Yesterday in class students asked what the deal was with Emmeline in the Grangerford and Sheperdson epidsode in The Adventures in Huckleberry Finn.It’s a good question and I’m glad they asked it; it indicates to me that they’re wondering about the book in ways that will lend them insight. Simply asking why a writer includes something in a book admits that the writer has crafted the work intentionally and that the book has a purpose deeper than just to narrate a series of events.
Our main way of approaching the text for an answer is to explore the crazy cycle of the feud. We need to notice how Huck, our ever adaptable straight man, wants to adapt to his new setting and fit in with the Grangerford family. He admires them all but admires Colonel Grangerford in particular, as he is a “gentleman” who is “well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse” (117). I find it helpful to realize how this might bring to mind Aunt Alexandra from To Kill a Mockingbird–the idea of being from a good family is an important thing once again, and Huck explains that even Pap had always realized this, even though “he warn’t no more quality than a mud-cat, himself” (117).
So this high class, well bred family is one we should admire, as far as Huck is concerned, and he gives us a detailed description of their house to prove his point–all high class belongings, showing the Grangerfords are rich folk. Then we slowly learn how things work for the Grangerfords with the feud. Along with Huck, we learn the definitions of cowardice and honor: honor is what Buck explains, that you pick of one of theirs when they pick off one of yours. Cowardice is shooting from behind a bush where your victim can’t see you. A grown man shooting an unarmed child is not cowardice, because the child should have known better than to be unarmed, and that man was willing to face his own pursuers with courage.
On the one hand, as we discussed in class, we can see the reasoning behind all this. Buck’s shooting at a man from behind a bush does strike us as dishonorable. But the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons are locked into their own special crazy cycle, as we mapped out on the board with something like this:
You kill one of ours, we kill one of yours, and it can’t end unless it ends as Buck describes–with everyone being dead. Yet Huck doesn’t understand this fully, and he feels responsible for all the killing that takes place after Miss Sophia runs off. As we pointed out, however, Huck’s actions are not the cause on a broader level; the larger problem is that rationale the two families use for continuing their feud–the crazy cyle. Tied up in the middle of that, insulated from outside explanations of reality, masked by their high-class status, are the Grangerfords’ ideas about honor and courage. For us as readers, it’s like we are moving along a line above that cycle and can see it all as lunacy; but for Huck, he’s trapped in the middle and in his adaptability he’s been drawn slightly into the circle.
What about Emmeline? I am convinced Emmeline is a kind of clue to us as readers or a display of the family’s inability to see beyond their insular crazy cycle. They live this sick life of revenge and death, a life so dramatically twisted that it generates the kinds of moments Huck experiences when he first arrives at the house, having guns pointed at him and having to creep inside with his hands up. All that life is capable of producing, it seems, is death. Even in life, death is the dominant theme, as we see with Emmeline and her pictures and poems–the pictures amusingly (and darkly) all ending with “alas” and Emmeline rushing to beat the undertaker to anyone’s death. The family mourns her passing (more than it mourns the death of other children, a couple students pointed out) but doesn’t see how they have caused the morbid preoccupation of this potentially talented girl. They don’t see anything strange about Emmeline’s art work, just like they don’t see anything strange about listening to a preacher talk forcefully about brotherly love while keeping a gun handy in case they have to shoot folks on the other side of the aisle. They are well bred and low class, blind to their own faults, a picture of hypocrisy.
We as readers recognize their inconsistencies and blindness, however, and by now my class is probably getting wary about what Twain wants us to think and wondering if he’s mocking us. Is he mocking us? I think the answer is, sort of; if in our own lives we grow too serious about the rationale behind revenge and honor codes, we are his satirical target. I plan on sharing an article with the class in a couple weeks that will help us examine something called the honor codes of the South, and we’ll see that Twain had a serious disagreement with the line of thinking such codes engendered. I haven’t shared the article with my class yet, as it discusses a lot of material we haven’t read, but I think it will shed some light on this particular episode.
Ultimately, I am convinced the scene is a sharp indicator of Twain’s focus in the second half of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: with satirical scorn, he chastises what he sees as wrong with the world, and most particularly with the South. He’ll make us laugh but if we are his targets, we likely won’t be laughing all that much . . .
Thanks for reading.
Whether real or symbolic, the family and the relationships within family units are a frequent theme in Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Because there are many parallels between the characters and events within Huck Finn and the events and individuals surrounding Twain’s life, an examination of the biographical and historical context surrounding the novel’s composition reveals that Twain was influenced both socially and personally by the declining moral and social conditions of the family in the late 1800s. The events of the period induced him to indirectly voice his concerns, cautions, and beliefs through the perceived innocence of a young boy and his adventures.
In Twain’s work, the “family” refers not only to traditional family units but also to any group of individuals who live in proximity to one another and interact with each other in a way that mimics the workings of an actual family. Among the many circles of people in the novel, the major groups that function as “families” are Huck and Jim; Huck, Jim, the Duke, and the King; Huck and Pap; Huck, the Widow Douglas, and Miss Watson; the Grangerfords; and the Phelpses. Some of these, such as the Phelpses, are traditional family units and they function as families quite clearly. However, other groups, such as Huck, Jim, the Duke, and the King, are not actually related by blood, but nevertheless exhibit family-like roles and actions. Throughout the book, Huck Finn interacts with these family units and either takes on the role of a family member, especially with Jim, the Duke, and the King, and the Phelpses, or he observes the family from the perspective of an outsider, as with the Grangerfords.
To more fully understand the development of Twain’s characters in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author’s personal family life, his beliefs about the family, and his friends and acquaintances must be considered. Twain’s experiences with the family were generally positive. He grew up in a stable, loving environment, with parents who supported his ambitions and inspired in him a sense of morality, kindness, and justice, especially his mother, Jane Clemens. Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s official biographer, writes that she was “an outspoken, keen-witted, charitable woman” with “a heart full of pity” (14), but had a firm hand when the occasion required it. Although Twain’s father, John Clemens, was a serious man who “seldom devoted any time to the company of his children” and “rarely laughed” (Paine 8), he was hardworking and placed great importance on caring and providing for his family. Later in Twain’s life, after marrying Olivia Langdon and having three girls, he, for the most part, enjoyed a loving, contented marriage and family life. Paine writes of Olivia Clemens that “no children had more careful training than hers, no husband more devoted attendance and companionship, no household was ever directed with a sweeter and gentler grace or with greater perfection of detail” (163). Regarding Twain’s marriage, William Dean Howells, a close friend of Twain’s, remarked, “Marriages are what the parties to them alone really know them to be, but from the outside I should say that this marriage was one of the most perfect” (qtd. in Paine 163).
The relationship of Huck and Jim is the ultimate demonstration of Twain’s ideal family relationship. Although their “family” lacks the conventional roles of the father, mother, and children, it nevertheless “embodies an ideal of community that highlights the shortcomings of the actual families and society in the novel.”
Throughout his life Twain interacted with many individuals who spawned ideas for his novel and helped shape the many characters in Huck Finn. According to Walter Blair, Twain once stated, “I don’t believe an author … ever lived, who created a character. It was always drawn from his recollection of some one he had known. … [or] from the blending of two or more real characters” (270). David Fears writes that “[Twain's] boyhood days … were filled with adventures, escapades and personalities[,] many of which were to find their way into his many novels years later” (6).
Twain based Huck on a childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, “a model for rebelliousness in the face of all authority” (Fears 9). Paine says of Tom, “[He] was the son of an indigent family, exactly as pictured in [Huck Finn]: a ruin of rags, a river rat—kind of heart and possessing the priceless boon of absolute freedom. He could come and go as he chose; he never had to ask for permission; he never went to school; he could sleep anywhere” (23). This description is clearly noticeable in the person of Huck, especially following his escape from Pap’s cabin in the woods. Even more analogous to Huck’s character and family is the fact that Tom Blankenship’s father was also known as “old drunken Ben Blankenship” (Paine 23), in similarity to Pap, and Fears notes that “the Blankenships were infamous drunks and ne’er-do-wells” (9).
In addition, the character of Jim, Huck’s Negro friend, is indebted to a former slave of Twain’s uncle John Quarles, Uncle Dan’l, whom Twain knew in his boyhood and to whom Twain owed his strong appreciation of the black race. Regarding Emmeline Grangerford’s character, Blair writes that “Twain had [long] been fascinated and delighted with the comic possibilities of lugubrious poems about death” and after reading the obituary poems produced by many American humorists Twain “was destined to work this vein” (210). Blair suggests that the individual who most influenced the creation of Emmeline’s person was an obituary poet and singer named Julia A. Moore. Similar to Emmeline Grangerford, Moore composed “sentimental” songs and poems “inspired by her memories, her reading in books and newspapers … [and] by the deaths of neighbors” (Blair 210).
Emmeline’s father, Colonel Grangerford, originated from more than one individual, including a character from one of Bret Harte’s books, Colonel Culpepper Starbottle, and Twain’s own father, John Clemens, who, like the colonel, “often wore a blue swallow-tail coat with brass buttons,” was “very tall … with a long, thin smooth-shaven face,” had a look that “could stare his family into obedience,” and “had elaborate manners” (Blair 215). Blair also records Twain reminiscing about certain personal experiences that generated the writing of the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Huck Finn. In his early adventures on the Mississippi River, Twain encountered a feud between the Darnell and Watson families who, like the feuding families in Huck Finn, each lived on either side of the Mississippi River. During the feud, several instances took place, all parallel to the Shepherdson/Grangerford episode, in which a man shot a twelve-year-old boy from the rival family, the men of the families attended church armed with shotguns, and one family ambushed the wagon of the other family while both were returning home from church. In the case of the two con men, the Duke and the King, who join Huck and Jim in their river journey, they bear resemblances to two men of Twain’s acquaintances: respectively, Jesse Leathers, a distant cousin of Twain’s, and Charles C. Duncan, the captain of the ship on which Twain sailed on his expedition to the Holy Land in 1867.Continued on Next Page »
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Shrum, H. M. (2014). "Mark Twain's Portrayal of Family and Relationships in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(03). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=872MLA
Shrum, Heather M. "Mark Twain's Portrayal of Family and Relationships in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 6.03 (2014). <http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=872>Chicago 16th
Shrum, Heather M. 2014. Mark Twain's Portrayal of Family and Relationships in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 6 (03), http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=872Harvard
SHRUM, H. M. 2014. Mark Twain's Portrayal of Family and Relationships in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse [Online], 6. Available: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=872