Kenzaburo Oe Finds a Hero in Huckleberry Finn
Ruminations On America, Harvard Square, 1965
Kenzaburo Oe first read Huckleberry Finn as a boy in a remote Japanese mountain village. The United States and Japan were at war at the time, and his mother told him that if his teacher caught him with the book, he should tell her that “Mark Twain” was the pseudonym of a German author. As Oe recalled in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The whole world was then engulfed by waves of horror. By reading Huckleberry Finn I felt I was able to justify my act of going into the mountain forest at night and sleeping among the trees with a sense of security which I could never find indoors.” Twain’s novel would make its presence felt throughout Oe’s own books—which often center on marginal people and outcasts, on existential heroes sickened by civilization who choose to “light out for the territory”—including his new novel, Death by Water.
This is a translation of the second half of an essay that Kenzaburo Oe wrote after visiting the U.S. in 1965. It was first published in the September 1966 issue of the monthly Sekai (The World), the most liberal magazine of what was then the liberal publisher Iwanami Shoten.
* * * *
The summer of 1965, one morning, about the hour when the already sharp sunshine was further heating the air that was dry and not hard to bear, I was in America—Cambridge, Massachusetts—facing the subway entrance at the center of Harvard Square, the plaza in front of the university, and the newsstand surrounding it selling foreign magazines and newspapers, not to mention America’s domestic magazines and newspapers, waiting for the moment for the trafﬁc signals to change so I might cross the paved crosswalk. I was holding to my chest a large paper bag with salami sandwiches and bread to take to the sea that afternoon and eat with friends, along with orange juice and a bottle of bourbon whiskey. In my trouser pocket I had a small edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It felt bulky against my thigh through the lightweight summer trousers. Sweat, heat. But with that inciting mood of a summer morning that invigorates human beings, and at the same time, with a sense of exhaustion and dullness, I was enjoying the whole morning, as I chatted with a French woman writer who was already beginning not to be young, who stood alongside me also staring at the trafﬁc signals.
Like me she was a member of Harvard University’s international summer seminar, and in accordance with the unwritten rule of the seminar I was speaking with her in English. I should have been able to talk with this French writer in French, too, but the fact that we were, quite naturally, speaking in English seems quite important in recreating my mood of that morning. I had arrived in America just about 50 days earlier. That ﬁrst evening, as I mixed with the crowd of the same plaza, I had gotten a tumultuous, slipshod impression from the racial diversity of the people who were around me. And I had felt as though excluded from that tumultuous momentum. For all that, just about 50 days later, I, like my French comrade, had blended into what I had once felt was tumultuous, was using the same language as that of my surroundings, and was existing there, without any particular sense of strangeness. Furthermore, we two outsiders were sharing a conversation critical of the political trends of that country, in the language of that country. The atmosphere that allowed us to do such things naturally had widely and deeply pervaded that university town.
I had just talked about America’s bombing of North Vietnam, had said that General LeMay had been identiﬁed as a leading force pushing the hard-line policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the said General LeMay was the person who had actually, locally, made the plan to drop atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was also the person who had received the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government on account of his contribution to the expansion of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. About this General LeMay, several months later I read America’s veteran radical and independent journalist I. F. Stone writing in detail, touching on the heart of the matter: LeMay had said solemnly in a recent AP interview that Americans could accomplish “our mission” better by the use of the Air Force than by the use of the ground forces. By “our mission,” he means: North Vietnam, you better surrender; otherwise, we’ll burn your country up. “[LeMay] reminds us that in the Korean war his ‘immediate suggestion’ was to ‘go up north and burn the principal cities.’” He believed that that would end the war extremely fast, with minimum damage. It was also his prescription for winning in Vietnam.
“He reveals that for three years—that is since 1962—he had been urging in the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the way to end the war in Vietnam was to let them know that ‘we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.’ This is one of his favorite phrases; in World War II he boasted that the Japanese air raids ‘were driving them back to the Stone Age.’ The Stone Age is a metaphor for the days when brute force reigned supreme; instinctively LeMay harks back to it.”
General LeMay’s obsession with the term the Stone Age demonstrates not so much psychologically as directly, behind his tactical imagery, the weight of his experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the slowly ballooning stockpile of nuclear weapons. Our government had decorated a man like that. Concerning Hiroshima’s protests, someone responsible in government said thus: “My house was burnt during an air raid, too, but that was twenty years ago. To go beyond love and hate and award a medal to a soldier who bombed various Japanese cities during the war, that’s just ﬁtting for the people of a large, relaxed, good nation, isn’t it?” I once wrote about this dull-wittedness, saying this was moral wasteland, that it was a betrayal of human beings in Hiroshima. Yet I, too, did not go so far as to realize that these words and the decoration would have the effect of encouraging General LeMay psychologically, yes, and giving him conﬁdence in the bombing of North Vietnam. When we think that, in thinking of dropping napalm bombs on North Vietnam to burn human beings, General LeMay, instead of keeping in the back of his head the images of the ghastly corpses and those alive and suffering, had nothing but the memories of the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun and the easygoing people of the victim nation, should not we Japanese have before our eyes the reality of a conspiratorial relationship actually in progress at present toward a certain, most terrible thing?
When I talked about General LeMay’s roles of today and yesterday, such as these, the French woman writer told me that several days ago, on the 20th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a disk jockey at a local station of this Commonwealth of Massachusetts sang “Happy Birthday, Hiroshima Day! Happy Birthday, Hiroshima Day!” and was ﬁred on the spot. And so I was asking her, “Did you hear the broadcast yourself or did you read about it in a newspaper?” when four American youths in a Volkswagen with the top down (like a deep boot that can carry human beings) swept by just inches away from us, each shouting words of derision at us. The words I was able to understand were something like, Hey, did you learn your lesson? and a phrase that I had thought had become extinct, yellow peril. Also my woman friend was ridiculed, though of course it was not the fact, for having sexual relations with the yellow race.
And so I suddenly remembered that morning was the morning of August 15 and, realizing that I had been utterly unconscious of it till then, I felt deeply disturbed on both counts. Then, the bundle of elastic threads of various, mutually contradictory remembrances and emotions concerning America, and the enormous sense of humiliation, sense of liberation, and the sense of freedom on that day twenty years earlier and since, ﬁlled me overwhelmingly, with almost blinding force. At the same time, caught between the expression of the woman friend who, standing next to me as she was, pretended not to have noticed the ridicule from the Volkswagen and the voice of nakedly sexual derision, I felt my face turning totally red. The phrase yellow peril, just as it was, reminded me of the picture of a bespectacled buck-toothed ugly midget ﬁgure that was an exact caricaturization of the word Jap that cheerful American college students had shown us on Castle Hill in a regional city. I was looking at myself through the eyes of that American comic artist. I who until then, lost in the crowd of Harvard Square, had not felt the slightest discomfort, now found myself alone, standing there as a bespectacled buck-toothed midget, an ugly Japanese, like a comic strip come to life. And I, with no evidence whatsoever, felt as if such this comical version of myself was trying to seduce a white woman standing next to me, and was most upset, involved as I was with sexual feelings as it were. I felt truly, deeply, isolated and helpless, in a sort of terror. I thought I wanted to run into the entrance of a dark, tumultuous bar just behind us and hide among the alcoholics who inhabited it from morning on. But at present, now that the signals changed to the green light shaped like a pedestrian, and the French woman writer, having taken one step into the paved street, was looking back at me in puzzlement, it was obvious that I had to cross; and so I felt even more intimidated and, looking out at the newsstand for magazines and newspapers at the center of the plaza as if it were something dazzling, my legs feeble, body clumsily bent, comically yes, I was about to step forward . . . when, as if utterly unrelated to our conversation up to then, my friend (her language had switched, deﬁantly from English to French) said furiously: “I can’t understand why you see a ﬁlm like Dr. Strangelove and don’t get put off by the way wars and nuclear weapons are treated in it.”
* * * *
Concerning this experience on that summer morning in Cambridge that lasted only a few seconds, I am led in two directions. Toward two books, I can also say, but about the latter book in particular, I must try not so much to simply think about a single book as to link it to my broader, more essential sense of America.
The ﬁrst book is what The Saturday Review called “a novella of a hair-raising racial protest like a scream in the dark” that the black writer Chester Himes published in the year the war ended: If He Hollers Let Him Go. It was in particular the impression of one passage that was evoked for me. There is a black youth. The war begins, and he is working at a shipyard; he is in love with a daughter of the prosperous black elite, and he is a youth with potential who plans to go to college once the war is over. But from a certain moment on, he ends up becoming a completely scared human being. Or he ends up noticing that he is a human being who has been completely scared throughout his life. And so the black youth comes to repeat obviously desperate behavior, comes to be hunted as the perpetrator of an attempted rape through the trickery of a white female worker, to be sent into the military in the end: it’s that kind of story. Why did the youth end up becoming so scared, how did he realize he was a human being who had been scared all his life?
When the war started, the youth saw Japanese Nisei in Los Angeles being sent to the camps. “Maybe it had started then, I’m not sure, or maybe it wasn’t until I’d seen them send the Japanese away that I’d noticed it. Little Riki Oyana singing ‘God Bless America’ and going to Santa Anita with his parents next day. It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word. It was thinking about if they ever did that to me, Robert Jones, Mrs. Jones’s dark son, that started me getting scared.”
That is, that morning in Cambridge, I was identifying myself with the two of them, the Japanese Nisei being sent to a concentration camp and the black youth who began to be scared by having premonitions about his own identical fate. Of course, no one came to take me up by the roots. But for nearly 50 days until that morning, since my arrival in America, I had not been scared for a single moment, I had not looked at myself through the caricaturing eyes of an American, that is, through the most sharply objectifying eyes that the Japanese in America could suffer. When I was looking at TV with seminar colleagues in the common room of the dormitory, even when more or less caricaturized Japanese appeared on the screen, no one paid attention to me, and I couldn’t care less, either. In other words, for nearly 50 days, I had had the illusion of blending into American society like a colorless solvent. But my experience that morning (to be fair, it was the only experience of that kind that occurred during my four-month stay in America) gave me, at least in the world of my consciousness, an opportunity to imagine the presence of the eyes of Americans looking at me with the most sharply caricaturizing intent, an opportunity to reﬂect on it.
Now, the other book that I, guided by the experience of that morning, began to think about anew, is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which happened to make my summer trouser pocket bulky at that moment. That moment, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my trouser pocket, truly like a weight, stabbed vertically into the depths of my consciousness. To me Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the only book by an American that I had loved to read through the time before and after the summer experience, going back 20 years from that moment, but until then I had not thought that it had any special meaning, nor had I thought about why I had cut it off from my extremely complicated complex toward America through the time before and after the summer 20 years earlier. I came to think, I must examine anew what on earth had been the kind of image of a human being Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had continued to give me. Why was it that, for me, Huckleberry Finn was for some reason a different type from an ordinary American? Isn’t Huckleberry Finn probably the most popular hero for boys, in today’s America as well? And also, have I not found, so often, among the heroes of the writers of postwar American literature who must have grown up reading Huckleberry Finn, the heirs of Huckleberry Finn? In The Adventures of Augie March, in The Deer Park, in From Here to Eternity, in Catcher in the Rye, in Rabbit, Run. The 20th-century Huckleberry Finn who adopted a car dashing through the highways that cover the whole American land, instead of a raft ﬂoating down the Mississippi River, is the hero of On the Road. Every time I traveled by car in America, had I not understood that today’s car gives you a spiritual and physical experience similar to that of a raft one hundred years ago. About this, I must write in greater detail on another occasion.
In the midst of the war, ducking the network of enmity, loathing, contempt, and terror of everything American, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had reached me. And in no time Huckleberry became the ﬁrst hero I acquired through literature. I cannot remember who my benefactor was who gave me the Iwanami paperback edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, translated by Nakamura Tameji, but by thinking that it was my late father, I was able to create the best memory of my father.
To the story of Huckleberry, by order of the author, the chief of ordnance, 1st Infantry Regiment, Royal Guard, England, added a caution: “Persons attempting to ﬁnd a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to ﬁnd a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to ﬁnd a plot in it will be shot.” So I became passionate about neither the motive, nor the moral, nor the plot, but about one image. It was a terrifyingly fascinating image of Huckleberry Finn going to hell. It is natural for a wartime child to think more often about death than a peacetime child. The teacher of my national school often tested us thus: “Come, tell me, if His Majesty the Emperor tells you to die, what will you do?”
And the expected answer was, I will die, sir, I will disembowel myself and die. Of course, I was sure in some way that His Majesty the Emperor was unlikely to come all the way to a village in a valley like this looking for me, a dirty little thing, but in repeating this solemn lie about death so many times, it seemed that I ceased feeling unrelated to the word hell.
After his cavern exploration with Tom Sawyer (he is also a unique hero, but I was never attracted to him in any way), Huckleberry was adopted by a strict and mannerly widow, and removed from his drifter’s life. But Huckleberry is terribly tormented by that life. “The widow’s sister tried to educate him. Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad, then, but I didn’t mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.”
In the end Huckleberry set out on a journey with the black slave Jim ﬂoating down the Mississippi River on a raft. The same Jim presents him with a profound dilemma, and Huckleberry ends up facing his own hell.
Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it staid with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run him off from his rightful owner, but it warn’t no use.
It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my ﬁx exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.
After such troubling thoughts, Huckleberry, who writes a letter secretly telling the rightful owner that a white man has happened to capture Jim, must make the ﬁnal decision on whether to send it or not. “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
Compared with Tom Sawyer who is inside the social order, Huckleberry, who is outside society, freely chooses hell for his own sake. In doing so, Huckleberry must have enabled our side, Japanese children, to observe him as a free hero who is not glued to America, in any of the eras inﬂuenced by fear or hatred of America, or of the total dependence on America. Furthermore, now, I thought I often discovered in the culture of today’s America something resembling an attitude toward nature deeply chiseled with superstitions, following the antisocial jump of Huckleberry of the age of great forests and rivers. Needless to say, I do not say this in the schematic conception of human beings as hip and square, according to the fad of the Beat Generation. That is, this does not concern the superﬁcial amusement of ﬁnding the heirs of Huckleberry in hippies and calling all the other average Americans, all together, squares, along with Tom Sawyer. Rather, in my clear and extensive impression I might even call classical, I felt, in today’s America, for example on Fifth Avenue, in New York, the existence of Americans with their destitute hearts listening to the calls of nighthawks and the barks of dogs in the depths of forests. I think I will think about it anew as one way the Americans who are the descendants of Oscar Handlin’s so-called “uprooted” (The Uprooted) can exist in the great forest of ultra-modern civilization.
Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Sekai ( Tokyo), 1966. Reprinted from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Copyright © 2010 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, NY, www.loa.org. All rights reserved.