So I picked up where I left – I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer not so long ago, and decided to continue my Mark Twain spree. I must have read both books at some point, but they had become a bit obscure in my mind.
Turns out I liked Tom Sawyer – but I LOVE Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain basically does everything he did right in ‘Tom Sawyer’ – just more so. It is a stunning portrait of the Antebellum South, which had already disappeared by the time the book was published.
Just like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn isn’t really a book for kids – it is a book about a kid, for grown ups. It starts when Huckleberry’s no-good drunk dad reappears, having heard about the fortune that his kid made at the end of the Tom Sawyer book.
He kidnaps his kid – Finn had been living with a wealthy widow at this point – and forces Huckleberry Finn to fake his own death in order to escape. Huckleberry then runs into a runaway slave, and the two of them drift down the Mississippi River, looking for freedom.
Oh. I just realized I forgot to mention the best thing about this book – IT IS A FORBIDDEN BOOK! “Huckleberry Finn” gets censored every couple of years, and there are some school districts in the US who banned it from circulation. Part of this is the liberal use of the n-word, part of it is … well, people are stupid.
Because you see, this book – more than any other I have ever read, and I have read a few – positions itself at the very nexus of the American faultline, which goes a bit like this – How can anyone be truly free in a Nation that was funded on slavery and genocide?
Or, to put it another way – can we compare Huckleberry’s chase of freedom from a violent home to the dream of the runaway slave Jim, who wants to see his family again? How do those two aspirations compare? Are they compatible?
Ernest Hemingway said that Huckleberry Finn is the only truly American novel – that there has been nothing before and nothing comparable afterwards, and I have Opinions about Hemingway (not necessarily good) but he was right on this one.
Jim’s and Huck’s journey down the Mississippi shows you an America full of hucksters, tricksters, survivors and villains – and these are often the same person. It is a fun trip, with fun stories, but it doesn’t make for a good national fabric.
And because Mark Twain is SO DAMN GOOD at writing, and people are SO DAMN STUPID sometimes, they don’t understand the satire and take the work literally. That’s when the trouble start, because of course there are some truly troubling racial stereotypes in this, but that’s because Twain wanted us to use this work as a mirror for our own racial prejudices.
(As for the use of the n-word – I do understand the problem, but my thought is – it was used in the past as Twain used it, and to censor the art is to censor the truth. That doesn’t mean we should use the word to discuss it. We have to censor ourselves, not the art.)
And there’s another thing that we need to discuss.
So. Huckleberry runs into the runaway slave Jim. Jim asks Finn to promise to not sell him back into captivity. And … Mark Twain did not pick the easy route here. Finn has serious moral issues with helping a runaway slave, he thinks of the social repercussions he will have to face if the truth comes out. Finn, simply said, is not an abolitionist. (To be fair, he is about thirteen years old in this novel, so y’know.)
But. Even though he regrets having given his promise, Huck… keeps it. In fact, he goes out of his way to keep Jim safe. He acts in direct opposition to the things he has been taught, and the morals he was brought up in.
Which brings me to my favourite thought – the similarities and differences between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the two giants in the American canon of literature.
Well, I found the following quote, and I can’t say it any better, so here it is:
…Tom and Huck represent two viable models of the American character. They exist side by side in every American and every American action. America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I have busted my butt to get where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.”
George Saunders, The United States of Huck
Pretty great, eh? Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of this book. (if you have a kindle or an e-reader, you can get it for free!)