Friday, March 09, 2007

Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

[A lengthy and belated review for the 2007 Classics Challenge]

Title: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain): Bio

: Published originally in 1885, this text is in the public domain and the University of Virginia offers an outstanding etext edition. I was reading from the Everyman's Library combined edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (It's interesting to note how some would prefer that the two texts be kept separate...)

Genre: Fiction

Length: 320 pages

Summary: Summarizing this landmark work is an absurd concept. On the one hand, it's an adventure story of two marginalized individuals floating down the Mississippi just prior to the Civil War. Neither Huck Finn nor Jim have any legal standing in the courts that govern their daily existence; Huck is a minor and Jim is not considered to be an adult, but rather property belonging to Miss Watson. The two of them make the attempt to escape and find freedom. Huck wants to break away from both the well-meaning "..sivilized folk" and from his abusive father; Jim, as a black slave fearful of being sold down the river, is trying to work his way north to the free state of Ohio. They get turned around in a night of fog and end up going in the wrong direction. The book tells of both humorous and horrifying adventures that expose Huck to some of the grimmer realities of human nature. Mark Twain is an honest and clear-sighted writer in that regard. You could say that the book is just a coming-of-age story for America in the nineteenth century, acknowledge Twain's literary feat and craft in creating an authentic voice for Huck, and leave it at that.

On the other hand, you can indeed find far more in this text. If Huck and Jim set off to find freedom, what is it exactly that they are looking for? Is it life amongst their fellow citizens? Why would anyone want to live among those citizens? Twain offers some violent vignettes of American behavior (on-going family feuds, murders, mob violence, etc.) and Huck, an essentially pragmatic soul, is wisely wary of staying too long with any who offer him shelter. He has enough strength of character to shamefacedly apologize to Jim after an instance where he treats the man badly (although he'll behave badly yet again before the book's end). Jim is the only character in the book, aside from Tom Sawyer, who freely accepts Huck as he is without trying to change or exploit him. Isn't that the best definition of freedom -- an environment that allows you to be who you are without being cramped into conformity or exploited unfairly? Jim tries to protect Huck almost from the very beginning and and over time, Huck protects Jim. There's an emotional tie between the white juvenile and the black slave that deepens throughout the book. As a counterpoint, the book delivers a cultural portrait of racism and violence that really cannot be denied. Depending upon who you're talking to, Twain's intent may have been exactly that delivery. Only while floating down the river are these two "non-persons" really free; the communities on either side of the Mississippi river severely restrict the freedoms of those in their reach. Out on the river, as Twain's prose makes clear, Huck and Jim can find the necessary emotional space to connect with life's real beauty.

The issue always seems to pertain to what various critics, reviewers and readers think the book teaches. Almost immediately upon its publication, one major community library refused to buy the book because officials claimed it encouraged delinquency and disrespect in virtuous youth. (As, in a sense, it does.) In the late twentieth century, the book has frequently been banned from school systems as racist, seeing the characterization of Jim as both exaggerated and demeaning. (And again, in a sense, it is.). There is also the issue with specific vocabulary as countless others have pointed out. Clearly, this book evokes discomfort in a lot of different souls. There are so many facets of Truth in its pages.

Indeed, one of the fun elements of reading this book for me as an adult was toying with ideas for term papers that I might have been able to write in college had I been exposed to this book back in the day. Intriguing topics such as:

  • Images of the Female in Twain's Huck Finn
  • Dismissing God: Superstition and Religion in Huck Finn
  • What Was Your Name Again? Disguise and Identity in Huck Finn
  • Coping: Strategies for Living in The Adventures of Huck Finn
  • The Mythical Children of 19th Century America: Tom and Huck
  • The Voice of Youth in Huck Finn
  • The Wickedness of the Widow Douglas
I know I could squeeze out three to five pages on every one of those. Not a problem. (Well, maybe, five pages on the wickedness of the Widow Douglas would be pushing it. That might end up only two to three pages; she's hardly a constant presence, just the briefest suggestion of human frailty.) And that doesn't even begin to discuss the thin veneer of culture represented by the Duke and Dauphin, two of the sleaziest con men to be found in literature. Throughout this book, reading the stories of hi-jinks and criminal fraud, you can't decide whether to whoop with laughter or rear back in serious horror.

Ultimately the question of whether you should assign this book to high school students depends on how much you think the students can handle. Given the wide swath of discussion possibilities, this book can take you in many different directions. That goes a good distance in establishing why it is, in fact, considered to be a classic or primary text. Because, in its unvarnished form, it exposes a variety of hypocrisies, none of which have vanished from the face of this earth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable work for that reason and the deeper one digs into it, the less ground cover there is in which to hide. If we can't work through the reasons for that, is that the fault of the work or a fault in ourselves?