Sunday, August 23, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, An Afterword


Modern readers tend to assume that the Territory which Huck says he is lighting out for is a metaphoric place, an uncharted wild west free of law and responsibilities. In fact Indian Territory was on the map, a Native American "homeland" set aside in 1834 by a Congress in the process of removing native nations from their lands east of the Mississippi. In 1907 Indian Territory became, in one more legislated theft, a large part of the state of Oklahoma.

Native American arts lace subtly through Huckleberry Finn, from the empty canoes which appear--or vanish--on the river, to Jim's raft wigwam, to the landscape itself and the mystic agents whom Huck says he hears sometimes. As noted earlier, Huck himself is based on Twain's childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, reputedly half Native American. Consequent of these effects is Huck's yearning for the Territory feels innately right, a subliminal expression of character that serves to make his itch to run off ring beautifully true. Where else could Huck go but the Territory?

General readers don't know that Twain began a sequel to Huckleberry Finn the year it was published, picking up exactly where the novel ends. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, follows the two, with Jim attending, on Tom's proposed Indian Territory expedition. But the project was utterly stillborn, and Twain quit after about 10,000 words.

The sequel disregards much of what makes Huckleberry Finn so compelling. First off, Huck picks up writing another book not long after vowing he never would again. His voice lacks the idiomatic snap of the novel (though clearly Twain did not spend much time getting it right in what was a first draft, we do get an idea of how much effort he did put into Huck's great monologue.)

Unfortunately too, Huck has not struck out on his own, like he said he would, but in the company of the ever-tiresome Tom. Least forgivable is that instead of allowing Jim to return home to work for the money to deliver his wife and children from slavery--his cherished dream in the first book--Twain brings him along as a comic third wheel. A very stock love story is also set up between a beautiful pioneer girl and a handsome horseman of the trail, exactly of the sort of junk infesting pulp novels of the time-- movies soon enough--and for the next hundred years.

The pulp idyl soon ends. Indians attack, massacre the pioneer girl's family, and abduct her and Jim, prompting a rescue by the boys and dashing cowboy. The story slams to a stop after the searchers find unmistakable evidence, greatly foreshadowed, that the girl had been staked to the ground spread-eagle and raped. This, as far as Twain was concerned, was what happened to white woman captured by Indians, and, clearly, that would not do, even for America's literary bad boy.

Clouding over the story is Twain's obvious hatred of Native Americans (see the otherwise delightful Roughing It), a prejudice he recognized and regretted late in life. While Twain was intimately acquainted with the shades of goodness and wickedness among whites in a slave holding society, and the radiant soul of black folks, he could not begin to imagine the humanity of people he considered beasts.

He instead used the aborted novel to mock Tom's romantic ideas of Indians, gained from the novels of Fenimore Cooper, a writer he also despised unfairly , to better condemn a people he did not understand (and let's agree that the man responsible for Puddin' Head Wilson has no call to ridicule Cooper's literary offenses.) Instinct probably told Twain his notion of Indians was wrong, but not why that was or by how much. He put the manuscript away, like he put Huck Finn away, only never to go back to it.

By considering the creative dead end of Among the Indians we can appreciate how great Huckleberry Finn really is. For one thing, even Twain could not surpass it--and he knew it. (The Tom and Huck potboilers to come ten years later, riffs on Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes, are not worth further mention.) But Huckleberry Finn is not a happy accident. Written at the height of Twain's powers, just before financial ruin began to haunt his days, and warp his work, the novel is a sly, deliberately crafted and precise vision of a time and place in the world, socially and psychologically true.

Another facet of this greatness is how it still resides in the minds of readers after almost 130 years. I'm not sure how this is accomplished exactly; how any book can last so long. Something to do, I'd say, with the exhibition of an intimate knowledge of particular things that somehow extends to an expressed totality of life as it is lived, something recognizable in the real world.

With Huckleberry Finn Twain shows how well he knows the people, the land, the language. He also knows his audience and exactly which rules to follow and which to break. He knows the American violence, arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed that led to the deaths of half a million men in the Civil War. He also knows, and shows, how goodness and mercy work in the human heart, how people are resilient and steadfast, how they will stand up for what's right no matter what others think. These qualities are very American too, and ever lead our nation further away from the original sin at its founding.

Huckleberry Finn, of low estate and rudely told, stands in the highest rank of world literature. Not only does it tell the central American tale of bondage and freedom, of lighting out into a world of danger and bad luck to find a new home; in its pages Twain turned the first-person narrative into a living thing, a genuine voice in which for the first time how the story is told is as crucial as anything in it. It is impossible to imagine what American literature--what American life--would be like now without it.

Last week: Chapter XLII & Chapter the Last

Update: January, 2011 -- A word about that word.

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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.

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