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Huck Finn and the root of modern fiction - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Huck Finn and the root of modern fiction
Okay, you'll note here that I've had reason to be thinking about Huck Finn lately, and I watched the Elijah Wood version of it last night (which skipped some stuff but was reasonably faithful to what was left), and I was thinking about Hemingway's statement that all subsequent American fiction comes from this one novel. Eliot thought it was a masterpiece as well, and despite its frequent bannings and challenges, and the occasional outcry that it shouldn't even be considered in the canon because of its racial slurs and/or its coarse language and subject matter, I have to agree.

The race issue is a tough one, and I don't doubt that seeing That Word over and over again can be troubling to black students, no matter how obviously satirical it is--here's the wisest character in the book, and the best father figure, and people repeatedly apply the worst epithet we currently have to him. All the explanation and historical sense in the world can't really take away that constant little sting every time it shows up. However, it is what it is. That's what Jim would have been called at that time, and maybe it's all right for it to sting. Maybe the rest of us ought to feel the sting as well.

But the racial issues aren't really why I agree with Hemingway about Huck being the root source of American literature. (In fact, I'll modify Hemingway's statement, and say the book is the root of the evolution of modern literature in general, though I will detract from it to say that not all modern books--even all good modern books--are in a line from this branch of evolution. It's the Darwinian winner, but there are still a few holdouts!) The plot is excellent and the individual issue that Twain is working with is certainly powerful and important, but I think its universality is necessarily more than its specific choice to deal with the issue of slavery.

Whenever kids get assigned to read Dickens or other older writers and are having a little trouble, I kind of sympathize--the plots are often terrific and the language wonderful, but the characters are all too often little paper dolls being moved around the stage, and when they aren't, it seems accidental. It's hard to imagine people crowding the dock to pick up the latest installment of Oliver Twist... and I say that as someone who likes the book. The same is true of Dracula and even, to an extent, Frankenstein (though Shelley comes closer to the modern novel than Stoker does... a century earlier!). Today, it's a given that, in any story, characters grow and develop. They face things about themselves that they might not want to see, and have to grapple with it head on. (Dickens approaches this in A Christmas Carol... I don't mean to say that Twain is the first ever to do a character novel, or to say that Dickens never did, just that it was Huck who really figured out how the structure really worked, and made it do things other than give lessons.)

Huck Finn is one of the first books--maybe the first, though it had been done in drama--where the characters grapple with moral dilemmas and the narrator doesn't pause to explain what's happening. Huck has an epiphany in the "I'll go to hell!" scene, but there's no Twain stepping aside to say that of course Huck isn't going to hell, and he has truly come to an understanding that the adults around him don't have. In fact, the story just goes right on as it had before. No one guides Huck in a new enlightenment, and he immediately has to struggle with his decision, because he's feeling his way entirely, and he's a kid with a lot of conflicting desires. He can be comfortable and happy with the Grangerfords, and he's willing to sacrifice Jim for it, even though he has a feeling that it might be wrong. There's no one prodding him, no voice from on high speaking to him, he just has to reach the conclusion by himself. He gets past this, again without any guidance, then moves on to the thornier issue of two competing rights--helping Jim and helping Mary Jane. He does his damnedest with it, and comes up with something like a solution.

And then he's put back in a comfortable place, lets Tom Sawyer start to do his thinking for him, and, predictably, screws up. Again, there's no narrative voice saying, "And then Huck started making mistakes again." Twain just lets the force of the narrative carry it. The reader can feel the pull of playing with Tom--Tom is a charming kid who means no harm to anyone and manages to think too much without thinking at all--but still, we know that Jim deserves a whole lot better than a weird scheme involving romantic ideas of how he should break out of prison.

It's here, in Twain's trust in his narrative, his refusal to "tell," that we see the real taproot of modern fiction--it's deeply moral without being moralizing. Characters are imperfect, but the author doesn't stop to say, "And he was imperfect and erred"; he just lets him be imperfect and err, and lets the audience be the judge of it. "Show, don't tell" is such ubiquitous advice that it's easy to forget how very modern it is, or how daring Twain was at the time to just do it. Even now, you can sometimes get an idea of how new it is when you hear one person or another attack a book for having "negative messages," when the text is clear that they are, in fact, negative ideas... because the author doesn't outright say it. (The clearest case of this, to my mind, is someone citing the line "There is no good and evil, only power..." as a reason that Harry Potter is a negative moral message... um, the entire point of the story is that this is the way the BAD GUYS think, and the good guys have to overcome this. Now, a person may think that isn't a healthy attitude, but at least that's the actual attitude of the books!)

Modern fiction asks readers to come in with their brains engaged--be able to look at everything and see it in context, understand the meaning of the text beyond simple narrative statements. That goes from the simplest levels (oh, the bickering couple really does have feelings for each other) to the highest ones, where the hero may make a lot of choices which are simply morally awful, even if they make emotional sense. Mentors can be wrong, heroes can be wrong, villains can sometimes be right--you have to follow the contextual clues of the story to know which is which in the author's terms, and you have to apply your own judgment about what you think of the values the author espouses. (Yes, you can disagree with the author. You just can't make it so that the author "really" agrees with you if the text doesn't support it.)

It's here that Huck Finn really changed American writing, and modern writing in general. Twain trusted his readers and he trusted his story. It can be read on many, many levels, including the plain old "adventure on a river" level, and all of them are all right (Twain's threats about looking for a moral notwithstanding--though if you look for a moral in the Victorian sense of the word--a narrative summing up of what Huck learned from all this--you'll look in vain).

So, anyway. Yeah. Huck deserves his place in the canon, and Hemingway was right about what that place was.
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rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: June 18th, 2006 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I always thank the fates that let me read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn before I was required to read them for a class. They're entirely different stories to a kid sitting under a lilac bush than they are to a bored teenager sitting in a classroom...

And now I want to go and reread! Thanks!
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 18th, 2006 10:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Moby-Dick

I don't know--if he did it, he did it in a really distancing way. Ishmael doesn't have the immediacy of Huck, and, though it may have been starting to point that way, as Frankenstein did, it didn't really quite get there. And Melville does stop to comment here and there, if I recall (though it's been awhile--I forced myself through the beginning of MD, and just could not warm up to it at all, so that may contribute to my ho-hum feeling toward its level of importance). Hawthorne did an interesting bit of it in "Young Goodman Brown," though, which I appreciated for its ambiguity about what happened.
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harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: June 19th, 2006 01:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Hey, I had a relative in that movie. He's in the trial scene, as the old guy who sold the knife. Credited as Adrian Roberts, but known to us as Cousin Bert (he's from the hillbilly side of the family).

I really should reread that book--it's been years since I've read any Twain, and while I liked it then, I think I'd get a lot more out of it now. Mostly, I just remember reading Tom Sawyer and wanting to be Becky.
firiel44 From: firiel44 Date: June 19th, 2006 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes. What you said. Precisely.

Now why did it once take me 20 pages to say that? Oh yeah, because it had to be 20 pages or I failed the class. ;) (Here via miladygrey's f-list, btw.)
vytresna From: vytresna Date: June 19th, 2006 04:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd just like to point out that Holden Caulfield. Is not. Huck Finn. They're slangy delinquents on some sort of journey, but Holden is aimless and does nothing but whine for all but the last two chapters, and... urgh.
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