Capstone Journal

A record of thoughts for the English Capstone class.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2001
Rather than making posts to my other class notes Blog, I'm going to go ahead and discuss the issues of class here. That way there won't be so much of a need to wade through other posts to find what I'm cross-referencing. Plus, it does make for a more valid journal, neh?

So today in class, we broke up into small groups and talked about some of the issues of the first 14 chapters of Huck Finn,, hereafter referred to as HF. This comprises the part of the book in which Huck has his adventure with Tom, gets taken back by his Pa, fakes his death, and runs off with Jim to float down the river. It stops right about the time that they pass Cairo, Illinois. In our little group, we had to answer some questions first about Tom and Huck and being boys. It's very interesting the perspectives people with no little boys in their family have--there's no concept of the urge for death, destruction, and dismemberment that populates most of a young boy's psyche. I mean, I've been killed so many there's a bit of translation for some about what is Huck's nature. I think Twain actually captured perfectly the essence of the little boy, and his dichotomy (I love that word, but cannot spell...forgive!) between Tom and Huck is very realistic. Tom's the dreamer, wanting to put to use the ideas that these books have put into his head. Huck's a bit more pragmatic, but he still likes the adventure and the escape from the real life of their town. Twain is very good with these sorts of realistic details, both on the river and in small town life, not to mention the tiny psychological details that creep in here and there. Knowing Twain as I don't, I think he'd be mystified by how we split up what he might call the "essence" of life in those days. Just a random thought.

We also discussed the whole racial issue and a bit of the ending, and again we're running up against that dichotomy of thought--pre Civil War and post 20th century. The terribly-bad-but-closest-I-could-think-of analogy for Huck's racial attitudes is that it's like one of "us" people nowadays sheltering a known criminal, even if they've only done something minorly wrong. We'd have the same moral dilemia...and this is essentially how deeply inbred the idea was. Huck's pap is what we'd refer to as "white trash", probably to the power of ten; Huck himself falls into this category in more ways than one, but is saved from that ignominy by...and now I'm using big words and going too deep again. But that attitude still infused every layer of society from Widow Douglas on down. Even if you treated the slaves all right, you still didn't necessarily think of them as people. That's part of the growing up process of Huck, to think of Jim as more people than he is. Prof. Fox pointed out the whole property rights issue, which hadn't crossed my mind; but property is a BIG American value. No one talks about "sharing an apartment house with fifteen strangers, some who play their music too loud, some who fight, and having to pay huge amounts of money to keep my cat"--no, the American dream is your OWN house on your OWN land. So I can see how that factors into it as well. In fact, I'd think that would be most of what troubled Huck...because Jim wasn't quite people yet.

Then we sidetracked off into movies and how they reflect issues of race, with big ole was a comfy little group and I rather like it. There's probably more to say here, but my thoughts are quite forming themselves right, so I'll leave off for another time.


I finished Huck Finn, yay! For a novel of simply 250 or so pages, it seemed to be quite a bit to wade through. I mean, I'm a person who reads 300 page+ novels in two swoops. I think it was more because I was reading in that strange, critical light that occasionally comes upon an English major, looking for things that really weren't there. And enjoying the satire--mmmm, Heinlein does have that tang of Twain goodness.
(For those wondering why I keep referring to Heinlein and Twain, it's because the former was very much in sympathy with the latter, especially in his philosophies. Twain shows UP in Heinlein books, actually, and his characters quote him often. So my views of Twain are just slightly under that influence.)

But what are my thoughts of the book? I don't see it as a classic. Yet. Twain charged that those looking for a plot or moral or any such thing were up for a Darwin award, and I would agree. Huck's adventures on the river with Jim are like movements in and out of the story--when he touched land and has an experience, it becomes a plotworthy thing, something to build his character. When he's just out on the river with Jim, naked and innocent on the water of life, it has an aspect of something primal. Primal and plot very rarely mix--one is emotion, the other is a construct. And now I am getting all English majory, but the kernel is that it does engage the critical side of me, but not really the reader side. Though I did slide more into it the further along I went, and you know what? I enjoyed the ending. I thought it was a good mix of changes and beginnings and endings. When I first heard about the ending controversy, I thought they referred to Huck's lighting out for the Territories...just because. But I really didn't mind what happened at all.

I was very mindful of the language, though, especially the use of THAT WORD. (last time emphasis, really--but I'd like to note that English really only has two words of that type left, and I'm sure you know what they are. And no, "fuck" isn't one of them.) As I wrote in the last entry, it really twisted my gut in its frequent usage...but as I was thinking about it at work, I realized that it's versimilitude. It's realism we don't like now, but I don't think you could get Twain to change it. He set out to capture the dialect, the mood, the whole experience of life on the Mississippi, with some changes made for story--and I think it he did it. An essay in the back called him "the least Southern Southerner" and his roots are all in Northern perhaps he escaped the imprinting that came of being white stock in the South pre-Civil War. If I want to follow radically along those lines, I'd then interpret Huck Finn as a sort of radical manifesto, a charge to the white man--"never forget the shame we inflicted upon these people." But then there are all sorts of questions to puzzle out, so maybe it's not that. But I just can't see Twain as a racist en total.

More sorting out to come, and perhaps project ideas too. In the words of Starrynight...


Sunday, September 02, 2001
Well, I finally started reading Huckleberry Finn yesterday, and am a good ways into the book. I found the Forward and Introduction to be quite interesting--it never occurred to me that a literature class could be taught along the lines of controversy. I also took a peek at the back, and found that I think (so far) that the essays on gender and sexuality to be amusing. We'll see if this feeling changes by the end of the book.

On the details of Twain's life, they once again left out two major points:
*: The Paige typesetter that Twain poured money into was as good as the Linotype typesetter, so much so that they offered a stock-for-stock swap. Twain and Paige didn't accept it. I don't know why books neglect this, because it makes Twain out to be less of a fool than he was. *sigh* Source: The Dictionary of Misinformation.
*: Why does no biography talk about the papers Twain had sealed for fifty years? I know I've heard of it, and have read about it in other books, most notably a collection of his short stories. But this book, even though it goes into another possible explanation of "Mark Twain," neglects this fact. Are they just not good enough?

My thoughts on the book itself so far are...well, it sure has progressed fast. Also, I'm kind of confused by the Huck-Dad relationship. The man is abusive and...and...just bad. Why does Huck stay with him? Is it because he embodies the life that Huck really wants, away from the Widow and her "sivilizin'." Also, they use that feared and hated "n" word an awful lot. Even as prepared as I was for it, it kinda shocked me. Still, I'm inclined to think it's simply part of the dialect of the time, but I'm sure that'll come up as we discuss the racism issues of the book.