Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing.  But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I came back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

When it comes to the "Great American Novel," I feel like you have basically two options: Moby Dick and Huck Finn.  Then again, only one of those takes place on American soil--the other one's at sea and all.  Not only is Huck Finn a great novel, it's about America in a real sense.  The above passage comes just after Huck decides to do what he perceives is the "right" thing and notify Miss Watson that her slave Jim has run away, but his memories of Jim's kindness to him change his mind.  He rips apart the letter, exclaiming, "All right, then, I'll go to hell."  Huck is stuck in a kind of doublethink, caught between what he knows to be right and what he feels to be right, and that dissonance is at the very heart of slavery, as a philosophy and a legal institution.  Fumbling with that dissonance, trying to make these two "rights" one, trying to reconcile the ideal of America and its practical reality--these define American history, even past 1865.  I don't think I'm stretching when I say that Huck Finn attempts to do exactly that.

I've already written about Huck Finn here, so I'll refrain from writing a long review.  But the question that interests me now is: What's up with the ending?  The "I'll go to hell!" speech is so perfect and so cathartic, but it's then undermined by the "comic" ending in which Tom Sawyer reappears.  Huck convinces Tom to help free Jim, who has been captured, and Tom turns it into a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired game in which they dig tunnels under the shed Jim is kept in (instead of going through the door) and hiding useless implements in his food.  It's all very demeaning to Jim, whose humanity we thought had been firmly established in the above scene.  (Nor is it very flattering to Huck, who I hadn't thought of us as quite so stupid.)

If you were inclined to be critical, you might say that Twain squanders the moral seriousness of the novel, and that he compromises his artistic judgment to placate fans of Tom Sawyer.  I wonder, on the other hand, if the switch back into that book's mode isn't meant to make us queasy, to discomfort us.  Maybe it asks us: What are we doing when we tell stories?  Tom's is a story; so is Twain's--and history, a cognate of the word "story," is another.  What kind of story do we want our histories to tell?


Shannon Baker said...

It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

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Christopher said...

It is. It is an interesting series.

Brent Waggoner said...

I like the one where he's a detective.