GAN Quest: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

🙂 🙂 🙂

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we left Huck Finn, now comfortably well-off, being ‘sivilised’ by the Widow Douglas. But when Huck’s Pap comes back, wanting to get his hands on Huck’s new-found wealth, Huck finds himself at his father’s mercy, locked up in their shanty and subjected to beatings. So he hatches a plan to escape. Meantime, Miss Watson’s slave Jim has decided to run away because he’s overheard Miss Watson say she’s going to sell him down to Orleans. When the two meet up they decide to throw in their lots with each other and set off down the Mississippi on a raft. This is the story of their adventures. (Please note there are some spoilers in this review on the basis that almost everyone will already know the story.)

“A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I rek’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No – ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factory; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factory when he want to res’.”

There was always going to come a point at least once in the Great American Novel Quest when I would hit a book that didn’t seem to me to live up to its reputation. Sadly, this is that book. I’m quite sure that if I had read it not knowing of its status, it would never have occurred to me to rank this as anything more than a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn – showing its age, certainly, but with a fair amount of satirical humour.

However, even reviewing it as an adventure, I found it compared unfavourably to its predecessor. The few chapters at the beginning are pretty much a reprise of Tom Sawyer, with the gang again getting together to play at being robbers, and much of the humour here is simply a repeat of the first novel. The next section – Huck’s cruel treatment at the hands of his father – is treated so lightly that it didn’t generate any real emotion in me; and Huck’s pretence at having being murdered in order to escape is again very similar to what happened in the previous book.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

Once Jim and Huck get together, the story improves greatly for a while and the first section of their journey is the best bit of the book, as we see these two unlikely companions begin to form bonds of affection and loyalty. It’s here that Twain shows most clearly through Huck’s narration the acceptance of slavery as an almost unthinking norm in the society he’s portraying, and we get brief flashes of Jim as a real person when he tells about how he will be separated from his wife and children if he’s sold.

Then unfortunately the two con-artists – the Duke and the King – come on the scene and from there on the whole thing seems to lose any narrative drive. To be honest, while at first it seemed clear that Huck and Finn were heading north to the free States, after this mid-way point I had no clear idea what their plan was, if they had one. The book, like the raft, seems to drift aimlessly as we are given little humorous set-pieces at each of the towns they visit. But not humorous enough, I’m afraid, to compensate for the repetitiveness of the section nor for the overdrawn caricatures of these two characters.

twain-huck-finn-kemble-27e

“Well, some of the best authorities has done it. They couldn’t get the chain off, so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain’t necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim’s a nigger, and wouldn’t understand the reasons for it, and how it’s the custom in Europe; so we’ll let it go.”

When Tom finally re-appears, the story picks up for a bit as he and Huck each take on false identities to fool Tom’s unsuspecting aunt. But then we get to the long-drawn out and frankly tedious final section where, instead of rescuing Jim, Tom goes off into another of his fantasies and stretches the whole thing out to an extent where I found I was beginning to skim whole chapters in a desperate bid to get to the end.

So as a novel, I’m afraid this would rate no more than 3 stars for me.

* * * * * * * * *

Trying to look at it a bit more deeply as a contender for Great American Novel status, the two things that are most often mentioned are the innovative use of dialect and the satirical look at attitudes towards slavery. Certainly, the dialect is done wonderfully well – Twain never misses a beat, and makes each voice not only distinct, but an unmistakeable indicator of the different class each character occupies. So Tom’s voice clearly shows he’s of a better class and level of education than Huck, while Jim and the other slaves share a dialect all of their own – a dialect that is recognisable from most of the early Hollywood films portraying slavery, such as Gone With the Wind. This made me wonder if the dialect was authentic, or a Twain creation that influenced later culture. Either way, it’s a virtuoso performance from Twain and certainly raises the artistic level of the novel. (Honestly, though, I found it irritating after a while – frequently having to re-read Jim’s dialogue to catch the meaning. Perhaps that’s my Britishness showing through.)

kemble3

I found the slavery question more complex, oddly because Twain makes it seem so simple. He makes the tolerance of slavery a universal thing, accepted unquestioningly by everyone in the novel. I found this unconvincing – the book is set only a couple of decades before the Civil War, and surely there would have been more shades of grey over it, even in the South, by that period? Also, although he shows the basic inhumanity and emotional cruelty of one man owning another, somehow he also shows the owners as fundamentally good-natured and mostly quite kind to the slaves. I’m sure that was also true of some owners, but I’m equally sure there was a lot more physical cruelty and abuse than this novel suggests. It all seemed strangely sanitised, especially since the point was presumably to show the plain wrongness of the practice. And, while there’s no doubt every character in the book regardless of colour is displayed as, shall we say, intellectually challenged, the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I really, really wanted Jim to tell Tom and Huck to grow up and stop messing him about, rather than to continue metaphorically wagging his tail at his masters, as he did even once he discovered that he had been a free man while Tom was indulging his own selfishness.

Hmm…I’m guessing you can tell I wasn’t convinced by this one…

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagBearing in mind when the book was written, and that the audience for it therefore didn’t share today’s sensibilities regarding race and equality, I’m assuming that the book perhaps did shed light on the evils of slavery for its contemporary readers, at a time when the post-war society wasn’t living up to the expectations of the proponents of the war. To be honest, I’m basing this assumption more on the book’s reputation than on anything I found in the text though. So, somewhat grudgingly – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I think the theme most definitely meets the originality test and there’s no doubt the use of dialect was innovative, so – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagOh dear – I feel I’m going to offend most of America here and quite probably the rest of the world too but…no, I didn’t find this superbly written. The dialect, while hugely skilful, detracted on the whole from my enjoyment; and the plot was too straggly and unfocussed, particularly the several chapters at the end. The humour and satire simply weren’t enough to carry it. So…not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think this is arguable. While the book concentrated very much on the South, and was of course historical even at the time of writing, it was clearly written with reference to issues in the contemporary society. It seemed to me that Twain saw the issue of equality as one for the whole of the US and in that sense, it addresses the entire ‘American experience’. But does it capture it? I’m conflicted – but on the whole no, I’m not wholly convinced by Twain’s portrayal of this society so…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, donning my hard hat and cowering behind the settee, I hereby declare that not only is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not The Great American Novel, but for only achieving 3 GAN flags and 3 stars, it isn’t even A Great American Novel.

Please don’t hate me! Instead, convince me that I’m wrong…

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

mark twain delphiA glittering hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set in Missouri sometime around the 1830s, Twain gives us a joyous romp through the lives of some of the boys, and even a couple of the pesky girls, growing up in the small town of St Petersburg. This is a world long, long before health and safety and overprotective parents where, when they’re not being forced to attend school or Sunday School, the boys can let both their bodies and their imaginations run wild –and oh, how they do! Tom is a natural leader – the one with the imagination and, I suspect, a liking for sensationalist pulp fiction. So when the boys aren’t being pirates, that’s only because they’re planning on how to become robbers or deciding who should be Robin Hood and who the Sheriff of Nottingham.

“…Tom said “Where this arrow falls, there bury poor Robin Hood under the greenwood tree.” Then he shot the arrow and fell back and would have died, but he lit on a nettle and sprang up too gaily for a corpse.”

It’s during a midnight trip to the graveyard (to throw a dead cat after the devils, obviously) that Tom and the little vagabond Huck Finn witness the horrific crime that provides the running storyline and the darker edge to the book. Scared that they’ll be killed if they tell what they saw, the boys can’t avoid feeling guilty when the wrong man is arrested and about to be hanged. But fortunately there’s always romance to take Tom’s mind off things…

“Say, Becky, was you ever engaged?”
“What’s that?”
“Why, engaged to be married.”
“No.”
“Would you like to?”
“I reckon so. I don’t know. What is it like?”
“Like? Why it ain’t like anything. You only just tell a boy you won’t ever have anybody but him, ever ever ever, and then you kiss and that’s all. Anybody can do it.”
“Kiss? What do you kiss for?”
“Why, that, you know, is to – well, they always do that.”

TomSawyer-006A wonderfully warm-hearted book, Twain’s gently humorous and affectionate portrayal of the children is stopped from descending into sentimentality by his sly ridicule of the customs and manners of society, as seen through the microcosm of this small town. No-one is safe from his gaze, however respectable a position they may hold – not the poor minister as the boredom of his sermon is brightened for the boys by the advent of an unruly poodle, not the unfortunate teacher who must pay handsomely with the loss of his dignity for the crime of making the boys study. The boys’ belief in all kinds of old wives’ tales provides plenty of fun while allowing Twain to indulge in some gentle mockery of superstition. And Huck’s views on attempts to turn him into a respectable child give Twain the opportunity to poke fun at the restrictions polite society forces on itself…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

I found myself smiling throughout, frequently laughing aloud and occasionally gasping as Twain would suddenly throw Tom and his friends into danger and fear. I read this book when I was a young teenager and remembered enjoying it for the adventures, but as an adult I got much more out of Twain’s sneaky sideways swipes at society in general. The writing is wonderful – almost goes without saying – and greatly enhanced by the masterly use of dialect and idiom. Funny, insightful and hugely entertaining – a true classic.

“The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

PS – As a little aside, I couldn’t help making comparisons to my own childhood favourite Anne of Green Gables. The lack of parents, the imaginative child always falling accidentally into trouble, the school romance… Of course, Anne and her friends were just pesky girls, so behaved much, much better than these awful boys (and were much cleaner, generally speaking) but I did wonder if LM Montgomery had been influenced by this earlier book. And sometimes Twain’s observational drollery, like the quote above about the minister, reminded me strongly of Dickens in humorous vein…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link