California English Journal
The Dreaded Question
We've all been there. As we settle into our seat on a plane or train or other public transportation, tucking our bag under the seat, toy with how to spend the next few hours catching up on papers, catching up on reading, or catching up on sleep, IT happens. The neatly dressed and manicured person, in my case a man, who's just stuffed his matching laptop computer and brief case under the seat in front of him asks, "What do you do?"
Quickly I size him up. Can he be trusted or am I opening myself up for the deluge? I run through my prepared list of conversation stoppers--mortician, belly dancer, IRS tax auditor. He looks relatively harmless; his tone seems innocent. I decide to say it, "I work in public education."
Like a professional baseball pitcher revving up with his best pitch, the passenger's widening eyes indicate his pitch is on the way. He starts in, "When I was in school, nah nah nah." He continues to list all his perceived limitations of the current educational system. Then he blasts, "Teachers get paid too much."
That's it! He's crossed the line. I politely ask through a clinched smile, "And what do you do?" hoping to distract the attack. He interrupts his barrage long enough to comment, "I'm in computers," then continues, "teachers...." Undaunted, I probe. "What do you do with computers?" "We design customized database platforms for big companies." And still he persists, "And what's happened to discipline....?"
Losing my patience, I interrupt. "What do you do with these platforms? Do you design them? Sell them?" "I interface with companies to ensure that our product meets their needs," he explains.
I think to myself, now it's my turn. "Do you have a computer on your desk at work? You probably use e-mail don't you?" I question. "Of course. I couldn't do my work without my computer or e-mail," he comments.
"And I assume you have a phone on your desk. "Looking a little surprised, he comments. "Certainly. How could I do business without one?
I continue with the probe, "Do you have access to a fax and a copier? "A bit of suspicion begins to creep into his eyes, "Of course."
"And I suppose you have an assistant to take calls, set up meetings, and format your reports? "Cocking his head a bit and squinting to get a better look at me, he mumbles, "Yes."
Raising my voice a bit, I query, "When you interface with these companies are you meeting with only one company at a time or representatives from several companies at once?" "One at a time" he mumbles without emotion.
"Now imagine this," I gibe, "you don't have an office, a computer, or an assistant. The only phone is down the hall and shared by 15 other customer representatives. There's one fax machine for the entire company and it's in another building. Now imagine that you have to meet with a group of 35 customers from 35 different companies all at the same time. You only get to see them for 50 minutes before they leave and another 35 representatives from 35 different companies come in. You get to repeat this 5 times a day. In 5 hours you see about 200 representatives from 200 companies. How effective would you be?
Smugly, he states, "There's no way that would happen"
I reply in a solid, unemotional voice. "It does happen. Every day in schools across the country, teachers work with large numbers of students, each student with special and specific needs. Teachers do their work without computers, phones or access to e-mail, faxes or copiers. Most teachers design and create their own materials without assistants. Teachers are asked to do their work without even the most rudimentary kinds of support that business people take for granted. Try doing what teachers do for just one day and you'll think differently about schools."
By the time I finish, he's found his book and buried his face so only his cheeks and forehead show. I don't think we'll be talking more this trip. I always wonder though if anything I say sinks in. It's just my one person campaign to stop the attacks on schools. Try it the next time someone asks, "And what do you do?"
Huck Fin Fan
Few people read Ernest Hemingway's 1935 Green Hills of Africa anymore, but a whole bunch, especially critics and academics, like to quote from it whenever they want to take a cheap shot at the ending of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the perhaps too-often-repeated passage, (and here we go again) Hemingway begins by making a very big claim for the novel: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn" (p.22). But he goes on immediately to suggest that in the last chapters Twain is "just cheating" (p.22). By the late 20th century critics had distilled Papa's slander into received truth as we can see in Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury's From Puritanism to Post modernism (1991) when they assert unequivocally that "most readers agree in disliking the last part, seeing it as a weakening of the story's moral intensity" (p.199). Well, this reader doesn't agree. In fact, I would argue that the ending, flawed though it may be, strengthens the "moral intensity" of the novel.
What do these guys want?
I suspect that some modern readers are upset because Tom seems to get off so easily at the end of the novel. After selfishly keeping a free man locked up for over three weeks and abusing him all that time for his own amusement, Tom tells Huck that if the "evasion" had worked, he would have eventually told Jim the truth and would have paid "him for his lost timeÓ"(p.361).
I also suspect that some of these same readers might prefer that Huck at the end of the novel make a touching and completely uncharacteristic and, therefore, unbelievable speech in which he denounces the institution of slavery, promises never again to utter that offensive racial epithet, and considers joining John Brown's band of irregulars in Kansas.
In part what makes this a great novel rather than an interesting relic like Uncle Tom's Cabin is that for whatever reason Twain managed to restrain himself from inserting sentimental and anachronistic polemics: Tom Sawyer would get away with his blatantly racist abuse of Jim because his actions in the 1840s, in the South at least, would not have been seen as racist or, for that matter, as abusive. The fact that Huck doesn't seem to object to Tom's mistreatment of Jim--only to the absurd amount of time his evasion takes--speaks to the overwhelming and perhaps irresistible weight of the cultural racism of the time. Of course Huck would fail to judge Tom for his abuse of Jim (even privately to the reader) when for virtually the entire novel he has reproached himself for his own sympathetic treatment of this runaway slave. I think Twain expects us to do the judging, a risky and demanding aesthetic approach which we don't see much of again until fifty years later when we get to someone like, ironically, Ernest Hemingway.
I have wondered more than once why I have never come across even the most tepid defense of the ending of what is so universally regarded as an American masterpiece. How can critics and readers dismiss those last 12 chapters, virtually a quarter of the novel in the new Random House "Comprehensive" edition, and still regard it as a classic? It's like asserting that Moby Dick is a great novel except for all that whale stuff at the end. I have not read one critic or academic who is willing to confront what would in fact be lost without Twain's ending. (I admit "right out and hearty" that reading late-20th century academic writing gives me, as Huck would say, the "fantods" and so I haven't read much criticism lately, and so if you've heard this before, don't stop me. )
The ending of the novel serves Twain's purpose in a couple of ways: first, Tom's reappearance at the end of the narrative and Huck's recounting of the evasion help to unify what otherwise might be just another meandering picaresque structure, and, second, Tom's selfish behavior towards Jim at the end of the novel as juxtaposed to Huck's genuine concern for his slave friend reminds us of just how little Tom has changed and how far Huck has traveled on his moral journey.
Given Twain's particular artistic proclivities and gifts, it is unlikely that he would have ever attempted a narrative as architecturally complex as, say, The Scarlet Letter, but repeated readings of Huckleberry Finn has convinced me that Twain was trying very hard to improve on the classically loose structure of the picaresque tale, which may explain why it took him a decade to complete it. Clearly Twain, at the end of the novel, wants the reader to remember and reflect on what happened earlier in the story and that he expects the careful reader to draw some conclusions as a result. He prepares us for this dialectical rhythm in miniature as early as "Chapter III" when he invites us to compare Miss Watson's simple-minded approach to prayer with Tom Sawyer's fantasies of genie-assisted wish fulfillment. By juxtaposing the two so closely and by inviting the reader to delight in the similarities, Twain seems to ridicule both his favorite targets: fundamental religion and deluded romanticism. Lest we miss the similarities between the two, Twain has Huck tell us in the last line of the chapter that Tom's belief in genies "had all the marks of a Sunday school."
Just as Twain expects us to compare elements from the first half of a chapter to elements in the last half, he also expects us to make the same mental leap between the first and last parts of the entire novel. When. for instance, Tom begins to lay out his plan for Jim's escape from the cabin on the Phelps farm, it is difficult to imagine that Twain doesn't want us to remember and compare Huck's own carefully planned and executed escape from Pap's cabin in "Chapter VII." Huck, himself, invites the comparison when in the middle of his own "evasion" he wishes that Tom Sawyer were there to help because "he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches" (p.43). Fancy touches indeed. Whereas Huck's elegant, clever, and eminently practical escape from Pap's cabin takes place in a matter of hours, Tom's plan for Jim's escape takes over three weeks and would have taken 37 years if Tom had had his way. Reading this last section tries the patience of some critics like Roy Harvey Pearce who, in his "Yours Truly, Huck Finn," complains that "it might well be that the [evasion] episode is in fact too complicated and too long, overbalancing the end of the story" (p.177). Perhaps it is true that we understand and appreciate Twain's attack on the absurdities of the romantic disposition long before Twain is finished, but we should try to remember that Twain wasn't just rebelling against the excesses of the movement, he was trying to drive a stake through its heart. In addition, it may be, as one of my students once pointed out, that Twain wants us to suffer the same frustrations as Huck does as each of his practical suggestions for Jim's escape is supplanted with an absurd one hatched in Tom's egg. During my most recent re-reading of this sequence, it was all I could do to keep myself from reaching into the novel and slapping some sense into Tom Sawyer.
One thing that most sympathetic readers of Huckleberry Finn agree on is the inherent power contained in the scene when, in "Chapter XXXI," Huck, after learning that Jim is a prisoner on the Phelps farm, decides he would rather accept an eternal hell than abandon his friend, a runaway slave, a "nigger," whom he has reluctantly but ineluctably come to love. Perhaps the most important element the ending of this novel provides is an opportunity for Jim to make a painful sacrifice every bit the equal of Huck's decision, an act which clearly renders this lowly black man the most virtuous character in the tale, increasing, for me at least, the novel's "moral intensity." When Tom, Huck, and Jim manage to lose their pursuers during the evasion in "Chapter XL," they also discover that Tom has been seriously wounded and is in immediate need of medical attention. As Huck puts it later, Tom "had a dream...and it shot him," which is true in more ways than one. Tom, in his romantic hysteria, urges Huck and Jim to leave him and make good their escape. Huck and Jim discuss the matter and, significantly, Huck lets Jim, the slave, explain their decision. Jim argues (giving far too much credit to Tom Sawyer in the process) that if the situation were reversed, and it was Tom who was being set free, the young white boy would never abandon a friend and so he, Jim, is not going to "budge a step out'n dis place, 'dout a doctor; not it it's forty year" (p.342). By allowing the slave to make this speech instead of Huck, Twain demonstrates not just Jim's quality but his equality as a human being. I suspect even Huck recognizes this when he tells us in a passage which comes as close as a racist 14-year-old of the time could come to racial acceptance: "I knowed he was white inside, and I reckoned he'd say what he did say--so it was all right, now" (p.343).
This scene, coming as it does in the discredited last chapters of the novel, has perhaps been neglected. It may also be that its impact is somewhat refracted because the sacrifice Jim offers is not completed in the reader's mind until much later when the kind doctor reports the event in flashback. As an incensed mob considers hanging the now recaptured runaway, the doctor explains that if it hadn't been for Jim "resking his freedom" to help the old man minister to the lad, Tom might very well have died from his injuries. When Jim crawl out from his hiding place to help the undeserving Tom, he calmly accepts the figurative hell of slavery, an act every bit as painful and every bit as noble as Huck's earlier acceptance of a literal hell.
I would hate to do without this gesture on Jim's part which we would have to do if Hemingway and his minions had their way. For me Jim's act confirms Huck's suspicion that this black man is not only the moral equal of anyone in the novel, he is very likely superior in his selflessness. It is clear that Twain wants us to pay particular attention to Jim's sacrifice if for no other reason than he goes to so much trouble to make it happen. There is no compelling motive for Jim to help the doctor attend Tom if no compelling motive for Jim to help the doctor attend Tom if Huck is there to assist instead, and so Twain must invent a reason for the first-person narrator to be absent during one of the most important moments in the book. That is why as Huck begins to guide the doctor back to the wounded Tom, Twain has the old man insist that the canoe is too small to safely carry them both in spite of the fact that it had only a short time before successfully served three people, Huck, Tom, and Jim.
I have on occasion asked my students why Twain doesn't have Huck wounded instead of Tom (as the most recent Disney version does) and, of course, they understand instantly that Jim is deserving of much more respect for sacrificing himself for the abusive, self-absorbed Tom than he would for the same gesture directed toward Huck, a boy he has come to love. We might expect Jim to immolate himself for Huck. But for Tom?
Huck's goal in this last adventure has always been to set a slave free, a noble and subversive cause, whereas the bourgeois Tom's goal has been to keep a free man confined. Tom's very first act in the novel is to play a trick on Jim when he hangs the sleeping slave's hat on a branch above his head leading the superstitious Jim to imagine witches have had their way with him. Tom ends the novel in the same way, playing a trick on Jim, a much crueler trick. Huck, who has played his own tricks on his black friend and learned of the damage they can do, has resolved never again to be cruel to this good man. Huck has changed.
Both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have traveled the same distance down the mythic Mississippi River, but they didn't wind up in the same place.
Harry Gordon teaches American literature at Huntington
Beach High School in Huntington Beach, California.
Many classroom teachers find traditional literary criticism too academic and obscure to be of use to them as practitioners. This issue of California English invites you to read literary criticism that is practical and reflects the methods you use in your classroom. Maria del Pilar Coronado describes the kinds of questions and activities that open up works of literature for students. Harry Gordon explains his own critical approach to the oft disputed ending to Huckleberry Finn.. Dixie Durham ponders what happens when the teacher's interpretation is at odds with students' interpretations. Amelia M. de la Luz Montes (whom many of you know as Amelia Ramirez) writes about how, whether we admit it or not, theory influences classroom practices.
To these teachers' insights I would like to add the novelist Richard Ford's. In his essay "Reading," Ford describes a dilemma English teachers face every day.
"A formal template for studying narrative can guide us orderly into novels, permit a desired intimacy with sentences, aid our confidence and encourage our thinking by abstracting us from parts of the story we can't grasp yet, then in due time leading us to the other parts, so that eventually we see and can try connecting all that's written. But an organizing or explaining system which doesn't illuminate the haphazard in any story's existence can't be a real comprehension. Such schemes are always arbitrary and unstable-wrong (if still useful) in that at their worst they reduce a complex story to some matter of categories, and prose as cure-alls to our natural wonder and awe before great literature-reactions that originate less in ignorance than in the magnitude of the story itself; reactions we shouldn't relinquish but hold on to for dear life-as pleasure."
Some days my struggle with these two aspects of teaching
literature brings joy. Other days are better left unremembered. Here's
to a wonderful new school year full of books and lots of pleasure.