On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?