Pap Finn in the 21st century

Whenever his liquor begun to work he most always went for the govment.
— Huckleberry Finn

Ron Perlman as Pap Finn in a 1993 movie
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.

Victor Kilian as Pap Finn in a 1939 movie
Strange patriotism

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.

4 thoughts on “Pap Finn in the 21st century

  1. Astute observations as always, alarob. I often short-hand these complaints as “The gummint ain’t spendin’ my money right.” Two things come to mind: (1) What was Twain’s objective in Pap’s character? Were the readers meant to despise him or identify with him? My guess is probably a little of both–Twain was always one for encouraging the reader to look inside and be a bit disgusted. (2) Why is the redneck racist such an easy symbol for right-wing nuts? That is: why does it seem so natural for me to adopt a hillbilly accent and say “the gummint ain’t spendin’ my money right” when I want to mock the right? I wonder whether this draws us into the trap that the Republicans set up in the 1960s and 1970s by identifying their party with “real” rural Americans, instead of the moneyed interests that the party actually serves.

  2. Good questions. I agree with the implication that my “Pap” comparison doesn’t explain everything about current political discourse, in case I seem to think it does. Your point about using class and culture to divide “progressives” from so-called “rednecks” is right on target; I’ve often argued that reform-minded people ought to be making their cases in Baptist churches and Wal-Mart parking lots, not trendy coffee shops and university lecture halls. But a lot of leftists do indulge in cultural disgust, and I think most would rather be comfortable than engaged. I’m guilty sometimes.

    As I reread Huck Finn I’m also more aware of the post-Civil War context in which Twain was writing. As Huck and Jim float down to Arkansas, the feeling of decay and decadence grows. I’m entertaining the idea that Twain regarded the South as a sick society.

    I don’t think Twain intended to instill much sympathy for Pap. He’s a violent hypocrite with a weak will but a strong sense of injustice toward himself. His maxims are held up for ridicule whenever Huck recalls one of them.

    Still, and this is a subtle point, Twain is not portraying Pap’s dialect with the demeaning intent of most who portray southern dialect in print. He hated Pap, but he liked the way he talked, and he worked hard to try to get it right. He inserts this note at the front:

    In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern [we would say “Deep South”] dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

    It’s the content of Pap’s rant, not his style of talking, that Twain holds up to ridicule.

    That’s one reason I favor comparing Pap to Joe Stack instead of to a stock southern conservative from Arianna Huffington’s nightmares. Pap has a lot more in common with Joe, and other amoral anti-gov individualists, than he does with Christian conservatives, whose tolerance for racism has declined drastically since the ’70s.

  3. I like the spelling “Gummint,” as in the oiginal. The whole text should be quoted. It sounds like Tea Party logic, a la Sarah Palin to me.

    Al Marks, New Paltz

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