Starting Huckleberry Finn

September 23, 2021

I’ve taken years to read “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn“, because of its darn reputation. The back cover of my 1985 Penguin edition quotes Hemingway’s famous line, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”.  Further down we read that “Of all the contenders for the title of The Great American Novel, none has a better claim than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

I think such blurbs are great to get you buy books, but if you don’t take advantage of that immediate excitement, or you can’t get it the book right away, then such purple statements will probably do more to keep the book on your shelf than to take it off.

I’ve noticed on YouTube, among the community of book-reviewers known as BookTube, that Spanish tubers who have read all the English-language classics often have never read “Don Quixote”; they often appear unexcited about it.  To me it’s clear that they’ve had the book pushed in their faces all their lives as the seminal work of Spanish literature.  That really works against a book, and I think something similar has happened for me as an American, with “Huckleberry Finn.”

If not for my son taking interest in Tom and Huck, who knows how much longer I would have put them off.  I had no immediate plans to get to them.

No matter.  At 51, I’m finally read Mark Twain’s two great classics about Tom and Huck, and they are not disappointing.

My past impression of “Huckleberry Finn” was that it was a morality tale, and a poetic one.  That’s how it appears in the good-but-ever-so-earnest Ken Burns documentary “Mark Twain” (which we’ve been watching at home), and in countless other places.  Over the years I’d gotten the sense that it was a bit of an idyll – maybe a modern pastoral, with no urgency.  I don’t know how a tale of a slave on the run could come off that way in my brain, but it did.

The story turns out to be – a drumroll, please, because this is truly shocking – an adventure with high stakes enough for any reader.  It’s not boring, dull or quiet.  And much of it is so funny that you laugh, of course, but your eyes also bug out with pleasure at what you’re reading.

Okay I’m getting into back-cover-blurb territory here, talking the book up like this.  I think we kill great books with praise and I don’t want to be like that.

I loved “Tom Sawyer” but as soon as I opened “Huckleberry Finn” I found that Mark Twain was gone.  Huck narrates the latter instead of Twain, and we lose the great writer – that clever crafter of English sentences – but I didn’t even miss him.  That’s because you get something even better, getting yourself lodged and lost in the mind of a character.

That by itself is one of the great pleasures of reading novels, of course, but something new for me is how you get no “correct” English from this narrator or from his main partner in conversation, whose English is even more broken.  Certainly, there are older works that depict “broken” or “improper” speech in the mouths of characters.  But this speech is coming from the narrator, and he’s not merely an average dude like Ishmael who happens to lack higher education, but a mere kid who has no wish to get educated. 

That may not be radical today, but I can imagine how it looked when Twain wrote; and even today it’s a new experience for certain readers, especially those who like myself tend to stick to highfalutin classics.  I’m used to getting wisdom, observation, or at least skillful description from either the narrator or a classically eloquent character, but this book doesn’t have people in those offices.

Instead you get taken along in the mind of Huck, and it’s a constant see-saw, because he’s struggling with his conscience.

In chapter 15, Huck temporarily fools Jim into thinking that he had merely dreamed the struggles that they’d experienced on the river that night.  And because we’re right inside Huck’s brain, we really think it’s funny, though we shouldn’t, when poor Jim is convinced-but-not-convinced that he’s been dreaming:

“Well, den, I reck’n I did dream it, Huck; but dog my cats ef it ain’t de powerfullest dream I ever see.  En I hain’t ever had no dream b’fo’ dat’s tired me like dis one.”

Huck, still toying with Jim, points out the debris lying all over the raft.  Jim sees Huck’s game now, and gently calls Huck the kind of trash that would put trash in the head of a friend.  This pierces both reader and Huck, and then we really melt with this:

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 afterwards, neither.  I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.

In less than the space of a minute we’ve gone with Huck from laughing on high, to being pierced, to getting down and asking for forgiveness. 

And you really love Huck here, not for thinking that it’s specially humble pie to ask forgiveness of a black man, but for working against this belief, taking fifteen slow minutes to do the right thing, but doing it.

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