"What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height.
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern a thing so small."
-- Robert Frost, Design
Dining on Huckleberry
by Louise Bialik
June 16, 2000
for thomas wortham
When Mark Twain observed tourists viewing Leonardo da Vinci's
Last Supper, he heard their "catchy ejaculations of rapture" and
wondered out loud in his Innocents Abroad how these art goers could
lack the imagination to not see the miracle of art (life): "How can they
see what is not visible? What would you think of a man who looked at some
decayed, blind, toothless, pock-marked Cleopatra and said: "What matchless
beauty! (138)" So with the help of his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
Twain first tabled this question, then tested it in Puddn'head Wilson,
and put it to trial with the darkest of his stories, 3,000 Years Among
The Microbes. Of these works, reality and illusion weigh in against
one another to illustrate human vision. Twain takes stock of human perception
by focusing on the micro-real in order to glimpse the big picture.
To break things down for careful study, Twain employs a hero,
like Huck, Wilson, and Bkshp, to behave as Charons who navigate the
spirit of man toward the realization and acceptance that "Heaven was
not made for man alone (175, 3,000)."
Because life is not a sole journey for any individual, and yet the joy
of living can be obscured by human cruelty, the innocent must lead the
disillusioned out of ugly times, in the way that the biblical proverb,
"a child shall lead," rings true. Twain designs the path for the travelling
hero along the routes of fable and bildungsroman. While a fable conveys
some moral message, and the bildungsroman illustrates heroic accomplishments,
the use of these two avenues organize Twain's ideas to show how innocence
can mature even in the face of corruption and not be corrupted in
Like the fabled boy in Robert Bly's adaptation of the Grimm's
Iron Heinrich (Iron John, 7-12), Huck enters into the woods to
retrieve his golden ball, the spirit of life. It is not a thing Twain
quests, but rather the unraveling of what man's design is all about.
Essentially, Twain's unraveling is orchestrated around things breaking down.
For example, one important sign of social disorder is how one man may entrap
another for a dollar or power. Just as the boy in Bly's fable goes off into
the woods to discover a man trapped in a cage, Huck encounters the wild man,
Jim-the-slave, and is solicited for knowledge on how to get free.
Huck has the power to free the "caged one" because he, himself, is
emancipated and a "low down Abolitionist (52)." When Huck frees Jim, he
sets order back into the universe, and like a good caretaker, advises the
free runaway to stay along the river and let nature be his guide (60)
for man is unreliable and has the nature to capture, possess or destroy.
In Chapter 16 of Finn, the author illustrates the common man's
values in this comedic revel:
"I am the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a
hurricane, dam'd by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly
related to the small-pox on the mother's side! Look at me! |
[ ] Stand back
and give me room according to my strength! Blood's my natural drink, and
the wails of the dying is music to my ear! (109)"
While a common man may be able to afford the luxury of foolishness,
Twain's boy-hero is humbled by child abuse (36), corpses (61), and social
violence (82). These encounters with inhumanity develop the lad into a
Dickinsonian Pip, and empower him toward self-reliance. Huck becomes
something of a Determinist because he can reverse the negative experiences
and appreciate the true intent behind things. For example, when Huck is
faced with turning Jim in or going to hell, he chooses to save his friend
by telling a lie to protect his whereabouts (271). Why Huck refuses to
give up his friend is a matter of preserving his spiritual integrity.
How else could Huck live with himself knowing that he betrayed another
soul, for down beneath the color of skin, whether black or white, is
sharable blood. This sameness, on a cellular level, expresses a desire
for unity, brotherhood, fellowship, and if conjoined to a twin, a
conglomeration between people and creatures, animals and minerals,
vegetables and atoms, for:
"we can't help our nature, we didn't make it, it was made for us and so we ar
e not to blame for posessing it. Let us be kind and compassionate toward
ourselves; let us not allow the fact to distress us and grieve us from
mommer's lap to the grave we are all shams and hypocrites and humbugs
without an exception, seeing that we did not make the fact and are in
no way responsible for it. If any teacher tries to persuade you that
hypocrisy is not part of your blood and bone and flesh, and therefore can
be trained out of you by determined and watchful and ceaseless and diligent
application to the job, do not you heed him; ask him to cure himself first,
then call again (188, 3,000)." |
The origin of conflict in Twain's tales is the result of individuals who
fail to recognize their "part and particle" relationship with other living
things because of a perceptual disorder of the soul. A man will sour if he
does not put his experience to use. Even a bad situation can be made into
a good thing. Huck for instance does not shelve his horrors into some
repressed subconscious, but extracts lessons and turns the rubble into tools.
The genius of Twain is that he allows the natural play for a boy to evolve
into effective engineering. With Huck's danger receptors activated, the boy
can stumble across a piece of useless steel and stick, assemble the parts
into a sturdy saw, and build from that a raft to leave troubled waters (31).
What this ability demonstrates is that if a child can get himself out of
the bad sticks, a man may do so, too. And a man ought to be able
to do so off-the-fly because there is ready-made technology available to
him. What prevents a man from gaining freedom is his refusal to take a ride
down the river of his subconscious to be transported into the invisible
majesty of reality.
While the dangers of reality stimulate Huck to adopt a hyper-aroused state
of vigilance, the youth lets down his guard when nature tests his ability to
withstand river hazards. He can let go of being in control around nature
because like the grown up version of himself in 3,000 Years Among the
Microbes, Huck Blankeship, Huck Finn knows that nature is his mother.
In his true mother's arms, Huck can dream during a storm while his raft wafts
Unlike the boy in the fable who must steal the key from under his mother's
pillow to free the wild man, Huck does not need go through this ritual because
he is the key. Not so for Tom Driscoll of Puddn'head Wilson who
sells his natural slave mother "down the river" to make a fast buck (81).
The irony here is that Roxy, the mulatto slave mother, switches her
light-skinned infant boy, Chambers, with her master's white infant son, Tom (14),
resulting in her son's ruin. All she was trying to do was afford her son the b
est possible life, but in displacing nature with her switcheroo, the true
negro child became abusive while her master's son, the white boy, became kind.
Such contrast of behavior has nothing to do with the influence of skin tone
but rather negative socialization. The moral Twain tests in Puddn'head
fits in with several popular sayings, "seeing is not believing," "beauty is
beyond skin deep," and "don't judge a book by its cover."
With the help of forensic science, the art of fingerprinting, Twain guides
his objective detective, David Wilson, to utilize expertly organized data as
evidence. From the shelves of Wilson's office, Roxy's naughty prestidigitation i
s revealed in court when another pair of lads, the conjoined Italians, are
falsely accused of killing Tom's father (110). The actual murderer possesses a
bit of an oedipal complex, longing for mommy love, and in an effort to gain
mommy love, Tom "steals the key" when killing his father:
"The murderer of your friend and mine—York Driscoll—sits among you. Valet de
Chambre, negro and slave—falsely called Thomas à Becket Driscoll—make up t
he window the finger-prints that will hang you! (112)"|
It is a great dramatic moment in court when Tom's face turns ashened, and
is made to meet his punishment by being "sold down the river" as a negro slave.
Thus his dream of being a master of others turns into his self-fulfilled
The difference between dream and reality for the characters of
Puddn'head is that when crimes are committed, the perpetrator is in a
dissociative frame of mind, not so much a "Twinkie Syndrome," but a dream walk.
The primary victims, Roxy and Chambers, act out their unhappy "place" as
slaves when tampering with the lives of the Driscolls. Roxy's motivations a
re direct (switching the children), while Chambers' is indirect
(upper-handing clumsy Tom as "nigger-pappy" (21). Meanwhile, Tom's reaction
to learning that he's really a black man inside an imagined white body is such a traumatic
experience that he forgets about gambling and focuses on the humility of being
a negro in Dawson's Landing. The shock of his mother's confession on his
true roots generates intrusive thoughts i.e. "the nigger in him" (45), and Tom
instinctively denies these thoughts by destroying the one who cages. In
killing his father, Tom theoretically pays off his karmic debt, yet such
reparation can not be appreciated when ultimately murder is never justifiable.
Human sympathy is not with Tom for he behaved badly when a free white
male, and in knocking off his father, there is still no gain. While the late
Driscoll perhaps received his "just reward," Roxy loses out. Twain is not
going for an editorial to support abolitionism or an end to racism, because
he closes with the argument: "the motive [of killing Judge Driscoll] was
not revenge, but robbery (106)." And still, such closure reminds one to
be flexible with judgement.
Flexibility in thought is continued to be explored when Twain reincarnates
Huck as a microbic germ in the character,
B. b. Bkshp, of 3,000 Years
Among the Microbes. In this carnival of curiosity, written after many
personal tragedies, the author presents a miniature version of his life near
the brink of collapse. Like Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, there
is disorientation of time and a narrative style that deposits one world
into another. While time closes in on Twain, time expands for the microbe
who goes into the bowels of a human tramp and observes reality from outside
in. This perceptual shift suggests that in order to see things as they
really are, there should be some suspension of reason, for a dream may be
reality, and reality may be the dream (177). At least this is the way
things are for microbes:
"With my microbe-eye I could see every individual of the whirling billions
of atoms that compose the speck. Nothing is ever at rest—wood, iron, water, e
verything is alive, everything is raging, whirling, whizzing, day and night,
night and day, nothing is dead, there is no such thing as death, everything
is full of bristling life, tremendous life, even the bones of the crusader
that perished before Jerusalem eight centuries ago. There are no vegetables.
All things are ANIMAL; each electron is an animal, each molecule is a
collection of animals, and each has an appointed duty to perform and a
soul to be saved. Heaven was not made for man alone.
(Benjamin Franklin to Huck, 175)" |
In dreams, the microbe is given freedom to be human for a while, and what
Bkshp dreams for is an interracial romance with "Maggie" (193)-- not a "girl
of the streets," but a "college-maid whose high privilege it is to carry in
her veins the blood of the cholera germ (194)." So to love, for Twain, is to
be devoured by loving. Love, imagination, and reverence for the invisible
are ways to experience reality on the deepest of levels. This is a nice way
to end a life—by materializing Heaven through the imagination.
For Twain, what redeems humanity is not clever opinions, but ones ability
to slip inside love by imagination, and to realize life as art, which is
timeless, and a Last Supper.
- Huckleberry Finn, eText Virginia University
- Iron John, bn.com link 2 buy book, some tidbit info
- Achilles Heel, more on Iron John -- very nice men's movement site
- Last Supper, painting
by da Vinci
- UNCP Twain Page - bio and bibliography on Twain
- Innocents Abroad - hypertext, etext, advertisements, pix
- Puddn'head Wilson - eText, illustrations, fabulous resources
- Twain Web - forum
- Huck Finn - homepage by Railton, truly excellent
- mark Twain In His Times - Stephen Railton film