Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.
In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Review that “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.
“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)
Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.
Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?
“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)