Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Rating: 4 Stars

‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ – now there’s an appropriate title. Not from Twain the post-modern magic act where the plot vanishes, and the poor reader is subjected to interminable longueur meandering through the protagonists’ rich and complex inner lives. The best novelists understand that inner and outer lives are not mutually exclusive.

The story picks up where ‘Tom Sawyer’ left off. Thanks to their dashing exploits in the first book, both boys have become local heroes, and accumulated a tidy little sum of money in the bargain. Motherless and under-parented Huck along with his disreputable father, have hitherto been mostly ignored and ostracized by the community. Now, to his misery, he finds himself clasped to the town's grateful bosom. Poor Huck; all he yearns for is to live out his vocation to be a shiftless bum. Unfortunately, the Widow Douglas is undaunted in her campaign to ‘sivilize’ and Christianize him. His troubles, however, are just starting. Once his mean father hears of his son’s windfall, he is back in his life to assert his paternal authority. Through an act of sheer inspiration, Huck escapes both his father and the fetters of society. He soon discovers someone who has even more reason to make a run for it – Jim, a fugitive slave. The two of them, on their journey down the Mississippi river encounter thieves, murderers, con men, and feuding Southern families; and all that before they can find a solution to their own problems.

Huck is an archetypal American hero – the wide-eyed naïf, who sees the world more clearly than many around him. He is an ideal narrator for a picaresque novel – his dispassionate account of no-good scoundrels and his deadpan observations are the author’s ironic commentary on his times. Twain mines a seemingly inexhaustible vein of humor that makes light of the values and lifestyle of the South. One of my favorites, for example, was when the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons attend church, toting guns while the sermon goes on endlessly about brotherhood, and ‘such-like foolishness’. This inspires his hosts to prattle about so many virtuous and noble topics that the beleaguered Huck confesses that it was ‘one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet’.

There are points where the narrative takes a dark turn. Despite Twain’s rollicking sense of humor, this is not a book that has the all-embracing good will of say, To Kill A Mockingbird. There are many occasions where we see human nature at its worst, and there is a savagery to the satire. In Twain’s world, it’s not just about the vicious preying on the innocent. Cupidity thrives when it meets stupidity - that’s the unattractive truth. It’s easy to detect that Twain is amused rather than outraged by rogues, and in his view, it’s not people’s eagerness to exploit one another that is scandalous. Rather, the real tragedy as Huck sadly observes is that,

 "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another."
Twain’s use of the common vernacular and his stringent humor did not win him universal popularity. This flagship work of American Literature remains to date one of the most challenged books in the U.S., and the fourth most banned in American schools. On hearing that the public library of Concord, Massachussets had banned ‘Huckleberry Finn’, Twain wrote an ironic letter thanking them for boosting sales. More evidence that censorship doesn’t work – never has, never will.

Which is not to say that the objections are unfounded; this is one book that is as controversial as it is beloved, as flawed as it is great. One of the charges against it is racism. The pejorative term for people of African origin, 'n.....’ appears a staggering 219 times from first chapter to last. Twain’s views on race are complicated, to say the least. On the other hand, his feelings about slavery are unequivocal. It may be interpreted that Huck’s journey down the Mississippi is a metaphor for the transformation he undergoes in his feelings towards Jim, who becomes more than a runaway slave, rather a dear friend whose life and freedom are of vital importance to him.

When it comes to technique, Twain is not one of those meticulous-minded authors who dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. His paints gloriously, messily, with a child’s abandon. Persnickety critics may find fault, and yes, strictly speaking there are faults to be found. For example, the introduction of Tom Sawyer towards the end seems an uncalled for intrusion. Why did Twain do it? Perhaps, because he felt, like many readers, that that irrepressible rascal, as much as he unnecessarily complicates things, also makes them more fun. Or perhaps, to him the  boys were inseparable, two sides of the same coin. As one critic perspicaciously observed, ‘Tom Sawyer was who Twain was; Huckleberry Finn was who he wanted to be.’

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