Posted on November 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life, Politics and Law | 7 Comments »
This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.
I’m almost embarrassed to include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (there is no ‘The’ in the title) in my list simply because doing so is an admission that I hadn’t read it before. Then again, reading great books that we probably should have read by now is partly purpose of the Great American Novel Challenge. Make no mistake about it: Mark Twain‘s Huck Finn is a genuinely great American novel.
I should start this review where Mark Twain started his book. The first page contains this notice:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
By the Order of the Author,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordinance
In some ways this notice tells you all you need to know about Mark Twain. It’s humorous, yet half-serious. It sets the reader up to find their own inner Huck Finn because if you do any of these things, then you’re breaking the established rules of the book. Of course, if you don’t see a motive, moral, or plot in the book, then why read it at all?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn picks up where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off. It was conceived as a sequel, but it stands alone. Readers don’t have to have read Tom Sawyer prior to reading Huck Finn. In fact, Mark Twain struggled for eight years to write and publish Huck Finn and the books are considerably different from one another. The preface to my edition of the book explains that Huck Finn comes at the midpoint of his career and “stands on a line between the upbeat humor of the early books and the bitterness of the later ones.” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this statement, but I can say that Huck Finn delicately balances humorous storytelling with serious social commentary.
The book is ostensibly the story of a young boy’s adventures on the Mississippi river narrated after the fact by the boy himself. The story starts with Huck Finn in his hometown being raised by a widow and her sister. They try to civilize him, but Huck Finn doesn’t particularly like the idea of being forced to do things in a ‘civilized’ way. Eventually, Huck’s abusive father manages to bring Huck back to his place where Huck escapes, fakes his own death, and begins life floating down the Mississippi. While on the river, he meets up with Jim, a runaway slave previously owned by the widow and her sister.
The middle of the book is largely episodic. Each episode can be demarcated by the return to the tranquility and safety of floating down the river on a raft. These episodes are mini-commentaries on a particular part of American culture. For example, there’s an episode in which Huck and Jim run into a gang trying to steal from a wrecked riverboat. Another episode involves a family feud similar to the archetypal Hatfield-McCoy feud. Yet another episode details the exploits of two grown con men as they ply their trade. The episodes serve as satires of the many ways that we become slaves to society. We become slaves to the desire to get rich quick. We become slaves to our deep-seated animosities. We become slaves to unthinking religion. Twain is calling for us to think for ourselves, act as individuals, and take action appropriately.
The over-arching plot of the book is the fate of Jim, the runaway slave. Huck Finn’s individualism and friendship for Jim battle with his upbringing and society’s expectations for him as he decides whether or not he will actively help Jim escape to freedom. It’s worth noting how Huck dismisses inaction as complicity in the predictable result and unworthy of himself. This in and of itself is a commentary on the society in which Huck Finn finds himself. Throughout the book Huck views civilization as something akin to a brainwashed malaise that everyone has accepted. Perhaps this is why his relationship with Jim and the actions he takes as a result of it are so important.
The ending of the book and the resolution of the main plot is bittersweet, which seems almost inevitable because of the book’s structure. There’s simply no river left to for Huck to escape to. Huck and Jim are both freer as runaways than they ever were before the story began or after it comes to an end. The strength of the book is the middle rather than the ending, and I won’t comment further on the ending simply to ensure that I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the book.
Twain’s home-spun style starting with the NOTICE on the first page and continuing throughout the book was particularly comforting for me because I have so many fond memories of visiting my extended family in North Carolina as a boy. They all spoke with strange accents and expressions that seemed so magical to me having been raised in the midwest. There was comfort, humor, and seriousness in those conversations that seemed unguarded and real. That’s what reading this book felt like to me, but I suspect that everyone will find some “southern comfort” in Twain’s story telling.
Twain is famous for walking that thin line between sly humor and moral outrage even to those who have not read his books. His dry wit and incisively worded commentary remain relevant for any free society because he is constantly reminding us that freedom and individual liberty aren’t achieved so much as they are maintained. If we aren’t vigilant in analyzing for ourselves the outcomes of our action or inaction, then we will become slaves to something. Twain points this out so masterfully and with such unique style in Huck Finn that I am forced to conclude that Huck Finn is the most American of the books I’ve read for this challenge thus far.
Five books down; eight to go!
My books in the challenge thus far are:
July 2009: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
August 2009: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
September 2009: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
October 2009: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
November 2009: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)