Twain’s Macroaggressions

An essay by Jerry Ward

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) continues in 2018 to be evidence and example that African American impact is a powerful determinant in definitions of what is an American. The novel exposes the vanity of invoking "the universal" when the local or vernacular will suffice.    This point is focused in one "civilizing" response to the novel, namely a 1948 introduction by Lionel Trilling.

Trilling concluded that (1) the greatness of the novel lies in "its power of telling the truth" and that (2) the novel possesses the truth of honesty and "also the truth of moral passion; it deals directly with the virtue and depravity of man's heart."

When the word "heart", a mere organ of the body in pain, is replaced with the more elevated word "soul," it is possible to have significant awakenings, if and only if one wills to have them.

The concept of truth bedevils our lives. We argue endlessly about the nature of truth, about its properties. Yet, we seldom deny that we are saturated with truth. It is through close readings of Huckleberry Finn that we discover truth is as elusive as love and quite a bit stranger.

Yes, it is strange that wearing the mask of Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens opted to confess a truth about pre-Civil War notions that it was legitimate, under rule of law and the United States Constitution, to own a body stamped "nigger."

He chose to tell a truth about his people, and that choice is a reason for adding the subtitle The Souls of White Folk as a clue for understanding the breadth of the novel. Like Huck, Twain ultimately told a truth about his people. The recognition may be as dreadful for them as El Negro was for Melville's character Benito Cereno.

Huckleberry Finn teems with American humor in its purposeful use of American language, the vernacular, to commit one macroaggression after another against the antebellum body politic of the United States of America. Of course, it would not do to tell a truth in the jaded, seasoned adult. As is the case with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the deepest truth belongs to the young in the journey from relative innocence to relative experience. Twain was a clever trickster.

The novel provides temporary moments of escape from the contemporary American antics and denials of the old and the young in 2018. It reaches into a 19th Century understanding of historical process to make a classic donation.

The crucial questions are not (1) Was Twain a great novelist? and (2) Was Clemens a racist? The questions are (1) Are we sufficiently attentive readers? and (2) Are we capable of accepting the fact that American racism can be eradicated as easily as terrorism?

Part of the donation as we transform the dumb words on the page into Huck's "autobiographical" voice is the rain of fascination that drenches us with undeniable moral lessons. A most important lesson occurs in Chapter 15, "Fooling Poor Old Jim."

Here Jim informs Huck what trash is. Responding with tough black kindness to Huck's depraved ingratitude, Jim says "Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er day fren's en makes 'em ashamed."

Whether trash resides in a mansion, a trailer, or tower penthouse, human trash is trash which is beyond redemption. In this sense, the black impact on classic American literature is a judicious reading of the sin-stained ethnic souls of the neo-liberal Huck Finns among us.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., July 2, 2018

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