Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
— Samuel Clemens’ opening notice to “Huckleberry Finn”
Over the Fourth of July holiday this year, I read Huckleberry Finn because that and Tom Sawyer are the best kind of reading for such a holiday, in such weather, underneath a shady tree with the thermometer rising up close to a hundred. As usually, Finn’s ending turned me off, but it is less puzzling now that I know a little more about Reconstruction.
Huckleberry Finn was published in 1883, after all. Huck’s decision to go to Hell, then, is much less daring than it would have been if it had been printed before or during the war. That silly ending to the book, where Tom Sawyer shows up again and comes up with a ridiculous plan, only makes sense if you view the whole book – not just the relationship between Huck and Jim – as a post-war tale written by someone who, like the rest of his generation, was traumatized by the double whammy of war and a paradigm change (emancipation) in American society.
Twain, like all cynics, could be excessively bitter, and I suspect his oversimple and superficial characterization of Tom Sawyer at the end of Huckleberry Finn was an attempt to turn the beloved antebellum world of Hannibal/St. Petersburg – now gone forever due to changes beyond the control of Sam Clemens or anyone else – into something ridiculous. It’s only human, after all, to downplay the importance of something you have loved and lost forever.
Too, the emphasis on Jim’s status throughout much of Finn – and the sudden meaninglessness of it all at the end of the book when it turns out that Jim was free all the time (not spoiling this for anyone, I hope) – as well as the lurch Twain leaves Jim in, since neither Tom nor Huck offer to help Jim redeem his family, is all really just reactionary on Twain’s part, I suspect. In the real world, there had been a powerful emphasis on slavery during the war and immediately afterwards. This was forgotten once the war was won and the social counterrevolution (Black Codes, etc.) of the 1870s and 1880s kicked in. It must have bothered a cynic like Samuel Clemens very much that white Southerners, at the time of the book’s publication, were back in power and blacks were free but powerless, just like Jim is at the end of Huckleberry Finn.
So Twain had Huck light out for the territories “ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before. THE END, YOURS TRULY, HUCK FINN.”
In a similar way, perhaps, a young Sam Clemens had lit out for the open West during the war after “A Campaign That Failed.”
America in the 1880s surely did resonate with what, eighty-some years later, would sound like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Well, this isn’t a book review. I just wanted to mention it because Twain’s America of 1883 was aborning 150 years ago this month during the early stages of Reconstruction. Like Nathan Bedford Forrest (who had been a slave trader before the war and sold black people down the river – just the fate feared, and narrowly escaped, by the fictional Jim – and who now was back at his plantation, not wanting to see anybody for a while), everyone was resting up after four years of war. Everyone was also waiting to see what an America without slavery would look like. Nothing had congealed into shape yet, but the new local, state, and national configurations were forming up. One result of this is that there was very little going on in July 1865, at least in terms of stuff that was worth noting down for posterity. But such as it was, it was this:
Lincoln assassination: Convicted conspirators Lewis Payne, George A. Atzerodt, David Herold and Mary Surratt are hung in Washington, D. C. (3)
Military: General Grant reports that two-thirds of the volunteer army has been mustered out. He recommends that most volunteer generals also be mustered out. (4) Of note, since they had joined up later than many white units, black US soldiers stayed in longer after the war’s end. Thus there were more black soldiers than before serving in the Federal forces that occupied many parts of the South, a fact that stirred up even more resentment among many locals there.
Florida: Continuing his course of presidential reconstruction, President Johnson appoints William Marvin provisional governor. (3)
Georgia: The Atlanta National Bank, the first national bank in Georgia, is proposed by Alfred Austell. (11) It is also the first national bank in the South. The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company that the US Congress created earlier in the year is actually a private corporation, although its depositors believe – mistakenly – that the Federal government guarantees the bank’s funds. (16)
(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(4) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(5) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington
(7) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University.
(8) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College.
(9) The American Presidency Project – Presidential Documents.
(10) Andrew Johnson Timeline. National Park Service.
(11) Georgia History Timeline/Chronology 1865.
(12) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Jack Hurst. Knopf. New York. 1993.
(13) Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Paul H. Bergeron. University of Tennessee. Knoxville. 2011
(14) Andrew Johnson: A Life in Pursuit of the Right Course 1808-1875 Fay Warrington Brabson. Seeman. Durham, NC. 1972
(15) Toward A New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities. Edited by Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. Greenwood Press. Westport. 1982.
(16) Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics. John Sibley Butler. SUNY Press. 2005