I should mention that there is some stunning outdoor art in Mooreland, my beloved hometown. I took the first of the two following photographs from inside my car, because there were a couple of pickup trucks driving slowly past me, giving me some eyeball I can only assume indicated ‘admiration,’ and I couldn’t get my camera to focus because of the light glinting off the gun racks in the trucks’ rear windows. They were rugged men, of a sort I admired as a young teenager. Their type has been well-documented in three of the most important novels of the 20th century, Carolyn Chute’s trilogy: The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts, and Merry Men. ORDER THEM NOW. Please don’t pretend you’re reading something more important because you and I both know that’s crap. Unless you are midway through Volume Seven of In Search of Lost Time, you have no excuse for not going to www.regulatorbookshop.com immediately. You may mention my name, although that shan’t earn you any discounts.
At first I didn’t understand the subtext of this particular artifact, if you will.
Then I remembered an interview I’d heard with Peder Zane:
J. Peder Zane has been the News & Observer’s Ideas Columnist since 2007. Before that he served for 10 years as the paper’s book review editor and books columnist. His writing has won several national awards, including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He has edited two books published by W.W. Norton, “The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books” (2007), and “Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading” (2004).
You’ll note that I merely lifted this description of Peder directly from the News & Observer website, which I hope is legal. [Editor’s note: Haven appears in both of the books Peder edited, but that is most assuredly not the reason she is quoting Peder now. Ack. That would be venal.] Peder was being interviewed by the lovely D. G. Martin on North Carolina Bookwatch – it’s like I WANT something from these people, but I really do not – and he was asked a very important question about the inclusion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. Peder asked 125 writers to list their ten favorite works of literature OF ALL TIME, which – Jesus Take The Wheel, as Augusten would have me say – is just bloody difficult. After I agreed to participate I carried around a little notebook in my pocket at all times and I had pages and pages of notes. TEN. FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE WRITTEN WORD UNTIL NOW. Peder finally had to start sending me e-mails pleading with me to cease with the notebook and make your list, thanks so much, seriously this time Haven, Yours Truly, Peder.
[Editor’s full disclosure: Haven’s list is as follows:
1. The Gospel of Mark
2. The Aeneid by Virgil
3. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
4. The Dead by James Joyce
5. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
6. Selected Tales and Sketches by Nathaniel Hawthorne
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
9. Beloved by Toni Morrison
10. Little, Big by John Crowley
As is evidenced here, she is one of the 125 who included the book in her top ten.]
D. G. asked Peder if anyone had written to him or expressed discomfort with the book, given that it has become a novel many African-Americans find distasteful and it has been banned in many school libraries, because of Twain’s use of dialect and of a timely (his time) lexicon. Finn was indeed #5 in the Top Top Ten List, and was chosen by a whopping 25 authors as one of the greatest works of literature of ever. Peder said some very smart things about the narrative itself and then described a book he had recently read about the ‘hypercanonization’ of Finn, which didn’t begin until after the Second World War, when thoughtful and humane people began to feel very unsettled about America’s treatment of African-Americans and began to want to personally identify with the heroism of the novel. [Note: One wonders why there wasn’t more discomfort one hundred, if not two hundred years earlier, by thoughtful people. The Quakers certainly were, shall we say, displeased, as was Twain himself.] [Editor’s disclosure: Haven is a lifelong Quaker.]
Now I, like Peder, could say a great deal about the hilarity of the book; Twain’s astonishing use of language; the deep and abiding humanity of the authorial intelligence. I might even argue that from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation up until Samuel Clemens began to publish, the question being posed in our literature was “What does it mean to be an American?” But with Twain the question became, “What does it mean to write an American literature?” I am quite certain this is something I learned in graduate school, so thank you, NC State University English department. Finn is ultimately an American novel in a way that another book I adore, Lolita, most assuredly is not. The two books share a great playfulness of thought and language, inside a disturbing, tragi-comical plot. (I should point out that Lolita was written in English by Nabokov and later translated by him into Russian, something that boggles the mind. The narrator is Parisian but the novel takes place in New England. It’s a novel set in America, written in English, and again: it is not an American novel.)
Back in Mooreland there was a lot on my mind as I waited for the trucks to stop circling me so I could get out of the car and get a closer look at the lawn ornament in question. My first assumption, naturally, was that I was looking at one, if not the only, Obama supporter in what appeared to be the entire county of Henry, if not the entire state of Indiana (save for my family – thank you, Mom, thanks, Melinda). Here in Durham my neighborhood – and I mean for what appears to be at least a square mile – is virtually wallpapered with Obama signs in yards. Nearly every car seems to have one of his Shepherd Fairly designed bumper stickers declaring HOPE. There are banners in windows. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a tattoo here or there. In the primaries he won in my county by 74%. That’s . . . you know. That’s definitive. But I never saw a single political sign – not for any candidate – while I was traveling widely in Mooreland, to borrow a phrase from Thoreau. Or Emerson, one of those two. [Ed. note: Thoreau.]
Here is a closer look:
As a clever viewer will spot right away, this is a poor representation of Obama. It really looks nothing like him. And that American flag, which did actually move in the breeze, is another giveaway. Here is a statement Obama made to an ABC-affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the subject of why he refused to wear an American flag lapel pin, something I personally did not realize was necessary for serving as President of These United States: “You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.
“Instead,” he said, “I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.” Later, after being attacked on Fox News, he added, “I’m less concerned with what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart,” Obama said while campaigning in Independence, Iowa. “You show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who serve. And you show your patriotism by being true to your values and ideals. And that’s what we have to lead with, our values and ideals.”
And, I don’t know. The hat’s wrong. I believe it is safe to say that wrongness prevails here; wrongness abides in this statue. And yet, like Barack Obama, I love this country and I love Mooreland, Indiana with all my heart. What I would like to see here is an attempt by a fellow Hoosier to personally identify with the heroism of Huck Finn, and his willingness to risk his life to save his friend, the slave Jim. I would like to see, in the horrifying whiteness of the artifact’s eyes, a plea for justice and racial parity in this country – finally, finally. However, scrambling back to my car and speeding out of town, I was reminded of Twain’s ‘notice’ at the beginning of his great novel:
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
RIGHT?!? Remember those trucks?
UPDATE: At #10 on my list of the Top Ten Works of Literature of Ever is John Crowley’s Little, Big, a book so good I cannot possibly begin to describe its scope or its power. Harold Bloom included it in The Western Canon, and called it a book “around which cults are built, and rightly so.” Unless you are currently reading Carolyn Chute’s Egypt, Maine trilogy, I demand that you order it IMMEDIATELY and read it even though you might find it outside your usual purview. We must grow, people. It is a work of wonder and mystery, Shakespearean in its span. I thank you in advance.