CRB: Aristocracy in America

This morning we conclude our preview of the Spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) with an essay on that most American of American novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The essay is by Power Line 100 member Paul A. Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Professor Cantor begins by noting the distance between the popular perception of Huck Finn as a children’s novel and its deeply disturbing content:

In popular culture, Huckleberry Finn conjures up images of the fresh-faced All-American boy, played by cute child stars like Mickey Rooney, Ron Howard, or Elijah Wood. Yet in terms of the events and characters it portrays, the book has all the warmth and sweetness of a film noir. It seems like a cross between Johnny Appleseed and Dial M for Murder. For years I puzzled: how could such a classic story of America be so dark and misanthropic?

By working through this paradox Professor Cantor sees the novel as Twain’s meditation on the fruit of democracy:

If you are going to give people freedom, you are going to have to live with how they misuse it. If a nation is dedicated to giving people fresh starts, a lot of them will make false starts. A country based on political idealism will end up with a lot of people cynically exploiting the idealists. Huckleberry Finn portrays both the American dream and its nightmarish underside.

Professor Cantor presents Huckleberry Finn as a deeply political work, plumbing the depths of American society to discover what is good and bad about the rambunctious democracy. It does so by presenting a fantastic, mischievous, and well-nigh Socratic dialogue between aristocracy and democracy, revealing their virtues and vices and giving the perceptive reader the means by which to judge between them:

[I]n the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.

Print out and read “Aristocracy in America” at your leisure in its entirety to discover how Cantor works through the seeming paradox that is his starting point and arrive at this conclusion about Twain’s great American novel.


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