This is a “what-if” post, a conjecture. It’s based on a photo that appeared on my Twitter feed. I saw the photo and instantly thought the man on the left to be Huck Finn. Then, my brain, very quickly but slowly enough for me to understand the process, jumped from one late nineteenth-century literary classic to another, and arrived at the conclusion that the man next to Huck is… Mowgli.
In the photo, the phenotype of the man on the left, with the hat and the kind of stick one could use to move a raft, made me recall a passage from Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (cited in a different post on “stolen nudity”). The passage, in Huck’s voice and referring to his life on the raft with Jim, reads: “Soon as it was night, out we shoved: when we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things–we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us–the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.”
The man on the right, in the photo, has a phenotype that does not match Huck’s companion Jim, but rather… Mowgli. The protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story collection The Jungle Book (and The Second Jungle Book in 1895) is a South Asian “man child” raised by wolves in the wilds of India, who would not have worn clothing despite what the movies would have you believe. He holds a banjo, and yet it kind of evokes a sitar…
So what to make of the photo? I have no context for it. A Google Image search did not produce any definitive results as to where the photo came from, who took it, who are the people in it, etc…. which leaves me free to wonder. Some might say the image appears homoerotic, to which I would reply, each of us sees what he or she wants to see. What I see is a meeting of friends who share no interest in wearing clothes outside on a beautiful day (with the exception of Huck’s hat, which keeps the sun out of his eyes). Neither Huck nor Mowgli would recognize the term “naturism,” even though they both intimately embody its practice – and by that I mean not just nudity, but the sharing of one’s natural form with the natural world, and the lived experience that derives from that kind of daily interaction. They are naturist friends, which is to say natural friends.
Where are they? It looks like Mowgli has made it to the Mississippi! But who knows? Perhaps Huck has traveled to the Ganges, or each has traveled far from his home to meet on the Orinoco… There are many entertaining plots that one could conceive for this canonical mash-up. Maybe they have set out to meet other literary greats who, like them, embody naturism without knowing the term: they are on the Congo, on their way to meet Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, or on the Magdalena, traveling to a rendezvous with Gabriel García Márquez’s Remedios the Beauty. Perhaps they are on a mission to “nudify” other stories. Or maybe they’re just escaping from the workaday jobs they’ve had to take on, in an attempt to relive some of their wild youth. (The first Mowgli story Kipling wrote, “In the Rukh,” is actually the last as far as the character’s timeline. In the story, Mowgli is a grown man who joins the British Forestry Service in India, marries, and has a son.)
Of course there is nothing about this photo that definitively indicates my interpretation. In the end, it is simply an image that, like a Rorschach test, reveals more about the viewer than about the photo. But for me, it’s fun to imagine that Mowgli has been sent abroad by the British Forestry Service in India to exchange ideas and techniques with the newly created US Forest Service (1905), where he meets Huck who, like him, had to get a job somewhere and reckoned he may as well work where he could be out in nature, away from anyone who might try to “sivilize” him. And in the photographed moment, who knows, maybe Mowgli, whose hand rests on Huck’s shoulder, is sharing a memory with him. Mowgli escaped Shere Khan several times, and from the ruined city of the Bandar-log, and many other dangers. Huck escaped from his abusive father and helped Jim escape from slavery. Here, they have successfully escaped once again – from the pretense of wearing clothes.