Sunday, January 11, 2009

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.

And so begins this great, perhaps the great, American novel. YOU don't know about me, the speaker without a name steps out from anonymity to be heard, to address you directly. This is MY story. Maybe you read that book by Mark Twain, he says, (a pseudonym there-a man behind a mask) and he told a few lies, but don't worry about him.

That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, and, as we shall see, his tale is a monument to lies and falsehood, private and amusing, public and appalling. In fact, the only person in sight our narrator does not lie to, ever, is YOU, the reader.

Following the adventures related in the earlier book, he is for his time and place wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. He explains his domestic situation: homeless and nearly orphaned, he has been adopted by the widow Douglas to be raised to be a respectable member of the community. He chafes at the restrictions, down to the clothes he is made to wear, and runs off to sleep, happy and content, in a barrel outdoors.

His friend, the aforementioned Sawyer, presumably sent by the widow, talks him into returning to his new home.

But more than his living arrangement, we are given to understand how he lives. He is observant, hard to fool, and kind. The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it.

He is also very bright, pestering the widow when something finally seizes his interest: After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him;

What is so interesting about Moses and the Bulrushes? That a baby was cast onto a great river, of course, on a kind of raft, and floated away to find his destiny. He wants to know all about that, that is really interesting. How'd he do that??

but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.

And here we have the first of Twain's rude shocks, from out of nowhere, a slap at the Bible. Amusing even now, it probably still outrages a few living fundamentalists. In 1885 it was a cheerful assault on the foundation of society itself. The book was banned that year by the Concord, Mass. library, the first of many such honors.

The boy is sensitive to hypocrisy. He wants to smoke, his protector says he can't. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

I'm still not sure what that last comment means, perhaps that the righteous see no need to remedy themselves.

Finally he mentions his name, as he is being scolded. The widow's sister, Miss Watson, has moved in and tries to home school him.

"Don't put your feet up there, Huckleberry;" and "Don't scrunch up like that, Huckleberry -- set up straight;" and pretty soon she would say, "Don't gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry -- why don't you try to behave?"

The subject of religion returns, now as coercive social agent. He's having none of it, though.

Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn't mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn't say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.

The easy availability of Hell is a theme we will find deepened much later in the narrative.

Oh, and speaking of Hell:

By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed.

A casual observation, a daily event, a nasty word. Twain here shows us, in a stroke, the hateful yoke of southern religion. Round up the slaves for a few prayers then send them to quarters, another day the Lord has made is over. Sometimes Huck says the most when he says the least.

The balance of the chapter is made up of a true cosmology, one of the brooding night. Our first glimpse of the natural world through Huck's eyes is as a vale of loneliness and superstition. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was [...]

In a stroke of bad luck, he accidently kills a spider. He is petrified because of it as the clock tolls the witching hour. He hears a cat outside, and it turns into Tom Sawyer; a diabolical figure, I submit, in Twain's estimation, though I am not aware of any supporting scholarship on this point. I shall return to it before we are done.

Last week, an introduction.
Next Sunday, Chapter II

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Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95

1 comment:

racketmensch said...

Thanks for this. It's taken awhile - I had to read through your piece twice, once with book in hand, trying to get the lighting right between the screen and the page. My eyes aren't what they used to be. Switching to on-line edition...