Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Huck Finn

I need to get this off my chest: I just finished reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and I don't have a clue what I should say about it. It's like coming back from Niagara Falls and trying to find meaningful adjectives to describe the falls that haven't already been used. "Huck Finn" has been analyzed to death; what more can I possibly add?

Only that I thought it was amazing, funny, touching, witty, and fascinating. I hear that it is Mark Twain's best book by a longshot so I probably won't pick up his other books, but nobody could write such a masterpiece without being consistently brilliant in SOME other way.

Critics love to slam the book's final chapters, and I have to agree...they are total crap: forced, repetitive, pointless, and a complete letdown from the subtlety and fine-honed logic of the rest of the story. Don't let that spoil it for you though...if you're looking for a fun and sometimes painful adventure through a sharply-observed long-lost time and place, definitely give "Huck Finn" some of your time.

It was almost better than "Dwarf Fortress." Almost.

17 comments:

jj said...

I think Mark Twain addressed this "Niagra Fall" thingy in his innocents aboard or roughing it travelagoues - only inverted. Basically he pointed out that when the naive American goes to the Lourdes for example and sees the Mona Lisa, he does not really feel anything special. But the expectations of all the travel writers who have preceded him force him to say and think that this was magnificent. Twain is undoubtedly one of the greats.

jj said...

My recommendations: Roughing it, Pudden(sic) Head Wilson, even Tom Sawyer probably. On my "should eventually read list": Innocents Aboard.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

And what do you think of Huck Finn? How does it relate to the other Twain books you've recommended?

jj said...

Huck Finn - great fun when read as a kid, but then I think we all are suckers for river journeys - think Jerome K Jerome's "Three men in a boat" for example. The journey itself provides a satisfying unity and coherence to the work of "all over the map because they are so talented" writers. Most of the racial politics went over my head. Absolutely loved the scamps. Hated the Tom Sawyer's tomfoolery towards the end.

Roughing it - Absolute must read. I personally rate it higher if only because it has Twain's "true" voice at his sarcastic best. A joy to behold! Twain's journey through the old west and trying to "make" it provides the narrative coherence.

Pudden Head Wilson - really neat story - twins separated at birth (not quite) but Bollywood buffs just eat up this kind of thing. Addresses slavery in a surprisingly effective manner. A Detective story to boot!

Kimber said...

Huck Finn was the first book I ever read that made me truly realize racism existed and that it was bad. Sad, I know, but I grew up in a home where my mother invited people of every race and creed to visit. So I didn't really understand what racism was until I read Huck Finn. I think every kid should read it and talk about it with an enlightened adult.

I also liked the part where he dressed up as a girl and was only "found out" when he closed his legs to catch something that was thrown at him...I practiced that endlessly to see if I would have had the instinctive urge to throw my legs upen and let my skirt catch the object. Which was inevitably a failure, since I hardly ever wore skirts as a kid...

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Yes, the Tom Sawyer tomfoolery was awful and it just NEVER ENDED. I didn't like the Sawyer character when he appeared at the beginning of the book either, which makes me think I should probably avoid "Tom Sawyer."

Muffy St. Bernard said...

The racism commentary was so sharp it was almost painful, which I suppose has makes it difficult to teach to highschool students; people are bound to be offended by the language, and you need to have SOME critical skills in able to recognize the satirical twists.

And yes, Finn's "drag moment" was pure gold, and it's funny that it affected you like that. Be careful when you throw stuff at rats, Kim, and also check how you thread a needle.

That scene was a fine example of Twain's eye for characterization, which is what props up the entire book. Just brilliant.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

PS: What's with my writing today? Late-night drag show and early-morning "feed me" routine from the cat. I am exhausted.

Scott said...

I quite liked Huck Finn, but not so much that I really strove to read his other stuff. Probably more because I am lazy, than by any fault of the book.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I'm sure that having children around the house leads to lazy reading habits, unless they want you to read "My Pet Goat" to them again.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I actually avoided reading Huck Finn for years and years--I even worked out a deal with my AP English teacher where I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man instead of Huck Finn (which was the rest of the class's assignment) simply because the spelled-out dialect annoyed me to no end. (Yes, a high school kid who preferred Joyce to Twain. Go fig.) As an American southerner, I had a complex about the good ol' boy jest-as-country-as-kin-be crap that in my mind made all of us look like uneducated rubes and traded off the stereotypes. I still dislike movies like that, and "Southern Lit" rarely floats my boat.

I finally made myself read it in graduate school, b/c I started feeling guilty about not having got through this monolith of American lit (I read Moby Dick for the first time around the same time period, for the same reasons) and liked it more than I thought I would. At least until Tom Sawyer showed up--then all my years of reticence and hate seemed justified.

I mean, Twain spends the whole book on this WONDERFUL journey with Huck, where Huck not only discovers himself but arrives at a sense of racial morality that is true and moving and completely against the grain of most of society at the time--a coming of age story where Huck is actually becoming a good, moral person against all odds. His relationship with Jim hits all the right notes, and I was right there with it.

Then Tom shows up and it all goes to HELL. Huck, who's been developing his own personality and moral sense as I said, completely and willingly sublimates all that to Tom's jackassery and the sub-30s poverty row movie comedy "jokes" that make up the last few chapters. Just undercuts the whole thing, imo. BOOO. Hated it.

Seems I read somewhere that Twain had let the story idle for years trying to come up with an ending, and then just crapped one together once he got sick of waiting for "the right" idea. Part of me thinks he should have kept waiting.

But I'm obviously in the minority where American letters are concerned, so add salt to taste. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

The edition of "Huck Finn" that I read was the "critical edition," chock full of essays and footnotes. The point where Twain left the manuscript to sit for three years was actually much earlier in the book (just before he meets the scamps).

The critics agree with you: those three "Tom Sawyer" chapters are untreated raw sewage with no right to be there. Twain was apparently spoofing the "boys adventure stories" so popular at the time, but it's almost like that section was written by somebody else entirely.

Aha, I can see how the could could grate the wrong way, especially if the reader is worried about southern stereotypes. Amazingly, it seems like every demographic represented in the book is split right down the middle in the critical world, one half claiming that their group was stereotyped, the other half claiming it transcended stereotyping.

I thought it presented the good and bad in everybody as perceived by a poor pre-adolescent child with little social upbringing.

And I do think it's a work of great literature (and "Moby Dick" as well, which I read and blogged about last summer).

mollyroses said...

Just finished reading Huck Finn. I miss him already. What a great book. About the annoying Tom Saywer eddy at the end - I'm wondering if Mark Twain didn't put all that in to show us Huck's authenticity in contrast to Tom's contrived romanticism. Huck has proven himself to be just about as brilliant as Tom is at getting himself out of a scrape - and with some comic flair, too, and no one can say that he doesn't know how to tell a good fib - but Huck does what he does and says what he says out of necessity. He and Jim have got to survive. Tom, who leads a comfortable existence, already, has to make up all kinds of fictions and unnecessary antics to keep his life looking the way he thinks it ought to be - and in a kind of conventionally romantic way, too - "by the book". Huck has successfully escaped from Tom's sort of middle-class imprisonment and wants to stay escaped. Tom's only escape is in fabricating adventures for himself. That gun wound he gets is real and Tom relishes it for that reason. In the end, it doesn't even seem like Tom is all that interested in Jim's Jim's welfare at all. That really disappointed me, because I started to think that Tom was taking a moral stand on slavery. I was also so thrilled to hear Aunt Sally say "Tom Sawyer" and to see Huck reunited with his good friend. Oh well. You've got to admit, though, that the way they got Aunt Sally to stop counting sheets and candlesticks and such was just brilliant and the snakes and rats in Jim's bed was pretty funny.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Mollyroses, I can ALMOST accept your interpretation, but I just can't. That section of the book seems a complete departure from the rest. While I could have accepted Tom being a goofball and endangering Jim's life, I absolutely could not believe that Huck would go along with it as long as he did.

I agree that, individually, many parts of that section are witty...and I suppose that's how Twain justified them to himself, as a silly pastiche of boy's adventure themes. But given their repetition and their placement of the book I just can't see them as in any way good or well-planned.

Not that it spoiled the book for me!

mollyroses said...

I just read on another part of the internet that Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because he was desperate for money. If that was the case, it's easy to see why he would want to capitalize on the success of the Tom Sawyer book. The whole section really is too long, detracts from the book and seems like too much of a departure. It's possible that Mark Twain's publishers wanted the Tom Sawyer part in there - or that the author, himself, wanted to believe the whole thing a boy's adventure novel, which, I hear, is what he set out to write in the first place. It could be his big joke on the readers. I think, though, that the Tom Sawyer sequence at the end, flawed as it is, shows us that Huck has been doing some growing (the last time he plays a joke for a joke's sake is when he tries to fool Jim on the raft, then sees he hurts Jim and swears he won't do it again) and how he really can't be a part of civillized life, the way Tom is. I might have written the ending (as if!) so that Jim gets so freaked out by the whole prisoner experience that he plain runs out, hiding in the bushes to tell Huck and Tom about it. Then the boys can adjust from there. Or Huck can make an appeal to Tom's conscience or romanticism and somehow contrive a way to turn the prisoner scenario around. Huck putting his foot downa and Tom actually listening wouln't really have rung true.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

You don't think that Huck putting his foot down wouldn't have worked?

Maybe not...I suppose it depends on Twains concept of what the book was supposed to be, which is probably different from what we modern readers assume. Even so, if Huck had said "wait...no...we've got to RESCUE Jim FOR REAL!" I certainly would have cheered and gotten back into it.

I agree that the episode showed Huck growing, but the fact that he participated in Tom's fantasy seemed to show a REGRESSION. Though, as you say, Huck was not "of his time" necessarily, and perhaps that was the point...

...or Twain just lost his way. Authors are allowed to be fallible, and books CAN be flawed! Myself, I see that section of the book as a terrible tumour that inexplicably grew for no understandable reason whatsoever. But there MUST have been a reason! Maybe you're on its trail...

mollyroses said...

Oh, I agree with you the Tom chapters are an aberration. I just gotta get to the bottom of these things . . . Twain apparently wrote two more sequels, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, in which Tom, Huck and Jim go to Africa and solve a murder mystery.

Anyhow, Huck Finn IS a great book, and Huck is a great character. I won't forget either for a long time . . . thanks for your blog posts!