ashamed to reveal to the Phaiakians during his long tale that he willingly plundered cities during his attempted homecoming; that he did not defeat the Cyclops by force, but by chicanery; that he willingly lies to protect his identity, using the name “Noman” to protect himself (against the standard heroic code of declaring one’s identity and the identity of one’s father as well). Perhaps as an ultimate measure of Odysseus’s willingness to sacrifice honor for efficiency, it is revealed that he willingly used poisoned arrows as a method of fighting, a practice at odds with the accepted norms of Homeric warfare.
Moreover, both characters are renowned for their trickery, theft, facility with disguises, and for their overall cleverness. Both Huck and Odysseus assume different identities as the situation warrants: Huck pretends, among other things, to be a young girl while gathering information before setting out; to be an abandoned or lonely young boy (not a long stretch, in point of fact), as he often claims on the raft (often to protect Jim); and even, at the novel’s conclusion, to be Tom Sawyer. Odysseus tells five separate stories upon his return to Ithaca to different people, each time claiming to be a different person who has arrived on Ithaca by means of different adventures. During most of the second half of the Odyssey, Odysseus is disguised in the outfit of a poor beggar, only identified by means of a scar on his leg by his nurse of old, Eurycleia. Both Huck and Odysseus are often and expressly concerned with the current condition of their stomachs, and each willingly steals food to fill it. Both characters, notably, perform many of their activities at night, endowing their actions with a sense of hiddenness and undetectablity, and suggesting a life led in a shadow-world outside the regular diurnal activities of most people. Above all, each character, borrowing Homer’s description of Odysseus from the first line of the Odyssey, is polutropos: boy and man of many ways, devices, tricks, skills, minds.
All of these similarities strike one as superbly coincidental, but, like many literary comparisons, fascinating coincidences that deserve the briefest mention, and hardly further commentary. However, further commentary appears warranted, because archival investigation suggests the strong possibility that these apparent coincidences were noted and even encouraged by Twain. Archival evidence from Twain's papers suggests that during and especially toward completion of the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was thinking about the story of the Odyssey and even implicitly inviting comparison of the epic to his nearly-completed novel.
Twain composed Huckleberry Finn in several stages. He composed one half - approximately four-hundred manuscript pages - in 1876, to the end of Chapter 17. He completed chapters 17-20 and part of 21 after slow progress in 1880, and completed the manuscript in a burst of activity in 1883, when he wrote chapters 21-43. As Twain was completing the manuscript in 1883, he also composed a burlesque book review of Homer's Odyssey, which has been never published - unfortunately, as, in addition to its comic wit, its wider dissemination might have made the comparison between Huckleberry Finn and the Odyssey more evident and unavoidable.
Entitled "Book Notes: Eine Erzählung aus der Alten Welt. Von Die Odyssey," on twenty-five pages written in long-hand, Twain purports to review a book of adventures "evidently by a new hand," a German author named "Herr Homer." While Twain claims the manuscript is not without "merit of a certain kind," he is largely critical of the new entry in the travel literature for a number of glaring errors, not the least of which is the title, which Twain observes is a bad pun on the story itself, "the-odd-I-see."
There are more serious problems with the book, in Twain's view, including a number of narrative difficulties in the text. He opens with a critique of the poetic form: "verse is not in this writer's line, and it is not a good vehicle of travel anyway." This critique is amusing, but all the more striking when one considers that in September 1880, as Twain took up writing Huckleberry Finn again after a long hiatus, Twain wrote the following verse by John Sheffield in his Notebook (no. 19):
"Read Homer once, and you can read no more
For all books appear so mean, so poor;
Verse will seem prose; but still persist to read,
and Homer will be all the books you need."
Sheffield effectively criticizes the "proselike" character of Homer's verse, but insists that a reader "persist to read." These lines may have been in Twain's mind as he wrote the burlesque, especially given Twain's own attention in Huckleberry Finn to narrative considerations, and indicated how seriously he took the relation of narrative form and the travel genre, and his own interest in matching a contemporary travel narrative to the "native" style of the U.S. Twain seems to confirm these narrative kinds of considerations in his hilarious critique of "Herr Homer's" use of German as straining credulity.
The main critique in Twain's "review" concerns the substance of Homer's adventure tale - the story itself is not believable, the exotic descriptions co-existing at such odds with its setting in upstate New York cities like Troy and Ithaca - and filled with unsatisfying and unsavory characters. Ulysses, in particular, receives the disapproval of Twain, for, while "Ulysses was a king," he "was a king with the morals of a burglar and the appetites of a tramp." One disturbing aspect of the story is the constant attention to eating in the book: "There is too much space given over to eating…. The people in this volume eat almost as often, and almost as much, as do Mr. Dickens' characters, and the food is usually as repulsive as is Mr. Dickens' food." The character of Ulysses, in short, bears a striking resemblance to notable features of Huckleberry Finn, who, while not a king, does appear from time to time to have the morals of a burglar - after all, he believes that he has helped steal Jim from Miss Watson - and one can easily count over a dozen instances in the novel when rather explicit detail is paid to the appetites and meals of Huck and various characters.
Despite his distaste for these various qualities of the Odyssey - features that bear striking resemblance to Huckleberry Finn - he goes on to note something worth praising in Mr. Homer's work: "But [Ulysses] does finally get himself out of the State of New York, and then your confusion dissipates, your embarrassment ceases, and you soon begin to take an interest in the excursions and the way he inflates his facts." Despite those aspects that Twain purports to find distasteful about the book – its unbelievability, its crass dwelling on appetites, its immoral characters, Twain nevertheless finds the story itself altogether absorbing and praiseworthy. In short, if one considers that Twain writes this “review” at the same time that he completes Huckleberry Finn, one might conclude that Twain to some extent “anticipates” a number of criticisms that will be lodged against his own travel novel, and by poking fun at them in the context of the Odyssey – a recognized masterpiece – he effectively seeks to disarm such future critiques of his own book, and by extension both seeks to make an implicit comparison of Huckleberry Finn with the Odyssey, both its “weaknesses,” but more importantly, its status as a “classic” in spite of those purported weaknesses.
This latter suspicion is all but confirmed when one considers one of many reviews of Huckleberry Finn that could be citing the same criticisms that Twain leveled at Herr Homer’s Die Odyssey. Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1954 New York Times review is an excellent case in point, in which he wrote:
"Everybody knows that Huckleberry Finn is an unintentionally bad novel in certain fundamental respects. Much of it is so improbable as to become at times wholly unconvincing on one level of understanding. It is also episodic, clumsily plotted, and sometimes as crudely melodramatic as a dime novel. One could reasonably argue that, as a whole, it is a botched job…."
Yet, even as Krutch finds aspects of the plot almost irredeemably hopeless, like Twain in his “review” of the Odyssey, he finally finds the description of the journey itself to be the saving grace of Twain’s novel:
"The river journey is as unforgettable as the march of the Ten Thousand or the wanderings of Ulysses. By comparison to that fact, the badness of the plotting or the “unconvincing” aspects of the episodes is as irrelevant as the “unconvincing” aspects of the story of the Cyclops."
As improbable as it would seem that Krutch read Twain’s unpublished burlesque review of the Odyssey, he appears to so unconsciously echo the main criticism of Twain’s review so closely – even comparing the story, as well as the “unbelievable” plotting of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey – that one marvels more at Twain’s prescience than Krutch’s unaware echoes.
Beyond this prescient undermining of future criticisms of his novel, Twain may have wished to invite comparison of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey for more substantive thematic reasons. Both works, after all, beyond their similarities as tales of journeying, homecoming and new departures to the wilderness, are depictions of the sacrifices that human beings are willing to make on behalf of other human beings. The Odyssey highlights this feature by beginning, famously, in medias res, on the island of Calypso, the location where Odysseus spends seven of the ten years of his homecoming. Calypso makes Odysseus an offer that few men, it is suggested, can refuse: Odysseus is offered immortality if he will remain on the island with her for eternity, forgo homecoming and forget his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and the people of Ithaca. Homer artfully reminds us how difficult it is for mortals to decline the offer of immortality: he begins Book 5 – the book that begins the tale of Odysseus’ homecoming after the first four books tell of Telemachus’ search for his father’s whereabouts – by departing from the usual formulaic invocation of Dawn spreading her rosy fingers, and instead states, “Now Dawn rose from her bed, where she lay by haughty Tithonus.” Homer implicitly invites us to compare Odysseus – who consistently declines Calypso’s offer of immortality – with the example of Tithonus, who, offered immortality by Dawn, accepts readily only to find as the years pass that he forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. Despite the hazards of accepting the offer of immortality, the example of Tithonus suggests, it remains the fond wish of mortals to believe they can be the exception to the rule of death’s finality.
What makes Odysseus’ decision to return to Ithaca all the more remarkable is that he – unlike most mortals – has seen the horrific afterlife that awaits him after his death, now ensured once he has left Calypso’s island. We only find out the dire import of his decision to decline immortality when, in Book 11, he tells the Phaiakians of his journey to the underworld. “Life” there is horrific: the dead can only speak when they have drunk the warm blood of a slaughtered sheep; they are insubstantial shades, incapable of embracing or being embraced; each seems frozen forever with bitterness at the circumstances of their deaths. Yet, even having journeyed to the underworld, Odysseus chooses his own inevitable death, claiming that his connections to the people he loves – despite, or perhaps because of their imperfections – transcends any temptation he might have to prolong his life at the expense of achieving his homecoming.
Odysseus’ choice is echoed by that portentous choice made by Huckleberry Finn in Chapter 31 of Twain’s novel. Believing that he is wrongfully helping Jim escape, he writes a note to Miss Watson telling her where she can find her missing slave. Believing he has done the right thing, he thinks how close he came to “being lost and going to hell” (169). For all of Huck’s claims that he wouldn’t mind going to the “bad place” when receiving his religious education at Miss Watson’s hands in Chapter 1 (p. 8), he clearly fears for the state of his eternal soul in this dark moment of choice in Chapter 31. Yet, having written the note to Miss Watson, he then thinks about the concrete instances of fellowship and friendship that marked his relationship with Jim:
"And got to thinking about our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was…; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper." 
Like Odysseus, Huck’s affections are concrete, his vision of immortality challenged the real affections and love that binds him to specific people. Like Odysseus, he knows how perfect immortality (now, in heaven) promises to be, and knows (via Miss Watson) how horrific Hell forebodes to be. Yet, he decides in favor of his affections and against the narrowly self-interested protection of his own soul, and thereby ends up doing the right thing:
"It was a close place. I took [the paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
'All right then, I’ll go to hell' – and tore it up." 
Like many of the other resemblances between the two works, the fundamental choice of life-paths that face Odysseus and Huck, one promising an easy immortality, the other a harrowing existence in a horrific afterworld, presents a remarkable, startling similarity that might be discounted as coincidence but for the knowledge that Twain himself was thinking about the Odyssey as he completed Huckleberry Finn in 1863. The resemblance may simply point to the recurrent themes of sacrifice and friendship that underlie many enduring works of literature. Or, if we are to take into consideration Twain’s own attentiveness to the “Herr Homer’s” epic at that critical time, we may be led to conclude Huck was not only the consummate American, and not only a little Greek as well, but, like Odysseus, a human being above all.