Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sivilization ain’t so great.

Huckleberry Finn is the third book in my Re-reading the Classics series and I keep asking myself why didn't I start rereading the classics years ago? All three books so far have been incredibly absorbing and thought provoking. Social issues are engaged, never directly, but sideways, although the society is the skeleton of each novel, provoking the character’s ultimate quests. Finally, each of these novels has been great page turners, helped along by great larger than life charismatic characters. Jane Austen and Mark Twain are masters of dialogue. Charlotte Bronte is a master at setting.

So,anyway, I loved Huck Finn. Like all great books, it succeeds on many levels. First of all, it’s an angry indictment of American culture; its elevated respect for righteous ignorance; its hypocrisy, its quick recourse to violence. The  things wrong with America in 2011 are the same things wrong with America in the 1840’s.

Secondly, this book is a celebration of nature. The man and the boy escape down a broad river through a primeval wilderness, a lost time. The descriptions of the river are extremely beautiful, told in Huck’s unique first person narration. One thing I didn’t realize on earlier readings – Huck and Jim are lazing around naked on that raft. Not politically correct for our time, for sure. But emblematic of their innocent state. Civilization is a threat. They are truly outlaws.

Finally, it’s great story, a boy’s adventure story, with storms and capsizing boats and vigilantes and feuds and bags of gold hidden in coffins. I swallowed completely the miraculous plot twist at the end that Jim is imprisoned at Aunt Sally’s house, because it fit right into the crazy mechanics of Tom Sawyer’s swashbuckling books.

The most wonderful things are Huck and his observations. He’s smart and he’s good. Early on the reader starts to root for him. Much of the interactions between Huck and the women he meets along the way are sweetly observed.

The story really is about the institution of slavery and the forced inferiority of the black man to the white man. All the highly dramatic highly emotional parts of the story have to do with the absurdity and the cruelty of slavery, the separation of families. I cried when Jim told the story of discovering his daughter was deaf. In this story are two log cabin prisons – one with Huck, one with Jim. They both escape.

The black people are presented as terrified and superstitious and are the basis for much of the comedy. The white men are presented as ignorant and violent and are the basis for much of the comedy. Jim is superstitious, kind, loyal and subservient. He is as elemental as the river.

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