Huck Finn’s Truthful Eyes

I once gave a presentation in an undergraduate grammar and usage course about the correct usage of “between you and me.”  Saying “between you and I” is incorrect.  On my handout, I included several quotes that demonstrated this usage, and I had included quotes from both Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens.  Of course, I knew these were the same people, but I had attributed them as my sources had, with two different names.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, when surrounded by stuffy English majors, discussed here, that one decided to point out my “mistake” in the middle of my presentation.  Well, I was not in the mood for such shenanigans, and I retorted with anger, explaining that he should focus on the overall content of my presentation rather than pointing out nitpicky problems with it.  The whole class laughed and he turned red.  I tell this story to get your attention and to lead into my post on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), surprisingly not on the BBC book list.

Mark Twain, er, Samuel Clemens, in 1909; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest American novels. As Ernest Hemingway said:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” – Ernest Hemingway

Twain is a master of the humor, satire, and storytelling.  This book is a gem that shouldn’t be missed.  I have to admit that reading it was somewhat hard for me because of my dislike of reading novels when I already know the outcome.  Huck Finn is such a familiar and heavily anthologized and silver-screened character that one would have to live in a hole not to know at least parts of the story.

Let me tell you my favorite part.  It is when Huck realizes that searchers are onto him and Jim.  He says, “Git up and hump yourself, Jim!  There ain’t a minute to lose.  They’re after us!” (186).   This statement is so profound.  It is a white boy putting himself into the same category as a black slave by saying, “They’re after us.”  Never before had a white character done that.  Huck treats Jim as a human being and acknowledges his worth and abilities to be free.

First Edition from Wikimedia Commons

This is the second book I have read as an e-book.  I enjoy being able to define words at the touch of a finger.  I also enjoyed that the version I found (free, of course!) had the original pictures scanned into the e-book file.  I was able to enjoy the illustrations from the book’s first edition, some of which are quite hilarious, despite not having the print version.  These pictures mark the novel as one for children, but that may not necessarily be the case.  Sometimes adults need to learn from children.

My copy of Huck Finn

The fact that it takes children in a children’s book to see how wrong slavery is and how much Jim (and all slaves) deserved to be free is also important, but not surprising.  The last third of the book is hilarious in its portrayal of Tom and Huck hatching plans to spring Jim from captivity.  Although their antics are great fun and entertainment, they are also serious.  These boys are genuinely working to save a man’s life and dignity.  They are the only ones who see the injustice of Jim’s having been captured.  They are children, they are uneducated, and they are immature, but they, in their spy games, are performing a heroic and adult action.   They are acting out the freedom of slaves that should have been acted out by all of the “grown ups” in the novel.  They are doing what is right even when the odds are tough.

For its pro-abolitionist messages, the novel is important.  However, it is also important because of its place as the beginning of American realism, which came after romanticism discussed here.  Mark Twain was the first American author to write about everyday life and everyday people.  He used the vernacular language and portrayed Huck and Jim as they really talked.  At times, this makes it hard to interpret exactly what Jim is saying. The reading takes a little extra effort, but these passages represent a large shift in American literary history.  Twain is the father of realism, a genre of novel writing that portrays life as it really is.  I enjoy realism.  Some of my other favorites from this school of writing are:

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser whose work falls into the Naturalism category under Realism

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

If you haven’t read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you are missing out on a large part of American history.  For the above reasons, the novel is important.  For moral reasons, the novel explores America’s dark past, one in which humans were bought and sold.  Twain illuminates these conditions from a child’s eyes, which is usually the best place to find pure truth.

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