June 10, 2007

More on Huck Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1885

Finally finished this wonderful book, and I'm so glad I took the time to read it again. I'm more than a little bit in awe of it, to tell you the truth - there's a greatness in it that I never really touched before. I suppose it's testament to the novel's depth that I could read it in high school, enjoy it, get a lot out of it, understand its "classic" status, but never see what makes it a singular work of literary art. You never read the same book twice, I guess.

Twain really swings for the fences here, trying to encompass as much of American society (and Western civilization generally) as he can possibly fit into a picaresque boy's-adventure book of less than 300 pages. It seems somehow essential that the smallish, personal story, told in what's more-or-less a popular style, is what's brought to bear on these huge issues of politics, philosophy, and morality. There's a hopefulness implicit in it.

The thing that strikes me hard this time through the novel is that Twain just never lets you off easy. That's not to say that the book isnt' easy to read - it rolls along quite breezily, and is damn funny to boot. No the "ease" I'm talking about is a moral ease. Time and again, the author sets up a moral quandary in story form that seems it should be a parable, then layers of complexity get heaped on, and multiple veiwpoints onto the issue are opened. Soon the plot has moved along, before a resolution is reached, and the situation has morphed into something new, with a newly updated problems. Sympathetic characters become monsters and vice-versa. This is "democratic" fiction, wherein everyone gets a say and everyone is capable of both brilliance and folly.

In this light, Huck is a genuine hero. He navigates this moral landscape like he navigates the river: relying on experience, taking stock of changes, having self-confidence, learning from mistakes. If it's been more than a few years since you've read it, go grab a copy and read it again. It's really quite intimidatingly great.

No comments: