- Reviewed by
Robinson defines "bad faith" as "the reciprocal deception of self and other in the denial of departures from public ideals of the true and the just." "Bad" here is relative: certainly we cannot live without tacit social contracts that require a collective suspension of disbelief toward the fictions that hold us together. But Twain also showed us the destructive power of those forms of artful manipulation that are wholly respectable because they help maintain unacknowledged social evils. Not only does this kind of deception take others in; it finally displaces the truth, even for the deceiver himself. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are pillars of the great American tradition of stories that tread the thin line between the entertaining utility and the frightening amorality of con games. Tom and Huck both find ways to use deception to evade the rules of bad institutions. Their techniques have been well schooled by the example of St. Petersburg's leading citizens. At the same time, that education excludes any knowledge of where the line is crossed into participation in deceptions that are neither funny nor conducive to survival. Tom's escapades in his book and at the end of Huck's constitute a scary success story: if society tolerates a "spectrum of unacknowledged and sublimated deceits" as the "price of stability and equanimity," then Tom has worked his way up to his rightful place as the town's representative hero.
We agonize over the dark initiation of Huck Finn into the world of deception even as we celebrate his ability to turn cruel deceptions back on the deceivers. He cannot escape assimilating into his own thought all the racist assumptions of mid-nineteenth-century American civilization. We forgive his running away because we are still in that trap and do not know how else to get out: "our impulse to exempt Huck is a symptomatic bad-faith recapitulation of our hero's willful self-deception."
This last quotation illustrates one thing that will make Robinson's book interesting to some readers and irritating to others: he uses his textual interpretations to support moralizing. At least he does not preach at us—he lets Twain do that. Devoted mostly to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and incorporating analyses of Twain's later fiction, the book is twice as long as it needs to be; and I am not sure that Robinson has pushed into really new territory, because most of his themes have been worked out in recent times by Hamlin Hill, James Cox, Louis Budd, Gary Lindberg, myself, and many others. But Robinson writes pretty well, and he cuts deep. He has brought the subject into a sharp, true focus. One of the best things I took away is a determination to include Tom Sawyer in my next Twain course. Robinson shows that the novel is held together not so much by the presence of a central character as by that character's ordering of events: [End Page 661]
"Tom Sawyer's plotting serves to emplot Tom Sawyer." "Now, that's something like!"