Friday, April 15, 2016

It's lovely to live on a raft - Huckleberry Finn in his habitat

The materiality of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn extends to its landscape.  The mechanics of the flow of the Mississippi River, its weather , vegetation, and fish, and then all of the human adaptations, especially the watercraft, form the story at minor and major points, to the extent that Twain abandoned the novel for a long time when his characters reached the Ohio River.  Down the Mississippi – that’s one novel – up the Ohio – that’s another.  And what did Twain know about the Ohio River?

It was useful to have recently read The Return of the Native (1878) and even The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), a pair that could have been written – I don’t know that they were – landscape-first.  The writer imagines the place and then wonders what stories might occur there.  Huckleberry Finn must have been imagined character-first, since Huck is pulled from Tom Sawyer, but he’s a river rat, inseparable from the setting.

The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away – trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks – rafts; … and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!  (Ch. 19)

I made a big chop in the middle of the most rapturous passage in the novel, a 266 word descriptive sentence that I will admit is not entirely credible coming from Huck Finn.  Perhaps his stenographer has cleaned it up a little, maybe added a little from his own observations.  I am sure glad I read Life on the Mississippi (1883), too, finally, so I can see how the novel informs the memoir and travel book, and how Twain’s return to the river for that book helped him solve the problems he had been having with the novel.  I think of Twain on the deck of the steamboat, seeing Huck and Jim ahead of him on their raft.  What are they doing out there?

“You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft,” says Huck at the end of Chapter 18, just before the  long idyllic passage partly quoted above.

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.  (Ch. 19)

This passage, Huck’s days in Arcadia, is a high point of the novel.  Ethically, it is so complex.  There are two people on that raft.


  1. twain does seem to play a bit with pov; i'm sure he was aware of the bitter contrast with what Jim might have been thinking at the same time... so subtle, the way that that appears...

  2. Yes, two on a raft, further complicated later by Leslie Fiedler's controversial article:

  3. Mudpuddle, I think there is still a lot of controversy about Twain's attitude toward Jim (as individual and as representative of an enslaved race) v. Huck's attitude. Clemens, conflicted about those issues, nevertheless left behind him a notorious trail of racist comments and attitudes. Of course, separating persona of author (Twain) from persona of 19th century man (Clemens) has long been a sticky wicket for critical readers. The Ron Powers biography of Clemens/Twain was a real eye-opener for me; I recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the creator of _Huck Finn_.

    1. after reading "Life on the Mississippi", i think old Sam was very aware of popular prejudices and, when using them in some of his work, was aiming at satire more than anything else...

    2. Mudpuddle, I understand the finger-in-the-eye with _HF_, but I also understand that Clemens was tainted (as are most of us now and then) by some attitudes regarding others that fell short of being admirable (e.g., see the Ron Powers biography).

  4. The contrast with Jim is what I will write about next, I think. So rich. Of course, I only barely saw it as a young reader, as self-centered as Huck. It is clear now, though! I will pull John Keene's recent story back in, I hope.

    Fiedler's article complicates nothing. It is easy to ignore, as is a biography that I have not read and do not plan to read. You are being cryptic again.

    Twain is a man I find immensely admirable. Just as an example, he wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an extraordinary accomplishment.