Marginalia: The Complete Poems of Robert Frost

In some circles, old books have been relegated to the scrap pile – good for nothing more than stylish decor for bookshelves (seriously, this is a thing…) or for crafting material. While I would certainly agree that there are some books that are worth little more than tinder, regardless of age or condition, I believe that older books can and do hold immense value.

Older books are often fine examples of the craftsmanship that was commonplace long ago. It just wasn’t as common to find quality literature in cheaper paperback form, like is the case today.

Older books also have HISTORY. I just love the idea of a book having been read, studied, and loved so many years ago. I know I have so many books in my personal library that are, to me, treasures, and I imagine someone long ago cherishing these older books in just the same way.

To truly make a book yours, to have a conversation with the author, often requires jotting down notes, writing commentary, underlining, referencing other works.

Part of the pleasure in discovering older books while booking (yeah, that’s a word now) is finding a previous owner’s notes. I am still kicking myself for not grabbing a pocket edition Shakespeare play (A Midsummer’s Night Dream if I recall) that was filled with ancient pencil notes throughout.

I love my copy of The Poetry of Robert Frost (left) – it’s paperback and has a 1979 publication date. But I recently found an somewhat older hardback, with a most recent copyright of 1964. This was a well-loved copy, with extensive notes throughout.

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A minor detail, but one that adds that “something” in a hardback.

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IMG_0578 The introduction, entitled The Figure a Poem Makes, and signed R.F. The previous owner’s notation drew me immediately to the paragraph on the left. “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” sigh.

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The previous owner went through and notated all poems that were included in another student addition.

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One poem that isn’t included in this collection is pointed out.

IMG_0581The previous owner, at several points, make notations like this, connecting words to reinforce the relationship between them.

IMG_0582I have had a harder time deciphering some of the other commentary found throughout. The script is a little too sloppy.

IMG_0583Notations in Two Witches: The Witch of Coos. An interesting reference to the 1946 two-act opera The Medium, written by Gian Carlo Menatti.

IMG_0584Here in A Star in a Stone Boat, heavy notations. Connections made between words, and several illegible comments. I wish I could make out what the owner had to say about this poem!

IMG_0585Even the year of publication for each collection was added in by the owner.

I have so enjoyed going through this copy of Robert Frost and seeing how well-loved it was. And I am even further motivated to keep my own marginalia neat enough for future readers!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my high school literature class in the mid-1990’s. When I was putting together my 2016 reading list, and was looking to add a banned book, I decided to add Huck Finn to the list.

The audio book, narrated by Elijah Wood and available through Audible is fantastic.

I did a little light research into its record of banning and censoring – and it came in at #14 on the ALA’s list of banned or challenged books for the decade between 2000-2009. Two reasons Huck Finn is often challenged is due to the offensive language throughout – it was written in the vernacular of that particular time period – and the thought that it promotes or condones racism.

While some may argue the negatives of reading Huck Finn outweigh the positives that can be gotten, I disagree.

The book is written in the first person, from Huck’s point of view as a young white boy growing up in the antebellum south. The language of the novel reflects this. Editing the novel to remove offensive terms, as one publisher has done, removes the authentic feel of the book. While the N word is certainly offensive and is generally avoided, there was a time where it was in common use, and the novel reflects this usage.

As to the criticism that the book promotes or condones racism – I think again we have to read the book from the viewpoint of a boy growing up in this society. During this time period, slavery was an accepted institution and the second class status (or worse) of African-Americans was part of the culture.

Huck Finn gives us a glimpse into a time period where having an entire group of people kept, sold and traded as slaves was an acceptable institution. In fact, to be against slavery was looked down on.

When Huck first finds Jim, after he fakes his own death and is hiding on the island, he is horrified to find out that Jim has run away. When Jim confesses that he has run away, he is afraid that Huck will tell.

“Well, I b’lieve you, Huck. I – I run off!”

“Jim!”

“But mind, you said you wouldn’t tell – you know you said you wouldn’ tell, Huck.”

“Well, I did. I said I wouldn’t, and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a lowdown Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum – but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t a-going to tell, and I ain’t a-going back there, anyways. So, now, let’s know all about it.”

(Chapter VIII: I Spare Miss Watson’s Jim)

We get to observe how Huck’s thinking evolves as well. After he plays a joke at Jim’s expense, Huck feels awful and the relationship between the two changes.

“En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.”

Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to take it back.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n*****; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d ‘a’ knowed it would make him feel that way.

(Chapter XV: Fooling Poor Old Jim)

We read about Huck’s internal struggle as he fully realizes his role in helping Jim escape slavery. Huck struggles because the morality of the day said that a slave was a man’s property, and by helping a slave run off, you were basically wronging that slave owner; it was stealing from him or her. Moreover, a slave should know his place, and to consider running off from an owner, well that was just a slap in the face.

“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 stayed 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 Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could ‘a’ paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so – I couldn’t get around that no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her n***** go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you could treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done.”

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free state he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just to see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free… 

Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this n******, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children – children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, “Let up on me – it ain’t too late yet – I’ll paddle ashore at the first light and tell.” I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone. 

(Chapter XVI: The Rattlesnake Skin Does Its Work)

When Huck pushes off, intent to go ashore and do the “right” thing and report Jim as a runaway slave, Jim says something that weakens his resolve.

“Pooty soon, I’ll be shout’n for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck. I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.”

I was paddling off, all in a sweat to tell on him; but when he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. I went along slow then, and I warn’t right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn’t. When I was fifty years off, Jim says:

“Dah you goes, de old true Huck; de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.”

Well, I just felt sick. But I says, I got to do it – I can’t get out of it.

(Chapter XVI: The Rattlesnake Skin Does Its Work)

His first opportunity to tell comes moments later when a skiff pulls up and two men searching for runaway slaves question him. When asked about whether his companions back on the raft are white or black, he falters.

“I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough – hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying and up and says:

“He’s white.”

(Chapter XVI: The Rattlesnake Skin Does Its Work)

When the men leave, and Huck is back on the raft with Jim, he has to deal with what he’s done.

They went off and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little ain’t got no show – when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on, s’pose you’d ‘a’ done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad – I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do which ever come handiest at the time.

(Chapter XVI: The Rattlesnake Skin Does Its Work)

When Jim ends up captured near the end of the story and is facing a return to slavery, Huck is faced with a decision. He feels like this might be Providence letting him know that his wickedness in helping a slave escape did not go unnoticed. He determines to do the right thing and write a letter to let Miss Watson know where she can find Jim. But as he thinks on all the adventures he has had with Jim, and how much Jim had done for him, he realized he couldn’t do that. He knows what the “right” thing to do is, but finally comes to a firm decision.

“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.

(Chapter XXXI: You Can’t Pray a Lie)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I believe Huck wasn’t just a character, but something more, a representation of a people that was living in a time where the morality of the day stated that slavery was acceptable and right, and going against this institution was morally wrong. We see Huck go through a process of rejecting this morality, and coming to terms with doing the “wrong” thing. Sometimes we have to have the resolution of young Huck Finn, and when faced with something that is “right” but in our heart of hearts we know is wrong – we have to just say “all right then, I’ll go to hell!”