Notebook

August 18, 2011 10:41 pm

The modern echoes in Mark Twain’s Pap

Huck’s Pap is still relevant for anyone trying to make sense of the US political scene, writes Gary Silverman

Family vacations often take surprising turns. Mine this summer was marked by an unexpected – and enlightening – encounter with a Tea Partier from another time.

You don’t know his name – and neither do I, really. I was introduced to him simply as “Pap”, which is what he was called by his son, Huckleberry Finn, narrator and title character of the Mark Twain novel.

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I took a copy of Huckleberry Finn along on our holiday in the hope I could induce my children to read it. But I found out (in much the same way Huck’s Pap did when his son made his sweet way down the Mississippi with the runaway slave Jim) that the plans of a determined parent are often no match for the wiles of their offspring.

Huck’s only Silverman-family companion on this particular voyage turned out to be the guy who bought the book. As I read it again for the first time since I was a boy, I was struck by how relevant a figure Huck’s Pap is for anyone trying to make sense of the US political scene.

Way back in the 19th century, Huck’s Pap was delivering a rap ready for rightwing radio and the blogosphere. He spoke in a regional dialect, used the harsh language of his time (calling African-Americans “niggers”) and was limited by his technology to a captive audience of one in an isolated cabin.

Robert Thompson cartoon

But his basic complaints – about officials he doesn’t trust and one upwardly mobile black man he doesn’t like – echo those of many angry Americans today and speak to the deep cultural roots of the Tea Party movement.

“Whenever his liquor begun to work,” Huck recounts, “he most always went for the government.”

Like many Tea Partiers, Huck’s Pap is hardly a traditional conservative. Drunken, disorderly and drifting, he is a flawed and fearful man, prone to worrying out loud that the authorities will interfere with his family and take away what little he has in life.

When the novel begins, Pap hasn’t seen Huck in more than year. But after Huck finds $6,000 left in a cave by robbers, his father reappears and regains custody of his son. Pap beats Huck and keeps him locked in their cabin, all the while fretting that powerful people in town will find a legal loophole enabling them to them to take his boy away.

“Call this a govment!” Pap complains, “why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him – a man’s own son, which he had had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising.”

The principle, to Pap, is limiting government’s reach. “Here’s what the law does,” he tells Huck. “The law takes a man worth six thousand dollars and upards, and jams him into an old trap of a cabin like this, and lets him go round in clothes that ain’t fitten for a hog. They call that govment! A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.”

Pap then pivots from his personal travails to a longer-term fear: that this very same government will be insufficiently vigilant in protecting his rights as a white man. A free black man has appeared in his town and that has made Pap nervous.

This black man bears such an eerie resemblance to Barack Obama that it left me wondering whether Twain enjoyed the powers of prognostication. A professor from a Midwestern state (Ohio, rather than Illinois), the black man has a mixed-race background, dresses impeccably in the whitest of shirts and, as Pap puts it, “could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything”.

The Ohio professor is a model of self-possession in a state where black people are possessions, and Pap’s reaction recalls that of today’s “birthers” who still find it hard to accept the fact that Mr Obama is really living in the White House. Pap is incredulous. “To see the cool way of that nigger,” he fumes, “why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way.”

Pap wants the black man sold into slavery but is told that this can only happen if the Ohio professor stays in the state for six months. Pacing in his cabin, Pap is literally driven to distraction as he rages: “Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take ahold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and ...”

At this point, Huck’s Pap falls over a tub of salt pork and hurts himself. It is an apt metaphor. Writing in the aftermath of the civil war, Twain knew all too well that angry talk of this kind invariably leads to pain in this country, much of it self-inflicted.

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