Sunday, July 13, 2008

Huckleberry Finn's Opus And Time Magazine's Feature Of Mark Twain

The editors of Time, buffered like the rest of us upon litanies of atrocity, searched last week for something we could be proud of, and they settled on Mark Twain, who they put on the cover. The main article, written by Roy Blount, Jr., opened like this:
What, if anything, about this benighted moment of American life will anyone in the future look back on with nostalgia?
The nostalgia is this: a country produced a humorist, thinker, and moralist who took the pen-name of Mark Twain. As a young man, the restless, traveling parent-less Sam Clemens from Hannibal, Missouri hitched a boat-ride down to New Orleans, where he schemed to go to South America for to make his fortune smuggling cocaine back to the US. Not finding a ship quickly enough, he signed on as a steamboat pilot's apprentice and went back up the Mississippi. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he signed up briefly for the Confederacy, and pistolled an innocent horseman down in the darkness by his nervous bivouac in the woods. He stood over the man's body, trying to yearn him back to life, and he left the service soon thereafter to light out for silver mining in the territories where he became a yellow journalist.

That's a common story we, all of us Americans as ancestral flotsam, come from. Sam was like any of our other over-reaching rough young opportunists who didn't fit, a printer, a digger, a Billy the Kid, an adventurer who was just another searching inconsiderate who wanted something better. But with this kid there was a twist, and somehow his glimmerings of conscience kept steadily growing, aided by an ability to embroider yarns, to write and observe and express himself in print.

Eventually, in 1884, he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a semi-autobiographical or imagined examination of his childhood. For its sublime, honest, between-the-lines treatment of the turbulent, existential relationships of race, space, and the roiling cultures of an emerging country--themes which haven't calmed down by a long shot--it is the crowning achievement of American literature. I'm not sure if I've ever read a greater work, more accurately plumbing and surveying, more celebrating, capturing and penetrating, including all of Shakespeare's.

I have some inklings of what personal introspections, meditations, and unsparing intellectual braveries it took to write it. Not surprisingly, Twain said it took him the longest of all his books to write. It called all the fundamental assumptions of his boyhood appropriately into question, yet in many if not most high schools in my country today, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a forbidden work. (It makes liberal use of the language which was common at the time of its writing and subject, and of a pejorative word referring to color and race.) Quite simply, this is a cultural crime. Banning such a masterpiece is like burning down trees because they might one day burn, for Huck Finn is nothing less than the secret code and avatar of our national salvation.

In the story, a desperate, regularly abused and abject Huck Finn spreads blood on the ground and makes it look like his father, the notorious vagrant drunkard Pap Finn has killed him and dumped him in the river. At the same time, Miss Watson's slave Jim escapes her ownership because he longs to see his family, and the two wind up on the same mid-stream island. They elude the search parties sent to find them, and then take a raft down the Mississippi. There are misadventures, and Huck is tormented now and again by the legal and moral questions of sheltering an escaped slave. On page 100, he considers the temporal and eternal consequences of going against social and heavenly conscriptions, and decides that he solemnly will risk Hell for harboring a slave.

We gradually begin to realize that Jim is a thoroughly wise and moral man, about the only one we meet in the book, and that he's the best father figure Huck has ever had. At the end of the story, we learn that Jim earlier shielded Huck from the sight or knowledge of his biological father's dead body in the wreck of a gambling house that was swept down the river on a flood. Jim tells Huck to great relief that he's not condemned to return to his father's wrathful fists in St. Petersburg (Hannibal), and Huck may live with Tom Sawyer's family. Jim, having reached a providential freedom, takes his leave to go see his his wife and children at last.

It was Twain's intention that Jim, a slave, was Huck's better father, and if you closely read the story of their journey down the central, massive, live-giving river of our country, their mutual regard for each other gathers steadily until it starts to get unmistakably loud and finally hints of something greater. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a beautiful story, but it was intended even more as an allegory, you see, about the people in our country eventually becoming equal, about the rightness of them loving each other without reference to ownership, poor circumstance, or color.
Twain knew that respect and love could be shouted down by present and future crowds, but a beautiful story can't. He sheltered his meditations in impervious armor, and we can be proud of that.

(Note: this version edited for errors regarding points of plot.)


Vincent said...

Thanks Marc for this. You post began a little ambiguously, leading me to think that the essay on Twain was actually copied from Time and pasted into yours. So I followed your link and read the Time article. I have to say that yours is a great deal better than Blount's.

After this praise, may I ask if you have read the piece I did on Phineas Gage following your "please please please" a couple of weeks ago? You encouraged it and your part in it was acknowledged therein! (It's called "Hole in the Head"

Jon said...

Coincidentally, I was in Hannibal, MO last week, and visited the Mark Twain house, etc. there. Somehow they left out some of the items you mention.....

MarcLord said...

Vincent, ooh, flattery works wonders. Roy Blount has had a heckuva career, and is considered an expert on Twain.

On "Hole in the Head," my apologies. I finally found the right pathway to your door and left a comment there. I'd like to re-post your piece here.

MarcLord said...


Cool! Hannibal should be proud, and Mark Twain would've been an excellent cocaine dealer.

Really, I've wondered to what extent Huck Finn was modeled on Twain's inner self, because he had such difficulty writing it. Or to the extent upon which Huck's father was modeled on his own. He took care to note in his writings about the book to state:

"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."


isabelita said...

Fine post; I'd haggle a bit, as I think Moby Dick could give Huck Finn a run for its corn pone, but it's probably just a matter of style.

MarcLord said...


haggle, please, particularly because i've never read Moby Dick in its entirety. Really, plenty of writers capture their place and time very well and weave them into larger themes, yet don't achieve the fame of a Twain, Melville, or Conrad. Their timing and subject matter were fortuitously resonant.

Brother Tim said...

I too, think Huck Finn was arguably the best piece of American literature ever written. It's a shame the PC Police have it banned from most schools. Todays people wear their feelings on their sleeves and are easily offended. It's reality they're afraid of, and the time has come to get over it. There is nothing written that won't offend someone.

MarcLord said...

Bro Tim,

Hemingway said it was the greatest American novel until the slave-catchers got Jim. After that, he recommended not reading it. So it provokes strong feelings, understandably. I suppose it's too much to ask people as a whole to face reality, but we can chill out about the history, learn a little, and de-ionize some phrases. I do see an upside, at least, to banning it from schools: it elevates it to being the Good Shit.