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Friday, June 14, 2013

Huck Finn and democratic self-making

Once upon a time (really last October, but it seems like a long time to me), when I was still thinking about what to propose for a dissertation, I considered the link between con-men, or the more optimistically phrased "self-made men," and democratic childhood and authority. These are not obviously related, but if you think briefly about two important American books - Franklin's Autobiography and Huck Finn, you may begin to see a relationship between childhood, adult authority (or lack thereof), self-making and democracy. Unfortunately, this would be a lot like writing a dissertation, or part of a dissertation, on my favorite real life topic: frauds and impostors. More importantly, it didn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest many political theorists, and it would cause many other logistical problems for me on top of that. So, it was dropped.

But Paul Cantor has a nice essay on Huck Finn in the CRB that captures many of these points:
A Mississippi River pilot named Samuel Clemens reconfigured himself as a writer named Mark Twain, and the rest is literary history. Clemens was in fact one of the first to understand that in a democratic society a man might use the modern media to invent himself as a celebrity. In Twain's presentation, America is a land of disguises. As a runaway slave, Jim in particular must continually be kept under wraps. In a bizarre development—of whose irony Twain must have been aware—Jim ends up dressed in the theatrical costume of King Lear. One of the central motifs of Huckleberry Finn is the theatricality of democratic America. People are constantly playing roles in public, and changing their identities seems no more difficult than changing their costumes.
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That is why nobody knows for sure anymore who anybody is in Huckleberry Finn. In the aristocratic world of the old regime in Europe, most people were immobile, tied to the land. That is what it meant to be a serf... But Twain's America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor, a stranger in a strange land. This is perhaps the best example of how all the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest.
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At least in democracy there is a chance of unmasking the imposture. The king and the duke are not really convincing in their aristocratic roles, largely because they were not born to them. As Huck explains to Jim, men born as kings make the most successful impostors. In Twain's view, aristocracy simply is fraud; it is all an illusion, based on mere externals, based on show, as again Huck explains to Jim: "I read considerable to Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister." For Twain, aristocracy is by its very nature imposture, some men claiming falsely that they are born to rule over others. But people bred to rule seem to do a better job of convincing others to accept their slavery. That is why, in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.
I'm increasingly skeptical of the "immobile aristocracy of ye olden days" trope, which never seems to point to any particular moment in time when Europeans were strapped down to their villages. For one thing, it seems to me that few humanist writers between 1400-1700 stayed at home, and some ranged quite widely. We might say these were some kind of elite, which is true, but they didn't necessarily have to be born into the nobility to become such, they only needed to pursue a university education, which seems to be the impetus for much of their wandering. Consider, for example, the life of Thomas Platter, or John Comenius. Aristocracy persisted long after the decline of serfdom in England and France, so is it an age of powerful nobility to which we refer, or an age of feudalism, or just any age where social hierarchy is visible and unchallenged?

But Cantor's is an intriguing conclusion about the greater ability of democrats to detect impostors, and I think very much in line with my own view, frequently repeated here, that we should not rush to make impermeable whatever barrier has been breached by the most recent revelations of impostordom. We should not run background checks on all applicants to college, or call up the universities from which every job candidate claims to have a degree. This is the first impulse of victims of a con - tighten security so it never happens again! But if the very quality of the regime that creates impostors is also the one which unmasks them, then we ought to feel less paranoid about the dangers of letting a few slip through our fingers.

7 comments:

Jeff said...

Just as a hopefully interesting side note gleaned from my ongoing research in American medievalism: Right around the time Twain published Huck Finn, tons of Arthurian-themed (and sometimes churchy) groups, precursors to the scouts, were popping up across the country to teach 12-year-old boys that being a "knight" wasn't about birth but about living virtuously, a message reinforced by quite a few kids' books. Meanwhile, universities were going full-blown Gothic to help give their campuses European pedigrees, and Walt Whitman was expressing dismay at the number of carriages in Central Park bearing the heraldic crests of rich families. I think the business of democratic childhood and impostordom is perhaps part of a larger American concern about who we are in relation to Europe, a question we've never really resolved.

(Apologies for the info-dump. I get to deploy this stuff so rarely.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Is America vs. Europe a way to construct the regime question - democracy vs. aristocracy - in more concrete and popular terms as a national competition? When I was considering this dissertation topic, my other American reference was Henry Adams, another contemporary of Twain's who saw the tension on both the national and abstract regime levels. Cantor's reference to Tocqueville also points in the same direction - here is a book written by an aristocratic European about us that dwells on this, our national insecurity. But as a tension, it surely pre-dates Twain or the mid-19th C., since even the post-Revolutionary writing of the 18th C. exhibits this love/hate attitude towards things European and aristocratic. The line on education: we want schools as good as Europe's, but open to all and without all that dead language snobbishness! Perhaps you could say that we have always been trying to to channel aristocratic impulses into democratic ends, so the persistence of the question is better for us than its resolution would be.

Jeff said...

Oh, I don't think it's a question our culture is going to resolve anytime soon, but I'll admit I've been surprised by the depth of its roots. (I'm finding examples of this ambivalence in Jefferson, Washington Irving, even in the failure of Puritan Meeting House architecture to catch on; overwhelmingly, Americans wanted medieval-style longitudinal churches with steeples on top.) We have tried to steer aristocratic impulses to democratic ends, but I think we've long tried to do that with many non-aristocratic aspects of European culture, too.

I suspect few thinkers of his day were more fretful about this conflict than Adams. He made much of his Norman ancestry, but he felt a weird affinity for Franciscan mysticism. He also loved the dynamism of the High Middle Ages, but like many Episcopalians and Unitarians of his day, he couldn't bring himself to go full-on Catholic, largely for social reasons. His ambivalence—faith vs. reason, lineage and family duty vs. doing your own democratic thing—really ate at him.

Miss Self-Important said...

Could be a good dissertation...

David Salmanson said...

Not to mention Melville's The Confidence Man and the whole Joseph Smith thing.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, Cantor mentions Melville too. I haven't even read it!

What is there to say about Joseph Smith that can't be said about all of Protestantism, more or less? (Dear Protestants: Please don't eat me.)

Withywindle said...

Joseph Smith does give you the uncomfortable sense that all claims to revelation might be fraudulent; suddenly you have the shadow of Jesus as a con man. Makes you want to go to a jail and lynch a fellow, to get those thoughts out of your head.