From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.” Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn…, he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’ ”
Huck Finn is for Fiedler the greatest archetype of this impulse, and he concludes “Love and Death” with a tour de force reading of Twain’s masterpiece. What Fiedler notes, and what most readers of “Huckleberry Finn” will recognize, is Twain’s continual juxtaposition of Huck’s innocence and instinctual decency with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Huck’s “Pap” is a thorough travesty of paternal authority, a wretched, mean and dishonest drunk whose death is among the least mourned in literature. When Huck drifts south from Missouri, he finds a dysfunctional patriarchal order whose notions of honor and decorum mask the ultimate cruelty of slavery. Huck’s hometown represents “the world of belongingness and security, of school and home and church, presided over by the mothers.” But this matriarchal bosom is as stifling to Huck as the land of Southern fathers is alienating. He finds authenticity and freedom only on the river, in the company of Jim, the runaway slave, a friend who is by turns Huck’s protector and his ward.
The love between this pair repeats a pattern Fiedler discerned in the bonds between Ishmael and Queequeg in “Moby-Dick” and Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels (which Twain famously detested). What struck Fiedler about these apparently sexless but intensely homoerotic connections was their cross-cultural nature and their defiance of heterosexual expectation. At sea or in the wilderness, these friends managed to escape both from the institutions of patriarchy and from the intimate authority of women, the mothers and wives who represent a check on male freedom.
Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.
A. O. Scott, “The Post-Man: Charting the final, exhausted collapse of the adult white male, from Huck Finn to ‘Mad Men’ (with stops at Tony Soprano, Beyoncé, Apatow, ‘Girls,’ ‘Louie,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Miley, Updike, ‘Weeds’…)”, The New York Times Magazine (14 September 2014), 40.