Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, October 18, 2012


I have a vague memory of teaching Huckleberry Finn--or at least parts of it--to my seventh and eighth graders at Harmon Middle School in Aurora.  Maybe not.  I do remember, though, that when I was advising the school newspaper in 1970-1971, I named the thing The Royal Nonesuch.  Guess who'd been reading Huck Finn recently?  I do remember that students were always delighted with that scene--the King, body-painted, prancing around naked onstage, extracting bucks from boobs who thought they were going to see something quite different.

As I wrote yesterday, my first experience with Huck was during my year in fourth grade, 1953-1954.  I don't think I read it in high school (I am positive Mr. Brunelle, my American lit teacher in 11th grade, did not assign it--but we may have read selections from it--and it's also possible I read it in one of my many study halls, which is where I did read Moby-Dick the first time), but in 1960, the fall of my junior year, a film version--The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--arrived at the Hiram College Cinema, where we could see movies on Sunday nights (after CYF, of course).

Directed by Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame!), the film starred Eddie Hodges as Huck--and in a surprise casting move--boxing legend Archie Moore as Jim.  Take a look at the IMDB information on the film: I was surprised at some of the names in the cast--Tony Randall (the King) and, amazingly, Buster Keaton as a lion-tamer.  (Link)  Moore, by the way, went on to do more acting throughout the 60s and 70s.

I've not seen the film since 1960, but my memory?  It sucked.  I'll have to get it and see if memory serves or deceives (I just added it to my Netflix queue ... watch this space!)

My next memory of reading the novel is from Hiram College.  In the winter quarter of my freshman year I took English 216, American Lit II, a large lecture course, which, at the time, I was taking to fulfill my English requirement.  That winter, I had no intention whatsoever of becoming an English teacher:     My mother did that, for pity's sake!  And it already annoyed me that people told me I looked like her (what adolescent boy wants to look like his mother!?!?).  That spring ... what did I want?  I think I was thinking of elementary education then ... teaching wee ones.  I'd already learned that my daffy notions of being a professional athlete were just that--daffy.  I'd gone out for the Hiram College freshman basketball team, where I'd very quickly learned that I was a very average (i.e., bad) player.  I had no future in basketball.

And I knew baseball was out, too.  The previous summer I'd played on a team in Windham, where I'd learned that there were folks who could throw a ball so fast I could not hit it, could throw a ball so hard I did not want to catch it.

So, anyway, English 216, American Lit II.  The professor was Abe C. Ravitz, who, later, would become my favorite of all.  But that spring he scared the hell out of me.  He was so ... cerebral.  Seemed to have read every damn thing ever published.  And--my older brother, a senior at Hiram--was one of his Star Students.  Dick had been high school valedictorian and was already charging through Hiram as a Star, too.  He would win both a Danforth and Woodrow Wilson  fellowship to send him to Harvard to work on his Ph.D. in English.

I was not playing in that league.

So I sat quietly, fearfully, taking notes, doing the reading.  Learning.  Trying to hit fastballs.

Our major text--The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol 2--included Huck Finn, in its entirety, published on that tissue-thin paper that I always found so depressing.  I'd read fifty pages,and my bookmark seemed not to have advanced at all in that thick monster of a volume.

And it was then, that winter of 1962-1963, I learned a few things: (1) Mrs. Rockwell had left out a bit--e.g., the murder of Huck's friend Buck; the Royal Nonesuch, a gazillion instances of the word nigger, the drownings of the robbers aboard the sinking riverboat, and just about anything else that smacked of violence or depravity (of which there is a lot); (2) that book was about something(s)--it was not just a story of a runaway boy on a raft having adventures; (3) I was very, very, very ignorant.

As I listened to Dr. Ravitz pointing out things in the novel, I had another insight: I have never read a book in my life.

Well, of course, I'd read books--lots of them.  But I'd never read one before.  I'd never done anything but float on the surface of its narrative stream--like a dead leaf.  Or a raft.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn thus became, for me, a sort of submarine, a vessel that Dr. Ravitz began in that course to show me how to construct and operate.

PS--I got a B in that course. That term I also got B in Bio 103 (animals), an A in German 104, a B in Phys Ed (why? did I cut classes?).  Awesome!

TOMORROW: Huck Finn continues ...

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