Whenever his liquor begun to work he most always went for the govment.
— Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s character “Pap” Finn, the father of Huckleberry Finn, is an angry man. He’s angry at his son for giving him “sass” and disobeying him. He’s angry at the whole town for looking down on him, instead of respecting and fearing him as he knows they should. He’s angry at the meddling Widow Douglas for giving his good-for-nothing son a home and an education. And he’s angry at the law for withholding money he didn’t earn but feels entitled to.
Pap works out his anger by drinking and running riot whenever he can afford to. Or he takes it out on his son, lashing him without mercy as often as he can catch him. And when these fail him, he puts his anger into words. His rants are worthy of a comments thread on a 21st-century blog — and no less topical. He hated everyone he knew, but in his rants “he most always went for the govment.”
Mark Twain, field recorder
N.B.: The passage quoted below reflects colloquial speech by a white American in the 1840s, including six instances of the most vicious racial slur in the English language. I agree that the “N-word” has no place in any kind of contemporary speech or writing. I have reluctantly retained it in the quoted passage, but with the vowels replaced by asterisks. This word is highly combustible, and by handling it this way, I mean to avoid either sanitizing it or erasing its historical significance.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain favors us with a verbatim sample of Pap’s political speech. Twain had an acute ear for American colloquial speech, which he lovingly and painstakingly reproduced in print. So the passage from Pap Finn is worth quoting almost in its entirety. Like other speeches Twain wrote for characters in Huckleberry Finn, it’s probably as close as we can come to a sound recording of ante-bellum American English.
As to the content: If you compare Pap’s expressions to the kind of commentary we all deplore in the blogosphere, and especially in anonymous comment threads, then it’s not too hard to find some resemblance. Allowing for the gap of 150 years or so, I think the resemblance argues for continuity. Maybe there is a longstanding oral tradition behind many of the rude effusions that gush from a million Web pages.
You can choose to be heartened or depressed by that thought. I find it heartening to think that political discourse hasn’t really coarsened since the 1800s. It’s just that Pap Finn, instead of hollering, has learned to type.
Call this a govment!
Let’s turn to Chapter 6 of Huckleberry Finn and lend Pap an ear. He starts out something like Joe Stack. Both men painted the failure of their own self-serving schemes as cases of innocent suffering caused by a remote, unfeeling government:
Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him—a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment!
Pap knows that his own son took steps to keep his father from getting his hands on the money in question. But it would weaken Pap’s argument to mention anything but favorable evidence. As on talk radio, the approved method here is to harp on grievances and slights with the indignant zeal and narrow scope of a three-year-old child — albeit with a broader vocabulary and better enunciation. Usually.
That ain’t all, nuther. The law backs that old Judge Thatcher up and helps him to keep me out o’ my property. Here’s what the law does: The law takes a man worth six thousand dollars and up’ards, and jams him into an old trap of a cabin like this, and lets him go round in clothes that ain’t fitting for a hog. They call that govment? A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.
Thatcher, something of a limousine liberal, connived with the rich Widow Douglas to invest Huck Finn’s wealth on the boy’s behalf, and to keep the father from spending the money on his own entertainment. Pap sees this as an elitist plot to keep him from the lifestyle to which he, as a red-blooded American, is naturally entitled. That’s what he means by his property and his rights.
It’s a species of resentment that also rages strongly in the listenership of the Excellence in Broadcasting Network. If not for those people, every red-blooded white man would have his own boat and a place on the lake.
Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all. Yes, and I told ’em so; I told old Thatcher so to his face. Lots of ’em heard me, and can tell what I said. Says I, for two cents I’d leave the blamed country and never come a-near it ag’in. Them’s the very words.…
It’s a strange breed of patriotism that’s so often threatening to abandon the country. Reaganites used to tar leftist critics of their man’s foreign policy as “the blame-America-first crowd.” I’ve often thought the label fits much better on the right, with its morbid fears and pessimism about the future.
Nothing inspires more pessimism than the nation’s darkening racial complexion. This has been so for a long time, as Pap reminds us.
Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free n*gg*r there from Ohio—a mulater, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.
A black man with expert knowledge and disposable income. How sinister. Imagine if a man like that ever got to be president!
And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home [in Ohio]. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a’coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that n*gg*r vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote ag’in. Them’s the very words I said! they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I’ll never vote ag’in as long as I live.
Pap and his intellectual heirs are always willing to contemplate the future ruin of the country with pleasure. Again, it’s a funny kind of patriotism — a kind that thinks the power of the state is best used to secure the privileges of native-born white men.
You can still see it stated explicitly in the comment threads of the 21st-century Web: The United States of America is a white man’s country, by God, and anyone who tries to change that is an enemy by blood.
And to see the cool way of that n*gg*r—why, he wouldn’t have give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this n*gg*r put up at auction and sold?—that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the state six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now—that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free n*gg*r till he’s been in the state six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a-hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free n*gg*r, and——
With that, Pap barks his shins on a tub of salt pork and loses his balance, interrupting his political speech. But you probably heard enough.
To hear more of the kind, just point your web browser to — ’most anywheres, I reckon.
- Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn @ Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
- The Big Read 2010: Tom Sawyer. This is what got me re-reading Mark Twain.