The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Or a story’s descent into chaos.

I’ll admit, I’ve been teaching high school English for four years and it wasn’t until this January that I had read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I know, I know, shame on me!  Especially because it’s one of the quintessential American novels and American literature is my specialty.  The real salt-in-the-wound is that I lived in Missouri and have been to the Mark Twain museum in Hannibal.  So maybe it was guilt that finally motivated me to pick up the tome and tackle it.  And what a journey it was!  I was familiar with the story, and from a previous reading of Tom Sawyer, I knew I didn’t like Tom, but I had high hopes for Huck. Maybe too high.  And I was looking for Twain’s scathing views on prejudice and slavery that I had seen in Pudd’nhead Wilson.  I’m still not sure where those views were in this book.

The narrator, Huck, was amusing because it was refreshing to get Twain’s via Huck views on life on the Mississippi pre-Civil War.  This point-of-view was great at revealing an attitude that not many writers were willing to gamble on, that of the Southerner and his views regarding race.  Most of the books I have come across in this period are of Northerners who, obviously, blast the South for its prejudice.  I felt that it was a much better way to communicate his (Twain) ideas through a Southern teenager.  Plus, the dialect and Huck’s joie de vivre make him relatable.  Ultimately, though, I felt that Twain watered down Huck’s power the further down the river he and Jim go.

Huck’s development throughout the journey is intriguing. At least for me.  And maybe that’s because I deal with teenagers so much I’ve become an armchair psychologist.  I felt there were four stages to the the story and in each one of those stages Huck was presented with a problem and ultimately grew based on his ability to deal with the problem.  First, there’s his choice to runaway and raft down the river.  Second, there’s his choice to join with Jim and search for freedom.  Third, the misadventures with the King and the Duke.  Finally, the debacle, I mean the meeting of Tom and Huck.  The first two sections reveal Twain’s mastery of dialect, story telling, character development, and ability to make the river its own character.  The King and the Duke seemed to be Twain’s wrath and irascibility embodied, which made for interesting reading, but ultimately my patience with them ran short.  Luckily just in time for them to disappear from the novel at the beginning of the fourth act.  I’ll just note here that while I appreciated their absence from the end of the novel, I felt that this was poorly handled as they had played such a big part in getting Jim and Huck into the final predicament only to just disappear?

The fourth act was very much a disappointment.  All the growth and development Huck had gained throughout the journey seemed to dissipate the moment Tom Sawyer sets foot on the stage.  I felt that this was lazy writing to use Tom as a device to wrap up the novel.  Suddenly, Tom becomes the actor and Huck the supporting actor and Jim gets shunted to the shed, literally.  I honestly felt like Twain ran out of steam in this last section and was doing what he could to simply wrap up the novel as neatly as possible without putting too much effort into it.  I’ve seen this in my students’ papers. The introduction and body are well supported and developed but by the time conclusion arrives, it’s a slap-dash melange of ideas and the paper ends with a whimper not a bang.  They usually get C’s.  So does Twain.

What starts out as a smart, witty approach to life on the Mississippi and the irony of slavery ultimately gives way to dime store novels and cheap writing.  I still think that there are lessons to glean from Huck’s adventures and a good reader will be able to see the points Twain was attempting to make.  But I just can’t forgive Twain for ultimately taking a good story and character and selling them down the river.