[This is an extract from a follow up on great books in ‘Top Shelf’ which is currently being put together.]
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.
That’s how this novel starts. Huck then has supper with the widow.
After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.
This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men. They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief.
The hypocrisy shocks us now. One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim. Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.
Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is.
On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan. And he was more than just a fan.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction. The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment. So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.
Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder. Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.
Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors. They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’ That really winds up the locals. (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)
But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?
He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it. He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days. Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –
Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.
And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam. Jim was satisfied.
Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that. It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like.
Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’. It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels. It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India. The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation. Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it.
The two novels have a lot in common. The hero of each is a boy. He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world. They embark on a journey, physically and morally. The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story.
However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix. So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.
Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.
What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man. It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….
And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:
‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.
I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’