Thursday, 3 February 2011

Huckleberry Finn

I first read this book at my grandmother's house, almost at a sitting, when I was about 12.  My brother had been given it.  Boys often were at that time, although even then it was getting on for a century old.  It is a gem. A Great American Novel.  This is confirmed by the fact that there were attempts to ban it almost from the moment it was first published - in England before the US, though only just.  One of the joys it brings is the use of the mostly-now-vanished Missouri vernacular, notably the famous almost-last line, in which Huck vows to "light out for the Territory".  There  are too many linguistic delights to list, though one is "humbug talky-talk" as Huck's description of women pretending to praise each other's cooking.  But it is more than exotic or folksy, it is profound.  The moment when Huck decides to let Jim go free, although he believes that slavery is the natural order of things and he will go to hell for doing anything to undermine it, even though Huck is not a believer, because he was "brung up wicked" - count the contradictions - is a very important one, not just in this book but in literature generally.  This book is better than the same author's 'Tom Sawyer'.  The latter character appears towards the end of the book, and is drawn as a flashy, duplicitous chancer.  He is no better than the fraudulent "king and the duke" who end by being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

At this remove I, and probably most Americans too, have no idea how accurate a depiction of rural 19th-century Missouri life, and even language, it is.  But the casual brutality of idle men in a small Missouri riverside town, who set fire to a stray dog for fun, probably took until the 1980s to become shocking.  It was certainly well into the 20th century before the N-word did so.  I read the book this week on the iFlow app for ebooks, free, from the Gutenberg project, so this edition is not affected by any notions of a new paper edition without the N-word, which I think is nonsense.  The idea is to call N-people "slaves" - but an important  part of the story turns on whether Jim really is free, or a slave.  Another important theme is Huck's changing understanding of what it means to be human, which develops through his relationship with Jim.  Huck decides to help free Jim although the tenets of society are against it and he knows the penalty, but Tom only wants to have an adventure making it happen because he knows that Jim is already free.

'The Catcher In The Rye' owes a lot to this book in my view.  That may be a commonplace of American literary thought.  I wouldn't know.  Read it if you never have.  Read it again if you have.  And remember that lynchings happen in the dark, and are carried out by men in masks.

15 comments:

Augustus Carp said...

I presume that's a typo in the sixth sentence? " in England before the *US*", rather than the UK?

The new edition got quite a bit of coverage in the UK press. Thanks for the observation about the contradiction of being made to call the freed Jim a "slave"; I hadn't considered that.

Anonymous said...

When I read it at school 50 years ago, I felt it was racist because he implied that the difference between white and black people was the same as between cats and dogs.

Jane Griffiths said...

thanks Gus, corrected the typo

anon 0151: in fact there is a long outburst by Jim, who does not accept that human beings do not all speak the same language (the king claims to speak French, and Tom explains to Jim what the French language is) - Jim says a cat does not talk like a cow because a cat is not a cow, but he and a Frenchman are both men, so they should talk the same.

Anonymous said...

Of course it is a wonderful book ( so is Pudden Head Wilson, by the way).

If people don't understand something, it is very easy to feel warm in one's ignorance by sheltering in the blanket of a slogan such as 'racist'.

Hence, those who don't understand his work call DH Lawrence a 'racist' as well.

Anonymous said...

DH Lawrence is not a racist. Unfortunately, he was one of the worst, self-indulgent, most over-hyped novelists in the English language.

He was rather a good poet, though.

Wandering Sage said...

ZY Press has recently published Trials of Huckleberry Finn by David Hoopes as an eBook.

This sequel to the Mark Twain classic asks the question; What would have happened if Huckleberry Finn and Samuel Langhorne Clemens had grown up together in Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1850's? The Trials of Huckleberry Finn tells that story and follows their relationship through Sam's years on the Mississippi. Mr. Hoopes uses typical Huckleberry Finn narrative style to make this book an enjoyable and exciting read for any fan of Mark Twain.

Woudl you be interested in seeing a review copy of the book?

Jane Griffiths said...

yes, why not?

Whitey Lawful said...

The censorship is the effects of political correctness and hate speech ideology. If the majority would of resisted this academic-media policy and Government legislation -- then not just a fringe would be opposed.

Anonymous said...

Oh how ridiculous, Anon! He was a great novelist. You probably can't understand him.

I expect you just adore Trollope and PG Wodehouse, do you? With a lashing of John Grisham?!!

Whenever people want to patronise a writer they don't understand, they say 'He was a rather good poet'. That is what such people say about Thomas Hardy also - because they can't cope with the novels.

Anonymous said...

Opinions and attitudes move on, thank goodness. Any views on Kipling?

dreamingspire said...

A Uni student of Eng Lit recently asked me if I had read Sons and Lovers - it is a study book on the course last month in preparation for a seminar next week. Said I had read it part way and couldn't stand it any longer, but had read The Rainbow and found that much better but its characters are two-dimensional: lacking any drive to take charge - perhaps DHL's own personality was equally adrift. Then another person in the conversation recommended his poems - with now two recommendations, must read them.
I rather like Hardy's books, and the TV adaptations also. Not the same for Zhivago, though: the film didn't capture the awful reality of the book but instead gave us wonderful pictures of a big countryside - and Pasternak's poems are exquisite.

Jonny said...

I've always thought that Henry James is the most overrated writer in the English language.
Lawrence is strange for me - I re-read The Rainbow, Women in Love and Sons and Lovers every few years, and seem to alternate between hating them and appreciating them. Have always thought his poetry was crap, mind.
John Grisham is pretty good, I've always thought, but not particularly to my taste.
I must read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer again, I think. It must be 30 years.
PS. Am I the only person thinking Wandering Sage might be David Hoopes? Published by the Google "0 results" ZY Press?

Anonymous said...

Read Women in Love.

By the by - if you are going to read any DHL poems, the best one is Shadows.

I always feel upset and freshly shocked by the phrase 'the leavings of a life'.

It is so much better than the Dylan T - Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light poem - so frequently trudged out at cremations - although I may be feeling a bit jaundiced. I am , at the moment, reading a biog of Dylan Thomas and I just hate the man. I hate him, period!! He is such a bloody Salter as far as women are concerned.

I am going to follow it up with Aeronwy's memoir, My Father's Places, to see if I can feel a bit better about him. Maybe not possible.

Incidentally - did anyone know that Caitlin had had an a affair with the old and randy Augustus John? Who virtually pimped her for Dylan Thomas?
Well, I didn't!!

Apropos of books, the fab Peter Stothard has a book out - Spartacus - his love of all things classical. I will get it - my idea of a Times editor, really!!
Hey, Jane - why not do one of your reviews? I understand that said Times Ed used to be a Griffiths constituent?

Whitey Lawful's Blogspot: The spirit of the law is greater then the letter. said...

Kipling forever!

Anonymous said...

Er - No and double No.

Add to list of Trollope, Wodehouse and Grisham. Oh - and pop in Robert Harris, Dan Brown and Frederick Forsyth along with these dead heads - and Ken Follett.

Airport cardboard one and all.