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Jeff Abernathy. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel.

Jeff Abernathy. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003. 225 pp. $18.95.

In one of the most famous bids for damnation in American literature, Huck Finn resolves," All right, then, I'll go to hell," after deciding to help Jim escape from the Phelps' farm rather than reporting the runaway slave to his owner Miss Watson. Huck's rejection of the religion that allowed Miss Watson to own the very human beings with whom she prayed at night might have been described by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience as a "counter-conversion." Huck has actually been pursuing that course since the beginning of the novel when he reasoned that if Miss Watson were going to the "good place" after death, he would rather be with Tom Sawyer in the bad. However, as Jeff Abernathy argues in To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel, "hell" only voices half the direction of Huck's moral odyssey. Like some repentant sinner at the kind of camp meeting fleeced by the King, Huck accepts salvation--sham as it may be--by returning to his culture's racist faith once he meets Tom again at the Phelps' farm. Befriending Jim and betraying Jim, Huck establishes the ambivalent pattern for over a hundred years of black-white bonding in southern fiction.

Abernathy's study of Twain and 12 later southern novelists explores this tentative rapprochement and eventual renunciation with a clarity that makes the book accessible to beginning students of American literature and a complexity that rewards veteran readers of the southern novel. He contends that Huck Finn seems so central to American literature because it demonstrates the moral confusion about race that is typical of the south and of the nation that often seems like the south writ large. Huck initially views Jim by way of the stereotypes of St. Petersburg society; however, Huck grows up as he grows toward Jim, toward the exiled black other that he must come to accept as a vital part of his own identity. And as Huck learns to accept Jim as a fellow-traveler in life, Jim grows into the most multi-faceted African American that a white American had yet depicted in literature.

Abernathy maintains that both Huck and the novel betray this evolving community when they land at the Phelps' farm. Huck allows Jim to be subjected to Tom's quixotic escape plot, and the novel allows Jim to regress to the stage black that the liberal Twain savored in his own public readings from the novel. Having traced Huck's vacillation toward Jim throughout the novel, Abernathy makes Twain's controversial ending to Huck Finn seem more integral. If Huck's decision to be damned is viewed not as a climactic resolution of his dilemma about race but as one moment in an ongoing drama of racial ambivalence, his later acquiescence to the white world of Tom Sawyer and Silas Phelps seems not at all unusual. Huck has been always going to hell and back.

Abernathy convincingly demonstrates how the southern novel has repeatedly staged the same fitful progress toward and final evasion of racial communion. His finely attentive and focused readings of a century of southern fiction establish such friendship and betrayal as a kind of American myth. Ever and again writers of the south tell how a white youth, whose birth family seems secondary or shadowy, encounters a black guide to a maturity that is eventually rejected. For example, in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, Ike gets initiated into a multicultural world through the tutelage of the African American and Native American Sam Fathers, and he comes to reject the tainted values and wealth of his white patrimony. But in his old age Ike violates this boyhood friendship when he practices the very materialism and racism that he once renounced. In Intruder in the Dust, Chick comes to see the innocence and humanity of the jailed Lucas Beauchamp, an independent black man falsely accused of murdering a member of the white Gowrie clan. Yet if Chick works to acquit Lucas, he also longs to reduce the prisoner to the racial epithet with which the boy's culture has made him comfortable. In McCullers's The Member of the Wedding, Frankie moves away from the white world represented by her doughy cousin John Henry and finds a shared solitude with her mother-surrogate, the family's African American housekeeper Berenice. However, Frankie eventually seeks to escape into a romanticized version of the white world-the wedding of her brother at Winter Hill. And when she is disappointed at not becoming a member of the bridal party, Frankie finds a more plausible but still highly idealized way of being white through her friendship with the pale Mary Littlejohn. In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons's title character finds true fostering not in the house of her abusive father or unwelcoming relatives but in the home of her African American friend Starletta. But if Ellen grows toward her very name through such black sisterhood, she can never get beyond the prejudice and condescension that mark her as one of Huck's fictional siblings.

Abernathy's reading is so persuasive that readers will quickly start extending it to other novels by white authors not discussed in his book. He tests the argument of To Hell and Back himself by considering how it might be applied to black-white pairings in the works of African American novelists. Abernathy argues that these writers, signifying on Twain, repeat yet revise the Huck-Jim scenario by exposing the efforts of liberal whites to bond with blacks. In fiction by Ellison, Wright, and Walker, whites do not grow by entering into blackness but merely seem naive, patronizing, or exploitative. Although the wealthy Mr. Dalton offers Bigger Thomas a job as the family chauffeur in Native Son, he is a guilt-driven hypocrite who has profiteered off the squalid tenement in which Bigger's family lives. His daughter Mary befriends Bigger, but her bond is a self-serving and superficial flirtation with blackness that leads not to communion but to her being killed. Like Wright, Ellison and Walker expose the pretense of white compassion. The narrator of Invisible Man repeatedly encounters benefactors whose wish to help him is undermined by a lingering and latent racism. The white Lynne in Walker's Meridian seeks to grow through helping to register black voters in Mississippi, but her benevolence conceals a primitivist view of African Americans. "With us it's still Jim and Huck Finn," Emerson asserts in Invisible Man, but these African American novelists use their "Jims" to write a critical appraisal of their do-gooding "Hucks."

Abernathy claims that the example of such African American authors has enabled several contemporary white novelists to rewrite Jim and Huck with an ironic self-awareness. Abernathy never tries to prove any direct influence for what amounts to an authorial version of the racial mediation that he has been analyzing in southern fiction. However, his discussion of works by Padgett Powell, W. Glasgow Phillips, and Ellen Douglas reveals African American characters who are independent individuals and white characters who, despite their betrayals, recognize the role of their black mentors and retain a more complicated perspective on the racially divided world to which they return. Douglas's Can't Quit You, Baby seems particularly sophisticated in the way that it recognizes race as central to the very act of narration. Even as the novel focuses on the ambivalent friendship between the white Cornelia and the black Tweet, the narrator raises questions about the stereotyping in the story being told. As if at once summarizing and critiquing the entire tradition that Abernathy has traced, Douglas recognizes the literary essentialism that hampers not just the characters in southern fiction but the tellers of their stories ever since Twain.

Although these novelists and their characters may betray the hell of their good intentions, the ambivalence testifies to the complexity of the southern psyche. It resounds with a Bakhtinian conflict of voices, and that clash has generated some of the most complex fiction of the past century. The title of Abernathy's book aptly suggests this inner tension between risking damnation to achieve racial kinship and forsaking that bond to return to the safety of the white world, but the subtitle, like the book as a whole sometimes, seems to emphasize the betrayal over the friendship. For example, Chick is criticized at the end of Intruder in the Dust for his passivity, yet in having worked to acquit Lucas, he has overcome his own deep biases, defied the community poised for a vigilante execution, and even surpassed the more liberal views of Gavin Stevens. The wonder is that, despite being raised in such a racist culture, Chick, like Huck, even ventures to "hell" at all. Pap fulminates against the accomplishments of free African Americans, the Widow Douglas perpetuates the white patriarchy through her paternalism toward her slaves, and Tom upholds the same racial hierarchy behind all of his fantastic tomfoolery. Yet Huck, like so many of his successors, cannot easily conform to the home truths of the south just as he cannot completely escape them. If conversion, according to William James, brings a unification of self, southerners seem caught in their discords and divisions even though they may yearn for the peace of the regenerate. The disappointment in reading southern fiction may be that white novelists and their characters repeatedly betray such counter-cultural damnation. The mystery and vitality of it is that they keep going to hell in the first place.

Gary M. Ciuba

Kent State University
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Author:Ciuba, Gary M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Words:1585
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