Huckleberry Finn

Extract of a piece originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

…Although a much more complex novel than Tom Sawyer, the story of Huckleberry Finn is deceptively simple. Huck and Jim drift down the Mississippi Valley through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, ending up in Arkansas where Tom Sawyer re-joins the narrative having been left behind in St. Petersburg in Chapter Three. During their journey, Huck and Jim have many close calls and adventures. They encounter a variety of communities and colourful characters along the river, which Twain brings richly to life through the lilting vernacular of Huck’s first-person narration and the inner processes by which he interprets these people and places. As in Tom Sawyer, Twain’s vivid memories of childhood on the river and his time as a riverboat pilot before the war give the text its authenticity. These memories exerted a complicated pull on him throughout his life, and all his best writing flows from them: ‘I confine myself to the life with which I am familiar,’ he later wrote. ‘I confine myself to boy-life out on the Mississippi, because that had peculiar charm for me.’ So complete, in fact, is the fusion of Twain the travel writer and memoirist with Twain the novelist that a long passage excised from Huckleberry Finn in which two drunken raftsmen work themselves up to a fight is reproduced without alteration in Life on the Mississippi. Similarly, the novel is presented as autobiography (by Huck) – the opening lines establish it as such – and a serious cultural retrieval (by Twain). He is particularly interested in linguistic verisimilitude, adding an explanatory note that:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

The concluding point shows Twain the literary craftsman heading off criticism in advance because it is an unwritten law in fiction that accents are best described, never phonetically realised. Yet Twain pulls it off, as Joyce later did in Ulysses, by understanding the music of the spoken word and its regional idioms. T.S. Eliot described this as ‘a new discovery in the English language’. Here then is the essence of the ‘Great American Novel’. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain cuts the mooring line with the English and European literary traditions that continued to exert a huge influence on his relatively new country by writing a novel using entirely American voices, locations, traditions and experiences.

Throughout the novel, Twain’s descriptions of the natural world and the sublimity of the huge river are stunning:

Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs—where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.

But storms can be waited and ridden out and are all part of life on the river. To Huck, they seem magical rather than dangerous, while they also deliver up a deal of useful debris afterwards including, of course, the raft. Mostly though, life on the water is relaxed and safe: ‘We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.’ In Huckleberry Finn, the river is not the threat.

There is a fascinating tension, throughout the narrative, between Twain’s nostalgia for the Old South, which had deeply informed Tom Sawyer, an idealised portrait of a world lost to war and progress that now had, he wrote to his wife on a visit, ‘not a suggestion of romance’ anywhere, and an authorial voice that is much more realistic and critical. This is resolved by the contrast between life on the raft and off it, until eventually even this tiny piece of Eden is corrupted by the depraved con artists the ‘King’ and the ‘Duke’. Since Tom Sawyer, Twain’s world view had darkened. While one can still see the nostalgia for the ‘freedom’ of childhood in the text (and, perhaps, of his own youth and class before being ‘sivilized’ by education, marriage, and respectable literary celebrity – he often joked about the ‘civilising’ influence of his wife), the major theme of Huckleberry Finn is one of moral protest. Off the raft, at every stop, southern society across classes is shown no mercy by Twain. In every episode, individuals, families and communities are depicted in a fallen moral state that they regard as perfectly natural and normal: people are racist, treacherous, cruel, cowardly, greedy, stupid and hypocritical, with the violence of the ignorant and easily manipulated mob never far from the surface, worked up by newspapers, politicians and fraudulent preachers. Small time river pirates execute gang members to protect themselves over the pettiest of thefts; two feuding aristocratic families go to church armed to hear sermons on ‘brotherly love’ before murdering each other’s children; lynch mobs are got up; and in the most extreme episodes, the King and the Duke repeatedly show that there’s no easier way to rob someone than through religion: all ‘soul-butter and hogwash’. (In his autobiography, Twain described ‘our’ – American – Christianity as ‘bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory’.) As Huck tells us in desperation, ‘It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.’

And with that, the novel’s critique becomes universal, a commentary on all humanity. And there is a real disgust there, worthy of Swift or Gogol. This ‘civilised’ society is contrasted with the selfless nobility of Jim (whose reward for self-sacrifice is to be put once more in chains), and the ‘heart’ of Huck Finn, whose naive yet pragmatic observations effortlessly cut through all the lies and hypocrisy. As David Ulin wrote in the LA Times, ‘This is the first-person point-of-view taking root in American literature, the voice of the outsider, cut adrift from all he thought he knew. This is the lost boy going on the road (or the river), living beyond the strictures of society, while in the service of a bigger truth.’

Having struggled early on with the implanted ideas that a runaway slave is stealing from his master and the right and ‘Christian’ thing to do is turn Jim in, Huck reasons it all out:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

And thus, an outcast white boy and a runaway slave become friends and allies, putting both of them at risk. Twain later wrote that Huckleberry Finn was ‘a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat’. This is why Huck refuses to be ‘sivilized’. To be ‘civilised’ would be to adopt the norms and values that he has realised are so fake and repugnant. He prefers to be completely outside society, as he effectively was in St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer. When Miss Watson warns him that he’s bound for hell, Huck’s view on her heaven is: ‘Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it…’

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