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Volume 79

Roll on down to watch Vanguard’s 'Big River'

Published (Volume 76, No. 29)

Big River is rolling down the river to UTM.

Performances will be at 8 p.m., Friday, April 16, and Saturday, April 17, and at 3 p.m., Sunday, April 18, in the Harriet Fulton Theatre.

Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students and seniors and may be purchased at the door or by phone after April 12 by calling 7402.

‘Big River’ was written by William Hauptman and adapted from Mark Twain’s novel of the same name.

Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ has always been controversial.

In 1885, the year it was published, the Concord Public Library banned it from the shelves. Over a century later, in 1988, it was removed from the required reading list and taken out of the library in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.

Despite its’ detractors, however, the novel has always found an audience. Upon hearing that the Concord Library planned to exclude the book from its collection, Twain wrote that the controversy would “sell 25,000 copies for sure.”

He had the right sentiment, but he may have undershot a bit: the novel sold 50,000 copies in its first three months alone, and it has gone on to sell millions of copies over the last 120 years.

It is one of the most frequently assigned American novels in high schools and colleges, and comes as close as any book to achieving the somewhat cryptic status of “the great American novel.”

Ernest Hemingway, for instance, despite his reservations about the ending of the book, claimed that “all modern American literature” came from Huck Finn.

Certainly, the way the story is told - through vehicle of Huck’s barely literate vernacular - makes a sharp contrast to most nineteenth century fiction, but the story itself also deals with modern issues and themes, such as questions of personal identity, moral individualism, and social resistance.

Many readers perceive Huck Finn as a great anti-slavery novel, but these readers fail to acknowledge that even though Huck and Jim’s escapades on the river revolve around the issue of slavery, the novel was published 20 years after the thirteenth amendment ended slavery.

So why would Twain write about a dead issue? The fact remains that slavery was anything but dead in the 1880s. The failure of Reconstruction left the South in a shambles, and the ex-Confederates took extreme measures - within and without the law - to wrest political control out of the hands of Yankees and freedmen.

The “enslavement” of Jim at the end of Huck Finn is not unlike the increasing legal and social strictures placed upon African American citizens in the 1880s, 1890s and beyond.

Huck’s struggle to reconcile the ideas of racial hierarchy ingrained in his upbringing with his increasing awareness of Jim’s humanity is one of the great conflicts in American literature.

His occasional trips to Sunday School have taught him that abolitionists will go to “everlasting fire,” but Jim has come to be one of the best friends Huck has ever known.

His decision to “go to hell” and “steal Jim out of slavery again” marks his break with the past and the “civilization” of southern society, and it indicates his entrance into a world unknown to most of Twain’s readers: the world of racial parity.

Just as the Mississippi River has changed its course over the
years, the pattern of interpretations of the novel has changed with time.

It has been read as a realistic slice of mid-nineteenth century southern life, a chronicle of the social and ethical maturation of an interesting character, an homage to American individualism, a tribute to the democratic ideal, a satire of religious and social hypocrisies.

The perceptions have changed, but at bottom - in the cool water where one might find refuge from the wheel of a steamboat -lies a “rattling good” book.

Dr. Jeff Miller is an assistant professor of English.