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Commercialism sold Huck Finn character down the river, Twain scholar says

The retired chairman of UCLA's English Department has a collection of tchotchkes, gadgets and artwork that show how the 1884 classic has been romanticized by fans, the public and even the author.

February 18, 2010|By Bob Pool
  • Tom Wortham's collection of cutesy memorabilia has a serious purpose.
Tom Wortham's collection of cutesy memorabilia has a serious purpose. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Students experience a raft of emotions when they float into one UCLA professor's office.

They giggle and gush over Tom Wortham's hundreds of glass figurines, fancy dolls, sheet music and scale models of Huck Finn.

Wortham's shelves and file cabinets are stuffed with Mark Twain memorabilia tied to the all-American author's best-known work, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

The retired English Department chairman insists he has no love for the knickknacks, toys and Huck-themed gadgets and artwork stacked in corners and mounted on the office's walls.

"I always get a shudder when a bright undergraduate comes in and says, 'Oh, how cute!' The only thing that is allowed to be cute in the world is little children, preferably in still shots," he says with a grin.

Wortham says he has spent thousands of dollars on what he admits is "junk" to show students how commercialism sold one of American literature's most enduring characters down the river.

To many, the image of Huck and Jim the runaway slave floating lazily by raft down the Mississippi River depicts this nation's escape from the grip of slavery.

Even that's ironic, according to Wortham: "The greatest fear of a black man back then was to be sold down the river into even worse slavery at the plantations."

A close reading of the book shows that the supposedly warm relationship between Huck and Jim has been manipulated over the last century, he said.

"Jim was an encumbrance for Huck. There's been a great deal of romanticizing about the bond that the two of them form on the voyage down the river. But Huck never realizes slavery is wrong."

Was Huckleberry Finn a racist?

"Yes," Wortham said. And so was Mark Twain.

Twain used the "N-word" 206 times, according to Wortham. "Each time that word is used is calculated" by Twain for its shock value for an audience that at the time was unaccustomed to literature written in the vernacular, he said.

People should "take off the commercial eyeglasses" when they read Huckleberry Finn.

"Let's not try to see it in terms of what we wish Mark Twain had written," he said. "Go back and look at the text. It's as relevant today as it was in 1884 when the book was published."

Students who have closely read "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" get it when they visit Wortham's office on the second floor of UCLA's Humanities Building.

Diane Cordova, a senior English major, said she understands what Wortham is trying to show.

Still, "I was amazed when I walked in and saw it all. It's endearing and charming," Cordova said. "It's evidence of someone's lifelong passion."

Wortham said Twain himself was to blame for the commercialization. "He sold his name. He was one of the first people who became a celebrity and endorsed products. In 1905 he trademarked his name. In 1908 he formed the Mark Twain Co."

He says he began his Mark Twain collection in the 1980s when he noticed a set of cuddly Huck Finn Cabbage Patch dolls -- complete with make-believe "adoption papers" -- for sale at a Neiman Marcus store in Beverly Hills. "I thought they were the funniest things I'd ever seen. They were $45 apiece. But I had to buy all three of them."

Soon he found himself on the lookout for other examples of Huck's commercial makeover. He found other dolls that not only infantilize Twain's character but feminize it as well. He was soon collecting Hucks on rafts, Hucks with fishing poles, Huck Finn teddy bears, Huck Finn lamps, Huck Finn window curtains, Huck Finn bedspreads and juice glasses, coffee cups, coloring books and movie posters. He found himself the owner of a Huck Finn slingshot, a Huck Finn necktie and a six-pack of Huck Finn commemorative Coca-Cola bottles.

On one of his office shelves, across from a framed Mark Twain flour sack and a plastic bottle of Huck Finn soap ("probably the last thing Huck Finn would have wanted") sits a pair of Huck Finn whiskey decanters.

"The idea of putting the son of a town drunk on a whiskey decanter has its own ironies," Wortham said.

Jim is rarely depicted in the artwork or figurines. When he is, he is sometimes shown as a white boy. In a few cases, the imagery is of Huck floating on his raft with a dog, despite the fact that children back then are known to have been extremely scared of dogs.

Wortham, 66, taught English at UCLA for 37 years before retiring in 2008 from full-time work. He now lives with partner John Kauffman on a country lake near Thornville, Ohio, when he is not in Westwood teaching seminars as a professor emeritus. This summer he plans to pack up his Huckleberry Finn collection and ship it to Ohio, where he will use many of the items to illustrate a book about the commercialization of Mark Twain. Eventually, he will give away the pieces, he says.

But before that, Wortham is helping select items from the collection to be displayed March 1 through April 30 in UCLA's Powell Library Rotunda to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Twain's death.

In the meantime, he still prowls the Internet for items he does not have. He has paid from $10 to $500 for each.

"I just got this Huck Finn nutcracker. And this teddy bear was $350," he says with a laugh. "When I bought that, I told myself, 'You really have to get some help.' "

bob.pool@latimes.com

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