Sunday, December 16, 2007

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I originally posted this review on my blog, but Carrie asked if I would post it here as well. I apologize if someone else was hoping to post it; since the book wasn't one of my choices, I was hoping not to step on any toes.

Simply put, Huck Finn is a classic. It's one of those books that everyone should read at least once in life, and possibly more than once. Due to my own educational choices, I managed to read it once in high school and then twice in college (in separate classes, no less). But I can't complain. The first time through was a little tricky, particularly with the dialect, but the story only grows in analytical potential with each reading. The best thing about Huck Finn is that there are so many angles from which to approach it. There are the characters, the relationships between and among characters, the setting, the role of the raft (I'm not kidding--this is what lit people spend their days doing), the socio-economic considerations, the racial considerations, and the list goes on. I even had one teacher who made the startlingly apt comparison between Huck and Jim's voyage down the river and Dante's journey through hell, forever cementing my love for this book. Were I specializing in American literature, I could probably spend the rest of my career writing about Huck Finn alone, and I feel certain I wouldn't exhaust the material. Now, that's when you know you have a good book.

What makes this story so special is its unique place in literature. Literary critics often consider Huck Finn to be the first truly American novel, and rightly so. This is arguably the first novel by an American writer that embraces specifically American themes. In many ways, literature reflects landscape. I had a teacher (a different one, I think) who pointed out that European novels are called "drawing room novels" for a reason: there really wasn't anywhere for the characters to go, so all action takes place in a small setting and within a clearly defined society. In American literature, however, there is a tendency to send characters on a journey of escaping or, even more significantly, to drive all action westward, indicating an escape from society. In Huck Finn, both elements occur. Huck and Jim travel downriver, and then at the end of the story, Huck decides to throw off the bounds of society all together and go West. These themes were not necessarily unique to the American psyche prior to Twain, or unique even to Twain's writing before Huck Finn, but it was this book that established their influence within American literature.

I realize that where Twain is concerned, controversy follows. I remember when I was first reading Huck Finn in high school, my dad commented with some irritation, "Twain? He was an atheist!" Well, who knows. And more importantly, who cares. As a student of literature, I'm not in the business of dragging an author's religious or moral beliefs (or lack thereof) into my interpretation, unless said beliefs demand attention in the story. And, of course, sometimes they do. There are some writers who are unable to separate ideology from art. But then these tend to be poor writers, because they are not trying to produce art but instead are generating propaganda. I honestly believe that the best writers can produce art--which I equate to the presentation of truth and beauty, whatever the medium--independent of their beliefs. This is what makes a book like Huck Finn great. Where this book is concerned, it doesn't matter what Twain believed in or what his personal life may have been like (and I've heard some rather seedy things). For a comparison, I'm not a fan of many of the ideas/moral positions of W.B. Yeats, but that doesn't make him any less a great poet.

Apologies for the rant. After reading Carrie's post (on her blog) concerning The Golden Compass, this topic has been on my mind and seems appropriate for a discussion of Twain, who has undergone his share of censorship over time. As far as Huck Finn goes, my recommendation is basically that everyone should read it: for those who haven't already, it should go on the reading list, and for those who haven't read it in a while, it should be dusted it off and experienced all over again. I promise that there are gems to be discovered within the pages.

(And as a note of interest, the title of the book is correctly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, without a preceding "the." No, I don't know why. And, yes, everyone gets it wrong.)


At 2:21 PM, Blogger Queen of Carrots said...

I have only read Huck Finn on my own, for fun (and lost times of how many or when I first read it) so I lack the advantages--or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it--of knowing all the possible literary interpretations.

What struck me this time through was the humanness of the characters. I think of Twain primarily as a satirist, and a biting one at that. But although he satirizes every part of southern rural life, he gives to nearly all the characters a realness that makes it impossible not to have some sympathy for them. (Except Huck's Pap, perhaps, I can't think of anything good about him.)

And even his best characters have their ludicrous side--Jim's superstition and credulity, for instance. (Could ANYONE be willing to put up with Tom's absurd romancing instead of lifting the bed leg, crawling through the hole, and getting away?)

Huck Finn is a little incredible, in that he is a horrifically neglected and abused child who nonetheless has a sense of moral wholeness (watermelon hocking notwithstanding) that renders him superior to the society around them. But then, those are common literary figures (Oliver Twist, Wee Sir Gibbie, Anne Shirley) even if they seem a little hard to imagine in real life.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger calon lan said...

My teacher who compared Huck Finn to Dante's Inferno pointed out that Tom's little romantic scheme at the end serves a very significant purpose. At the very bottom of hell are the sinners who have betrayed a special trust (this is a very general description). Tom essentially does that very thing by convincing Huck and Jim to carry out his plan, knowing full well as he does that Jim is already free. His actions take on almost sinister, cold-blooded quality to them once this is known. It's also soon after this that Huck bails out on society, as if to acknowledge that he no longer has any faith in humanity because a close friend has betrayed his trust.


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