I have been reading a lot of free eBooks lately, including three American classics. The one I had not read before is Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which also exists as a stage play. It is impossible to read it today without thinking of Donald Trump. as this review of a recent stage performance notes.
As if the current political climate weren’t worrisome enough for many people, Foothill Theatre Arts presents “It Can’t Happen Here.”
It chronicles the rise of a populist presidential candidate who promises better times, wins the office and then oversees the country’s rapid demise into fascism and repression.
Sinclair Lewis wrote his prescient novel in 1935 when rabble-rousing Huey Long was running for president (he was assassinated before being nominated) against Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler’s Nazi regime was rising in Europe.
But it is also very much of the 1930s, so don’t expect too close a parallel. Worth noting nonetheless.
I reread with undiminished pleasure The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald. A few years ago I posted Gatsby revisited. My recent reading is rather more positive than that post. I just relished every sentence!
Finally, after what must be almost forty years I have reread Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I find myself agreeing with those who find the final chapter annoying. Without Tom Sawyer the novel had up to that point had passages of utter brilliance. For example:
TWO or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!
Here is something else I noticed in my rereading.
Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.
The waves most washed me off the raft sometimes, but I hadn’t any clothes on, and didn’t mind.
Here is a recent controversy deriving from that: ‘Huck and Jim’ Sculpture Too Nude For New York Debuts at Art Institute .
What do you think?
Years ago there was a common view that Mark Twain was “henpecked” and that his work, including Huckleberry Finn, was censored by his wife. See this 1992 article which also objects to the theory.
When Resa Willis decided to study Olivia Langdon Clemens, the wife of Samuel L. Clemens (aka Mark Twain), she turned to previous biographies. She discovered that none existed.
How curious that the wife of Mark Twain, America’s best-known writer, should elude biographers until now, while the spouses and lovers of lesser lights have become cottage industries for academics and publishing houses. It is all part of the Twain mythology. We don’t want to know about Livy (Olivia’s nickname) because she was this typically repressive Victorian uber-mama who tried (with some success, according to this theory) to suffocate his fragile genius…
Willis asserts that Livy tried to “civilize” Clemens by trying to curb his swearing, drinking and smoking, but she makes it clear that Livy soon accustomed herself to her husband’s habits. And although during their courtship she planned to turn Clemens into a Christian, she instead followed her husband and fell away from regularly observing the Sabbath during their marriage.
As to Livy’s editing, Twain credited her with significantly improving his works. Willis notes that Howells wanted to cut out two “dirty” scenes in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that Livy hadn’t touched. She had not objected to the use of the word “hell,” even though Twain himself was troubled by it afterward…
See also on another controversy Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘n-words’ is unacceptable .
A new edition of Huckleberry Finn expunges its repeated use of ‘nigger’ for understandable reasons, but betrays a great anti-racist novel in the process…
Language counts here. As Twain himself said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing “that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s … novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”
But it’s exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.
Absolutely. Do read an unbowdlerised Huckleberry Finn!
For more on Mark Twain, go to History.com.