05 August 2010

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
First published: December, 1884
Published: 1 July 1959
Cover price: $1.75

I've read a lot of things in the last couple of years because I wanted to read them.  This is the first time I read out of guilt.  This summer, I've become an avid follower of Roger Ebert on Twitter and he touched off a roiling debate about whether video games could be art.  Ebert pitted all of video game-dom against a lone representative of literature: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It seemed like something I ought to have read sometime before turning thirty; in all honesty, probably before thirteen.  Eventually, I concluded there was no video game I hadn't played that made me feel guilty the way I felt for not having already read this book, and I set about finding a copy of it.

Sure, I could have downloaded an ebook version; it's been in the public domain for a while now.  And it's still in print.  Eventually, I came upon a 1959 Signet paperback edition at Half Price Books.  Its back cover is rough, but it had the right smell.  Smell's important to me with books.

There is a note from Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain") that cautions against searching for a plot, moral or motive in Huck Finn.  I came to appreciate the warning, because the title, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is quite apt.  There are entire passages of this that have absolutely no connection to other passages save being told in the first person by Huckleberry Finn.  It reminded me of reading an ongoing comic book, where a story arc might be told over a few issues, then segue into another story arc over another few issues, and so on.  One could trace the continuity through segues, but the arcs themselves often existed entirely independent of one another.  The main problem here is that I often found myself concluding a chapter with no real compulsion to begin the next; I could stop at nearly any point until the final 80 or so pages.

Some passages are humorous; others, outright dark.  Huck's father, Pap, is a genuinely menacing figure, the kind that is often one-dimensional in today's storytelling but Twain has made him far more visceral than that.  Pap makes clear that he will not stand for his son to surpass him in any capacity, going so far as to threaten him should he be caught going to school now that Huck's education has already gone farther than his.  I've never witnessed that extreme, but I've been around more than a few good ol' boys in my time whose self-image rested on being superior to their sons, and were obviously threatened by their children's success.  It's a dirty little secret of life in the country, and I found it strangely refreshing to see it presented so strikingly here.

The most obvious theme touched on throughout Huck Finn (for Twain's caution said nothing about looking for one of those) is that of racial identity during the time of slavery--and this includes more uses of "The 'N' Word" than a Chris Rock special.  Aside from the illustrious Tom Sawyer, Huck finds companionship primarily in the slave Jim.  Huck has been instilled with all the stereotypical racial notions of his time and place, but spending time one-on-one with Jim (on the lam together, no less) brings Huck closer to realizing that he and his African-American companion have fewer meaningful differences than he had been led to believe.  Huck never quite commits himself to racial harmony, but he does reach a moral crossroad when he is forced to choose between doing the "right" thing and letting Jim be sold back into slavery, or do the "low" thing and help him escape.

"All right then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says, resolved that he owes it to Jim to violate the very principles in which he was taught to believe.  It is the most celebrated line of the entire tale, and for good reason--it is genuinely triumphant.  It's the literary equivalent of seeing Rick Blaine commit himself to helping Victor Lazlo escape Casablanca.  I can't say what readers in 1884 felt, but in 2010 I smiled and nearly pumped my fist.

Twain's other note wishes us to know that he has painstakingly reconstructed various regional dialects in as authentic a fashion as possible.  I have no cause to doubt his firsthand knowledge of how folks in Mississippi, Arkansas or Illinois spoke.  But I did find it tedious having to frequently re-read a sentence to make sure I properly translated it.  Because the entire novel is told in first person from Huck's perspective, this dialect-appropriate style is pervasive from start to finish, and I found it cumbersome at times.  Surely, it adds to the charm of the novel and its authenticity, but it slowed me down several nights.

Ultimately, though, I have to thank Roger Ebert for shaming me into reading this classic work of American literature.  I wondered at several points along the way where any of it was headed, and by the time I found out, I, like Huck himself, was left with the realization I had already committed myself to its conclusion.  And like Huck, I walked away happier for the experience and perhaps I did some growing along the way.