Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Yet another mistakenly categorised ‘Children’s’ book (cf. London’s ‘Call of the Wild’). This was not what I was expecting.

Twain very effectively uses the alternate perspective of the appallingly abused, what, twelve or thirteen year old Huck to satirise, amuse and to have a powerful impact – often in the same sentence. The things that Huckleberry just accepts and the things that appal him, his entire value system, is beautifully presented, in both the structure of the story, and the wonderful language. The reader is not always going to agree with Huck, but damn if he doesn’t casually bump into all sorts of assumptions along the way. He doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ why folks are trying to civilise him, but at another level he has a clearer picture of what the real benefits and costs are of manners and education. This process is deliberately foregrounded when Huck is served a bit of his own medicine in trying to educate Jim about Solomon. Jim appears to have “clean missed the point – blame it, you’ve missed it a thousand mile,” but Jim’s interpretation gains stronger credence the more he goes on:

Blame de pint! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder – it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised...

The literary critics (and many are hardly this foolish) who think they’ve come up with a new idea in saying how readers bring meaning to the text, and that it can be legitimately deconstructed through different lenses, are quietly ignoring the way this is (often more succinctly) stated in books like this.

 

Sure I’m bringing a whole stack of assumptions and biases to the table, particularly in my contemporary (and utter) condemnation of slavery, but I think Twain was as persuasive as you’re going to be (much as this was published about twenty years after the civil war) in challenging the racism of the time. Well, at least until Tom Sawyer turns up, but more on that later. Twain wryly introduces the book by saying:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.

           BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

However his depiction of the nobility of Jim, and Huck’s repeated emphatic praise of him is a strong lesson. The message is particularly pointed in the ‘Fooling Poor Old Jim’ chapter. I relish the lesson, the pretty biblical lesson when you get down to it, of how in losing Jim actually ‘wins’: integrity trumps cleverness. At the moment of Huck’s triumph in pointing to the evidence of having fooled Jim, “..but what does these things stand for?”, Twain hammers home the moral:

What do dey stan’ for? I’s gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you waz los, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what became er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back ag’in, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could ‘a’ got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. 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 day fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed.

And if that Shakespearian level speech weren’t enough, get a couple of sentences on:

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither.

No moral. Yeah, right.

 

Granted there’s more room for rambling than some plots as relatively random events can happen at each stop down the Mississippi, but there is unity and development in the initial escape and the resolution of Jim’s release and Huck’s resurrection. The events particularly of the first half of the book were gripping and telling, and vague notions I had of Huckleberry Finn being about idyllic, lazy days of youth drifting down the river were completely thwarted. Through Huck’s eyes so many things are everyday, but this is a frequently brutal and unforgiving world. There’s not too much in the way of welfare or police services. Twain may have exaggerated some things for the sake of the yarn, but he did spend years as a pilot on the Mississippi, and I suspect much of the more bleak aspects of the book are based on experience.

 

I was thoroughly enjoying this book, with its hugely gratifying mix of humour, history, action and insight, but felt there was a real turning point with the entrance of the two con men. I could have handled them for a chapter, but Twain clearly thought their antics worthy of the next third of the book. They aren’t totally played for comedy, but mostly, and much of the potency of the book leaches out from here on in. Unfortunately on their final exit we descend even further into farce: I really disliked the entire closing Tom Sawyer section, and on the basis of this am happy to have not read the prequel. Perhaps some of Tom’s ridiculously romantic absurdities could have amused me but I was too aware that the comedy really depended on me seeing Jim’s plight as a mild problem. Maybe Twain was making a point, satirising overdramatised abolitionist accounts of slaves’ deprivations and brave, nail-biting escapes (when slaves, after-all, were seen as valuable plant/stock, and once they were freed the North may not have worked them, but neither would they necessarily employ, feed or house them – what was their ‘value’ then?). Maybe he was making a point about how utterly incidental a slave’s life was to whites in that culture.  But it felt more like he was just playing it for comedy – much as Tom was playing it for literary adventure – and as long as the ending is happy then no harm done. Twain seemed to really relish this, milking it for several chapters, but I just couldn’t treat Jim’s imprisonment and near hanging with such disregard.

 

Oh, and as a PS, hats off to Twain for breaking out of his time to avoid the pompous verbosity that bounded so many writers of his era. They weren’t writing as people spoke, but in this strained, affected style seen as ‘good writing’. Similarly Orwell is a hero of mine for clarity over pretentiousness. Coincidentally I was reading Melville’s contemporary Typee at the same time, and it’s extraordinary how even such fascinating events and perspectives are denuded by his (highly derivative) ornate and florid style. Curse you Samuel Johnson!

 

January 2011