What I Learned from Pascal Covici, Jr.
Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
© 2010 The Mark Twain Circle of America/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Mark Twain Annual
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 5–9, November 2010
How to Cite
BERKOVE, L. I. (2010), What I Learned from Pascal Covici, Jr. The Mark Twain Annual, 8: 5–9. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-2597.2010.00030.x
- Issue published online: 3 NOV 2010
- Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
You see, the winning ticket is to nail a man's interest with Chapter 1, and not let up on him till you get him to the word ‘finis.’ That can't be done with detached and scattered sketches; but I’ll show you how to make a man read every one of those sketches, under the stupid impression that they are mere accidental incidents that have dropped in on you unawares in the course of your narrative.”
—Mark Twain Letter to Dan DeQuille, 1875
I was a young assistant professor of English at Colorado College in 1964 when I first encountered Pascal Covici's scholarship as I began to write “The ‘Poor Players’ of Huckleberry Finn,” my first article on Mark Twain. Before that, in 1952, when I was much younger and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I studied the novel in a class taught by Leo Marx, one of the most dynamic and influential professors of my student career. It was in that class that he presented his soon-to-be-famous interpretation of the novel in which he argued that the last ten chapters of the novel represented a failure of nerve on Twain's part when the theme of freedom, which had so ennobled the first three-quarters of it, was not sustained in the disappointing play acting of the “evasion” chapters. As a consequence, he argued, the novel was not thematically or structurally unified. I had learned to read literature closely in Marx's class but his interpretation did not convince me because the novel seemed to me to hold together better than he thought. But I could not oppose his interpretation then because it was strongly argued and I did not know enough to offer a counter-argument. I put the matter on mental hold for the next dozen years, during which time I served in the Army, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and began my teaching career. All that time I kept thinking about the novel and reading whatever new scholarship came out. A break came for me in 1964 when I read Covici's exciting Mark Twain's Humor: The Image of a World (1962) and at the same time happened to learn that manumitted slaves were called “free Negroes” but were legally “free men of color,” a very different thing from being free. I didn't realize it at the time but the combination of those two happenings would hugely influence my career.
Reading Covici's book I was particularly impressed by his observations regarding the importance to Twain's technique of the hoax, and especially the central role hoaxes played throughout the novel. The following passage exemplifies this:
Hoax based on human love of sensation underlies the book as a whole; from the town's reaction to Huck's “murder” to “The Royal Nonesuch,” this is clear enough. The ending must be read as a hoax, not simply as parody and burlesque; and yet it is as simple—and simple-minded—burlesque that the ending is usually received. Occasional kind words have been spoken about the “formal” justification of allowing Huck once more to take a back seat to Tom's excited and phony outlawry, and readers have recognized the ironic juxtaposition of Huck's real adventures with Tom's labored effects; but neither consideration excuses the superfluity of detail with which Twain loads down the concluding portion of his book. In the last ten chapters of Huckleberry Finn, however, the hoax becomes important enough to support the weight of narrative stasis Twain burdens it with.
This hoax is effective in a variety of ways, and on two distinct levels. Indeed, it is really two hoaxes in one: a gradually unfolding succession of deceits perpetrated against the other characters in the book by Tom and Huck, and a sudden blow aimed at the reader's opinion of himself when the author deliberately withholds and then reveals his—and Tom's—mendacity in fooling the reader, along with Huck, into thinking that Tom Sawyer will help to free a slave. The hoax against the reader … derives its force from the reader's assumption that the author (or narrator) is “on his side.” In addition, the reader's reaction is heightened through his expanding sense of what Tom's escape plot means to the other characters in the book, and also through the evocative power of the final chapters as they call to mind important incidents and conflicts developed earlier in the book. (160-61)
Reading this passage taught me a great many things, some all at once, others over time as I worked with the text and gradually came to appreciate how skillful and subtle Twain could be. The most dramatic revelation of the passage for me was that Twain was deceiving the reader “into thinking that Tom Sawyer will help to free a slave.” Up to that point I had been one of those readers who had been fooled. Suddenly I realized that Twain was not just relating events but was engaged in trying to deceive the reader. My interest in Twain as an author went up, and also my respect for I realized that there was a depth in the novel that I had completely overlooked, and I was able to shed some of my considerable store of naiveté that had led me to take everything at face value as entertainment.
When I began reviewing the character of Tom it became apparent to me that Tom and Huck were not only not the same sort of person but were actually diametrical opposites; Huck was serious about freeing Jim but Tom was just using his friends to indulge his fancy for play-acting romantic roles he had picked up from the books he read not wisely but too impressionably. The fact that Huck, the narrator, never figured this out meant, in turn, that he was not completely reliable; that is that although he did not lie to the reader, he nevertheless did not always know or understand what was happening—around him or even to him. Although this insight may now be commonplace to scholarship, it was not obvious to me at the time, and my reading of Covici's book was where and when I learned it. The significance of it to me was that I realized that I had to re-read the book, this time not relying on Huck's explanations but on my own insights and judgments.
This in turn led me to read the “evasion” chapters more carefully and deeply. Covici's insight that those chapters functioned as hoaxes took me a step farther and became a springboard for my own independent studies into hoaxes. Even if he were correct in his implication that Tom would not actually help to free a slave, Jim appeared at the end of the novel to be free, even without Tom's assistance. Covici's argument that the entire novel was based on a hoax directed against the “human love of sensation” was convincing to me as far as it went, but it did not go far enough. Marx had argued that the freeing of Jim was a device Twain used to end the novel on a happy note, but that in dropping the realistic probing of what it meant to both Jim and Huck to be free, and how they could be free when they returned to St. Petersburg—a community which supported black slavery and would be hostile to a freed black and a white boy treating each other as equals, and to the black man's securing the freedom of his family—Twain had turned the book into children's literature by its romantic “and they all lived happily ever after” ending. Covici's interpretation helped somewhat to rescue the last ten chapters from the charge that it consisted of pointless burlesques and parodies, but it still did not meet Marx's objection head on with a replacement theme that pulled the book together tightly. Covici had convinced me that there was more unity to the book than Marx had found, and had given me an incentive to find a central theme that was in the nature of a hoax that was “important enough to bear the weight” of the novel. The rest was up to me.
Fortuitously, I learned at the same time I was reading Covici's book that Jim as a manumitted slave would have been called a “freedman” but legally would have been an “f.m.c.”– a “free man of color”– and that an f.m.c. was not even remotely as free in any of slave states as any white man. (Twain would later, in chapter 13 of Connecticut Yankee, allude to the free man of color as a “sarcasm in law and phrase.”) After an intensive burst of research I found enough unimpeachable documentation on this point to relieve me of any doubts on the matter. And, by another coincidence, I was teaching that semester Joel Chandler Harris's powerful and moving story, “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” about the tragic life of an f.m.c. I saw that the story was directly related to Huckleberry Finn and cast considerable light on the real life choices of a former slave who became an f.m.c. Everything came together for me while I was re-reading Huckleberry Finn for my class and came upon Tom Sawyer's ringing cry in chapter 42 when he learned that Jim had been captured during the escape attempt and was going to be treated as a runaway slave: “Turn him loose! he ain't no slave; he's as free as any creatur that walks this earth!” Suddenly, I realized that Tom said more than he meant or understood. Jim was as free as any creature, but only because no creature was really free. Twain saw the f.m.c. as a symbol of human existence; humans could be regarded as free and think themselves free, but in reality all were slaves to the will of a slave-owner God. There was the central theme in the form of a hoax. It was powerful and shocking once realized but it was a theme that could be abundantly supported throughout the novel.
This is not the time or place to repeat the proofs that I subsequently developed over the course of most of my teaching career, or the deeper conclusions I reached about Twain's central beliefs that those early insights led to. This essay is intended only to recall and affirm the beneficial influence on me of Pascal Covici. But now that I think about it, I could include Leo Marx in that category as well. Both Marx and Covici had some basic qualities in common. Both were inspired by good literature and passed that feeling on in their classes and their works. Both of them had a high standard of what constituted literature, and especially of what constituted good literature. Both of them were honest and straightforward in their characters and thought. The reason that Marx was critical of Huckleberry Finn was his conviction that the book was being accorded a status it did not deserve and for reasons that were not compelling. It is my view that Covici did not disagree with Marx on fundamental assumptions but only on the analysis of the novel. Marx argued that the novel was not unified; Covici argued that it was; but both were in agreement that a work of literature has to be unified. And, finally, both were widely read in general culture as well as literature and were able to draw upon this broad background to help them in their interpretation of literature. Literature for them was not created in a vacuum, nor was scholarship. Text was primary but it existed in a context.
I had the pleasure of later meeting Pascal Covici at meetings of the Mark Twain Circle, of which he was president, and establishing a friendship with him. When I saw how important integrity was to him, and how he took delight in scholarship for its own sake and not because of its agreement with his own views, I found additional reasons to admire him. It has been important to me to have had Pascal Covici as a mentor, trailblazer, and model. When some of my later research corroborated additional but then unproven insights in Mark Twain's Humor I had further cause to appreciate how perceptive he was, how sound he was as a student and teacher of literature, and how good that book was and still remains. Now, in light of the important lessons his scholarship taught me, I am moved to say “May his memory be for a blessing.”