America's Bad Boys

We're now between the important birthdays of two great Americans: Elvis Presley would have been 50 on Jan. 8, and Huckleberry Finn will be 100 (dating his birth from his American publication date) on Feb. 18.

It will seem blasphemous to many people that their names could be uttered in the same breath. "Huckleberry Finn," the novel, is the single greatest work of art by an American, the Sistine Chapel of our civilization; Elvis, to be generous to him, was a genius who could not summon forth a full commitment to his powers for more than a few minutes at a time every few months or even years.

But there are similarities. They were both smart, uneducated bad boys, Elvis and Huck, though both constantly insisted that they were really good, and that their badness was a role thrust on them by an irrational society. They both lived hard by the banks of the Mississippi River in its middle reaches, and they occupied similar places in the tripartite class system of the South, having grown up as "white trash," trafficked sporadically with "the quality" (Huck's term), and also gotten closer than was considered proper to black culture.

Why should our country, so serious and grandly ambitious, founded on such lofty and abstract principles, have thrown up as its exemplars to the world two hicks who were, by their own admission, unable to come to terms with concerns more weighty than those of unfettered boyhood? What were Huck and Elvis on to about American life that gave them such force even though they had so little to do with the things that we like to tell ourselves lie at our core?

Two ideas come to mind. The first is race relations. Huck, of course, made his raft trip down the Mississippi with a fugitive slave named Jim, the vagaries of whose legal status give the novel its moral spine. Elvis' famous breakthrough was his recording session at Sun studios in Memphis on July 6, 1954, in which he sang all- black music for an all-black record label; everything in his career proceeded from that.

Both Huck and Elvis lived in a racist culture, were casually racist themselves, but found incredible depth by venturing into the forbidden zone between the races. In Huck's 1840s, race relations was the most complex, tragic strain in American life, not least because of the possibility of racial harmony that was always on the horizon, richly promising but never quite within reach. The same was true in Mark Twain's 1880s, and in Elvis's 1950s, and it's still true today.

The second strain in the country that gave Huck and Elvis their force is the tension between the orderly, civilized life that we want so badly and the rogue impulses that we can't control. Americans are powerfully attracted toconformist, bourgeois culture -- and yet we desperately also want lots of money, sex, power, fame, more justice than society allows, and, perhaps most of all, freedom. We're unable to construct the tent of respectability in such a way that it will have room for these urges, but we can't overcome the urges either.

The sacred texts we like to quote, such as John Winthrop's "City on a Hill," don't admit to this conflict; Elvis and Huck, on the other hand, embodied it effortlessly. Huck couldn't stand polite society but couldn't find a pleasant place outside of it. Elvis was lascivious, rebellious, a drug addict -- and a deeply believing Christian and good Republican. He couldn't help himself. Onstage he moved without missing a beat from nice young man, to winking, leering cutup, to master of passion and pain, to pious husband and churchman.

The crucial moment in "Huckleberry Finn" comes when Huck decides against doing the "right" thing by turning to Jim, and exclaims, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." The crucial moment in Elvis's life came when he stopped joking around with his sidemen, leaned into the mike at Sun studios, and sang with all his heart "That's All Right, Mama" -- also the "wrong" thing to do, in that it was a blues song by Arthur Crudup, not the approved fare for a young white country singer. It's the moment when American life is likeliest to become art -- when the official strictures exist, when they're right enough to be sorely tempting, but they're finally rejected, as they must be for the truth they deny, in a dramatic breaking-away.

None of this seems to have much to do with the official business of the nation, as played out in Washington. It won't be mentioned on Inauguration Day. Too bad. Over 200 years our public life and our soul have grown apart, and the lack of a connection leaves both the poorer.