Like me when I was a child, Huck Finn hates Sundays. And sunshine. One day, “Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny,” Huck explains,
there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about you. As a general thing it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all.
Why would God make a day like that? As actual—unyielding—as the adults’ decisions I lived by, squinting in the heavy light, moving through the lonely air during an extra-special two-hour session of gym class, trying to understand the rules to some adaptation of softball: if I ever forget that feeling, I will have abandoned the very core of myself.
2. Huck/Dickinson I: Flies
When he pauses and looks around in that “mournful” way, Huck’s cast of mind makes me think of Emily Dickinson’s—attention to the world, curiosity, that spoils easily, turning into nevermind.
Dickinson’s well-known 591 begins:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
Dickinson wrote those lines in 1863, before Huck was a glimmer in Twain’s eye. Twain began writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published. He worked on the novel on and off over the next several years, finishing it in 1884. It was published in the U.S. in 1885 (the year before Dickinson died). But there’s no way Twain would have found his way to 591 while he was working on Huck Finn; the poem was not published until 1896, as part of Poems, Third Series, edited (heavily) by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, during the first, posthumous rush of public interest in Dickinson. Dickinson and Twain, although they wrote and lived in the same country at the same time, missed each other.
But on a plane where fiction meets history, I imagine Dickinson and Huck converge, their dark sensibilities humming in sync from time to time. Huck Finn takes place, scholars agree, in one of the two decades directly before the Civil War, either the 1840s or the 1850s. Maybe it takes place in 1858, the year Dickinson’s writing life began in earnest, the year she began the practice of assembling her poems in bound volumes. She was twenty-seven years old. Huck was fourteen.
3. Huck/Dickinson II: Skies
“I never felt at Home – Below –” Dickinson writes in 437, as if she is already dead. Huck doesn’t feel at Home Below, either; he searches—at first ping-ponging between living with his abusive father and with the do-gooder widow Miss Watson, later from the raft with Jim to the dangers on land—for a way and a place to be “comfortable.”
And like Dickinson, Huck plays with death. He fakes his death at the beginning of Huck Finn, setting into motion his notorious voyage down the Mississippi. He shares Dickinson’s intellectual and emotional interest in death, nudging at it, like Keats “half in love with” it. In that “Sunday-like” scene, Huck both wishes for death and wishes it away, fearful of it, attracted to it.
Dickinson performs the same push and pull with death, an uncomfortable, insufficient solution to a world that is neither comfortable nor sufficient. That first stanza of 437 continues:
And in the Handsome skies
I shall not feel at Home – I know –
If “Below” has been so sorry a home, why assume “the Handsome skies” will be an improvement?
Huck reports on Miss Watson’s vision of Heaven: “She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever, and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so.”
Even as I wondered why God made such sunny, still and silent Sundays, another part of me knew: people liked them. My horror was their reward. Heaven is for other people.
“I don’t like Paradise,” Dickinson writes in 437. “Because it’s Sunday – all the time – ”
America has two legendary poets, Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Whitman “a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” Dickinson, the belle of Amherst.
It isn’t that Dickinson never mentions a local town or city in all of her poems, but it’s quite rare, and when she says “Amherst,” she means it philosophically, wondering, in 241, of the inhabitants of Eden, “Do they know that this is ‘Amherst’-.” More often, Dickinson name-drops a foreign city or country, typically to connote the exotic (726: “I could bring You Odors from St Domingo – / Colors from Vera Cruz – ”), but even those occasions are few, particularly compared with the frequency with which she uses a broad term like place, or far, or world. In Dickinson’s unique grammar, those words tend to be capitalized, as if standing in for where a proper noun would be, were the poem by a more conventional writer.
Whitman, meanwhile, sings “Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco,” his poetics a rich catalogue of place names. But those cities could be in a different order, or they could be different cities altogether, say, “Cleveland, Sacramento, Albuquerque, Richmond, Baton Rouge, Nashville.” In their greatness, Dickinson and Whitman, both, in different ways and combinations, are specific and general, regional and universal. They cover it all, together, describing and achieving the huge and the minuscule, across their different philosophies and prosodies.
It’s probably not a coincidence that both our legendary American poets are from the East Coast, where the Puritans hit land. You can see the whole country from there. You can talk about it any and every way you like, from Boston to Place, World to New Orleans.
But I’m from the Midwest, and I want my own legend, a legendary poet from home.
5. Prairie Style
There’s something in the Midwest that pulls against the registers of greatness, its lexicons and tones, its heights and depths of grief and joy, that Whitman and Dickinson draw and draw on. We don’t do that where I grew up, I-90/94 looping into I-55 while the ground just sits there, nothing moving on a weekday afternoon; head pressed against the window, waiting. Cairo, pronounced K-Ro, a big little city in the part of Illinois that everyone says is basically Mississippi, down low, the secret South no one knows. “An arch at Ohio/Indiana, another—similar, more formidable—at the Mississippi. Eaton, Richmond, big Indianapolis, beautiful-sounding Terra Haute, don’t forget Effingham, can’t forget Effingham.”
That’s from C.S. Giscombe’s essayistic 2008 book of poetry, Prairie Style. The book consists of chyrons of pithy but enigmatic statements about the Midwest, its landscapes, myths, and peoples. “One gets even in the midwest, one gets even in the midwest, one gets even in the midwest,” Giscombe writes. Maybe he repeats the phrase for each of its meanings:
1. One settles the score in the Midwest;
2. even in the Midwest one can get what one is owed;
3. only one person settles the score (or gets what they are owed) in the Midwest.
“One gets even in the midwest.” Said three times, it sounds like a tune with only one note but lots of rhythm. Or a highway that stays in a straight line as it goes on and on through various farms and towns.
I think Prairie Style is about Huck Finn, although Giscombe never mentions the novel or its author by name. The book takes place where Huck Finn does, down the Mississippi, in the Midwest. In the realm of jokes, bluffs, mistakes, accidents, tries, experiments, bugaboos.
6. Emmeline Grangerford
My favorite part of Huck Finn is when Huck swims to the Kentucky side of the Mississippi and there discovers the Grangerford family, with their country gentility and their poor dead daughter, Emmeline. Under an assumed name, Huck lives with the Grangerfords for a short while, awe-struck by the whiteness of Colonel Grangerford’s linen suits, the abundance of food at family meals, the presence of books in the house. In one of the only detailed interior scenes in the novel—one of the few times Huck goes inside—Huck is captivated by the tackiness, grotesquery, beauty, and strangeness of the writing and life that Emmeline left behind.
I have two brothers, both younger, one by two years, one by nearly a decade. Every night, my much-younger brother would yell up the stairs to us—“Children! Dinner time!” Huck is like that, reporting of Emmeline, “This young girl kept a scrap-book …” He is impressed by the drawings she made “her own self when she was only fifteen years old,” even though Huck, himself, is only fourteen. Like my little brother was, Huck is too far apart, too different, to deeply outside, to ever be inside childhood the way other children get to be.
But from his vantage point, he sees something no one else in the house sees: how stupid it all is. Some part of Huck is laughing, the way I know my brother was laughing at us, even as he admiringly describes Emmeline’s superserious art: one drawing of a woman “leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow,” another of a “young lady … crying into a handkerchief …,” with “a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up.”
“Poor Emmeline,” Huck says, “poor thing,” not sounding at all like the hard-living teenage trickster I remember when I close the book. But when I open it again, I learn again that that is how he sounds.
7. Poetical Domestication
Although Emmeline is fiction, she isn’t pure fiction, in that women and girls wrote and published a lot of poetry in the mid-nineteenth century. Even Dickinson, enduring emblem of the unpublished genius, published at least ten poems in newspapers during her lifetime, and corresponded with important, nationally known editors like Higginson and Samuel Bowles. When Dickinson herself was fourteen, she wrote to a friend that being “poetical” was “what young ladys aim to be now a days.” Emmeline clearly had received the same message by that age.
But all that isn’t anything Huck knows; he isn’t that domesticated. Emmeline’s life and writing excite Huck because of how little he has seen of such things. The town newspaper, which would have included poems by lady scribblers, wasn’t delivered to his dad’s weird cabin in the woods.
Emmeline Grangerford’s life was over before she became a woman. Huck Finn is over before Huck is a man: he has to go out West to do that. Out of the book, out from under Twain’s and the reader’s watchful eyes.
Huck will never grow up; he will never be a man. He is boy-like, as in unmanly, as in brave, as in playful, as in the blue-and-white American Boys Handy Book—first published in 1882, two years older than Huck—that my brother, the one closer to my age, and I loved, with its advice on how to tie knots and kill animals in your backyard. We never tried any of its tricks, but we read it all the time.
Huck will never be a man. He is curious, as in nonsexually sexual, snooping around Emmeline’s stuff, a fellow poet, although he will never think of himself that way.
9. The Unwritten Land
Huck Finn begins with the line, “You don’t know about me.” The sentence doesn’t end there. What Huck really is saying, or at least what he means, is that you don’t know about him if you haven’t read Tom Sawyer. But the way the novel ends, with Huck going out into the Oklahoma Territory, beyond our apprehension, we don’t know about him, even after reading either book, Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.
10. One Gets Even in the Midwest
“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s goin to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” In Huck’s world, which is the American Midwest, you can’t get what you want, and you’re not in control.
But you can always choose what to say. And what to withhold.
Sing, poet: you don’t know about me.