Smiley’s People

Rethinking Huck and Jim.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton
By Jane Smiley
Knopf; 448 pages; $26

One thing you have to admire about Jane Smiley, no matter what you think of her fiction: She puts her money where her mouth is. Two years ago, Smiley published an essay in Harper’s–a manifesto, really–claiming that readers have been conned into seeing Huckleberry Finn as the “definitive” American novel when it’s actually a mess and a moral disaster. Among her charges was the claim that the bond between Huck and the escaped slave Jim was an evasive white fantasy. Twain, she says, doesn’t care what happens to Jim; Jim is just a dumb sidekick and the novel a precursor to the kinds of buddy movies in which a sweet black cop played by Danny Glover stands aside while a white hero played by Mel Gibson saves the day.

What’s more, Smiley wrote, readers have always sensed that the happy ending is slapped on, a cop-out; probably the book would have dropped out of sight if certain self-promoting writers hadn’t started talking it up early in this century. These literary bullies–T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and later on, Lionel Trilling–were invested in a single, skewed view of American writing. They believed that its great theme was the struggle of the individual wandering alone in the wilderness, and they turned Huck into a mascot for the Lonely Searching Man. What made Smiley especially angry was how these canon-builders dismissed all the 19th century novels that didn’t conform to this guy-in-nature pattern (unless the novels were written by Henry James). They decided that the once-beloved social novel–Smiley’s prime example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin–was a weepy, feminine waste of time.

I remember reading Smiley’s article at the time and blanching. One hates to use a sexist’s favorite word, but she came off as shrill. On the other hand, if you set aside her excessive loathing of Twain, some of her points are hard to argue with. She’s, for instance, that until recently, men who wrote about alienation stood a decent chance of being taken seriously by critics, while a whole genre of social novels written by women got pooh-poohed as earnest and sentimental.

Is it possible, or even desirable, to revive the lost tradition of social fiction? In The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Smiley has supplied a test case. It’s set in the Kansas Territory, shortly before the Civil War, when the area was an anarchic battleground between Northern abolitionists, poor pro-slavers from Missouri, and speculators out to make a buck.

The eponymous heroine was born and raised in Quincy, Ill., and orphaned, just as the novel opens, at the age of 18. Lidie is tall, homely, a tomboy–and somewhat anachronistically aware of all the 19th century clothing and marriage customs that infantilize women. She’s a burden to her extended step family, so when Thomas, a serious-minded man from Massachusetts, passes through town on his way to Kansas, she marries him within the week. She knows he’s running guns for abolitionists (blond, effeminate, and brave, he’s the Northern counterpart to Gone With the Wind’s Ashley), but she’s totally unprepared for the hardscrabble life she’s chosen. The first few chapters are gripping re-creations of the hideous journey to Kansas and the daunting task of building a cabin from scratch while drunken strangers jeer at you and threaten you with rifles.

F rom her diatribe in Harper’s, you’d think Smiley was out to revive Stowian melodrama, with its coincidences, angelic children, and neat distinctions between good and evil. Wrong. At every point, Smiley upsets the usual expectations. Coming from the no man’s land of Illinois instead of North or South, Lidie represents the realist’s take on slavery–in her heart she’s against it, but she finds the abolitionists smug, intoxicated by their own abstract words. Instead of love at first sight, Lidie’s romance with cold, fussy Thomas is slow and confusing, and halfway through the book, just as she’s prepared to investigate the possibility that they’re in love, he’s suddenly murdered. (I might not have revealed this plot point if it weren’t announced on the book jacket.)

Here the story turns into a kind of absurd picaresque: Lidie, driven by rage at her loss, disguises herself as a boy reporter in hostile Missouri and sets out to find Thomas’ killers. But Smiley blocks her path with various obstacles, until Lidie ends up broke and dying on the side of a road, and a slave-owning family takes her in. Unwilling to give up the notion that she has a mission, she embarks on a final escapade: She tries to liberate Lorna, the family’s angry, put-upon slave-maid.

A t which point, it becomes obvious that Smiley isn’t writing a traditional “social novel” at all. She’s writing a sendup of Huckleberry Finn. The parallels are obvious. Lidie equals Huck, and Lorna equals Jim–Lidie even has a mischievous young cousin who’s a stand-in for Tom Sawyer–and the whole point of the book is to shine the harsh light of reality on Twain’s irresponsible fantasy. Unlike Huck’s adventure, Lidie’s ends in disaster. Lorna is caught and sent down the river to a violent fate in the South. And Lidie learns, learns, and learns her lesson: She’s been selfish and. Desperate to escape the plantation where she’s been recuperating but lacking the willpower, she has selfishly accepted the defenseless Lorna “as my reviver, felt the cool, firm sensation of her hand on my neck as a promise.”

The ending of Lidie Newton is quite stunning as parody. But for someone so bent on unmasking pieties, Smiley is not above her own kind of sanctimony. In its curious, modern way, this novel is a sermon. It attacks sentimentality, ideology, and piggish male heroism, preaching ambiguity in their place. “No one could describe what was true in Kansas and Missouri,” the newly mature Lidie announces at the end. The message is deep–Smiley may be the subtlest didact ever to write a novel. But was it worth taking down Huckleberry Finn for? Only if it serves as a building block to a better Smiley novel in the future, one in which her brilliant lessons of disillusionment fly faster, because they’re spurred on by a bigger, warmer imagination. This would be the real coup: to unite Smiley’s cold, corrective realism with the joy–still unmatched–of that increasingly misunderstood writer Mark Twain.

If you missed the links within this review, click for the of how critics dismissed a “whole genre of social novels written by women … as earnest and sentimental.” And’s a comparison between Lidie Newton and an early Smiley novel, Duplicate Keys.