Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those books that most of us read in our teens. Most of us, that is, except me, who read the first few chapters in my ninth grade English class and then faked it. It wasn’t that I was a reluctant reader; though I spent a lot of my adolescent years playing Legend of Zelda, it’s likely that I blew off reading Huck Finn because I was too engrossed in some Star Trek novel or the steamy Neanderthal sex scenes in Jean M. Aul’s Clan of the Cave Bear. I recently read Huck Finn for real, and though I recalled more of the plot than I realized (a testament to my English teacher since I hadn’t actually, you know, read most of it) I was shocked at how much different it is from the novel I’d always figured it to be. What I’d taken for a boyish adventure down the Mississippi turned out to be more of a scathingly satirical trip into America’s Heart of Darkness, as funny and troubling as Conrad’s little trip down the Congo and into the human soul is horrific.
Huck Finn is perhaps one of the most divisive books in the literary canon. Ernest Hemingway saw it as the most important, most seminal novel in American literature, and it’s long been relegated to the musty air of Great Works and force-fed to high school students in English classes. It’s been praised for its picaresque sense of adventure, its examination of the American character and race relations at the end of the slavery era, and the way it liberated serious literature from its high-falutin’ airs with its use of colloquial speech, not just in dialogue, but in its first-person narrative driven by the voice of the quasi-illiterate Huck.
Not surprisingly, however, there’s a large and growing backlash against Huck Finn. It’s been called out for its rather sloppy narrative structure and is often reviled and banned for its inherent racism. Recently Jane Smiley (and, less publicly but no less passionately, my friend Martha) have questioned whether the novel deserves its lauded reputation. Martha said that she kept waiting for the payoff at the end of the book, the reason why we read this novel over a century after its publication, and lamented that this payoff never came. She couldn’t excuse the way the narrative ultimately treats Jim as a joke and found that, as Smiley wrote in her essay “Say It Ain’t So, Huck Finn” that “Huck nor Twain takes Jim’s desire for freedom all that seriously.” While I have some issues with the novel, I disagree that Twain loses his “moral compass” when Tom Sawyer, who somehow became the poster boy of American lit despite being thoroughly unlikable and in need of a serious caning, shows up and hatches his Quixotic plan to torment Jim by prolonging his escape with unnecessarily complicated make-believe.
Before I continue, I’ll address the charges of racism often leveled at the novel. While there may be some validity in arguing that the book is inherently racist in its treatment of Jim (see Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darkness) attempts to label the book racist simply because of the omnipresent N-word are ridiculous. Not only is the novel a document of a time long before that word accumulated all the baggage it has in our time, but we’re dealing with dialogue and a first-person narrator. Anyone with enough critical reading and thinking ability to slog through a 400 page novel ought to be able to put it into context and chalk up the use of that particular racial slur to verisimilitude.
The repeated use of that word aside, I understand why some readers might find the narrative, and, by proxy, Twain himself, somehow inherently racist. Jim, the ostensible centerpiece of the novel, is relegated to the role of sidekick, and it’s frustrating to watch him sit through pages and pages of Tom Sawyer’s make believe. I think, however, that in order to fully understand Twain’s intentions, we must read between the lines and see Huck Finn as a deeply satirical novel, more in line with A Connecticut Yankee than with Tom Sawyer, a novel in which no one, not even Huck or Jim (really the only marginally likable characters to be found) are safe from Twain’s poison pen. This is a novel that wears allusions and debts to Don Quixote openly on its sleeve, and like Don Quixote, it’s a novel that’s able to muster sympathy for the very characters it lampoons, even as we become increasingly frustrated with their inability to break out of their own delusions and the trappings of the culture that spawned them.
Huck Finn is the moral center of the novel. Adventures aside, Huck’s moral development and changing relationship to Jim is the most important aspect of the story. This is why many readers become frustrated at the end of the novel, when Huck goes along with Tom Sawyer’s protracted, juvenile plan to infuse Jim’s escape with unnecessary intrigue gleaned, like Don Quixote’s delusions, from reading too many romantic adventure tales. We want Huck to grow up here, to stand up to Tom Sawyer and just send Jim to freedom already. This, however, is not in Huck’s character. Huck, a sly observer of the human race, has learned that the best way to deal with people like Tom (here something of villain, not unlike the notorious Duke and Dauphin) is to let them have their way and work quietly behind the scenes to minimize the damage they might wreak on an unsuspecting world. This behavior doesn’t exactly render Huck heroic in any obvious way, but it is pragmatic, and in keeping with Twain’s intentions, which are not to inspire but to satirize.
The same may be said of Jim. I spent a great deal of the second half of the novel wishing Jim would simply run away from Huck and take the business of acquiring his freedom into his own hands, much like I often wished Sancho Panza would slip away from Don Quixote in the middle of the night. But this too, is not in keeping with Twain’s intentions. To avoid lampooning Jim in a novel that so piercingly satirizes every other character, even its protagonist, would have been a mistake. It’s possible for us to see Jim as a human being on the same level as the other characters despite his superstition and his dubious sense of obligation to his young white companions, just as we empathize with Huck despite our frustrations with his character. It’s important to note here that the picture we get of Jim comes directly from Huck, so the portrayal of Jim works not only as satire on him, but on the character of Huck as well. We might argue that Twain’s take on Jim is little more than a variation on the tired and inherently racist noble savage meme, but I think that Twain may well be working with that in mind.
To be sure, there are some flaws with this novel. It’s function as a picaresque work falls apart in its over-long dalliance with the Duke and Dauphin, the section detailing the feud seems meaningless and tacked-on, and the reader gets the point of Tom Sawyer’s pointless complication of Jim’s escape about thirty pages before Twain finally ends it. But while the novel is far from perfect, it is memorable for its unflinching satire and its lampooning of the human race that is so thorough that Huck decides at the end that the best way to deal with civilization is to get as far away from it as possible.
In the end, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel I’m glad I waited until I was an adult to read, because I’m sure its subtleties would’ve been lost on my ninth-grade self, whose literary tastes ran more toward libidinous cave-women than scathing satire.