Monday, August 10, 2015

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

(Book Review)

My History With This Book
So, I wrote all about my history with this series in my previous review of The Adventures of Tom SawyerBut for the purpose of making this blogpost stand independently, I'll recap it briefly here.

Around 3rd grade or so, I read this book in an simplified "Children's Classics" version that we had laying about my house.  So I've been familiar with the basics beats of the book's plot ever since then.  (In fact, in a previous post, I included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a list of classic books that I felt no urgency to read because I already had the plot spoiled for me in simplified versions.)

When I was 11 years old, I read the original text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I moved on to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but found Huckleberry Finn to be much harder going.  I lost interest in the long meandering journey down the Mississippi that didn't seem to be going anywhere.  So I gave up on it.  (This also I've previously  mentioned in my commentary on the most begun but unfinished book list--in which The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was ranked 77th of all time.  Which indicates this experience was not unique to me.)

But since then, I've heard so much praise for this book that I knew I had to come back for it eventually.  It's frequently called the greatest American novel of all time.
Typical of the high praise this book usually gets from literary types is Hemingway's famous quote:  "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' ... it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Or this quote from H.L. Menken:
"I believe that 'Huckleberry Finn' is one of the great masterpieces of the world, that it is the full equal of 'Don Quixote' and 'Robinson Crusoe,' that it is vastly better than Gil Blas, 'Tristram Shandy,' 'Nicholas Nickleby' or 'Tom Jones.' I believe that it will be read by human beings of all ages, not as a solemn duty but for the honest love of it, and over and over again, long after every book written in American between the years 1800 and 1860, with perhaps three exceptions, has disappeared entirely save as a classroom fossil."

Well!  With that kind of praise being bandied about by the literary greats, you have to come back and read this book sooner or later, don't you?

My Review
So, let me just start with a caveat here.  I'm a person of limited intelligence.  Much of the symbolism of this book probably went over my head.  And I don't expect to write the definitive review of Huckleberry Finn.  But I'll engage with this book at the level that I can.

 I'll start out by comparing this book to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer because, despite people always mentioning both books together in the same breath, they're actually quite different in narration style, focus, and plot.

Comparisons with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
This book is a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and starts out exactly where Tom Sawyer left off.  At the end of the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and the rest of the neighborhood boys are forming a gang of robbers.  (One of the running jokes throughout this series is the inability of the boys to distinguish pulp fiction adventure books from reality, and the gang of robbers that they want to form is based off of fictional romanticized accounts of highwaymen (W) ).
At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we return right to this same scene.  Tom Sawyer is trying to explain to the group that they have to be gentleman robbers and do things "by the book", and the rest of the boys are reluctant to adhere to all the nonsensical codes of conduct, but nevertheless defer to Tom's authority on the matter.
(Although...if you wanted to nitpick this series for continuity errors, there are a couple of slip ups.  At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the boys have pretty much figured out what a "ransom" is and how to do it.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, they've somehow lost this knowledge, and now they have no idea what a "ransom" is, but only know it's something they have to do because it's in all the books.)

However, despite continuing exactly from where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is much different in tone and narration style.

Unlike Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is told in the first person, through the voice of Huckleberry Finn himself.  There's a really great line in the opening of the book (the kind of thing my college literature professors used to go nuts over) in which the character of Huck Finn comments on the previous book, and casts doubt on the reliability of the author Mark Twain.  "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.  Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary and the Widow Douglass, is all told about in that book--which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before." (Opening lines from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I suppose you could use this to explain away the continuity errors mentioned above.)  

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the presence of a 3rd person narrator allowed the author to escape from Tom Sawyer's perspective, and even to comment on things that Tom Sawyer did not yet understand.  For example, following the infamous white-washing scene, the narrator states: "Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all.  He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, that in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.  If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to doAnd this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill is work, whilst rolling nine-pins or climbing Mount Blanc is only amusement.  There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line in the summer, because the privilege cost them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work, and then they would resign. "  (From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 2.)

But in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the narration is entirely confined to Huck's perspective.  The adult reader can infer and guess a lot of things which Huck cannot, but Huck himself is often not able to see the significance of what he is doing.
The most famous example of this (the one mentioned by every review ever) is Huck's conflicted feeling over helping a runaway slave.  Huckleberry Finn has so thoroughly absorbed the mores of his community (the ante-bellum South) that he believes it's wrong to help a slave escape, and he believes that if he does it, he will go to hell.  But since he can't bring himself to forsake his friend Jim, he helps Jim anyway, believing all the time that he's a terrible person for doing it, and hating himself for it.
The adult reader, of course, knows that Huckleberry Finn's actions are right, and it's the mores of the community that are wrong, but Huckleberry Finn himself is never allowed to reach this conclusion.  He just believes he's helping Jim because he's a low-down dirty person who can't ever do right.

The narration style of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is also much different than Tom Sawyer.  There's a lot more literary descriptions in Huckleberry Finn than there are in Tom Sawyer.  In Tom Sawyer, the narration style was kept brisk and the action moved quickly.  In Huckleberry Finn, however, you get a lot more passages like this:

"The river looked miles and miles across.  The moon was so bright I could a counted the drift logs that went a-slipping along, black and still, hundreds of yards out from shore.  Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late.  You know what I mean--I don't know the words to put it in." (From Chapter 7)

Or

"I kept quiet, with my ears cocked, about fifteen minutes, I reckon.  I was floating along, of course, four or five miles an hour; but you don't ever think of that.  No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of snag slips by, you don't think to yourself how fast you're going, but you catch your breath and think, my! how that snag's tearing along.  If you think it ain't dismal and lonesome out in a fog that way, by yourself, in the night, you try it once--you'll see." (from Chapter 15).

And many more similar passages.  (I won't type the whole thing up here, but the first two pages of Chapter 19 are pretty much just a long description of what it's like to raft down the Mississippi river.)
All these literary descriptions are no doubt why the literary types love Huckleberry Finn so much, but for us non-literary types it can make parts of the book a bit of a slog.  I'm fairly sure this is the reason why 11-year-old me gave up on this book.

The focus of Huckleberry Finn is also much different than Tom Sawyer.  In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the focus of the book is all about the world of children--going to school and playing hooky from school, learning verses in Sunday School, the schoolyard romances and rivalries, the childish superstitions, and of course all the games.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the adult world is much more the focus of the story, as Huck Finn travels to many small towns along the Mississippi River, and observes how the adult villagers act. It's the adult world as viewed through the eyes of a naive child, admittedly, but it's the adult world nonetheless that is front and center in Huckleberry Finn.

And finally, the plot structure is much different.
Mark Twain starts off his book by writing: "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 order of the author"  (Author's preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

However, as I wrote in my review of Tom Sawyer, this introduction really should apply more to the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than to Huckleberry Finn.  Of the two novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  was really the one that was truly episodic and plotless.  Huckleberry Finn does actually have an overarching plot--Huckleberry Finn teams up with an escaped slave named Jim, and they journey down the Mississippi River on a  quest to get to Cairo from where they hope to get a steamboat to help Jim escape to the free states.   (It's been pointed out by many a commentator the irony inherent in the story--the ultimate goal of Jim and Huck is to get North to the free states, but the whole journey consists of them going further and further South down the Mississippi River.)

But, within this over-arching structure, the book is a classic "journey" story.  The characters encounter random things along their journey, each of which is completely unconnected to the other, so instead of a plot building forward to its conclusion, we have a series of short encounters that don't advance the story at all.  (Since any commentary on Huckleberry Finn must, by law, make some sort of comparison to The Odyssey, I suppose here is as good as place as any to insert the mandatory reference to Homer.)

So if both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are largely episodic, why did I enjoy Tom Sawyer so much as a kid, but give up on Huckleberry Finn?
I think it had a little bit to do with reader expectations.  In Tom Sawyer, you knew the whole book was just supposed to be a series of random adventures, so you didn't mind.
Whereas in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there's this whole plot about escaping to the North which the author sets up, but then seems to forget about completely as he keeps bringing his characters on all these random diversions.  And, perhaps more so than Tom Sawyer, this frustrated expectation makes some readers think:  "Man, WHERE is this story going?"

That, plus a lot of the encounters in Huckleberry Finn don't really seem to have much of a point. While both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are episodic, the episodes in Tom Sawyer are a lot more recognizable as episodes.  Typically Tom Sawyer plans some sort of scheme, Tom Sawyer executes his scheme, and hilarious consequences result.  The point of each story is the humor, and the humor is very obvious.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, however, is a lot harder to engage with, because there are all sorts of little encounters along the Mississippi River that don't seem to have an obvious point and don't seem to have an obvious punchline.  "Well, what was the point of that little bit?" I was constantly asking myself as I read through the book.   
In many of these encounters Huck Finn and Jim don't really even do that much.  They just act as observers on some piece of life along the Mississippi, and then move on.   "Was there some deeper meaning and symbolism that I missed, or did Mark Twain never really manage to fully develop that little bit?" I was constantly asking myself.

I think those reasons are why I lost interest in this book when I was a kid.  (And why, according to the completely unscientific Internet survey referenced above, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the 77th most begun-but-unfinished-book.)

As a full grown adult, however, I have a lot more patience, and can handle this kind of stuff in my reading a lot better than I could at 11.  (George Orwell makes the comment that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are well-known under the guise of children's books, but are really completely not children's books at all.  [LINK HERE]).  And any adult reader with a bit of patience to stick with this book during some of the slower parts will be well-rewarded by the rich humor in other parts.

And there's some really great humor in some of the scenes in Huckleberry Finn.

I'll get to that in the next section.
Great Parts of this Book
Mark Twain is a comic genius, and the good parts of this book are very, very good.

There are brilliant little gems are throughout the book, but to me there are two episodes in particular which really make this book.

The first is all the parts with the King and the Duke.

For a large part of the middle of the book, Huckleberry Finn and Jim fall in with two con-men, one of them pretending to be the long lost Dauphin of France (W), the other one pretending to be a duke.  For much of the middle of the book, the schemes of these two conman dominate the plot, and Huck and Jim are mostly reduced to observers.

The tone of the book changes dramatically when these two conman take center stage.  Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were never really angels, but they always had their hearts in the right places more or less, and they never set out to seriously defraud anyone.  The King and the Duke, on the other hand, are straight out villains.  But you kind of find yourself rooting for their various schemes anyway, just because the reader is seeing everything from their side, and not from the side of the people who are getting tricked.  (Technically the mind of Huck Finn is the reader's perspective, but Huck Finn listens in on all their conversations.)
At the same time, even though you kind of feel sympathetic for them, there's also a certain delight in knowing that their schemes are going to go wrong sooner or later, and that they will eventually get their comeuppance.

The best part is when the King and the Duke pretend to be the long lost brothers of a recently deceased man in order to get his inheritance, and they manage to con the whole town into believing it.
Even without benefits of spoilers, the reader knows this scheme is never going to work till the end.  I mean, you just know.  These characters never succeed in this type of book.  You know they'll pull off the scheme for a little bit, but then sooner or later it will all come crashing down on their heads.
So the whole time you, the reader, are eagerly waiting for them to get theirs.  But the suspense of the book comes in not knowing exactly when they're going to get found out.  And Mark Twain plays this whole thing expertly.  First it looks like they are going to get caught for sure, and then they scheme a way out of it.  And then something else will go wrong, and it looks for sure like they'll get found out, but then they'll scheme a way out of that.  And eventually you kind of admire them for their sheer audacity, and you even kind of half hope they'll get away with it, even as the other half of  you is eagerly waiting for them to get their just desserts.

In other words, it reminded me exactly of the same feelings I had reading the Flashman series.
The comparison is, of course, anachronistic.  I should say that Flashman is reminiscent of Mark Twain rather than saying that Mark Twain reminds me of Flashman, because it is Mark Twain who was the original.   But this is the order I encountered the books in.
At any rate, it's a compliment to Mark Twain's writing style that a book written in 1884 feels just as modern as the more recent Flashman books.

So that was one highlight of this book for me.  The other highlight was the rescue of Jim at the end of the book.

Near the end of the story, Jim is captured and imprisoned as a run-away slave, and Huck Finn is determined to free him.  At this point, Tom Sawyer re-enters the book, and commandeers the whole rescue operation.  Tom Sawyer is still obsessed with romantic adventure books, so he makes sure that Jim's escape happens just like it would in a book.  And so, just like the romantic miserable prisoners in an Alexander Dumas novel, Jim has to keep a prisoner's journal, and make friends with the rats in his cell, and take care to leave various clues for his pursuers to follow.
It's all ridiculous of course.  It's ridiculous first of all that Tom Sawyer would take these books so literally, and secondly that he would convince Huck Finn and Jim to go along with him.  But it's also hilarious. And once again, Mark Twain pulls it off brilliantly.

The really funny part is that although Tom Sawyer is nominally there to help Jim, all his plans just make Jim more and more miserable.  Jim gets tired of having to write in his journal, and leave clues, and hates all the rats that Tom Sawyer brought for him to tame.  And eventually Jim starts making comments about how he never would have become a prisoner if he had known being a prisoner was such hard work, and if he ever escaped, he would never become a prisoner again for a salary.

All that being said, Mark Twain probably stretches this joke out a little bit too long.  (It goes on for about 30 pages in my edition).  But it is still funny.  To quote from a small section of it, here's a small snippet of a conversation between Jim and Tom Sawyer.

"...I never knowed b’fo’ ‘t was so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner.”
“Well, it ALWAYS is when it’s done right. You got any rats around here?”
“No, sah, I hain’t seed none.”
“Well, we’ll get you some rats.”
“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ WANT no rats. Dey’s de dadblamedest creturs to ‘sturb a body, en rustle roun’ over ‘im, en bite his feet, when he’s tryin’ to sleep, I ever see. No, sah, gimme g’yarter-snakes, ‘f I’s got to have ‘m, but doan’ gimme no rats; I hain’ got no use f’r um, skasely.”
“But, Jim, you GOT to have ‘em – they all do. So don’t make no more fuss about it. Prisoners ain’t ever without rats. There ain’t no instance of it. And they train them, and pet them, and learn them tricks, and they get to be as sociable as flies. But you got to play music to them. You got anything to play music on?”
“I ain’ got nuffn but a coase comb en a piece o’ paper, en a juice-harp; but I reck’n dey wouldn’ take no stock in a juice-harp.”
“Yes they would. THEY don’t care what kind of music ‘tis. A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat. All animals like music – in a prison they dote on it. Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp. It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you. Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well. You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jewsharp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’ – that’s the thing that ‘ll scoop a rat quicker ‘n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come. And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”
“Yes, DEY will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is JIM havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint. But I’ll do it ef I got to. I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”
(From Chapter 38)

Other Notes

Too Many Convenient Coincidences?
In order to advance the plot of this book, Mark Twain makes use of a number of rather unbelievable coincidences.  But then, Alexander Dumas was guilty of the same sin.  As was Charles Dickens.   So how hard should we be on Twain for this?
Perhaps in the 19th century, it was just more accepted that authors could get away with this stuff?  (I really don't know here, so I'm asking the question.  Anyone with any insight, feel free to leave a comment.)

The N-Word Controversy

So, it's impossible to talk about this book these days without mentioning the N-word controversy, and the censorship issue.

However, with apologies, I'm going to try to take a pass on this one.  I don't know enough about the historical use of the word "nigger" to comment on how accurately Mark Twain is representing it here.
Obviously in the 1840s, "nigger" was a lot less offensive than it is today.  That much I know.  But was it completely innocent, or was it a little bit offensive even back then?
From the text of Huckleberry Finn, the reader gets the impression that "nigger" was the only word available at the time to talk about black people.  Is that accurate?  Or were there alternatives that Mark Twain could have chosen?
Was there a difference in language between the 1840s (when this book is set) and the 1880s (when Mark Twain wrote it)?   Was the word becoming offensive by the 1880s?

If you could make the case that the word was not offensive during the 1880s, then I'd say that Mark Twain gets a free pass.  But I just don't know enough to comment.

As for the censorship issue:
I'm anti-censorship in general, but of course it's important to acknowledge there are all different shades of grey between mandating that a book be read, and out-right banning it completely.

It's one thing for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be part of the mandatory school curriculum, and another thing for the book to be taken off of the mandatory curriculum but still usable at the teacher's discretion.  And another thing yet for the book to be outright forbidden in the classroom.  And yet another thing for the book to be removed from the school library.  And yet another thing for the book to be removed from the public library.

I'm sympathetic to the fact that the repeated use of the "n-word" in this book would make teachers reluctant to teach it.  Imagine, you've got a class full of 13 year-olds.  They're just looking for an excuse to say all the words that they know they're not supposed to say, just to fluster the teacher.  And then you've got some poor teacher who's got to get them to talk about a book full of that word without having them actually use the offensive word.
Taking this book out of the school library, however, would be another matter altogether.

The Racial Politics of this Book
The whole plot of the book, to the extent that there is a plot, is the story of trying to help a runaway slave to freedom.  So, this book is unmistakably anti-slavery.

But...if I had to quibble with the book, I might say that it doesn't seem to be anti-slavery enough.
I mean, compare this book with a film like 12 Years a Slave, in which the full horror and brutality and sadism of slavery is fully on display.  None of that comes through in Mark Twain's narrative.  Twain clearly believes that society is wrong to take away Jim's freedom, but the conditions of Jim's servitude are always portrayed as relatively benign.  The widow Douglas is not particular cruel to her slaves.  Uncle Silas is not particular cruel to his slaves.  And although the novel is sympathetic to Jim's conditions, Jim's misery is often played for comic effect in a way that sometimes seem to belittle the actual horrors of slavery.
(I've read some commentators say that since Mark Twain grew up in a household that owned slaves, he might have felt some complicity in it, and may have been reluctant to take on the full horror of slavery.)

But...perhaps it's being overly purist to complain that an anti-slavery novel is not anti-slavery enough.   Maybe I should just be happy that Mark Twain is on the right side of the issue, and just let it go.

The character of Jim himself is a bit more tricky, especially when we consider that in the 19th century you could be considered liberal and anti-slavery, and yet still believe that blacks were cognitively inferior to whites.
At various points in the book Jim seems like an idiot, and while I was reading, it was hard for me to avoid the thought that Mark Twain may have believed that black people were lacking in intelligence.

I still think this is a serious possibility actually.  But there are a few other alternative explanations.

One is that Jim's ignorance is meant to reflect his lack of education and the limited opportunities for intellectual advancement available for slaves, and not his inherent genetic ability.

The other is that Jim is not meant to represent all the people of his race, but just meant to represent himself.  He plays the comic idiot because Mark Twain needs someone to play the comic idiot in order to pay off all of his jokes, and in this case, the comic idiot just happens to be a black man.

One of Mark Twain's favorite gags is to have one character be completely ignorant of the world, and to adopt various ignorant statements about how the world works.  Someone will try to correct them, but then the ignorant character is able to use such good logic and such good arguments that they are able to win the debate and out-argue the other person.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim plays the role of the ignorant person with astoundingly good logic, and Huckleberry Finn plays the person who knows better, but is never able to win the argument.

Interestingly enough, however, the roles get switched up in the sequel: Tom Sawyer Abroad.  In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Huck Finn now plays the part of the ignorant person who uses logic to argue nonsense, and Tom Sawyer plays the part of the educated person.  (The character personalities are not entirely consistent across the different books in this series, but I'll get more into that when I review Tom Sawyer Abroad in another post.)  This would seem to indicate it's not a racial thing, it's just that Mark Twain needs some character to argue the absurd in order to play out all the jokes.

And then there's one more saving grace.  There's a brief passage in the beginning of the book that indicates Mark Twain is aware that not all black people are ignorant and uneducated.
In chapter 6, Huckleberry Finn's father, an uneducated, illiterate drunk, is complaining about how awful the government is, and among his lists of complaints, he mentions the following:

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane – the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me – I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger – why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold? – that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now – that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and –” 
Pap was agoing on so he never noticed where his old limber legs was taking him to, so he went head over heels over the tub of salt pork and barked both shins, and the rest of his speech was all the hottest kind of language – mostly hove at the nigger and the govment, though he give the tub some, too, all along, here and there... 
(From Chapter 6)

The irony here is clear.  Huck Finn's father is illiterate, uneducated, and always drunk.  The black man is educated, and a professor, and yet the fact that the educated professor is allowed to vote makes the illiterate drunk think that the practice of voting has been somehow tarnished.  It's clear which side Mark Twain himself is on.

One a side note: although I've quoted only a small piece of it here, I love the whole anti-government rant from Huck Finn's father in chapter 6.  It's just perfect for illustrating that anti-government right-wing jerks were just as obnoxious in Mark Twain's day as they are in ours.
Because the government allows the black man some freedoms, Huck Finn's father thinks that he is somehow being oppressed by the government.  It reminded me of many comments I saw on the Internet recently after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.  Many conservatives though that they were somehow being oppressed because gay people had been granted a freedom.

 Connections With Other Books I've Read
 * Several references are made to The Man in the Iron Mask.  Tom Sawyer has clearly read this book, and becomes obsessed with trying to recreate some scenes from Dumas's depiction of the imprisonment of the man in the iron mask, particularly the scene in which the man in the iron mask writes messages on the bottom of his plates.
(I'm unsure whether to count this as an anachronism or not.  I think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are both supposed to take place sometime in the 1840s-50s.  The Man in the Iron Mask was, according to Wikipedia (W), first serialized in 1847-1850 in France.  I'm not sure when the English translation would have arrived in the small towns in Missouri.)

* In A Very Short History of the World, Geoffrey Blainey quoted from a section of this book, the conversation between Huck and Jim about the night stars, to illustrate how prominent the night sky used to be in the imagination of people in every era except our own.

* Several - of - the - books - I've - read on the English language have quoted from Huckleberry Finn to illustrate Mark Twain's documentation of the American vernacular.  (Although I've now forgotten which books in particular.  Possibly it was all of them.)
In the author's preface to this book, Mark Twain clams to have painstaking researched all the different dialects and variants of dialects he used in Huckleberry Finn.  

The Publisher's Introduction
 I don't want to say too much on the Publisher's Introduction, because there are tons of different editions of Huckleberry Finn floating around out there, and each one has their own separate introduction, and the introduction on the edition I read (Wordsworth Classics, Introduction by Stuart Hutchinson) is probably only of interest to me.

But I'll drop a few words here about a couple things that caught my interest.
Apparently Mark Twain had a hard time with this book, writing much of it in 1876, and then abandoning it for several years and finally coming back to it in 1879.  When Twain returned to the book, he had a different vision for it, which explains why the nominal plot of the book (Jim escaping to freedom) gets completely forgotten for much of the middle of the book as various other adventures take center stage instead.
 This could be considered a structural weakness of the book, although Stuart Hutchinson is able to use literary language to make the conflicting structures of the book sound like an intriguing literary device.  "As we now have it [the completed version of Huckleberry Finn], therefore, when the intention to 'go up the Ohio amongst the free states' duly comes along, it merely signals the possibility of one kind of Huckleberry Finn even as the book is already becoming another.  This latter Huckleberry Finn is inclusive of the realistic plot but not determined by it, because there is no authorial conviction that life in the overall sense can ever improve.  Consequently, the raft drifts in the current of a river mightier than human designs towards an ocean still mightier, a natural death (like life itself) in relation to which all other ends may be as contrived as Tom's games." (Stuart Hutchinson, introduction to Huckleberry Finn.)

Mr. Stuart Hutchinson also picked up on all sorts of symbolism in this book that I never picked up on.  Some of it struck me as a bit far-fetched, and at times I thought this might be a classic example of a literature professor trying to justify his job by picking a lot of nonsense out of thin area.  But I'll admit that there was probably a lot in this book that I probably just missed. Which brings me to my final point:

There's a Lot More In this Book
So, as I said in the beginning, it is not my ambition to write the definitive review of Huckleberry Finn.  There's a lot more themes in this book, but I'd be writing forever if I tried to cover everything.

For example, just like in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, there's a lot of satirizing of the European monarchy and aristocracy system.  (This apparently was one of Mark Twain's major pet peeves).

There's also a lot of religious commentary in this book.  Mark Twain was a life-long vehement critic of Christianity, but the criticism is pretty mild in Huckleberry Finn.  Much of it just rests on the humour of Huckleberry Finn misunderstanding the religious instruction he's being given.  Or the humour of how unappealing the traditional harps-in-the-clouds portrait of heaven is to a 12 year old boy.
The most damning criticism against Christianity, however, is also the subtlest.  Mark Twain never makes a big deal of emphasizing it, but it's noticeable that all of the most pious characters (Miss Watson, Uncle Silas) are also portrayed as slave owners.

There's 16 pages in the middle of the book which is just a re-telling of the Hatfield and McCoy saga.  (I was glad I had watched the History Channel Mini-series on the Hatfields and McCoys, so I had a pretty good idea of which details were straight out of history, and which details were made up.)

As Huck and Jim travel through several small towns along the Mississippi, there's all sorts of commentary on small town life, on the Southerners inflated view of their own bravery, on mob mentalities, et cetera.
There's some sexist remarks in this book (and in the previous book Tom Sawyer) that probably require the reviewer to make yet another caveat before recommending this book to someone.

Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the most important theme of the book: the idea that our conscience might not be based on an absolute universal sense of right and wrong, but based on conditioning by society--as when Huck's conscience tells him it's wrong to help a slave escape.

But since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is arguable the most written about book in American literature, I'm sure someone has covered all of these topics and more elsewhere.  I'm going to leave off here.

Link of the Day
Who Controls the U.S. Government and the Gap Between Rich and Poor: Noam Chomsky

6 comments:

Darrell Reimer said...

Hm -- a book I haven't finished, either. Who knows when (or if) I'll get around to it?

Joel said...

Oh right. Yet another person who started Huck Finn and didn't make it through? I'd be curious as to your experience. How old were you when you started it, and what do you think caused you to give up on it?

Darrell Reimer said...

That would have been my late-20s, maybe 30. Beth has a hardcover edition, which I opened and read for an hour or so. That was my Cormac McCarthy phase, though, so Twain didn't have what it took to grab me (an appetite for the abattoir).

Joel said...

Yeah, fair enough. You've really got to be in the right mood for a book like this. Still, after having read the whole thing, I can say that although some parts of it are slow, the good parts of it are really really good. Enough to merit a recommendation.

Perhaps audio book might be the best way to knock this one off? This recording here isn't bad.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFZYP1fDtpo

Darrell Reimer said...

Yeah, I might do that. I do mean to get to HF before I kick. Mind you, Moby Dick is also in that category. So many books -- and video games-- and so little time.

Joel said...

Oh yeah, I can identify with that. Moby Dick is also on my bucket list. As is hundreds of other books I'm probably not ever realistically going to get around to.