“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reeks of the past. It reeked of the past when it was first published in America in 1885. And it sure as hell reeks of the past today — but in a most glorious way. Mark Twain knew what we he was doing. He was fully engaged in the American scene, warts, bruises, gunshots and all. As I carry around an eReader with me, I am reading more of the books I’ve been meaning to read. This one has been high on my list. Today, being Memorial Day, seems a particularly appropriate time to consider this classic, although any day of the week will do as well.
Upon my reading, I come away with the conclusion that, despite the controversy, Mark Twain’s novel is indeed a landmark work of American fiction and, I’ll go one better, is essential. At this point, it’s hard to imagine it fading into obscurity and yet there are those who continue to try to see that happen. The arguement is that we, as a nation, have moved beyond such issues of race. But that’s really nothing more than an attempt to sweep things under the rug and isn’t the American rug already pretty lumpy from being swept under?
The biggest problem of all for “Huckleberry Finn” is the fact that it is a work of art. You see, a true work of art will always confound the literal-minded. As in life, and as in art, there are no neatly tied up resolutions. No, instead, ambiguity presides. The main character, Huck Finn, does not behave in a systematically heroic fashion. What he does is behave like a boy with a mind, heart and soul of his own. He makes numerous choices, not always the right ones. And, arguably, the other main character, Jim, the runaway slave who Huck has embarked upon a journey with, is not perfect either. Both are products of their time, America circa 1840, and both are individuals in search of freedom as they know it. Twain, the keen social observer, set up the perfect vehicle from which to comment on American life. He knew as well as anyone that the end of the American Civil War had not led to the freedom that African Americans had been promised. What it had led to was the dark era of Jim Crow, nearly a century of systematic racial discrimination from 1876 to 1965.
Twain maintains an impressive balancing act throughout the novel. The story is told by a thirteen-year-old and yet manages to bring about older insights. It is a story very much of its time, using language of its time, while still transcending it. And he adroitly shifts from broad humor to more poetic passages. There are three main parts to the story. There is the most poignant first part where we find Huck at the hands of his abusive father and his subsequent dreamlike escape on a raft with Jim. Then, after a number of mishaps, we settle into a long burlesque section where Jim and Huck are at the mercy of two con artists. And, finally, the last part finds Huck reunited with Tom Sawyer in a surreal episode where they appear to make an utter mockery of Jim’s plight as a runaway slave complete with torturing him with rats, spiders, snakes and a series of humiliations. This is the part that makes Hemingway have to add a disclaimer to his decree that all American fiction begins with “Huck Finn.” He concludes that the last twelve chapters are not worth a damn — which is rather meaningless. The fact is, taken as a whole, the novel does a fine job of revealing a nation struggling with its own dysfunction.
If anyone was expecting Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to have a perfect epiphany and, without hesitation or distraction, welcome Jim to his rightful place among humanity, Twain is there to say the reader has another thing coming. If a nation can hardly come to grips with what it has wrought, don’t expect two boys to figure it out. What they will do is mirror their own environment. And, with any luck, maybe they will rise above it because they should before too long. That is Twain’s hope for the characters, for his country, and for his readers. In time, with any luck, maybe we will all rise above what has been wrought because we should before too long.
The fact is that the building of a nation is, and always will be, a wild and wooly affair. There are things that can never be lived down and yet we must carry on. We must carry on because we have no choice but to do so. But to forget, no, that is taking things too far. Just as Twain will not let the reader off the hook when it comes to how two boys will behave, he is not going to make it comfortable regarding how a nation behaves. It should be as clear as day that Huck’s beloved friend, Jim, is not a “nigger,” in any sense of that word and yet Twain uses the term repeatedly as the characters in the book refer to him and to any African American. The word is used by the high and the low, from the most ignorant yokel to the country doctor. Huck uses it matter-of-factly without giving it a second thought. And that’s a huge point in the book. The word stings, it hurts and humiliates. But, if all the grown-ups are using it, then why should Huck question it, right? But, despite the predominant feelings of the time, Huck does question Jim’s state as a slave.
The controversy rages on about whether or not to teach this book in high school. To that problem, I suggest another way of looking at it. What if no one had been around to capture on video the beating of Rodney King? Or any number of acts that have occurred since then? We should think of “Huckleberry Finn,” in one sense, as a master recording of those sort of things, the things we wish would just go away or had just never happened. Instead of attempting to ban Mr. Twain’s book, we should be praising Mr. Twain. For those who think we’re better off with easy answers and forgetting the past, “Huckleberry Finn” is just the sort of book you should consider. As much as this classic is speaking to the past, like any excellent work of art, it clearly speaks to the present and the future.