“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
- Ernest Hemingway
‘Huck Finn’ (1885) is a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). The washup of events from Tom Sawyer is quickly dealt with at the beginning of Huck Finn, so it can be read as a stand-alone novel. Basically, Huck escapes an abusive, alcoholic father and fakes his own death, taking to the Mississippi river where he unexpectedly teams up with his friend, the runaway slave Jim. Adventures ensue.
Huck’s father is initially portrayed comically:
‘Then the old man got to cussing, and cussed everybody and everything he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so he called them what’s-his-name, when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.’
We laugh because we’ve done it ourselves. However, Huck’s father has a darker side:
‘But by and by pap got too handy with his hick’ry [stick], and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts. He got to going away so much, too, an locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome.’
This is all stated quite matter-of-factly; clearly it is child abuse. Rightly fearing his father is going to kill him, Huck escapes, and soon encounters his old slave friend Jim, who thinks Huck is dead:
“Doan’ hurt me – don’t! I hain’t ever done no harm to a ghos! I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for em! You go en git in de river again, whah you b’longs, en doan’ do nuffin’ to Ole Jim, ’at ’uz awluz yo’ fren’.”
Two things are going on here. The most obvious is Jim’s dialect. Twain is a master of the dialect: each character exhibits differences in vocabulary and speech patterns, usually dependent upon their social rank (or aspirations thereto). The technique is so subtle – often merely a vowel sound or pronunciation – but such is our inherent ear for language that the cumulative effect is very powerful, and we are easily able to distinguish between characters.
The second thing to note is Jim’s superstition: Twain is not making fun of these people, but rather is trying to show their understanding of events according to their limited view of the world. It’s a continuing theme of the book. There’s often a certain logic at play that must be admired for its creativity.
Huck and Jim build a raft and gradually make their way downriver, eventually hoping to reach a point beyond the jurisdiction of Jim’s owners:
‘The second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four miles an hour. We catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars…’
That Huck can reckon on time and of the speed of the river speaks to his rivercraft. And in an age of technological detachment, Huck Finn is special for its portrayal of connection with the rhythms of nature.
‘Every night, now, I used to slip ashore towards ten o’clock, at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents worth of meal or bacon or other stuff to eat; and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable, and took him along. Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don’t want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain’t ever forgot. I never seen pap when he didn’t want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway.’
Brilliant: Huck justifies his stealing of the chicken, not only in terms of the comfort of the chicken but also in doing a good deed for a stranger. And then comes the punchline of his father’s attitude towards stealing.
Further on, during the middle of a storm, they come across a half-sunken riverboat in the middle of the river:
‘Well, it being away in the night, and stormy, and all so mysterious-like, I felt just the way any other boy would a felt when I seen that wreck, laying there so mournful and lonesome in the middle of the river. I wanted to get aboard her and slink around a little and see what was there.’
It’s an unexpected switch in the mood, from mystery and foreboding to blind enthusiasm, and perfectly captures Huck’s sense of daring. Later on is revealed a twist in the contents of that wreck.
Their journey continues:
We slept most all day, and started out at night, a little ways behind a monstrous long raft that was as long going by as a procession. She had four long sweeps at each end, so we judged she carried as many as thirty men, likely. She had five big wigwams aboard, wide apart, and an open campfire in the middle, and a tall flag-pole at each end. There was a power of style about her. It amounted to something being a raftsman on such a craft as that.
A thirty-man raft speaks to the scale of the Mississippi. A ’power of style’. I’m going to start using that. So ends the first part of the book.
The second part of the book involves their encounter on the river with two conmen, the ‘King’ and the ‘Duke’, who travel from town to town trying on their scams:
‘First they did a lecture on temperance; but they didn’t make enough for them both to get drunk on. Then in another village they started a dancing school; but they didn’t know no more how to dance than a kangaroo does, so the first prance they made, the general public jumped in and pranced them out of town. Another time they tried to go at yellocution; but they didn’t yellocute long till the audience got up and gave them a solid good cussing and made them skip out.’
Not only is this a clever and funny portrayal, but it speaks to a time of compromised communication between towns isolated along the river, where the transportation of news, goods and people (and knowledge of conmen) were dependent upon the speed of the current.
The King and the Duke reinforces another theme of Huck Finn: deceit. Almost every main character lies about who they are, often multiple times, In fact, such deceit drives the narrative. Like a steamboat charting a course down the river, each character provides a way for Huck to navigate the snags and markers of a safe moral path. Here is Huck determining – warily - to be more truthful:
Well, I says to myself at last, I’m a-going to chance it; I’ll up and tell the truth this time…though it does seem most like setting down on a keg of powder and touching it off just to see where you’ll go to.
This obfuscation of identity is perhaps partly explained by Twain’s own true identity. Born Samuel Clemens, he had served as a riverboat pilot, ‘Mark Twain’ being a term indicating the depth of the river. As we saw with Joseph Conrad, here we have the writer writing about what they intimately know. This lends some of the fantastic scenes and characters in Huck Finn an even greater fascination as we recognize the legitimacy of the world Twain is describing.
The final part of the book sees a reunion with Tom Sawyer and involves a convoluted plan, often funny but also exasperating (and that’s the point of it), to free Jim. Here’s a wonderful image from that section where Huck approaches an unfamiliar farm:
When I had got half way first one hound and then another got up and went for me, and of course I stopped and faced them, and kept still…In a quarter of a minute I was a kind of a hub of a wheel, as you may say – spokes made out of dogs – circle of fifteen of them packed together around me, with their necks and noses stretched up towards me…
‘Spokes made out of dogs’ is a great image, and quite modern in that we picture it from above, cinematically.
One final thing must be addressed: the blatant racism contained within Huck Finn jars modern readers and indeed cannot be ignored. ‘Nigger’ is frequently used. Here are Huck’s thoughts on Jim’s plans to rescue his own children from their slavery:
‘It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell”…Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children – children that belonged to a man that I didn’t even know, a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.’
And again, here is Huck being questioned about an explosion aboard a riverboat:
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
I think Twain is trying to express the absurdity of these views by stating them so matter-of-factly. And at the end of the day, it is a novel about freeing a slave.
Huck Finn will delight anyone who remembers the simple childhood pleasures of building and sailing (though more often, sinking) rafts. At a deeper level there is an appreciation for the apparent ease of Twain’s storytelling; there is a ‘power of style’ to it.
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