Monday, September 26, 2005

Book No. 30: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Like many of us, I read this when I was a kid shortly after reading Tom Sawyer for my 6th or 7th grade English class. I imagine that my school didn't consider the repeated use of the word "nigger" to be much of an issue, seeing as how I grew up in Alabama in pre-politically correct times (I believe that finally reached Alabama last March).

Anyway, much of the significance of this novel was lost on me at the time. I recognized that Huck changed, and changed a lot, over the course of the story, but I didn't have the history or maturity to recognize quite how drastic his change was or quite how cutting Twain's sarcasm was in his day and age. I'd seen Huck's decision to rescue Jim mentioned occasionally as a phenomenal point in American literature, but I'd forgotten that Huck thought that helping an escaped slave meant that he was damned. I'd forgotten - or never realized in the first place - how monstrous Tom Sawyer is at the end of the book, with his frivolous, idiotic insistence on making Jim's escape into a game and his fundamental lack of respect for Jim's humanity to never even mention that Jim's been already freed so that Jim and Huck will play his game. Tom Sawyer is a child, yes, mostly unaware of the consequences of his actions, and it's fairly clear that in allowing Sawyer to do evil as part of his game, Twain is indicting a culture that values life so poorly as to create a game of slavery.

The points leading up to Jim's bondage and freedom are, of course, magnificent. The novel is about games and deceit, from the idyllic Jackson Island interlude, where Huck and Jim first form their friendship, to the danger of the fog on the river, where Huck learns in perfectly terse prose what it is to have a conscience, to the bloody feud, which further builds on Huck's knowledge of consequences, to the Dauphin and the Duke, where Huck learns how quickly deceivers will betray their comrades. Hemingway, who championed this book as the best of American literature, supposedly hated the final section, and I certainly found it frustrating. However, I think it was necessary for Twain to demonize Sawyer to make his narrative complete.


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