Author: Mark Twain
Type: Fiction, novel
Full title: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Companion)
Published: 1884, 2001 (this edition)
I read it: July 2015 (re-read)
Reading Mark Twain in the years my sons are born: I didn’t plan this pattern, but it happened this way. Like I did with Tom Sawyer, I knew I wanted to read Huck Finn in the heat of summer and at just the right pace. That is, I went for a chapter a day, trying not to fall too far behind and push too far ahead. These books are very episodic, and work wonderfully in small doses.
Mark Twain simply works magic between his language, scenery, point-of-view, and social commentary. This last is hugely successful and humorous because it’s told only through Huck’s honest eyes. The first time I read this book I hadn’t yet discovered skepticism, so this time some passages shown through even sharper than before. Like when Huck is listening to Tom rattle off a mishmash of ideas he got from books, and observes that “it had all the marks of a Sunday school.” Many of the early chapters display Huck’s ignorance and half-formed logic, as well as the varied superstitions of Jim.
Other great episodes that skewer the times include the ongoing feud between the Sheperdsons and Grangerfords. Presumably mocking the larger-than-life feuds of the American west, these families go at each other for no apparent reason other than tradition, until bodies lie in the wake. They put aside their differences to meet for Sunday sermon, which is “all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness” as well as “faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I won’t know what all.” It’s hilarious and tinged with sorrow, like the entire aspect of Jim’s predicament.
Jim is a pretty complicated character, who I don’t really have the scholarship to say much about with confidence. The front half of the book is the best because of Huck and Jim’s relationship, and everything we learn about Jim is through Huck’s own prejudices and budding ethical realizations. Huck’s great dilemma is that he is the lowest class of white person whose minimal education includes strict ideological concepts based on social strata and religious purity. Because his society can’t get right and wrong straight, he spins in circles trying to decide how to act, until he decides he will just have to “do whichever come handiest at the time.” Further on, when he fully commits to helping to free Jim it is (he thinks) at the cost of his very soul, and so he consigns himself to hell. And because in his black and white world a person is either a sinner or a saint, he figures “as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.” Huck doesn’t think of himself as a savior for helping Jim, but quite the opposite: just a low-down kid trying to come to terms with himself in a dangerous world.
A lot of the book is a straightforward adventure, with some seriousness and a whole lot of humor thrown in. Huck doesn’t really find full redemption or growth, but picks up several nuggets of wisdom along the way. I like when he ponders small acts of kindness:
It was only a little thing to do, and no trouble; and it’s the little things that smoothes people’s roads the most, down here below; it would make Mary Jane comfortable, and it wouldn’t cost nothing.
In the middle third, he also quickly sees through the quackery of the king and the duke, “them two frauds,” the tireless hucksters who force themselves into Huck and Jim’s company. The whole plotline is pretty funny, with the con men working various exploits (“First they done a lecture on temperance; but they didn’t make enough for them both to get drunk on.”) while Huck tries to figure out a way to shake them off. He knows what they do is wrong, and regrets being involved: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”
The stint with the king and the duke is keen cultural history, but goes on a bit too long than is good for the story. The worst parts are how it puts Jim completely on the sidelines, and makes Huck an observer or bystander throughout many chapters. And then of course right when this part of the adventure is over, we get to the much-reviled ending chapters and the return of Tom Sawyer.
I don’t have a lot of strong feelings on the ending, which is funny at times because of the elaborately planned prison break of Jim, though it’s kind of a one-trick joke that just goes on and on. The big criticism is that it takes the serious situation of Jim’s slavery and makes a mockery of it. I see this point, but considering that they really do have to escape and end up getting into danger, it holds some drama. The downside for me is more mundane and is the exact same issue as the king and duke chapters: it becomes Tom’s story, with Huck a gullible follower and Jim a plot device.
Regardless, this is a still a fantastic read. At the end of this Modern Library Classics edition are some short essays from various minds throughout the decades, such as T.S. Eliot, as well as an extra passage that was not included in the original novel but still fits the story. The reason this version really shines, though, is the introduction by George Saunders. I waited to read it until after I finished the book, and indeed it would work better as an afterword because it gets into so many specifics. It’s a funny, honest, and illuminating piece of writing that really helps to bring the book into focus for modern readers. And it almost makes you want to start all over again from Chapter 1.
Finally, a few words have to be said about a couple author notes right after the title page. First there’s the clarification of the various dialects explored, which are no fewer than eight. That’s pretty amazing. Then there’s the NOTICE, BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR:
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.
Well I guess that shoots to hell the whole point of this review. Another point to Twain.
So step outside when it’s sticky, high summer. Cicadas buzz and greenery attempts to overtake everything. Find a chair, get some ice water. Do a chapter a day, and get lost in vibrant Americana.