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Fiction reviews


Mark Twain - Huckleberry Finn

14 February 1989

Mark Twain foresaw US national malaise
Review of Huckleberry Finn

Published in The Age Education section

Ronald Reagan, shortly before he stepped out of the Oval Office for the last time, marvelled at how anyone could succeed in the Presidency without acting skills.

Some years earlier, after he'd been shot, Reagan refused to consider changing the nation's gun laws. Though these lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths annually (nearly including his own), Reagan felt they symbolised America's idea of 'freedom'. Most Americans agreed with him.

Fifteen years ago the United States, the world's largest military power, lost a major war to a third world nation. Recently on celluloid, Sylvester Stallone (who, like Reagan, had got out of having to fight a real war) ensured the Americans won this time. The Vietnam defeat was blamed on bureaucrats, and American honour salvaged. Instead of being laughed off the screen, 'Rambo' became one of the biggest-grossing movies of all time.

America-wide, throughout the Eighties, thousands of people were duped into giving millions of dollars to a pair of confidence tricksters named Jim and Tammy Bakker. Jim and Tammy's imaginative schemes were exposed last year, and their Praise The Lord empire crashed. Thousands of records containing Tammy's attempts at singing were bulldozed into a large hole, as Tammy bawled on cue for the cameras. Now Jim and Tammy have blamed all their troubles on the Devil, and are back on TV, successfully soliciting $1000 donations.

There is a point to this gruesome list of facts. It is that many of the qualities of modern America - the gun-toting 'liberty', the avoidance of introspection, the childish gullibility, the violent settling of territorial disputes - have their origins in that country's frontier past. And nowhere do we get a better feel for these qualities, and that past, than in Huckleberry Finn.

The novel, which was published in 1884, concentrates us on a raft-full of misfits making their way down the Mississippi, towards Arkansas, some half a century earlier. The main character, the book's narrator, is Huck himself. Accompanying him from the start is the runaway slave Jim. They are joined en route by two con men who convince our heroes they are the exiled Duke of Bridgewater and the heir to the French throne. Not only are Huck and Jim taken in by this trickery, but the 'duke' and 'king' change guises almost daily, and defraud the populations of many towns along the river. They eventually present themselves as English relatives of a recently deceased landowner. They coddle his children, weep over his coffin, and console his friends - it's sickening and very funny at once - to get their hands on the dead man's wealth.

America's attention was, in the 1830s, mostly confined to local matters. There were no Bakkers working on a national scale: just the town-by-town deceptions of the 'duke' and 'king' and their breed. There was, as yet, no need to bully Central American nations - partly, perhaps, because a whole nation (the Negro) was imprisoned within the USA's own boundaries.

Even poor farmers had their slaves: whole familes of them, to wait on their own families. The Phelpses, for example, whom Huck stays with in Arkansas, are the nicest folks you could meet. The old man is innocent, self-deprecating, and cares for his wife with a fastidiousness we don't see in many modern homes. Mrs Phelps spends her day keeping the house in order, indulging Huck with good food, and giving him much of the love he missed as a child. Yet the Phelpses keep a "runaway nigger" manacled in darkness in their shed. Mr Phelps, who would no more pocket a nickel he found on the floor than fly to the moon, has no reservations about locking up the the runaway (who turns out to be Jim), pending his return to his 'rightful' owner. It is the natural, ordained place of the black race to serve the white. Nobody, not even Huck, questions it for a moment:

Jim...was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the children... It most froze me to hear such talk... Here was this nigger which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children - children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm.

It's an extraordinary way to get the reader to think about racism.

That's one remarkable thing about this story: no-one questions the order-of-things. An adolescent is murdered, along with most of his family. Children are viciously beaten, and their savings stolen by corrupt town fathers. "Niggers" (the word occurs hundreds of times) are kept in chains, and in the shadows, waiting to serve... There is no concession at all to ways of thinking which, even at the time Twain wrote, had changed considerably.

Huckleberry Finn thus has tremendous verisimilitude.

Speaking of verisimilitude, Twain captures the adolescent's point-of-view as well as any writer ever has. Huck's perception of adult manners is one of the richest comic veins in the book. When his aunt tries to force these manners on Huck, it's about as successful as the attempts to bring Christianity to the Zulus.

Has the twentieth century has given teenagers a better deal than Huck got? Or would you rather be drifting down the Mississippi on a raft, catching fish and stealing vegetables? It sounds romantic and lazy and pleasant. Yet the romance in "Huckleberry Finn" is punctuated, frequently, by a social realism worthy of Charles Dickens. It is probably this two-levelled plot that lends the novel some of its greatness.

On the romantic side, Huck, with no parents to oppress him, floats down-river amid an endless supply of fish and sunshine. Extraordinary conveniences-of-plot (perhaps one of the novel's weaknesses) ensure he always bumps into the right person at the right time, to keep things moving along. You could almost say he and Jim - each on the way to his own freedom - represent America's conception of its own past. But whenever they get off the river onto dry land (interestingly), they bump into America's dark, or shadow, side. Its thieves, slave-owners, con men and killers. Things get unbearably complicated. The shadow of death hangs over them many times. A hundred times I longed for them to get back on the raft, and back into the mainstream.

But Huck had a mission to get Jim to the town of Cairo, and freedom.

This may constitute a second of the novel's faults: is this mission conveyed with sufficient clarity to hold our interest in it? Or are Huck's ambivalence, and bungling, and all the other people's agendas, too distracting?

Connected with this, not long after Tom Sawyer reappears the story becomes excruciatingly slow - as Tom insists on trying to free Jim from the Phelpses' shed according to the rules of ancient romance. (Notes written in blood, ropes made of knotted sheet, etc.) Does this feel as laboured to you as it did to me?

On the positive side, Twain remembers that adolescent boys, as well as being insensitive and stupid, are also wise. When the 'duke' and 'king' are finally tarred and feathered by some townfolk, Huck rues:

 ...I warn't feeling so brash as I was before, but kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow - though I hadn't done nothing. But that's always the way; it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does, I would pison him. It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides, and yet ain't no good, nohow. Tom Sawyer he says the same.

Lastly, if you want to tighten your grasp on this story, the Introduction is of course useful - but read it last: it will make more sense. The real heroes can read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Toole's view of early 1960s America, thorugh the eyes of another eccentric young southerner, has several parallels with Twain's. Toole's grasp of dialect, and his parodic ability, are equally sure - and the story similarly operates on the levels of both romance and realism: flitting strangely between the two. The debt to Twain is slyly acknowledged several times in the book.

The seeds of America's present national dilemma were examined by Mark Twain more than a century ago. He was (justifiably, it now seems) a pessimist. In 1989 the population has grown enormously, economic growth has been God for a century, and evil things have multiplied so greatly it is now doubtful they can ever be undone. If enough people had seen the picture Mark Twain was attempting to reflect back at them 100 years ago, things might have worked out differently. It's a compelling case for education in general, and literature in particular.

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