Free Write

Freewrite July 3, 2009


Youth and mobility in the Machine Age.

In terms of American literature easily the most iconic figure of youth-in-flight is Huckleberry Finn, whose plans “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” have been taken up by generations of scholars as a national-archetypal urge for autonomy and adventure, a desire to flee the confinements of embalmed Sunday afternoons and starched collars in quest of the rough sprawl of the unincorporated zone of the frontier (Twain 296). That it is the territory he seeks to explore– a space constructed by at least a preliminary mapping– rather than Africa’s interior or the Arctic pole tells us that the trajectory of his prospective journey will remain within limits. If each last hectare there has not been completely surveyed, if the country still contains surprises, then Huck remains within the pale of the domestic boundaries of a nation already well advanced in the process of racially-cleansing and repopulating the last gaps between the post-colonial seaboard of the east and the boomtowns of the west.

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, thirty or more years before its publication, Twain’s novel evinces a nostalgia that would subsequently grow more acute. And though its open ending can be seen as simply an enterprising writer’s creation of an opportunity for the further exploitation of proven literary materials, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes a tacit admission that the character of continental exploration has long since shifted from an age of outright discovery to an era of navigating the terrain between small towns and settlements. The reading public who first cut the book’s pages would likely be familiar with a sense of heterogeneity and heteronomy– the increasing complexity of social life and the rise of forces beyond any immediate or local control— against which so many writers and thinkers of the period contended. Huck’s escape from widow Douglas and St. Petersburg, then, can be only temporary and provisional, and if according to the manner of the dime novels after which Adventures is fashioned Huck was succeeded by a Huck, Jr. then his son– certainly his grandson– would be beating it from harvest to jungle by riding blind baggage.

This consonance between rugged frontiersman, rambling truant, and floater might account for the contradictory responses to the tramp. Cresswell notes the changing perceptions of the itinerant homeless, the gradual shift from their identification with outcast barn-burners to pie-filching bindlestiffs. The cinematization of the type with the advent of Chaplin’s comic Little Tramp, however, never entirely stripped him of a subversive charge: comedy is a genre of social disruption even if there is an expectation that events will be recuperated so that in the end the joke’s not on us. We might therefore with profit consider what Huck Finn would look like were his story told in a different vein. Part of the power of Twain’s narrative is the extent to which he is willing to show us the depravity of Huck’s life with Pap. At certain points in the plot– the beatings, the drunkenness, the invective– Twain seems intent on forcing his readers to hurt– on making them feel it when Huck sits all night with a loaded rifle next to the unconscious body of his father, who has collapsed in a stupor after attempting to kill him: “I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip barrel, pointing towards pap, and set down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along” (42).

A hard-boiled Huck would be deprived of such controlled gestures at sentiment or even humane burlesque. Already in Twain’s novel the violence of the lynch mob and the cavalier cult are depicted with flashes of dramatic intensity which highlight their intolerability– cruelties far from incidental yet neither truly systemic. The mise-en-scene’s moment in history– the pre-anomic phases of industrialization– permits a commensurability of subjective experience with the objective social world and in this regard guarantees an affective logic: Huck may be so sickened at the death of Buck Grangerford that he is incapable of describing how it went, but that inability to tell the details cannot be confused for numbness. Huck, were he narrated into the realm of the road-kid, subjected to anthropometric methods, and interpreted according to the totalizing vision of Spencerian social science, would become purely particular to himself only after a process of abstraction. The Youth Concept– the outcome of a discursive convergence of statistical research, synthetic sociology, and the post-naturalist text– pulls its subjects– Machine Age Huckleberrys– in both directions by means of an inversion: Youth’s primacy is as a category particularized down to a singularity.