Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sunday Reading

Re-reading Huckleberry Finn — Andrew Levy in Salon discusses how the Mark Twain novel speaks more to our time than it does to 19th Century America.

For anyone who wants to try to unravel the tangled knot that ties modern Americans to their past, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) remains essential. According to the most re­cent studies, Twain’s novel about a white boy and a runaway slave es­caping down the Mississippi River is the most frequently read classic American book in American schools. Few critics’ lists of the “greatest American novels” fail to cite it; few reporters describing its influence fail to quote Hemingway’s famous claim that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

At the same time, it also remains one of the most controversial books in American history, and in many schools has been removed from reading lists or shifted into elective courses. One hundred years after his death, Mark Twain can still put a book on top of the best-seller list—as his Autobiography did in October 2010. And Huck Finn, 125 years after its publication, can trend high on Twitter, as it did in January 2011 when NewSouth Books announced it would publish a version that excised the racial epithet “n***r,” which appears more than 200 times in the original, and replace it with “slave”—an edito­rial gesture both praised and derided with an intensity rarely reserved for the classics anymore. Huck Finn was, and remains, “an amazing, troubling book,” as novelist Toni Morrison tells us; an “idol and tar­get,” as critic Jonathan Arac writes.

Predictably, our regard for the book is even more two-sided than that summary suggests. For over a century, Twain’s oft-beloved novel has been taught both as a serious opportunity to reflect on matters of race and as a lighthearted adventure for children. Authors, his­torians, teachers, and politicians have sung its praises as a model of interracial empathy, or debated the wisdom and limits of that claim; studio motion pictures, big-budget musicals, cartoons, comic books, and children’s editions have all focused on it as a story of boyish escapade, an “adventure” with, at best, modest political ambitions.


The best way to read Huck Finn, in fact, might be to see that Twain found the borders that divide parents and children as false as the borders that divide black and white—and that he even saw the way those borders overlapped. In turn, he attacked both with the same rough play, a tricksterish mix of comedy and political se­riousness that meshed with the stereotypes of the time but fought them, too. And now we are indulging in more rough play—myths of nostalgia and myths of progress, and the instinct to classify, classify, classify—that inspires modern politicians, critics, teachers, filmmak­ers, and readers to divide the book into two books, one funny and “harmless” and one not. Huck Finn can show us more about how we keep the discussion of childhood stalled, and the engine of racial difference humming, than any other book in our canon. To benefit from that insight, however, we would have to admit that it is not a book (flawed or otherwise) about children and adventure, or about racial progress. It is a book about what Junot Díaz calls “dedicated amnesia” on a national scale. It is a plea—as is this book—to remem­ber, and a fatalistic comedy about how we don’t.

This work is a cultural biography of Twain in his era, one that shows how Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness, and how our misjudgments of the book’s messages about race and children reveal the architecture of our forgetting. I started it twenty years ago with a dim idea that there was something about the child in Huck that was misunderstood and something in the argument about the book’s treatment of race that had reached an impasse. I spent months in the late 1990s reading ancient newspapers, tracking Twain as he toured America in 1884 and 1885 alongside Louisiana writer George Washington Cable in a show he called the “Twins of Genius,” which was intended to help Twain promote the publication of Huck Finn. I explored the debate about children and schools that raged at the time to see if Huck Finn entered into it. And I explored what black readers of the day said about Twain’s book, scouring through the frayed remains of black newspapers from the 1880s. Yet what stayed with me was the milieu, not the thesis: the whispers of a lost, dying America, and an America uncannily like our own. A lot had changed. And nothing had.

The Last Bastion — Amy Davidson in The New Yorker on why marriage equality may take hold in the South.

It’s been a year and a half since the Supreme Court declared, in United States v. Windsor, that the Defense of Marriage Act—which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, even if individual states did—violated the Constitution. The decision did not assert a larger constitutional right to marriage, but that didn’t stop lower-court judges from finding one in its reasoning. In October, the Court declined to hear challenges to such rulings from three circuits, thus bringing the number of marriage-equality states to thirty-five—including, remarkably, South Carolina. In November, however, the Sixth Circuit upheld bans in four states, and appeals to that decision may force the Court to finally rule in 2015 on whether same-sex couples in all fifty states have a constitutional right to marry.

At this point, the marriage-equality map looks essentially like a CNN projection for a Democratic electoral landslide, with New England and the mid-Atlantic states, plus a good part of the Midwest, the Southwest, the lower Rockies, and the West Coast. But gays and lesbians can also wed in states that the Democrats can only dream of carrying: Utah (after a lawsuit brought by three couples, one of whom runs a hummus business in Salt Lake City, which sells “hummusexual” T-shirts) and Oklahoma (where two Tulsa women filed a suit a decade ago). The final fortress, with the exception of South Carolina, is the Deep South. That is where the last legal battles are likely to be fought, and it is precisely the sort of place that gay-marriage opponents say shouldn’t be rushed by the courts, because it’s “not ready.”

Judge Jeffrey Sutton, who wrote the opinion for the Sixth Circuit, took up the not-ready argument, asking, “Who decides?” He meant the courts or the states, acting through their legislatures or ballot initiatives, which he called, echoing old states-rights arguments, “less expedient, but usually reliable.” He suggested that gays and lesbians, rather than fighting in a courtroom, would find it more rewarding to gradually win over “heads and hearts” in their communities and enjoy “earned victories” at the polls. The plaintiffs in the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia would likely have disagreed. That decision struck down laws banning interracial marriage in sixteen states—many of them the states that currently ban gay marriage.


Judge Reeves, who heard the Mississippi case, graduated from Jackson State, a historically black college. When the lawyers for the state talked about the benefits of “orderly” change, not rushed by the courts, Reeves interrupted them. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and, he said, “in Mississippi, it was 1970 before my first-grade class was integrated.” He then asked the lawyers to explain the “rational basis” for denying couples the right to marry—and their children the right to married parents—adding, “All a child wants is to be loved. They don’t care by whom or what.”

The courts are not simply a check on the democratic process but a part of it. Across the country, men and women have filed declarations, testified, gone to trial, and appealed. If voting is an act of participatory democracy, so are those actions. Southerners with cases pending include a widow in Georgia, who doesn’t want her wife’s death certificate to bear a box checked “never married,” and two female Atlanta police officers, who want to be sure that each is recognized as a spouse and a parent in case one is killed in the line of duty.

The great achievement of Windsor has been to force states to explain why same-sex couples should be treated differently. For lack of any logical argument, some opponents make the “irresponsible procreation” case, which holds, perplexingly, that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman because only they can have sex that results in accidental pregnancy. As Judge Richard Posner has written, “Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.”

The lawyers in Judge Reeves’ s courtroom tried that argument, too. It didn’t work. Two days before Thanksgiving, Reeves ruled for the plaintiffs, writing,“ ‘Tradition’ will not suffice to uphold Mississippi’s marriage ban.” He cited the “overlapping” record of discrimination in America. (Bayard Rustin’s name appears in the decision twenty times.) “Gay and lesbian citizens cannot be subjected to such second-class citizenship,” he wrote. Reeves granted a stay, pending an appeal to the Fifth Circuit, to be argued on January 9th, when the Mississippi case will be joined with others from Texas and Louisiana. Otherwise, he saw no reason to wait.

Oh Brother — Andy Borowitz on clearing the way for Jeb Bush to run for president.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In the strongest sign to date that he intends to seek the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has officially resigned his position as George W. Bush’s brother.

“No longer being related to his brother is a key step to clearing Jeb’s path to the nomination,” an aide said on New Year’s Day. “We expect his poll numbers to soar on this.”

According to the aide, the former Florida governor resigned his post as brother in a ten-minute phone call with George W. Bush, after which he blocked the former President’s phone number and e-mail address.

In an official statement, George W. Bush said that he “understands and supports” his former brother’s decision.

“If I were him, I would no longer be related to me either,” he said.

Doonesbury — War story.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Good Frank Bruni piece on the “inevitability” of a Bush/Clinton face-off in 2016. The gist is “must we?”. I concur. Surely we don’t have to do that re-run and the accompanying nastiness. Do we?

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