Parenting by the Books: ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’

Parenting in a Time of Disaster

Image: William Creswell

On the Friday night that I travelled down to D.C. for the Women’s March, my husband briefly left our five-year-old son downstairs playing “writing” on the laptop. (Literally, he likes to open up MS Word and “play writing” — I want to scream at him: save yourself before it’s too late!). When my husband came back downstairs, our kid had somehow navigated over to Yahoo! News and was watching coverage of riot-geared police confronting inauguration protestors with tear gas. I’ve been worrying over this since, wondering how much of the poisonous stuff he took in.

Of course, the desire to (and idea that I even could) protect my son from the world’s conflagrations is a classic position of racial and economic privilege. Robin Bernstein’s excellent book Racial Innocence — which traces how “innocence” became the province of white children and families in the nineteenth century — opens with the story of a Louisiana judge who refused to officiate a 2009 marriage between a white woman and a black man. His reasoning was that he wanted to protect the children which they did not yet have. Their marriage would be hard on these imaginary children he insisted. The judge’s position was typical Simpsonian “won’t somebody think of the children?!?!” hysteria. But it was also, as Bernstein insightfully notes, a weird desire to protect these (nonexistent) children “from life itself.” Taken to its logical extreme, the preservation of children’s innocence from our country’s racism requires them not to be born at all.

This is obviously stupid for a variety of reasons, but it’s not because he was wrong that children are plunged into a lot of bad, racist, and hateful shit in their lives. It’s stupid because he thinks that there’s any way to opt out. We are now all parenting in a time of disaster — a time that, to be sure, has a deep history and is not exactly new, but that also has its own texture with which many of us struggle. I completely get the desire to opt out, but the truth is: that ship has sailed and everyone’s on board. What do we do now?

We could call this the Huckleberry Finn problem. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel is a classic story about children, race, and moral development. An abused, poor, white child is launched into the world far sooner than he should be. Will he sink or float, and why? Many readers identify the moral climax of the novel in Huck’s refusal to follow the Christian teachings that were central to the support and defense of slavery. He understands that, according to these tenets, he is morally bound to return his adventuring companion to slavery (since Jim is “property,” Huck has aided in “stealing” him). “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck courageously says to himself, before deciding to rip up the letter he’d written to Jim’s “owner” informing her of their whereabouts. White readers have long loved this moment in the novel. What’s better than a teenaged white savior doing the right thing?

But, you know, the novel doesn’t stop there. The only way to maintain that this scene is the moral heart of the novel is to entirely disregard (or chalk up as poorly conceived) its meandering and meaningful ending. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Twain brings Tom Sawyer back and, together, Huck and Tom play a complicated and cruel game with Jim, keeping secret from him the knowledge that he is legally free and no longer enslaved. Much of the (fantasy of) moral clarity introduced in the middle of the novel becomes murky at the end. We see that even as we cheered Huck’s revelatory moral decision, Huck and Jim were actively travelling south, away from freedom for Jim. Both Huck and Tom’s moral development and their moral degradation come at a cost to Jim. Whether or not the white boys are acting “good” or “bad,” whether or not they are innocent or guilty: Jim is screwed.

This is not to say that the novel lacks moral vision. Rather, it’s to say that generations of readers have mistakenly elevated a form of personal opting out of racism — “All right then, I’ll go to hell!” — into a lesson about white exceptionalism. So rather than the “moral climax” that readers yearn for (despite all the cues the novel gives us that such a thing doesn’t exist), I prefer an earlier scene as provocative moral allegory for our current disaster.

As Huck and Jim’s raft floats closer to Cairo, Illinois — the bend in the river that will let them check their course and head back north to freedom for Jim — a dense fog sets in. Huck is in a canoe, Jim on the raft; they get separated. When they find one another again, Huck pretends that he’d been on the raft the whole time, and that Jim had been drunk and imagined the crisis. Jim recognizes Huck’s cruel tricks and calls him out on the thing the child most fears is true: that Huck is trash. “Jim looked at the trash, and then looked at me, and back at the trash again.” They quickly realize that they’ve missed Cairo altogether in the fog, Jim’s hopes for freedom are dashed, and they turn around to see an enormous steamboat barreling down on them. They are swamped, their raft splintered, their bond sundered.

Okay. So. This is so on the nose. For the past decade, we’ve been congratulating ourselves on having successfully opted out of our country’s racist history, even as anti-racist, feminist, pro-labor, and anti-war activists and organizers have been pointing out repeatedly: “that’s trash, and that, and that, and that’s trash, and you’re trash, too.” And now, well, the fog has cleared, we have missed Cairo, and we have all just been run over by an enormous, gaudy fucking steamboat.

This is a hell of a moral disaster allegory, but thankfully it doesn’t just leave us stranded in the water amongst the debris. After the crash, the narration follows Huck, who is taken in by the Grangerfords, a family characterized mostly by its warm, comfortable house, plentiful food, and incoherent commitment to maintaining a generations-long murderous feud. Huck has basically found his way into the ouroboros of white supremacy, a closed system somehow sustaining itself on a steady diet of self-propagated fear, outrage, and misdirection.

When Huck finally finds his way back to Jim and the raft Jim has rebuilt, he is returning to a world that is far less resource-rich, but far more sustaining. Even the narration reflects this, as it breaks into the first person plural — “We said there warn’t no home like a raft after all” — and then, the second person plural — “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” I love this moment better than Huck’s first-person moral clarity because it identifies a collective — how love and freedom multiplies when we join voices and lives with others — and recognizes that we are all on this fragile thing together, its pieced-togetherness beautiful and always at risk.

The novel is clear that some of us are more vulnerable to this fragile thing’s drift than others. To pretend otherwise is to play along with Tom Sawyer’s cruel tricks. In the days since the tear gas, my son has had a lot of questions, and I’m trying to answer them as directly and age-appropriately as I can. What did Donald Trump mean when he said he could do whatever he wanted to women? he asked. Is the President respectful? Why hasn’t there ever been a woman president? Will some of my friends from school have to leave our country? What is tear gas? How do we know when laws aren’t right? I can’t deny that part of me wishes I didn’t have to answer these questions; but the larger part of me understands that such a wish was part of our faulty construction to begin with.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.