Monday, April 18, 2016

He’d call it an adventure - Huck Finn vs Walter Scott, and the struggle to find Jim

Mark Twain had presented his argument against Walter Scott in Life on the Mississippi.  He returns to it in Huckleberry Finn and in fact makes it a principle, if submerged, theme of the novel.  It explains some of the unpleasantness of the novel’s final episode.

Southerners developed an ethical system that was a fantasy based on novels; that is Twain’s argument.  The novels are not really the issue, just useful stand-ins for a critique of Southern culture – the over-emphasis on honor, the duels and feuds, the glorification of violence, and the pride in lost causes – all of this on top of a dehumanizing system of chattel slavery, which was also part of the fantasy, allowing slave-owners to think of themselves as feudal chiefs.

Tom Sawyer is the novel’s representative of this ideology.  He wants to turn everything into an adventure story, a less innocent pastime than it first seems.  By the end of a novel, Sawyer is revealed as a sociopath, completely indifferent to human suffering and all too proud of his new bullet wound.  The irony of that detail is pretty ugly.

I love Huckleberry Finn for his independence and his ability to make moral decisions – “’All right, then, I'll go to hell’” (Ch. 31), right?  “It was awful thought, and awful words, but they was said.”  The escaped slave Jim becomes his friend, as human as himself.

Yet Finn cannot free himself from Tom Sawyer.  Jim and Huck come upon a steamboat wreck.  Jim says skip it; Huck says:

“Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing?  Not for pie, he wouldn’t?  He’d call it an adventure – that’s what he’d call it; and he’d land on that wreck if it was his last act.  And wouldn’t he throw style into it?...  I wish Tom Sawyer was here.”  (Ch. 12)

Six pages later, just by the way, we learn the name of the steamboat:

“On the wreck.”

“What wreck?”

“Why, there ain’t but one.”

“What, you don’t mean the Walter Scott?”  (Ch. 13)

Huck had also wished Tom were present while he was emptying out Pap’s cabin and faking his own death.  Whatever problems a reader might have with the final episode of the novel, when Tom Sawyer engineers Jim’s escape from imprisonment, but only on Tom’s insane terms, as if they were all in a Dumas novel, you can’t say that Twain had not set things up.  Thematically, the ending logically follows.

The episode is deeply uncomfortable.  However resourceful Huck is on his own, he is crushed in the presence of Tom Sawyer, servile, even.  He achieves a powerful moral breakthrough about his friend Jim and then abandons it without a fight.  I understand why people dislike the ending.  It is unpleasant.

No more unpleasant, though, than what Jim has been experiencing throughout the novel.  He already lives away from his family, his wife and two children living on a Missouri farm while he works in town.  He flees slavery because of a threat that he will be sold away from his family.  He hopes to work in Illinois and buy his family.  The further he floats south – the longer Tom Sawyer keeps him chained up in prison – the more he risks not only personal violence but the loss of his family.

For Huck Finn, family is something to escape, plus he is just a boy.  How can he understand any of this?  The young reader has the same excuse.  The adult reader ought to struggle to bring Jim out from the background.

Much of the above is indebted to John Keene’s story “Rivers,” from Counternarratives (2015), in which Jim tells his story.  It is a fine piece of literary criticism.


  1. "submerged" is good.

    Maybe I should write a longer comment than that. I have never read HF (or any other Twain) as an adult; my memory is of a slight boy's adventure tale, writ in dialect. We have it on the shelf. I suppose I could blow the dust off, seeing as you do a good job of presenting it as social commentary. When I read it, I was living in the South. Not on a plantation, mind you, nor a riverboat.

  2. I have read Huck Finn five times, the latest within the last year in the glorious annotated version by Michael Patrick Hearn. I also read The Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi; both are far superior in the qualities for which Twain is justifiably revered. But Huckleberry Finn is weak pabulum indeed, with strained allegorical feuds, the pathetic King and Duke, and the lame and shameless fraudulent return of Tom Sawyer to save an already freed black man from being returned to slavery. I simply don't understand why anyone thinks it the Great American Novel; it doesn't hold a candle to Moby Dick, and it's not even Twain at his best. Best to read Tom Sawyer for the innocent Twain and The Innocents Abroad for the razor-sharp wit for which he became renowned, and Letters from the Earth for the late-in-life bitterness that may be his best and meanest writing of all. Read Finn because you must--it has become part of the blood of the culture--but it is in no way America's best foot (to mix metaphors).

    1. i have to agree; twain wrote HF & TS as children's books. his adult works, Life, etc. are much better. it's almost like he was two writers: one who could write The Mysterious Stranger and the other who penned The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

    2. I'm willing to accept Huck as a work of art, a book for adults, as Tom says below, at least until I read it again. Maybe then I'll suggest that Tom gives Twain too much credit, but his reading here is pretty compelling. He makes a pretty good case.

  3. Tom Sawyer is the slight one. Huck Finn deepens quickly, beyond Twain's expectation.

    The great innovation for Twain, and the great art, is in the voice. Like Dickens with David Copperfield, the possibilities expand. The expansion of Huck's father introduces the violence that becomes the theme of the novel.

    The dialect is mild. Huck Finn contains social commentary, but it succeeds as art.

    I'll note, too, that in the MLA International Bibliography, it gets over four times as many hits as the next Twain book, which to my surprise is Connecticut Yankee. A rich book. Moby-Dick, of course, clobbers it, and every other American book, on this measure.

    I love the feud; I am thrilled with the Duke and Dauphin; for the return of Tom Sawyer, see above.

    That Great American Novel stuff is an argument with someone else.

  4. There's a 40 year gap between "Jumping Frog" and Mysterious Stranger! Those are two different writers.

    Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn, though, are deeply intertwined. One book led right to the other, which then allowed the completion of the first. An episode of Huckleberry Finn is actually included in Life on the Mississippi - and then excluded from HF. Which is odd. And a good decision. HF began as another "bad boy is rewarded" boy's adventure book and quickly turned into something else.

    I mean, Life on the Mississippi is also a boy's adventure book. The boy is young Sam Clemens; the adventure is piloting steamboats. HF is much more detailed and complex, about slavery. LotM is no more "adult" than HF.

  5. Ah, I had the greatest third grade teacher.

    Now, fourth grade, let's not talk about that.

  6. I just want to comment here and say that I love this novel so much. So comic, funny, and resoundingly meaningful and energetic. And it: descriptive powers are worthy of Cormac McCarthy and the filmmaking of Ternece Malick.

    example passage:

    "Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark —which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two —on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest. Once or twice of a night we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty; then she would turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her powwow shut off and leave the river still again; and by and by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the raft a bit, and after that you wouldn’t hear nothing for you couldn’t tell how long, except maybe frogs or something."

    See the power in those visuals and in that voice.

    As for the later chapters, they are more minstrel-like, but I think they do add something interesting of their own - a contrast between two modes of thinking: the romantic and the realistic. Tom Sawyer represents a caricature of Romantic literature at its worst (usually in bad or absurdly over-the-top literature of the period), and Huck represents a realism that, while under the sway of the romantic for a while, ultimately resounds more powerful. They may not have the resounding power of the earlier chapters, but their presence is justified, IMO, from the thematic concerns of the novel.

    And remember, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a generally loose plot, by the standards of plot, and its looseness gives it a life of its own, much like the looseness of Walt Whitman's poetry gives that a boundless visual embrace and biblical-poetic cadence that otherwise would be lacking in a more structured confine.

  7. If you have moved through my posts, I believe you will see that we are in agreement.