John Seelye Critical Essays

Seelye, John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seelye, John 1931–

Seelye is an American novelist.

[Seelye's The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] is an act of literary criticism, that is, an attempt to understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by rewriting it under the pressure of the body of criticism that already exists about the book. Seelye begins with an amusing introduction purportedly written by Huck, surveying the "crickits" from Eliot to Richard Poirier:

Mr. Eliot allowed that he didn't know of any ending that was better than Mark Twain's ending, and Mr. Trilling said it was fit that I should finish up where I started out, only a thousand miles south…. Well, there was this crickit named Mr. Henry Seidel Canby, and he got hopping mad. He said that there warn't no ending worse than that ending, and that Mark Twain ought to be shot for writing it, but he had died anyway, so nobody took him up on it.

Huck, sensitive to the charges made against Twain's novel (that the ending is false, that linguistic and imaginative prudery suppresses Huck's adolescent sexuality, that the episodes don't really hang together), has decided to tell it like it was.

The approving comments about Seelye's performance by a number of critics is somewhat intimidating. Fielder, for instance, one of Huck's "crickits," believes that Seelye has "with great discretion and integrity" recovered "that … better book" which "other American novelists" believe is buried "in Twain's marvelous book." Frankly, I don't understand the claim. Much of Seelye's version is a direct appropriation of the book. Seelye, in scholarly fashion, refuses to take unnecessary liberties. He allows Huck greater freedom of speech and a richer erotic imagination—though, it must be said, that Huck is a strikingly unprecocious adolescent, sexually speaking, by contemporary standards. The furthest he gets is a bit of soul kissing with a harelipped girl and a dubious dream about snakes, oddly confirmed by the reality of the Dauphin's hand on his thigh when he awakens from the dream. Huck's language is for the most part fastidious, with only a token gesture to "authentic" dirty talk.

The real innovation in the book is the conclusion. Seelye cuts out the romantic intrigue contrived by Tom Sawyer for Nigger Jim's escape and instead allows Jim to die in flight from white pursuers, while Huck's suffering conscience is revealed as he reluctantly but surely tries to help Jim escape. The novel ends with Huck bitter and lonely, now bereft of the only friend he ever had. (pp. 661-62)

How then to decide between the two endings? Tom Sawyer's hocus-pocus in the Twain version does get a bit tedious, and it does contribute to the sense the reader has of a fairy-tale finish. But does the fairy-tale finish weaken the authenticity of the novel? Jim's freedom at the end may be wish fulfillment, Huck and Twain's, but the adventures are governed by a strong magical sense of reality. The demonic is present in the malevolence of the people on land and of the river itself when treacherous. But the hairbreadth escapes and the sudden yields of luck and nourishment from the river create an atmosphere of plausibility for the ending.

As often noted, the moral realism of the novel is in the predicament of Huck's conscience. Conscience for Huck is upholding the white law against run-away slaves, while "viciousness" (which Huck always opts for in a crisis) is the virtue of compassion for society's victim. Huck's soul is an arena in which the law, i.e., social conscience, contends with "criminality," i.e., individual conscience. The victor, despite Huck's equivocations, is criminality or individual conscience. Twain's magical sense of reality does not undermine his realistic depiction of Huck's moral equivocations and choices. The marvel of the novel is in how splendidly the magical and the realistic work together.

Seelye's ending, it seems to me, exorcises the magic in favor of a portentous existentialism (which others might call realism). Jim's freedom at the end of Twain's novel may be factitious, from a realistic point of view—but so is so much else in the novel, for instance the shenanigans of the Duke and Dauphin. Jim's freedom keeps the fantastic element alive at the end. Whereas Jim's drowning by the weight of his chains and Huck's alienation from the natural world as well as society (in the Seelye version) upset the balance between fantasy and reality in the novel. The truth of the novel is in that balance. It should be said in Seelye's behalf that he is in superb command of Huck's idiom, so that one can accept the ending though one feels it inferior to that of the original.

The propriety of the ending has been long debated and will continue to be debated in the criticism. The intriguing problem that Seelye's performance proposes, however, is not so much the interpretation of the novel, implied by the way he concludes the book, but the fact that he chose to write criticism by rewriting the novel….

A classic work as an opportunity for a tract about our times is legitimate…. It is also a fact of creative literature that writers re-enact in their own imaginative ways the literature of the past. Hemingway spoke truth when he said that all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn. But it is more difficult to discover the value of revising a classic. For one thing, the act of revision creates the illusion of a creative act, whereas it is at best a critical act. And the best criticism is the criticism which argues and gives reasons—which doesn't preclude imagining alternative endings for a work, for instance, but which does insist on arguing for them. In short, Seelye's performance is neither adequately critical nor creative. (p. 662)

Eugene Goodheart, in The Nation (copyright 1970 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 1, 1970.

John Seelye's "The Kid" is a short Western novel unlike any other you are likely to read—although, from the title on, there is no sign of apostasy from the genre. (p. 6)

"The Kid" is a curious work because it is difficult to understand the author's intentions. There is a strong sense that the set-pieces and pat violence of the genre are being used here to comment upon a society that thrives on them for entertainment. Mr. Seelye, a professor of American literature at the University of Connecticut and author of the highly-praised "The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," has elements at work in this story that parallel present-day social concerns. And he has not restricted himself to Westerns in his choice of influences; echoes from a broader range of American literature are detectable. There is never any question of competence or control in the writing itself.

But the author's deliberate reliance on commonplace effects and literary devices put this reader outside the story early on. Any interest after that was largely technical—how the parts were assembled, how conflicting forces teased each other toward climax, how surprises and shocks were prepared and placed. It's a peculiar vantage point on a novel, making emotional participation next to impossible. And Mr. Seelye may have intended this.

As he must have realized, once a reader suspects he's being manipulated, he responds by extricating himself. That was all too easy in "The Kid." The emotional ground is familiar and contrived. I found myself not caring about the story as story or as a comment on the "National Memory" mentioned on the dust jacket. Perhaps I won't know its true effect until I read another Western. If the book was intended to extinguish any urge to do so, it is a success. (p. 22)

John Deck, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 23, 1972.

Readers of this magazine do not need to be told that Seelye is an uncommonly graceful, witty and ingenious writer. His earlier book, The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a genuine tour de force, a rewriting of Mark Twain's classic as Huck might have written it had his original author not been saddled with Victorian conventions. It is a funny, ribald and entirely persuasive piece of work, utterly faithful both to the original and to Twain himself.

What Seelye attempts [in Dirty Tricks or, Nick Noxin's Natural Nobility] is in much the same prankish yet creative spirit. Within the format of Horatio Alger's "Strive and Succeed" novels, he tells the stirring tale of a redoubtable 14-year-old Southern California youth named Nick Noxin who does battle with Evil and triumphs over it, learning several valuable lessons in the process. Thus the book is both a spoof, albeit an affectionate one, of the Alger myth, and a satire of Richard Nixon. As the former it is fine; as the latter it has its funny moments; but overall it is unsatisfactory.

Certainly the idea is a good one, for it is doubtful that we have had a President more suited to the Alger mold: a solemn poor boy, a "likely lad" with his eye on the future, who by pluck and luck has gone about as far as he can go. Not since Harding and Coolidge have we had a President more given to spouting Algeresque aphorisms. Yet as Seelye understands, Nixon has molded the Alger myth to suit himself. He embraces the old-fashioned pieties for public consumption, while in his political behavior and personal finances he embraces an ethic that falls, to put the kindest possible light on it, a bit short of Alger's lofty standards. That, need it be said, is the underlying irony of Seelye's book….

Perhaps it is just the times, but it is hard to laugh at (much less with) Richard Nixon. Indignation, outrage, pity, contempt—okay; but laughter, no thanks. That, of course, is not Seelye's fault; but quite inadvertently, he reminds us how unfunny Richard Nixon is. (p. 28)

Jonathan Yardley, "Prankish Spirit," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 26, 1974, pp. 27-8.

By now the point has become fairly well accepted: it is impossible to satirize Richard Milhous Nixon and his career satisfactorily. And John Seelye's brave try [Dirty Tricks or, Nick Noxin's Natural Nobility] is handicapped by the style as well as the subject. Offhand, the smug, pious moralizing of those old Tom Swift-Rover Boys-Horatio Alger stories that so captivated our grandfathers and great-grandfathers would seem to be ideal for this particular caricature. Professor Seelye … has produced an exceptionally faithful reproduction of the genre. It is, in fact, too faithful. As narrative its pedestrian monotony defies all of the author's attempts to keep things moving by injecting special comedy devices.

Essentially, however, the problem is one of content, not form….

Professor Seelye's Horatio Alger fable doesn't work very well. Fiction pales before fact, and in the end that nauseatingly earnest self-righteousness gets to be a bore, even though it fits the subject perfectly. Makes you think less about Richard Nixon than about grandpappy and great-grandpappy. What sort of people were they to fall for such stuff? Or does that explain the mandate of '72? (p. 36)

Paul Showers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1974.