You thought you knew Huck Finn. Andy Levy is about to change your thinking.
In Levy’s new book, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece ($25, Simon & Schuster), Butler University’s Edna Cooper Chair in English argues that contemporary readers misunderstand Twain’s classic: It is neither a carefree adventure story for children nor a serious novel about race relations.
Instead, Levy said, Huck Finn—or its full title, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—was written at a time when Americans were nervous about youth violence and “uncivilized” bad boys, and a debate was raging about education, popular culture, and responsible parenting—one very similar, Levy notes, to current concerns. And on matters of race, the book is neither the moral exemplar that became the most often taught book in American public schools, nor the “racist” text that is among the most often banned—but a sly, conflicted fable that tells us more about persistent patterns of inequality and cultural appropriation than civil rights.
“So many of the political debates of the day are analogous to contemporary political debates,” said Levy, whose book has received positive attention from many sources, including NPR and Salon.com. “Even then, they were aware of that as a phenomenon. So Twain wrote a book about the cyclicality of history—‘I been there before’ are the book’s closing words, and it’s no accident. He was already recognizing that what was happening in 1884 was a repetition of what had happened 40 years before—that Jim Crow laws were restoring what the Civil War was supposed to have ended.”
Levy noted, for example, that in the time of Twain and Huck Finn, one of the major issues was unequal justice for blacks, who were more likely to be thrown in jail for trivial offenses or mistreated or watched more closely by police.
“While promoting the book, Twain toured with George Washington Cable, a Louisiana writer who had done controversial research showing racial inequality in arrest and incarceration rates,” Levy said. “That should sound oppressively familiar to modern ears. ”
Similarly, the United States of the 1880s also worried that popular culture was too violent, that standardized testing put too much pressure on students, and that many children were losing touch with nature and not getting enough exercise.
Levy’s book is painstakingly researched. He bought a microfilm machine for home use, and he credits Fulfillment Associate Susan Berger in the Irwin Library with helping him get access to The New Orleans Picayune and The Nashville Daily American newspaper archives. He scoured resources at the Library of Congress, as well as Howard , Virginia, and Berkeley universities.
The result: The 368-page book includes more than 100 pages of endnotes.
“Whether or not that’s a good thing to have done, I want people to understand that, if you’re going to do this, you have to dig in,” Levy said. “But if you dig in, it’s incredibly rich.”
More about Huck Finn’s America can be found here: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Huck-Finns-America/Andrew-Levy/9781439186961