Saturday, February 28, 2015

Flashback, February 1885: Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Published

When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the United States in February 1885, it was still a long way off before academics began to consider the novel as a meditation on race relations, child abuse and family dysfunction, the problems inherent in civilization, the seemingly ineradicable stain of violence in American life, or even, of all things, whether something called a “homoerotic” relationship developed on the Mississippi between the white boy Huck and the runaway slave Jim. 

What people did talk about—very much to the delight of its author—was what a great sequel this was to the great boys’ book from the pen of Mark Twain nine years before, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

There’s another way entirely, though, of thinking about the novel and its place in American literature, provided by Ernest Hemingway. In a much-quoted section of his 1935 travel journal, Green Hills of Africa, “Papa,” in full declamatory mode, suggested the size of his debt to Twain—and some of the problems that readers have had ever since with this unbelievably rich but deeply imperfect picaresque tale of two misfits in full flight from civilization:

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

What comes after “the real end,” comprising a full third of the book, involves Tom Sawyer’s idiotic plot to capture Jim again, so that his escape can be staged more dramatically. That denouement has been largely regarded as a cruel and pointless narrative twist, but not by Twain himself. He thought it was “the biggest card I’ve got in my whole repertoire”—proof positive that authors, even the best of them, are not always the best judges of their own work.

That view can be understood a bit more readily when it is remembered that Twain viewed himself primarily as an entertainer.

Not an obsessive stylist like his near-contemporaries Gustave Flaubert and Henry James (or, for that matter, Hemingway himself), Twain rode waves of inspiration rather than doggedly pursued a particular plot point until he hit gold. He wrote his masterpiece over the course of eight years, with an initial burst of energy in 1876, right after the great success of Tom Sawyer, only to find the creative well running dry.

We now know, following the rediscovery, in 1990, of the long-missing first half of the manuscript, that Twain came to a dead halt toward the start of the section involving the Grangerfords and their feud. He would pick it up intermittently over the next couple of years, with themes developed in intervening projects making their way into the text (e.g., his research for The Prince and the Pauper led him to have two con men pass themselves off as “The Duke and the Dauphin”).

Work on Life on the Mississippi in 1883 truly catalyzed the author to reconsider the work he had previously liked “only tolerably well…and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when done.”  In a prior post, I discussed how revisiting the Mississippi—and thinking about its place in his youth—marked a crucial turn in Twain’s writing. 

Now, he came back to the manuscript with a direction in mind, and under that influence he finished nearly 700 handwritten pages in six weeks alone. But, for all his care with the manuscript, the disjointed nature of the writing (and the lack of a computer that could help him track changes!) meant, as Everett Emerson noted in Mark Twain: A Literary Life, that some inconsistencies crept into the text (e.g., Huck and Jim’s raft reappears—astoundingly so, considering that earlier a steamboat had “come crashing straight through” it).

Nevertheless, the writing lives. It is remarkable for the voice of its young hero, often so funny because it is so unaware of how his predicament sounds (the Widow Douglas, he writes toward the beginning, after he is returned to her, “cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a few other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it”). There was his power of description (the one of Huck’s father gives a sense of a life of disorder, the exact and terrifying opposite of the civilizing forces at work in the boy as the book starts: “His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines”). There was the first-person narrative written in the vernacular—not so overdone as to be inpenetrable, as other experimenters with the device such as Petroleum V. Nasby had been, but instead far more carefully controlled.

Twain biographer Ron Powers succinctly sums up the case for the novel, despite its faults: “Its greatness rests on its lapidary portraiture of America as encapsulated in a time and place; on its revelatory use of vernacular American dialect as the vehicle for its story; and for the authentic passion, metaphor, self-expression, and moral reasoning released via this dialect.”

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