PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
The above quote is Mark Twain’s notice to readers in the opening pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Huckleberry Finn may well be the most curious case of writer’s block in American literature; its controversial place in the nation’s literature was secured the moment the Concord Public Library banned it in 1885, stating that the book was “trash of the veriest sort,” and a century later the novel was banned yet again on the grounds that the book and the author were racist. Like Alexandra Ripley‘s Scarlett (1994), the sequel to Gone With The Wind, the Jon Clinch prequel Finn (2007) about Huck’s father, became an instant bestseller because Huck Finn still haunts or speaks to readers.
Twain took delight that the city of Concord, which gave readers Emerson and Thoreau, had banned his novel. As to the charge of racism, I’ll leave that to others to debate. I view Mark Twain as a satirist and as an author who, like some authors today, chose to use the vernacular of his day; and it so happens that the vernacular in the 1880s saw the n-word used among educated and uneducated people alike. The unfortunate legacy, I think, is that Twain, like Faulkner and O’Connor after him, was so good at using common speech in his work that many authors have since rendered dialect with limited success. Writers are now cautioned not to do it. Where I take issue with Twain over Huck Finn is with the ending, but I’ll get to that later.
T.S. Eliot, a Missourian, wrote eloquently about the novel and about the role of the Mississippi River in it. Some readers have hailed Huck Finn as the American novel. Hemingway famously declared: “All modern American literature comes from Huck Finn” and tacked on a proviso that I find most interesting: “If you must read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys sic. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Hemingway and others had problems with Twain’s second half of the novel. I do, too. Again, I am interested in the writer’s block and Twain’s cure for it as an author.
Twain began Huck Finn in earnest after the publication of Tom Sawyer in 1876. Four hundred pages into writing Huck, Twain stopped cold and set the manuscript aside for seven years. What happened? Well, we need to back up to where Tom Sawyer ended. At the end of that novel, Tom opted for civilization and Huck did not. Huck wanted “out.” That decision animates Huck Finn down to the very famous last sentence of the novel. Huck’s solution is to find freedom and home on his raft out on the Mississippi River. He runs away from Aunt Polly. Jim would run away from Mrs. Watson. In spirit and tone Huck Finn is like Tom Sawyer, until Twain has the raft approach Cairo where Huck and Jim either escape north to freedom or drift southward to Arkansas into slave territory. This is where the blank white page tyrannized Twain.
Two things happened when Twain returned to writing. First and foremost he contradicts the theme of freedom by having the raft go south into slave territory. Arkansas is not good news or a good place for the fugitive Jim. My take on that authorial choice is this: Twain could not write about Missouri, or the North, its cities, dialects, and customs because he is a southern writer, so he chose to stay the course and write what he knew. Read the second half of the novel, if you haven’t, and then decide whether or not the story jumps the shark. I think what happens to Jim is not only absurd, but is patently cruel. Epic fail, Mr. Twain.
The second consequence of Twain’s choice to go due south is that he presents a very brutal south. Here, Twain is successful. His depiction of Bricksville predates the noir city, with its con men and urban violence. Colonel Sherburn shoots and kills the obnoxious town drunk, and then defies a mob that comes to his house. The tension crackles. Huck’s alter-ego Buck experiences violence. Twain goes on to take a swipe at southern culture when he spills blood through the Sheperdson-Grangerford feud. Huck’s Pap is the first anti-government character in American literature. Through the fraudsters and scalawags, the King and Duke, Twain ridicules everything from the European chivalric and picaresque traditions from Don Quixote on down to poking fun at pretentious titles — the King claims to be the lost Dauphin, the son of the executed Louis XVI, and the Duke is the Duke of Bridgewater, although he is called the Duke of Bilgewater. In steering the raft south, Mark Twain comes home as a satirist with a vengeance.
As I said, the ending is a problem. No spoilers here. Was Twain the writer a pantser, a writer who creates as he or she goes along, or a plotter, a writer who has the key pieces of the story all laid out? I simply don’t know. Vonnegut, another satirist, covered his room with butcher’s paper to coax Slaughterhouse-Five out of the typewriter. Vonnegut, of course, was exorcising his painful experience at Dresden. Twain, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, did not sermonize or sentimentalize the slave’s condition. Twain is more like Dickens in that he created the panoptic vision of a troubled democracy. 1876 was the American Centennial, although Huck Finn did not reach readers until 1885. The character of Huck Finn he ended up with after his fallow period is as iconic as Holden Caulfield or other disaffected youths in American literature. Is Huck a rebel or a naive innocent who puts too much trust in the great American river to take him to freedom? I wouldn’t be so trusting.