ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Huckleberry Finn: The Untold Story", by Larry Smith

When in 1998, two years after Random House published what was at the time the only comprehensive edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kip Standing first read, among other previously redacted or unincluded passages, the Raftsmen's Passage in Chapter 16, he realized or thought he realized that, absent this text, a salient paragraph in the same chapter of the standard edition that millions of people had read in their respective generations did not really make sense. Kip made a note of it, which he then inserted in a sizeable file with diverse other notes that he'd later draw on as sources for publishable explicatory comments on all manner of human art and endeavor, as well as notes with brief plot ideas and pretexts he would someday turn into full-blown short fiction. This file has been a wellspring, as every serious word he's written in the last twenty-five years can be traced to some one or another of its jottings. When, however, in 2019 he returned finally to the Huckleberry Finn notation, with some intent to now write up that earlier observation for publication in a literary journal, he could no longer see where Chapter 16 of the old edition was the least compromised by the exclusion of the Raftsmen's Passage. He had hoped to use this example to render some judgment on the chimeras of textuality: that is to say, the illusion that any artifact of an evolving civilization can ever be thought of as finalized; that the meanings we glean were in no wise necessarily intended to be what we assume them to be; that any such meaningful assumptions on our end are teased and deceived by sundry small but decisive errata. We are more naturally scrupulous, less surprised by the intervening variables that may obviate established notions of a given text, when the veils of time hang heavier; for example, we know and accept that Hamlet's flesh can either be too, too solid or too, too sullied or even too, too sallied, depending on which quarto or folio we're reading. But while such uncertainties are an inevitable part of orthodox scholarship, at least when it involves almost anything pre-1800, and cause no particular epistemological angst, Kip had thought the Huckleberry Finn confusion would underscore a greater immediacy, almost contemporaneous, a universal inexorability of textual uncertainty as a veritably ontological principle. Not that his 2019 realization at all belied that principle, but he had hoped his 1998 discovery of the alleged Huckleberry Finn solecism might cause a bit of a stir and help toward making him famous. He did want to be famous, at least in some circles. But in and of itself, the larger idea of textual instability as a universal norm would bring him no such notoriety; the idea was not particularly original or remarkable, it was just another idea in a cosmos lousy with ideas. The attainment of even a small fame would at least require of him a piquant case in point, which bill his intended exposé on Chapter 16 of the Great American Novel would have certainly fit. He had wondered, desultorily, why there had been no prominent commentary on the illusoriness of textual certainty (and its decisive implications for textual interpretation) when versions of both The Red Badge of Courage and Sister Carrie – both dramatically different from the standard versions that the world had long assumed to be "official" – were published in his own lifetime. Yet, with respect to The Red Badge of Courage and Sister Carrie, the issue was almost impossible for him to address, since he'd never actually read those momentous new editions of either novel, although, with so jaundiced a view to the prose of An American Tragedy, he could imagine someday writing a mildly irreverent essay on Helen Dreiser's stature as a writer/editor and would base his judgment on her rather more palatable (surely more palatable than Theodore's) version of Sister Carrie. And he remembered when in 1982, after Bruno Bettelheim wrote on the fundamental distortions of Freud that have dominated Freudian thinking within and without the therapeutic profession, and including dehumanized usages like "id" and "ego" where Freud really intended something different, even innately tenderer, a Freudian he respected and was actually rather fond of named Steve Something Or Other shrugged and said, "I'm too old to change." Others felt the same way and Bettelheim's book Freud and Man's Soul is largely forgotten. Thirty-seven years later, when Kip no longer knew what if anything to do with Chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn, it all boiled down to either an existentialist or essentialist view of textuality, so that, in the existential, there must be constant assumption of volatility, of constant reformulation, as when Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote word for word from the original but, because he does so in the 20th century, he utterly transforms the 16th century classic. Or the essentialist view, which is easier because it allows for separate classics: for example, one classic being The Red Badge of Courage by Crane that the majority of readers know, and the other being The Red Badge of Courage by Crane that was only first published in our lifetime; the Quixote that Cervantes wrote and Menard's transformative duplication in a different temporal context. I say the essentialist approach is easier because it allows for every text to be understood as final; every moment along the road as a finished end in itself, without our having to shudder for the evanescence of what we read (or, for that matter, of what we are). We can just add the radically different text of The Red Badge of Courage,or the Sister Carrie that Helen Dreiser did not write, to the endless list of books we have never read and probably never will – we can still proclaim the older versions to be things that we have read, that have been done, mountains that were indubitably climbed and tasks surmounted, experiences that cannot be gainsaid by any future transformational revelations. Of course, there's often a thin line between new insights and new realities. The Sister Carrie that Helen Dreiser did not write is a new reality entirely. By contrast, even if Kip had been able to show how, absent the Raftsmen's Passage, Chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn has never been quite coherent, it would not introduce a radically new artifact but only a keener interpretation of the old. To the possibility of such new interpretations, there is, of course, no limit, which is itself a radical consideration if only because ancillary circumstances naturally alter our understanding of all other circumstances to which they are ancillary. Domino effects begin with positrons. For example, did you know that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was originally published in the UK? Imagine that, the Great American Novel was not originally published in America! Gladstone was Prime Minister at the time, and Gladstone was rumored to have been into S&M. The British do tend to be so oriented, the middle class as well as the aristocracy, which might have something to do with the impact of nannies on their children. Any other explanation for why the Brits are so into it that S&M has even been called "the English arts" would be of interest to me. Grover Cleveland was President of the United States when, the following year, Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S. or, if it was in the early days of 1885 before the inauguration, Chester A. Arthur would have still been President. Arthur was an interesting man, having sacrificed his career because he tried to effect reforms. Gerald Ford is among those who have expressed their admiration for Chester Arthur. You wonder why so many politicians hang on to power as tenaciously as they do when they'd likely enjoy longer-lasting reputations if they were willing to relinquish it. For example, the only chapter of Profiles in Courage that I remember is the one about Edmund Ross who lost his Senate seat because he refused to vote to remove Andrew Johnson from the Presidency. Everything we know and learn of such temporal sequences in which a Don Quixote or a Huckleberry Finn is created adds to our understanding of the text, assuming such historicity does not, as in the case of Menard's Quixote, result in the creation of an entirely new and separate work. It might be an infinitesimal addition – the knowledge that Gladstone paid prostitutes to spank him admittedly has only infinitesimal impact on our understanding of Huckleberry Finn – but it is an addition nonetheless. Surmise alters understanding as well. Can we or can we not surmise that, as he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain knew or sensed the extent to which he was so far surpassing anything else he'd done? That it was destined to be the Great American Novel? I'd surmise not; otherwise he would have written less facile final chapters. I'd guess he thought Pudd'nhead Wilson was just as great but that's more guess than surmise on my part. Had righteous people succeeded in expurgating the word "nigger," that would have made for an interesting counter-text. Kip himself had written a short story as late as 2018 that began "Unhappy people are America's new niggers" but it was published the next year only when he changed "niggers" to "underclass." Of course, one alternative might have been a substitute word, as when Rinehart and Company used the word "fug" instead of the then-impermissible "fuck" when it published The Naked and the Dead. Perhaps a less offensive version of Huckleberry Finn might take its cue from this, replacing "niggers" with, say, "naggarz." A decade after The Naked and the Dead, Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders called their musical group The Fugs; similarly, hip hop groups might do well to call themselves The Naggarz were that expedient to ever be taken in future editions of Twain's book. I see where Norman Mailer wrote something called "Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100" but I haven't read it. Movie versions also massage the grasping of original texts (if any text subject to as yet unknown contingencies can be safely called "original"), the earliest (1918) that draws on Huckleberry Finn being Huck and Tom, which was directed by William Desmond Taylor. Although the film is really more a version of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it has direct bearing on the story of Huckleberry Finn because Taylor's black valet, Henry Peavy, was a suspect in his murder. Peavey, who found Taylor's body, had been arrested and charged with being "lewd and dissolute" three days earlier. A reporter named Florabel Muir tried to trick a confession out of him. On the theory that all blacks are afraid of ghosts, she lured him out to Taylor's cemetery where a co-conspirator accosted him in a white sheet, exclaiming "I am the ghost of William Desmond Taylor. You murdered me. Confess, Peavey!" Peavy was amused, especially since Taylor had had a British accent and the man in the sheet, Al Weinshank, was a hood from Chicago and he sounded like one; in fact, he was a member of Bugsy Moran's gang and later murdered in the St. Valentine Day's Massacre. Peavy did not ultimately fare well either, dying in 1931 of syphilis-related dementia. Linkage between these events and the "cadaver episode" of Huckleberry Finn, also unpublished until 1996, is unavoidable, all the more so in light of just how many unburied bodies make their appearance in the novel. In the movie version I saw as a child, Tom was played by Archie Moore, whose daughter J'Marie Moore was the first-ever daughter of a famous boxer to herself become a professional boxer. I always thought that Dizzy Gillespie was in a foul mood during the great Massey Hall Concert of 1953 because that was the night Marciano beat Archie Moore, but I was wrong, the Marciano fight actually occurred two years later. There's a 1973 Soviet version of Huckleberry Finn called Hopelessly Lost. Mark Twain was ethically opposed to vivisection. He was typically photographed wearing a white suit. There's a classic British film called The Man in the White Suit (1951). Kip doesn't think that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court holds up very well but he loves how Brigham Young is henpecked by his multiple wives in Roughing It. "Huckleberry Finn Raftsman Passage" (sic) has garnered 726 hits on YouTube as of this writing. It was posted by "zantherus" and described by same thusly: "This was an English presentation. We had to take a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and 'modernize' it. And so we took the Raftsman Passage from Chapter 16 (and omitted from many versions of the book) and instead of placing the setting on the Mississippi, we placed it on the Internet, so watch out for many references to memes and webcomics." It features malleable little clayey figures like the ones in the old Mister Bill skits on Saturday Night Live. In the traditional text, right before the Raftsmen's Passage, Huck espies the "monstrous long raft" on which the redacted episode will occur; Huck exclaims, "There was a power of style about her. It amounted to something being a raftsman on such a craft as that." That is very fine prose requiring no defense or justification, but exactly what being a raftsman on such a craft as that amounted to, I cannot really tell. 


Larry Smith's "La Fontaine's Lost Fable Brought to Light at Last" appeared in the Spring/2017 edition of Offcourse. His story collections,  A Shield of Paris and Floodlands were published in 2019 by Adelaide Books. His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published in 2016 by Outpost 19. Smith's stories have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Serving House Journal, Sequestrum, Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, and [PANK], among numerous others. His poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others. Smith lives in New Jersey. Visit


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