Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3 November 2010
Chapters 1-16
This is going on for a third of the novel, and it’s highly enjoyable. I first read it about 40 years ago, after I’d just read Tom Sawyer – which I’m not re-reading, because this is the one with the reputation. Tom Sawyer appears in this one, but he’s almost a parody of himself as Mark Twain makes no effort to endow him with any real qualities. He seems to represent the childhood that Huck is going to have to leave behind: a gang with preposterous vows and preposterous mission statements about robbin’ and murderin’. Later, Huck has to explain to Jim the runaway slave that what they are in the middle of is an adventure – an idea he retains from his days with Tom. And while there are plenty of things in this novel that are taken from life, Twain never wants us to forget that this is storytelling.

In fact, one of my favourite bits so far has been a story within a story. Huck has got himself on board one of the huge timber rafts being floated down the river, ostensibly to find out how soon they’ll be reaching the next town. Ostensibly. Really, this chapter is a set piece about storytelling itself, as Huck stumbles on the crew, two of whom launch into a farcically extravagant competition of claim and counter-claim about their own god-like powers and activities. This came at just the right time for me: I’d been thinking about how, so far, Huck had been like Theseus or some other Greek hero on a journey – I’ll come back to some of his earlier encounters and tests – and here we suddenly are in the company of gods. Sure, they’re immediately and unsurprisingly revealed to be gibbering mummies’ boys – but that’s ok too, because it picks up on Huck’s presentation of him and Jim as heroes, and what it is exactly that we make out of lived experience. Gulp.

If there’s a model for Huck it’s surely Candide. Following Mark Twain’s bellicose statement of intent before the novel even opens, about how readers had better not find any kind of moral in it, Huck’s journey constantly presents him with moral choices. Before he even sets off he has the choice of ‘the widow’s’ faith in the Lord and Providence or the superstitions he grew up with. He sticks with what he knows, don’t see no profit in prayer after giving it a try. But, despite some early moments when he sounds like an alien from outer space, holding up for examination Christian truths he treats as completely new to him, he is no tabula rasa. The point is that he has a highly developed respect for the difference between right and wrong. Twain gives himself the opportunity be as satirical as he likes about established religion: any alert reader, even in the 19th Century, would be able to see that if our hero finds it wanting, he isn’t the only one to be blamed.

I’m making it sound solemn, which is exactly what it isn’t, of course. A lot of it is comic, a lot of it is Boys’ Own stuff, or whatever the mid-19th Century American version of that might be. And who came first, Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson? Hang on a minute. [Pause] Treasure Island beat Huckleberry Finn by a year. Ok.

Where was I? Comedy, some of which is very broad, particularly when focused on the gullibility of white boys and black slaves. For a lot of chapters I was finding Jim conforming disappointingly to the stereotype of the lovable, innocent Black that came to be seen in hundreds of silent movies a few decades later – but Mark Twain never uses such clichés without questioning them. We see Huck persuading Jim that most of the previous hours’ misadventures were all a dream, and we’re disappointed. But then, when he sees how mortified Jim is when he realises he’s been played for a sucker, Huck finds himself in the extraordinary position, in the Antebellum South, of seeking ways to apologise to a slave. (He doesn’t call him a slave, obviously, routinely using the n-word. But words aren’t important to him at this point.)

There are a lot of other things, but I’ll come back to them when I’ve read a bit more. Parents and the education of children – particularly ‘the widow’ and Huck’s father, back from the dead (a favourite Mark Twain motif, as we all know). Romantic visions of nature in the words of a sketchily-educated boy. Episodes, like the woman who sees through Huck’s girl disguise and the murderous band of robbers who are going to leave the traitor in their midst to die as the wreck of a steamboat breaks up…. (The last of these leads to the biggest moral dilemma of all for Huck. To leave them to their business, and so become complicit? Or to set up some kind of rescue​?)

7 November
Chapters 16-31
Since I last wrote I’ve discovered that the competition between Bob and the Child of Calamity appears at a different point in the novel in some editions. It confirms something I was already thinking: it doesn’t make a lot of difference what order some of these episodes appear in, because there’s not a massive amount of character development going on between one and the next. Huck is sometimes Swift’s Gulliver, wide-eyed and accepting of whatever new scam is being offered. At other times – all the time, it seems – he’s able to slip effortlessly into lying so plausibly that nobody ever seems to suspect. There’s a certain irony there – which we’re ok with, because we know where we are: the adventure yarn he’s told Jim all about.

In the edition I’m listening to the preposterous boasting-match – whose function, surely, is only there to remind us that we’ll accept any story if it’s entertaining enough – segues into the ghost story about Dick Allbright and the haunted barrel. The listeners don’t find it plausible enough, ask a series of ever more nit-picking questions about details. Mark Twain knows you have to give people their money’s worth….

Anyway. Huck manages to blag his way out of trouble when he’s discovered on the raft – I can’t remember if this is where he comes up with the tale of his poor bankrupted pap, or one of his others – but when he gets back to Jim he has one of his periodic attacks of conscience and he’s Gulliver again. He begins to feel terrible about stealing Miss Wilson’s slave away from her, and the 1880s author is able to get some satirical mileage out of his hero’s complete inability to differentiate between human beings and other property. (Twain makes it clear that in the Slave States’ mindset the use of the word Abolitionist equates it to the filthiest of misdemeanours.) He resolves to make a clean breast of it at the next opportunity…

…which doesn’t come along, obviously. Instead, we get another episode as Mark Twain places Huck into a kind of earthly paradise for a week or two. We have an impossibly idealised Southern family, complete with fine, upstanding paterfamilias, loving mother, manly grown-up sons and beautiful daughters. This having suddenly become a fairytale world, Huck’s latest tissue of lies is treated as the literal truth and he is welcomed as a new family member. But… we’re put on our guard by the information casually slipped in that they own over 100 slaves – the issue of slavery always being highly ambiguous territory in this novel – and the careful vetting of Huck to make sure he has nothing to do with a particular local family.

Soon one brother, about Huck’s age, begins to tell him appalling stories of the great feud between the families. Montagues and Capulets, we think – and, the following Sunday, Huck is accidentally involved in passing a message from one of their boys to one of our girls. Their elopement leads to immediate, all-out war, and the deaths of almost all the men and boys on both sides. Gulp. Mark Twain says before the novel, persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished, so I won’t.

Anyway, there’ll be no more talk of giving Jim up to the authorities. Besides, a new pair of accomplices come along, who stay for all the middle section of the novel. They’re a pair of hucksters and, after some wrangling, they become the Duke and His Majesty. We think we’re back with the Child of Calamity, and so we are: this is a world where you are whoever you say you are until somebody proves otherwise. Which they always do, obviously… but these two don’t lie down and die any more than Huck himself does. When they first join the raft – I can’t remember how, as if it matters – they’ve both been run out of different towns for selling, almost literally, different kinds of snake-oil. And between them they discuss all, or a lot of the scams they’ve used over the years.

It feels like a silly satirical interlude at first, with Huck deciding not to let Jim on the secret that they are almost certainly not members of either the English or French aristocracy. But Mark Twain decides to stay with them as they repeatedly prove the adage (that, I assume, hadn’t even been invented yet) that nobody ever lost money by underestimating the public. At first some of what they attempt to sell almost verges on the legitimate, but not quite: Hamlet’s soliloquy is a farrago of half-remembered lines in which Mark Twain has as much fun as he did with the speeches in the Child of Calamity chapter. But when that doesn’t work they go for the Royal Nonesuch performance: trick half the town with a travesty, have them, through shame, pretend it was good in order to lure the other half in, then scram on the third night before the whole town can wreak its revenge with all the rotten food they can muster – but not before they’ve paid to get in, again.

It’s all ridiculous, and for me these chapters go on a bit. But… they are a model for almost every episode in The Simpsons in which snake-oil merchants are cheered to the rooftops; there’s apparently a long tradition in the USA of regarding the general populace as a bit subnormal. And while I’m on The Simpsons: Huck reaches a whole town full of the ancestors of Cletus the token Hill-billy, whose favourite pastime, after the finely-tuned rituals of lending and borrowing chewing tobacco, are pouring paraffin over stray dogs and setting them alight.

It’s in this town, or another one identical to it (as if it matters) that Huck witnesses the shooting dead of a harmless old drunk, The old man’s party piece is to issue bold threats to one and all, which scares Huck until he is reassured they are just words. I don’t know if Mark Twain is enlarging on one of his favourite themes – when there isn’t much else to do, making impossibly big claims is good fun – but local big-shot, so to speak, has had enough and shoots him in full view of anybody who’s in town in the middle of the day. The townspeople, rightly, are outraged and there’s high talk of the guilty man being lynched.

I’m not sure how any of this chapter fits in with a boys’ adventure story – as if this novel has ever been only that. The people arrive at the big-shot’s house and, well, what do you think he uses to get away with murder? Words, words, words. He seems to be a satirical version of a type of macho politics, full of references to the big man any cause has to rely on. He tells them they haven’t got a man in their midst, only a half-man. And… they buy the snake-oil he offers them and skulk away muttering. This really is a version of Candide or Gulliver’s Travels.

Speaking of whom – Gulliver, I mean – Huck becomes the ingénu again in the scene in which he describes an act at a circus. An apparently drunk audience member insists on riding a horse, but he turns out to be an acrobat. All Huck can come up with as a commentary on this is how annoyed the ringmaster must be at being duped…. Did this novel start life as separate short stories? I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to find out.

But I was on about the Duke and His Majesty, who start off being a fairly harmless sideshow: if people part with their money, whose fault is that? However, Mark Twain doesn’t seem to want us to forget that all their ruses are based on dishonesty, and he opens out their last big scam into an episode lasting several chapters. Is there a term to describe the process by which comedy characters slowly mutate into outright villains? Dickens does it, as with Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend – but in a Dickens novel there’s always still some vestige remaining of the villain’s original ridiculousness. Not these two: between them they are happy to divest a family of charming girls of everything they have, just because the unexpected opportunity presents itself.

They don’t get away with it, and escape a lynching by the skin of their teeth. But if Huck thinks he’s been able to get away he’s wrong. They reach the raft soon after he’s set it floating down the river again, and not long after this he discovers they’ve sold Jim to bounty-hunters for a measly 40 bucks. Moral? As if. But Mark Twain’s intermittent theme of the friendship – amounting, let’s face it, to genuine love – between the white boy and the black man gets another airing. Of all the father-figures Huck has encountered, including his real father, Jim is the only one who seems genuinely interested in his welfare. He can’t do much for him, but the tears he’s shed…. And now, somehow, Huck has got to rescue him.

10 November
Chapter 32 to the end
Hmm. Mark Twain dares us to baulk at the piling up of implausibilities. In fact, I suppose plausibility isn’t a part of the game he’s playing any more – if it ever was – as the reappearance of Tom Sawyer moves the last fifth of the novel into a different realm. The backbone of it is a boys’ adventure – or the pretence of an adventure based on Tom’s wide reading of, apparently, cliché-ridden stories of rescue and escape. It’s a return to the fantasy world of the gang Tom creates near the start of the novel, but this time it doesn’t quickly come to nothing. In fact, it goes on and on. Mark Twain can carry on making some satirical points from time to time, but it’s thin stuff, and feels like an almost entirely separate story. And what’s happened to the river? The most evocative presence in the book makes hardly an appearance.

When Huck arrives at the farm where Jim has been taken, the woman there thinks he’s a boy called Tom. Huck pretends that’s who he is, obviously, and prays that Providence will gets him out of any fix this might lead to. Luckily for him, he’s in a particular kind of novel, and the Tom she’s expecting is Tom Sawyer, her nephew. Once Tom arrives, there’s some business about who is who – Tom becomes Sid – and then they get down to the business of rescuing Jim.

At first Huck is amazed that Tom has no problem with the atrocious crime of stealing a slave – yeh, yeh, that one again – but soon they get on with it. After that, for chapter after chapter, we have to plough through the hilarious escapades Tom inflicts on them. Jim’s imprisonment is so slack he could walk out of his hut on his own, and does so later to help them with some necessary props, but Tom insists on making it all heroic. Cue the ridiculous list of requirements…. etc.

Is there anything of interest? Once we’ve got the joke, very early on, that Tom is making difficulties simply for the honour and fame their rescue will bring them there’s not much more to be said. In the end it escalates out of their power to stop it: the necessary anonymous tip-off leads to a houseful of local farmers, with dogs and guns, ready to do what’s necessary to stop them. They end up shooting Tom in the leg, the moral being… I can’t be bothered with this.

Mark Twain draws a veil over any unpleasantness by having Tom recover, with the news that Tom knew Mrs Wilson has already made Jim a free man in her will, that Huck’s father is dead…. And I’ve just read that Ernest Hemingway, the man who stated (in that manly style that Mark Twain loved to satirise) that ‘all modern American literature comes from one book … called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ also stated that any reader should omit this final section. You not wrong there, Paps.

So, what are we left with? A lot, including plenty of things I’ve hardly mentioned. Huck’s voice, limited by class and education, which somehow allows Mark Twain to question the shibboleths of a culture that was dead by the time he was writing but not at all forgotten. His developing relationship with Jim, the one thing in this book that turns it into a real spiritual journey: by the end, although it’s a step too far for Mark Twain to raise Jim very far above the level of all the other childlike blacks, he’s become the nearest thing to a father Huck has ever had. The omnipresent river. The centrality of story – to the extent that even the unsatisfactory final section is based on an exploration of the narratives we invent about our own lives, a theme that’s never far away in any part of the novel.

Which takes me back to the boasting contest. It’s still my favourite bit, and it got me wondering whether Mark Twain might be tapping into a tradition of life in the South – the same one that Muhammad Ali made so much of nearly a century later. I don’t know about that, but typing the phrase into Google brings examples from Beowulf to the Mahabharata. Bob and the Child of Calamity’s self-mythologising puts them in good company.


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