Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Reading List: Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn
The Vulgar Boatman

I feel a little nervous here, stepping up the the plate to comment on Huckleberry Finn. I'm apparently the last English speaker on the planet to have read it, and many of you have read it repeatedly and know a hell of a lot more about it than I do. So, maybe it's best to think of this as an experiment. Imagine someone who had somehow been kept from reading Huckleberry Finn until he was virtually 40! How would this strange hermit react to the famous novel that everyone else knows so well?

Well, here's how.

It's Quite Good
On the whole, I'm pretty impressed with Huckleberry Finn. It's an ambitious novel, taking on a lot and succeeding handsomely with most of it. First and foremost, Twain seems to be making a conscious effort to raise the bar for American children's literature. Now, I don't know a lot about nineteenth-century juvenile fiction, but what I do know suggests that Huckleberry Finn soars magnificently above everything that came before it. It's a superb adolescent adventure story with well-paced suspenseful situations and resolutions, constant lampooning of adult pieties and hypocrasies, and an appealing fantasy of life with neither the arbitrary restrictions of childhood nor the dull responsibilities of adulthood.

As a document describing social relations in the United States of the 1850s, Huckleberry Finn is quite striking. Twain is an incisive observer of class behaviors and relations, and his often very funny commentary on how social hierarchies operate, among both kids and adults, are the real meat of the book. For an adult reader, this is where most of the action is, and where the laughs are as well.

The best thing about Huckleberry Finn is Huckleberry Finn. A marvelously rounded and consistent point-of-view character, he confides the entire story to us in a convincing backwoods diction and brogue. There are a lot of situations where he doesn't really understand what the other characters are up to, but Twain handles his naive narrator with great skill, letting the reader know what is happening while not allowing Huck any knowledge that he wouldn't naturally possess. But Huck is by no means dumb; he's more than capable of fooling adults and thinking his way out of a jam. Like most people, too, he struggles with general moral principles but is usually generous and kind in actual application. This makes him loveable, but also interesting to watch as he encounters moral dilemmas.

The worst thing about Huckleberry Finn is Tom Sawyer. A one-note character -- he wants to live out the romantic notions he has read about in adventure stories -- he plays all too large a role in this, his pal's book. Not only are his scenes tedious, his single joke getting beat to death and then some, but they are implausible as well. He is shown as a charismatic figure commanding the respect of children and adults alike, whereas in real life boy of his single-mindedness would be considered, at best, very strange indeed.

Jim, the runaway slave who is Huck's companion, is more a collection of mannerisms than a character in his own right. He is essentially a prop, there in the novel so that Huck can wrestle with his feelings about the inhumanity of slavery. Twain certainly has his heart in the right place, and Huckleberry Finn can be read as a still-shocking expose of how thoroughly and intricately an institution like slavery can warp a society. And, from a nineteenth-century novel, it is probably unfair to ask for more. If I ~could~ ask for more, though, I would have two requests on the wish list: 1) a full-fledged treatment of the African-American character, and 2) less of a cop-out of an ending.

Now I'm Going to Talk About the Ending! those of you who have shared my cave, push off.

Here's why I hate at least half of American movies (I'll get back to Huck in a minute): they set up a major moral dilemma for their characters, then render it pointless by contriving things so that no one has to make a choice. Random Example: Pearl Harbor. Woman falls in love with two separate guys. Interesting problem! She'll have to make a tough choice! Except, of course, she won't; the script will bump one of them off in a suitably heroic fashion exactly so that she won't have to make that decision. So why am I supposed to be interested, again?

Similarly, Huckleberry Finn. The most persistent issue of the book is Huck's wrestling with the ethics of slavery, whether his own affection and respect for Jim will override his respect for the laws of property in a slave system. But just as the problem reaches the boiling point, half-wit Tom Sawyer pipes up to announce that Jim has already been freed. Instead of being subjected to a public torture-execution, he can instead be unshackled and treated to a few nice meals. In the end, Huck never has to figure out how he really feels about slavery, after all.

Now I'm Done Talking About the Ending

Summary: Huckleberry Finn, minimally educated but sharp as a tack, is a rough-and-tumble kid growing up in the semi-civilized Mississippi River bottoms in the 1850s. Escaping his abusive father, he joins forces with a runaway slave, Jim, and they raft down the Mississippi together, having a variety of trials and adventures. The idea is to get Jim to the Ohio River, which he can then follow to the free states; after they pass the Ohio by accident, however, they inexplicably keep heading south.

Twain is a near-contemporary of Charles Dickens, and the two authors have much in common. Both have a light comic touch that they apply to extremely keen sociological insights. Twain paints on a smaller canvas -- Huckleberry Finn is a shorter book with only a single plot line, and has a much smaller cast than most Dickens -- but he manages to pack in the same level of observational detail. Twain is more streamlined, easier to read, perhaps funnier. But, the orgy of coincidences that concludes Huck's long raft ride will seem plentifully familiar to anyone who has read Dickens.

Thanks, in conclusion, to those of you who supported me in overcoming my fear of Twain by encouraging me to take on Huckleberry Finn. It's a fine read.


d said...

well, i'm glad you liked it...

you're definitely not alone in what you dislike about it. i like to think that if mark twain wrote the same story today it would be quite a bit different.

i think also, that if you'd read it as a teenager, you'd have different feelings about it.

Rebel said...

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 in it will be shot.

By Order Of The Author,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

^^ Just a reminder from the author. I'm glad you liked it as well as you did. I agree with d - you have loved it if you'd read it as a kid. Then you'd feel all nostalgic rereading it as an adult.

mysterymoor said...

I started reading this and I was enjoying it, yet I didn't finish it. Now I'm trying to remember the reason, but I can't put my finger on it. I think I was reading it in English, and there are times of the year when my pleasure reading should always be done in Spanish, so maybe it was that.

What comes next?

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it. I don't know if I've ever heard Twain's comic touch described as "light" before. You should try some of his more adult oriented work. Try Letters From the Earth.

The [Cherry] Ride said...

So is that where "Vulgar Boatmen" reference comes from? Nice.

Michael5000 said...

@d: I'm guessing that if I read it as a teenager, I would have dismissed it as a kid's book. I liked my fiction pretty hard-boiled when I was in high school.

@rebel: Yeah, well, at least Twain was funny about it (unlike Nabakov, who was pretty snooty about the same point). But it's a pet peeve of mine when authors want us to devote dozens of hours to reading what they wrote, and then not think, analyze, or speculate about it or them. Why would I have read it if I didn't want to think about it? I could have just watched reruns of "The Nanny" or something.

Twain's famous injunction is particularly silly in that the motive, moral, and plot of the novel are all pretty obvious, and in that his book would be fairly pointless without them.

@andrea: More of my pleasure reading should be in Spanish, too, but unfortunately I would have to learn the language first.

@critical bill: Twain Studies will remember me as the pioneering critic who introduced the concept of the "light comic touch." I will remember your recommendation for "Letters From the Earth," but it will have to join a fairly long line....

@[cherry]: Nah, that's just my lame attempt at an amusing subtitle.

G said...

Boy, you are ripping through books like nobody's business. Nice job.

Anonymous said...

I think Huck DID make a decision about slavery - the moment when he decides not to turn Jim in in the chapter, "You can't pray a lie". That's really the whole turning point of the book, in terms of Huck's moral development, the rest is just returning to civilization which seems a little useless and pointless - like Tom Sawyer's antics.