Regretfully, I’ve not published a post on Emily Dickinson. Regretfully, I know little about her and her work, though I enjoy it no less. Dr. Donaldson presented insightful and intriguing readings of her work, carefully working his way into the complex mechanics of Dickinson’s seemingly simple artistry, reminding us of Leonardo da Vinci’s now hackneyed but nonetheless true claim that simplicity is the hallmark of sophistication.
Once, I led a class in which the student whose job it was to present Dickinson’s “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” stepped onto the table around which the group was gathered, lay down on his back like a human sushi platter and, as a recorded buzz sound played on his iPhone, he recited the poem aloud. At the very least, everyone paid attention.
Having covered Dickinson in lecture (and pathetically on my behalf, here on Verba Americana), we move on to a great American novel by a (perhaps even the) great American humourist and a pillar of Americana: Mark Twain’s brilliant novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/85).
Reading Huck Finn prepared me for William Faulkner and, later, Cormac McCarthy. Huck Finn requires a trance-like reading. You have to let yourself fall into and roll with the cadence of the prose. Try to resist it and you’re doomed, you won’t finish the book and you’ll be poorer for it. But give into the rhythm of the words, listen and enjoy the dialect, and you’ll move with the novel like a riverboat cruising down the Mississippi. (Yes, I said that, corny though it is.) You’ll be better for it.
As with so many texts we’ve studied this year, controversy follows Huck Finn. To this day, the book has been placed on ‘banned books’ lists throughout the United States, and just one year ago a flurry of conversation was set off by the announcement that the book would be published in a new revised edition with the historically representative but now offensive racial slurs removed. The story’s homoerotic currents have not gone unnoticed, nor have Rousseauian interpretations that emphasize the river as a space where Huck and Jim escape class- and race-based prejudices and violence that boom on land.
Numerous filmic remakes and reinterpretations have been churned out of Hollywood. Supposedly, Joel Courtney, the young actor who starred in J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 is next in line to portray Huck in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Courtney follows Elijah Wood (best known today as Peter Jackson’s vision of an overly-weepy Frodo Baggins) and Mickey Rooney, among many, many others.
And, of course, such a novel as this inspires more than just filmmakers. Don’t even get me starter on how disturbed I am by the very idea of the recent book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim (2010). The current banner depicts artist Lilli Carre and designer Paul Buckley’s inspired book cover. And here’s a song recorded in 2010 by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Duke Special, composed by Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) as part of his unfinished Huck Finn musical (it’s not half bad):
My point, as ever, is that these ambitious stories continue to live with us, and that our culture lives because of such exciting, provocative, funny, and tragic stories as Huck Finn. At the very least, we should enjoy them. If we are privileged enough to be a student for any duration of time at any institution, we should consider ourselves lucky to study them, grateful to dissect and criticize them.