It may seem hard to believe, but once upon a time we lived in an America divided against itself and its citizens. I revisited that time on Wednesday night, by way of a Missouri native-turned-New Englander, Mark Twain and a good ol’ country tunesmith named Roger Williams. Yes, it was the New York City Center Encores! production of Big River.
I’d never seen the show before—and it’s been decades since I read the novel it’s based on, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the rollicking title song was still lodged in my brain, hammered there by the original production’s endless TV commercials. And of course I remembered the image on the poster: a white boy and a black man, floating in solidarity down the river.
Okay, in my memory they had equal weight in the graphic. I see that’s not so. But it’s a fair representation of the show, which I expect might have seemed a lot more funny in 1985 than it does today.
Huckleberry Finn: A time capsule of America divided
For those of you struggling to recall the story: Huck Finn is a scamp of a schoolboy living with two spinster ladies who try to give him some religion. In a world in which piety was not incompatible with slavery, the spinsters’ household also includes their very own enslaved person, Jim.
Huck and Jim escape separately from the spinsters’ house, run into and help each other, and embark on their rafting trip down the Mississippi. Huck is of course an ingratiating character, and the actor playing him sings and dances up a storm—he’s hard not to like. But every time we in the audience start to warm up to Huck, he calls Jim the N-word or considers giving him up to bounty hunters, or goes along with some con artists who convince him to chain Jim up, for the optics. He is indeed no angel and he knows it. Of course, he and the audience have different views about just what his misdeeds consist of: several times, Huck berates himself for being—oh yes, this is a direct quote—”a low-down, dirty Abolitionist.”
At one point, Huck returns to the raft and finds Jim chained and with a blanket over his head. Does he remove the blanket and comfort his friend? Reader, he does not. He assesses the situation and giggles with glee because Jim’s defenselessness allows Huck to play a trick on him. He disguises his voice and pretends to be a slave-hunter come to capture Jim. Naturally alarmed, Jim jumps up to defend himself, and almost attacks Huck.
Perhaps this scene provided comic relief when Twain wrote it in the 1880s. I don’t know, maybe audiences even laughed in the 1980s. But you could have heard a pin drop at City Center this week. That’s progress of a sort, I guess.
White privilege, then and now
Of course, musicals aren’t life. (Not even when they’re written by Stephen Sondheim.) But they can give us a glimpse into life. Twain’s novel—written in 1884 but set in the years before the Civil War—offers a commentary on the politics of Reconstruction in the South.
“By 1877‚ neither the Republican nor Democratic Party were willing to continue their standoff concerning Reconstruction‚ and in order to secure the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president‚ his party”s leadership pledged that Hayes would remove the troops and restore full state sovereignty in the South if the Democrats pledged to accept the fraudulent result of the recent election that denied Samuel Tilden‚ their party’s nominee‚ his rightful place in the White House. The deal was struck‚ and Reconstruction came to an end.”
Imagine that! Democrats rolling over—to the detriment of their supporters—after having had the presidential election stolen by Republicans. Hard to believe something like that could ever happen today.
But to my point: Neither musicals nor novels are life, but they can hold a mirror up to life. Twain dramatized the moral dilemma of people coming to understand that the law they were told to follow, the laws that would keep them on the side of Right, were themselves very wrong. When breaking the law is the only way to maintain your moral compass, well, the choice may be clear. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Big River ends with Huck’s narcissism and white privilege on full display. When he invites the newly freed Jim to accompany him on further adventures, it may sound like an interracial olive branch. But Jim looks at him quizzically. He reminds Huck of what he’d said earlier: that his first order of business on becoming free would be to raise enough money to buy the freedom for the wife and children he hadn’t seen in years. Perhaps the 1985 production played this scene differently, but at Encores I heard hurt, dismay, and resignation in Jim’s response: How could Huck have forgotten such an important detail of my humanity? Then again, how could I have expected him to remember?
It’s a time capsule America divided then—and reflection of America divided today. We don’t pay attention to the humanity of the “other”—whoever the “other” du jour may be.
We call it “white privilege” when white people ignore or minimize the challenges and experiences of people of color. Of course that’s an ironic use of the word. The privilege we should exercise is listening to each other.
So let’s climb back on Jim’s raft—together. Because we’ve still got a ways to go. Talking, listening, hanging onto our moral compass when our leaders seem to have dropped theirs in the nearest swamp. Over 130 years after Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a lot has changed about the world. And too much remains the same.
My favorite guru, Seth Godin, translates that as “Ship your work.” Don’t wait for it to be perfect, because such a state doesn’t exist.
My education primed me for this early on, because my school didn’t use letter grades. Teachers graded us on a scale of 1-100. And of course, no one ever expected to get 100 because we all—teachers and students—understood that perfection doesn’t exist. Until one of my friends produced a paper so exquisite in every way that the teacher had to give it 100—her husband, a New York Times columnist, argued her into it. It was the schoolyard equivalent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10; the grade heard ’round the world. Or at least ’round the Upper East Side of New York.
But in real life, the folks judging you don’t usually get an assist from a New York Times columnist. In that world, perfection—if it exists—is fleeting and exceedingly rare. Better not to aim for the bull’s-eye of 100 when you can much more frequently hit the fatter target of the 90s. Even the 80s is perfectly respectable. But when you don’t ship your work, you have absolutely no chance of hitting the target at all.
That’s a form of perfection, too: a perfect failure. The worst goal ever.
So don’t be perfect in your failure; be imperfect in your attempts to shine, to make a difference. Go read Austin Kleon’s invaluable book Show Your Work!—you can easily finish it in a weekend. And then do it: Show your work, warts and all.
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
I always associated that line with someone in the entertainment business—P.T. Barnum or one of the old Hollywood studio heads. But before I threw it into my recent post about the questions Brian Grazer asks, I thought I’d better Google it. And the answer just knocked me off my feet.
The original source seems to be John Lydgate, a 15th century English monk whose day job involved writing poetry for Kings Henry IV through VI. Working at court, he undoubtedly led a cushier life than he would have in his Benedictine monastery. But it’s a tough gig when you think about it: What rhymes with “Henry”?
So Brother Lydgate coined the phrase but it have resonated most for Americans when someone who knew a thing or two about displeasing people put his own spin on it. No, not P.T. Barnum (well, maybe) or Mark Twain (also maybe, per the internet):
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Sadly, he did not say this in a State of the Union address—or anything else we could consider a primary source. According to the interwebs, it appeared in a book called Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories: A Complete Collection of the Funny and Witty Anecdotes That Made Abraham Lincoln Famous as America’s Greatest Story Teller, written by his biographer, Alexander McClure.
I don’t usually trust those quotation compilations—especially if they’re intended to burnish a legend. But I would definitely use the Lincoln quotation for one of my clients, with the proper caveats.