Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Huck Finn, D.W. Griffith, and the Re[Birth of a Nation]al Identity
Note: This is the project that more or less earned me my diploma earlier this month. It appeals to a more literature oriented audience, which accounts for "The Birth of a Nation" being summarized while a knowledge of the novel "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is assumed.
The evaluative debate over a distinctly “American style” in nineteenth century literature was largely reflected in the cinema at the dawn of the twentieth century. This essay will profile D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is commonly regarded as among the most prevalent literary works to carry the distinction of such a style, as suggested by its lengthy and secure presence in the canon of great American literature.
What’s interesting is that the critical response and debate of value regarding these two works, Huck Finn and The Birth of a Nation, share striking similarities. Both were popular successes upon release. For both of them, the question of value involves separating content from form and, in some way, with the inherent significance of idealism in American culture and its representation in art. For Huck Finn, the focus of evaluation is narrative form and character consistency, distinguishing its infuriating final chapters, in which Huck passively falls back under the whims of Tom Sawyer while the noble Jim is subjected to unnecessary cruelty, from an exceptional opening and body that are regarded with almost universal enthusiasm. For The Birth of a Nation, evaluation centers more on technical form. The film codified the cinema, formulating and establishing fundamental rules and techniques that have affected literally every American film since, yet critics hesitate when admitting it to the canon of great American film because of the virulent racism of its narrative, a revisionist (though ignorantly so) dramatization of the reconstruction South in which the Ku Klux Klan finally saves the southern states from the politically corrupt, sexually predatory, and generally evil African Americans who had been granted control of the land by vengeful Northerners and Carpetbaggers intent on looting and punishing the South for their secession.
The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the Confederacy’s devastating loss in the Civil War and the reconstruction that followed with great Southern sympathy. At twelve reels and three hours long (by far the longest American film of its time), “Griffith was convinced [The Birth of a Nation] would change the look of movies forever. It was the kind of grand, sprawling epic which would move films into large theaters and make motion pictures an industry for the middle class, not just the working class. It was the kind of movie which would show audiences how action scenes could be combined with long, lingering closeups and fine acting in lengthy scenes to weave a seamless tapestry on film” (Chadwick, 97). The problem, however, would be with Griffith’s nineteenth century upbringing as a white southerner. “Griffith was raised on stories of the South’s wartime bravery and home front sacrifices” (Rollins, 58).
The film is presented in two acts, originally separated by an intermission. It was based on the novel The Clansmen, by Thomas Dixon, which was misinformed by the popular Southern myths of the reconstruction that permeated the nation. Before Griffith’s film adaptation, the novel was adapted into a stage production, and it is a powerful reflection of America’s racial perspective that the play was actually more successful in the North than it was in the South.
The first half of The Birth of a Nation paints a highly idealized portrait of the South in the days preceding the Civil War, with a patriarchal and sympathetic view of slavery and an elegant depiction of plantation life. Griffith tells this story through the eyes of two families, the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North (though Griffith does cut away to scenes of historic significance, such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Surrender at Appomatox). The two families are well acquainted, sons from each having roomed together in boarding school, and during a visit by the Stonemans to the Camerons’ estate in Piedmont, South Carolina, a pair of romances form.
These two families are torn apart, however, by the outbreak of the war. In a particularly powerful moment, the two roommates, one in blue and one in gray, are shot to death simultaneously and fall upon one another on the battlefield. Griffith shoots these war scenes with an epic sense of scope and poetic realism. Film critic James Agee wrote of the sequence, “The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like…” The grandiose spectacle of the war concludes with Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox.
The second half of The Birth of a Nation focuses on the horrors the South faced at the hands of Northern Carpetbaggers and freed slaves in the wake of the war. Act II opens with the assassination of President Lincoln, who, though having signed the unfortunate Emancipation Proclamation, still served as the moderate buffer between the modest South and the radical North, who wanted to destroy the South out of vengeance. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), one of said radicals, rises to power and arranges for the corrupt mulatto Silas Lynch (George Seigmann) to run for Lt. Governor of South Carolina. White voters are disenfranchised and intimidated, and not only is Lynch made governor, but the state senate becomes almost exclusively black. Laws are passed that allow blacks to marry anyone they please, and require white civilians to salute every black official they meet. It is nothing short of tyranny.
Few blacks remain loyal to their masters. Those who don’t grow drunk on their new power and become a tyrannical majority, terrorizing and degrading the customs and traditions of the South. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), who had earned the nickname “Little Colonel” during the war, is inspired to initiate the Ku Klux Klan after watching a pair of white children scare black children by posing as a ghost beneath a white sheet. Meanwhile, Stoneman rejoices when Lynch tells him he wishes to marry a white woman, having earlier decreed him “the equal of any man here,” but when Lynch says it’s Stoneman’s own daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish) he wishes to marry, Stoneman shows his hypocrisy by responding angrily, Griffith’s way of suggesting that neither Northern nor Southern whites respected the blacks. The North simply manipulated them as a way of exacting revenge on the South for secession.
The moral center of The Birth of a Nation is corrupt, yes, and is commonly recognized even as evil, so obviously the film’s content is not the reason it is so highly regarded. “Classic or not,” wrote film critic Andrew Sarris in response to the film’s lasting influence, “’Birth of a Nation’ has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored…and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word” (rogerebert.com).
Why can’t it be ignored? Roger Ebert notes in his comprehensive essay on the film’s significance, “Griffith assembled and perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them… What are those techniques? They begin at the level of film grammar. Silent films began with crude constructions designed to simply look at a story as it happened before the camera. Giffith, in his short films and features, invented or incorporated anything that seemed to work to expand that vision. He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or establishing) shots and various medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details… Many silent films moved slowly, as if afraid to get ahead of their audiences. Griffith springs forward eagerly, and the impact on his audience was unprecedented; they were learning for the first time what a movie was capable of” (rogerebert.com).
Yes, it was acknowledged as “outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word,” but only in certain intellectual circles. Until the 1960’s (obviously undone by the Civil Rights Movement), The Birth of a Nation was not only one of the most successful films ever made, but also the most revered. Upon its release in 1915, it was a box office megahit. Its audiences, then, obviously weren’t particularly offended. Ebert notes, “Griffith and The Birth of a Nation were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all… That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values” (rogerebert.com)
Because of the clarity of its position and the indisputability of its success, The Birth of a Nation is important as a cultural benchmark, and invaluable as a technical one. “In that case, The Birth of a Nation is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the most useful statements against racism were Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn)” (rogerebert.com).
Looking at the film through a modern lens, we cringe at Griffith’s prejudices and then dismiss them, marveling only then at its technical achievements, adding to those already been mentioned above: night photography, iris techniques (showing only a small, circular portion of the frame), and color tinting (which was often used to insinuate different lighting sources, such as daytime shots (sepias and grays), nighttime shots (blue), and shots illuminated by firelight (red), among others).
Perhaps the greatest testament to the film’s significance is that its significance today is all but invisible. The conventions and techniques it pioneered are now so commonly practiced that not knowing of them would leave an inexperienced audience to think the film was remembered only for its virulent racism. Without understanding just how many aspects of The Birth of a Nation a 1915 audience was seeing for the first time, it would likely seem a tremendous bore. Today, Griffith’s subsequent film, Intolerance (1916), which was made in response to the critical backlash against The Birth of a Nation, is more commonly seen. This is largely because The Birth of a Nation no longer needs to be shown to be appreciated. We can see its importance in any movie we choose to watch.
The arguments that surround The Birth of a Nation run, in many ways, both parallel and perpendicular to the arguments surrounding Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both films suffer primarily from their conclusions, and as Huck Finn continues to grow in stature, the dilemma presented by its final chapters becomes even more pressing. That said, Huck Finn is generally criticized for a lapse in form that undermines a noble message. The Birth of a Nation, meanwhile, is criticized for a consistent and revolutionary formal achievement that amplified a deplorable message. Finally, and quite simply, evaluation of both works boils down to their depictions of race.
Leo Marx, in his essay, Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn, notes, “Today the problem of evaluating the book is as much obscured by unqualified praise as it once was by parochial hostility” (Marx, 291). If the value of Huck Finn is to be understood then it must first be distinguished, perhaps even separated, from its final eleven chapters, in which Jim is subjected to the freshly reappeared Tom Sawyer’s farcical scheme to “free” a slave who had already been freed by the detestable Miss Watson in her will - an act of charity blatantly not in keeping with the Miss Watson we were exposed to in earlier scenes. “Since the 1960’s [again], debates on the novel have shifted to the question of Twain’s treatment of race. Yet because views of Twain’s treatment of race often hinge on judgments of the ending, critics are no closer to reaching a consensus than they ever were. In fact, the status of the ending remains a topic of unresolved controversy today, and some adaptations of the novel solve the problem of the ending by rewriting it” (Graff, 277).
Of all the approaches to the stigma of Huck Finn’s concluding scenes, none are more concrete and straightforward than Ernest Hemmingway’s, who proposed in 1935 that, “if you read [the novel] you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys… This is the real end. The rest is cheating” (Graff, 277). Hemmingway’s recommendation is that we edit the novel ourselves, that we disregard elements of Twain’s original vision. This is easier to do in Huck Finn than it is in The Birth of a Nation. In Huck Finn we can amputate the final eleven chapters and be left with a novel that is, at least according to Hemmingway, ideal. But in The Birth of a Nation we cannot separate the close-ups and the fade-outs and the intercutting from the blackface and the intended rape and the heroic ride of the Ku Klux Klan. They are bound to one another. Martin Scorsese famously stated, “the cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” The Birth of a Nation contains frames in which revolutionary innovation and deplorable racism are intrinsically bound to one another, holding each others’ hands. They cannot be separated in the act of experiencing the film (though in canonizing it the two are more easily divorced, but more on that later).
All of this is a lead-in to the central dilemma that these two evaluative debates revolve around. Both Ebert’s and Marx’ essays state it explicitly:
“But is it possible to separate the content from the craft?” (rogerebert.com)
“…It is necessary to note that both critics (Lionel Trilling and T.S. Eliot, both of whom praised the ending to Twain’s novel) see the problem as one of form. And so it is” (Marx, 291).
The narrative arc of Huck Finn is made circular by its final chapter, which, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “brings us back to the beginning” (Eliot 288). However, it must jump the rails eleven chapters from the end in order to return to that beginning. “[The narrative of Huck Finn] is a jerry-built structure,” Marx says, “achieved only by sacrifice of characters and theme. Here the controlling principle of form apparently is unity, but unfortunately a unity much too superficially conceived. Structure, after all, is only one element – indeed, one of the more mechanical elements – of unity. A unified work must surely manifest coherence of meaning and clear development of theme, yet the ending of Huckleberry Finn blurs both” (Marx, 299).
Here Marx argues that Twain, in his final chapters, attempted himself to separate content from form by sacrificing the former to salvage the latter, that the consistency of his character development was perceived as being of secondary importance to the symmetry (or “unity”) of the narrative form. If this is true, and indeed it seems to be, then Hemmingway’s suggestion might not seem so discriminating. Content and form in Huck Finn peel apart eleven chapters from the end, and in these final chapters the two are clearly distinguishable, helping us to distinguish them earlier in the novel when they were more seamlessly integrated. The river for example, which had been a neutral, picturesque enabler for Huck and Jim’s adventures, emerges as a notable absence when it disappears from the narrative, and it is only here that we can clearly see what Twain had been using it as – a metaphor for fate and Huck’s acting on it of his own volition. The river suggests not Jim’s freedom from slavery, which is ensured some time before the end, but Huck’s freedom from Tom. If Twain’s narrative structure preserves symmetry, or “unity”, it does so by bringing Huck back under the spell of Tom Sawyer, at the same time that the river disappears from the story (much like Huck’s own independence from Tom) inexplicably.
The separation of content and form has long been the focal point of the two works’ respective discussion. The questions of value surrounding both The Birth of a Nation and Huck Finn suggest that critics would rather canonize only certain elements of an artwork than the whole of it. Both the novel and the film were successes upon release (though The Birth of a Nation considerably more so), so it must be noted that, as Ebert mentioned above, both works were, at least moderately, “mirrors of their time.” Does this not suggest at least an inadvertent desire to idealize America in our hunt for great American literature and film? What does it say when we would just as soon canonize the chapters of Huck Finn that criticize racism and slavery and “reveal the tawdry nature of the culture of the great valley,” while disposing, as Hemmingway recommends, of the chapters that undermine those themes, when it was the whole of the novel that sold so well in 1885? What does it say when we would just as soon canonize the technical achievements of The Birth of a Nation, while disposing of its unwillingness to recognize African-Americans as equal and legitimate members of American society, when the film was the biggest success the cinema had yet seen?
The debate of value need not concern itself with a work’s popularity, but any debate of “Americanness” surely must, as popular works serve as a reflection of the American perspective at a given time. Thus, debating the canon of great American literature or film must at least consider popularity, as it attempts to meld value with representation. Marx argues that “Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece because it brings Western humor to perfection and yet transcends the narrow limits of its conventions. But the ending does not… In the closing episode… we lose sight of Jim in the maze of farcical invention. He ceases to be a man. He allows Huck and ‘Mars Tom’ to fill his hut with rats and snakes, ‘and every time a rat bit Jim he would get up and write a line in his journal whilst the ink was fresh.’ This creature who bleeds ink and feels no pain is something less than human. He has been made over in the image of a flat stereotype: the submissive stage-Negro” (Marx, 295-96). And yet, Huck Finn sold 40,000 copies in its first year of publication (AmericanHeritage.com). Meanwhile, Ebert argues along similar lines: “It is a stark history lesson to realize that [The Birth of a Nation], for many years the most popular [film] ever made, expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views… Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal” (rogerebert.com).
Indeed, the desire to separate content from form may actually be subtly undermining the search for “Americanness” in great American literature and film. Through a modern lens, we must acknowledge the massive distance that the Civil Rights Movement has put between us and virtually all American artwork before the 1960s. To be an abolitionist in the early years of the twentieth century did not mean that one was not racist as we understand the word today, and to explicitly claim not to be a racist, as Griffith did when he said “To say that [I am racist] is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all our lives,” obviously does not dispel naivety and ignorance. Nearly twenty years prior to Hemmingway’s approach to Huck Finn’s final eleven chapters, Griffith responded to the criticisms laid against his film by editing a version of it that removed all of the Klan material. The last word on this issue must, finally, belong to Ebert: “…That is not the answer. If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all” (rogerebert.com)
Browne, Alicia R. and Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr. “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. Ed. Peter C. Rollins. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 58-68.
Brown, Robert B. “One Hundred Years of HUCK FINN.” AmericanHeritage.com. American Heritage Magazine. Vol. 35, Is. 4. June/July, 1984.
Chadwick, Bruce. The Reel Civil War. New York Random House, Inc. 2001.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. A Short History of Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP. 2008.
Ebert, Roger. “Birth of a Nation (1915).” RogerEbert.com. N.p., 30 March, 2003. Web.
Potamkin, Harry Alan. “Remarks on D. W. Griffith.” American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Literary Classics. 2008. 51-55.
Tolson, Melvin B. “Gone with the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth of a Nation.” American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Literary Classics. 2008. 140-44.
Toplin, Robert B. “Slavery.” The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. Ed. Peter C. Rollins. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 552-57.