"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Huck Finn tells us at the opening of America's most iconic, most analyzed, most loved and hated story.
Andrew Levy would suggest, with all due respect to the legions of scholars, race-relations experts and child-rearing authorities who've come before him, that you don't know Huck Finn even if you've read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Butler University English professor offers another chance by way of a book by the name of Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece.
Due out Dec. 30 from Simon & Schuster, Levy's third book distills a unique take on a great, perhaps THE great, American novel, evolved through the author's three decades, off and on, of researching and teaching it. Along with its new and not very cheery insights into racial and educational "progress," it includes information about Twain's family life that's never before been published.
Levy is not new to breakthrough books. He's the author of The First Emancipator, about a history-making slaveholder named Robert Carter whom you've never heard of; and A Brain Wider Than the Sky, a searing and poetic memoir about Levy's life under the curse of migraines.
The essence of the new book: None of the familiar contending views of Huckleberry Finn -- ode to carefree childhood, invitation to juvenile delinquency, parable against racism, outright racist yarn tarted up as morality tale -- captures the complexity and coloration (pun intended) of the protagonist, his creator, or the 1840s setting of the novel and the 1880s of the writing.
"We are tempted to see Mark Twain as a manageable troublemaker," Levy says. "Actually, we're better off with him as an unmanageable troublemaker."
As Levy points out, Twain was on his way to becoming a ferocious denouncer of American racism and imperialism in 1885. He saw in post-Reconstruction events and rhetoric a reprise of the antebellum plight of "free" blacks. But then he died in 1910.
Levy, citing the sensational newspaper portrayals of blacks as criminals and a U.S. Supreme Court that overturned a less-than-10-year-old civil rights law in 1885, goes on to ask whether readers of Huck Finn in 2014, witnessing massive black incarceration, deadly confrontations with police and a current high court that's weakened voting rights, can look back with any smugness.
"It's not hard to pick up today's newspapers and see the same patterns. Other things have changed and improved dramatically, and yet you feel that once a pattern is in the culture it's hard to shake. And the whole end of the book is like that. A black man who is already free (Jim's master had died, unbeknownst) is not free. We really think the clock ticks in one direction, but there are times when the courts and the federal government can turn the clock back. It can happen any given moment."
As an artist, not a preacher, Twain was bent on showing and using, rather than presuming to change, this reality. He appropriated black culture, in particular the outlandish and subtly uppity minstrel shows, both in his writing and in the touring shows he famously staged to promote Huck Finn. (Another pattern: See Elvis, the Rolling Stones, countless other modern raiders of black panache).
Likewise, Twain drew from his own childhood -- filled with violence as well as delight, whipsawed between the values of freedom and supervision -- in depicting a Huck Finn whose life was scarred by abuse, privation and corpses, even if it has come out as an idyllic romp in countless movies and popular rewritings.
Again, no prescription for child development here, one way or the other; but generations of authorities have proceeded to fill one or the other.
As Levy's book says, "It's not ambivalent if you could get away with it, and he could."
As the author himself adds, "It's chilling, to be honest with you. Mark Twain loved contrasts, and the funnier the book gets, the scarier the book gets. And again, that's what a fiction writer should do. It's not a political science essay. It should make you feel not only the enormous vitality of American culture but also the enormous frustration."
Like Huck himself, too clever, too uncivilized, too puckish, too sorrowful, too exuberant, too scared, too defiant, too much at war within himself to fit into any box, Twain fits neatly within the best un-definition of a national bard. Does Levy consider his masterpiece The Great American Novel?
"If I were to choose five books to take onto a desert island, it would definitely be there. Maybe top three. If I were teaching a 35-year-old about American culture, it would be number one."