Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thanks for the shout-out Ann Bartow

She linked to my Carmina Burana lyrics post (below.)

Wow, talk about karma or it's a small world after all.

When I first started my adaptation of Huckleberry Finn I came across the work of one Shelly Fisher Fishkin, with whom I disagreed emphatically. In fact, I even emailed her my objections, but never heard back from her:

Dear Shelley Fisher Fishkin,

On the “Mark Twain’s America” page of the PBS Online NewsHour

you say:

In the book's famous ending--variously maligned as a failure, a mistake, a retreat, or worse--what do we find? Incarcerated in a tiny shack with a ludicrous assortments of snakes, rats and spiders put there by an authority figure who claims to have his best interests at heart, Jim is denied information that he needs and is forced to perform a series of pointless and exhausting tasks. After risking his life to get the freedom that unbeknownst to him is already his, after proving himself to be a paragon of moral virtue who towers over everyone around him, this legally-free black man is still denied respect--and is still in chains. All of this happens not at the hands of charlatans, the duke and the king, but at the initiative of a respectable Tom Sawyer and churchgoing citizens like the Phelpses and their neighbors.

Is what America did to the ex-slaves any less insane than what Tom Sawyer put Jim through in the novel? Where do we go for a window on the "contrast between our ideals and activities," that was "inescapable" after "the war to 'free the slaves,'" as Ralph Ellison put it in our 1991 interview? "People didn't want to talk directly about it," Ellison observed. But Twain did take it on: "One of the functions of comedy," Ellison said, "is to allow us to deal with the unspeakable. And this Twain did consistently." What is the history of post-Emancipation race relations in the United States if not a series of maneuvers as cruelly gratuitous as the indignities inflicted on Jim in the final section of Huckleberry Finn? Why was the Civil Rights movement necessary? Why were black Americans forced to go through so much pain and trouble just to secure rights that were supposedly theirs already? Huckleberry Finn may end in farce--but it is not Twain's farce: it is ours. Twain's book is not escapist. It is an escape from the denial of the farce we've made of what was--and still is--a noble social and political experiment.

I’ve recently finished a play based on the novel; finished recording the entire novel of Huckleberry Finn for an audio book, read up on Clemens’s career as a performer; and read “Tom Sawyer, Detective” and “Tom Sawyer Abroad” and I think your assessment is wrong.

We all love Mark Twain and want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s clear to me that he truly loved the evasion section of Huckleberry Finn because he loves Tom Sawyer.

And that’s why the Tom Sawyer character always dominates – Huck and Jim both immediately become supporting players whenever Tom appears, in spite of the fact that it’s Huck narrating. Before Tom Sawyer appears for the evasion, Jim is goal-oriented – he not only wants to get out of slavery himself, he wants to get his wife and children out of slavery. Once Tom Sawyer shows up, that goal is never mentioned again. So much so that by the end of the novel, all three of them, Huck, Tom and Jim, are considering lighting out for the Territory. By the end of the novel, Jim’s journey is far from over. His sudden freedom doesn’t solve the problem of buying or if necessary, stealing his own family. But that is totally subverted for the Tom Sawyer story.

Tom Sawyer Abroad takes up right after Huckleberry Finn left off, and in it Jim is content to travel around Africa and the Middle East with two white boys, and not a peep about his family.

Furthermore, Clemens liked to read from the evasion section of the book in his live performances.

And it is funny and entertaining, but it’s completely different, in tone and substance, from the pre-evasion section of the novel.

Twain was no fool when it came to marketing his work. When Huckleberry Finn was published, there were still people all over the South who either had once owned slaves themselves, or had parents and other relatives who owned slaves. He knew he could only go so far in portraying the actual brutalities of slave owners and still have a popular book. Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally are presented as loveable and even silly and certainly non-threatening. The worst that Uncle Silas does to his slaves is force religion on them – a solid virtue in 1880s American opinion, even more so than today. And that’s why Twain used the evasion scene to promote the book. He wanted to make sure everybody knew the book was all in good fun, in spite of some serious bits.

It’s clear that no matter how disgusting we today might consider Tom Sawyer’s behavior in regards to Jim, Twain considered Tom a lovable scamp and wanted everybody else to feel that way. And he can only maintain that attitude if he sacrifices Jim’s feelings of urgency about rescuing his family. Portraying Jim as a “paragon of moral virtue” certainly does not make up for that sacrifice. If anything, that portrayal turns Jim into some cardboard cutout of the impossibly noble good darkie.

This does not lessen the very important achievement of the first two-thirds of the book. But really, Twain should have ended the book shortly after Huck vows to go to hell, and created another short novel, “Tom Sawyer on the Farm” out of the evasion, to go along with Abroad and Detective.

Your take on the last one-third of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be what fans of Twain want to hear, but I don’t think it’s justified by the text or Twain’s actions.

Nancy McClernan
Hoboken, NJ

Well first weird coincidence - I was working at the time with playwright David Ives. The Dramatists Guild had asked me to do an article about my court case vs. Edward Einhorn. Ives was my contact at the Guild. Turns out he was working on adapting a new play written by Mark Twain, recently unearthed by... Shelly Fisher Fishkin.

So just now, when checking out the link from Sivacracy to my site, I see that Siva, Ann Bartow's co-blogger, urges everybody to see the new Twain play IS HE DEAD because it was unearthed by his mentor... Shelly Fisher Fishkin!

Just weird.