This time around I decided to go for the biggie. The granddaddy of all American novels. The one Ernest Hemingway said all modern novels can be traced back to: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Okay, before I launch in with the negative criticism, let me get a couple of points out of the way. First, yes, in many ways the book is genius –in the way Twain uses a variety of regional dialects, the relationship between Huck and Jim (the runaway slave), and the satire and comedy he uses to skewer aspects of society. Also, in consideration of historical context, the novel was hugely groundbreaking.
What usually makes the book controversial and placed on many banned books lists is Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger.’ You’ll notice I didn’t say “the ‘N’ word.” To me, use of the term depends entirely upon context. Are we to pretend the term never existed? Recently, a new edition of “Huck” came out with each reference to the term ‘nigger’ replaced by the word ‘slave.’ To me, that’s a denial of our own historical shame, which is a decidedly greater offense than to admit the term was in use. Twain’s use primarily illustrates how wrong the term is, so to leave it out or replace it is a greater insult than addressing it up front and then moving on. Don’t mess with an artist’s work. You’re always free to close the book and slip into denial mode.
That being said, there are other things that, for me, cause the book to tank. One thing is the pattern Harper Lee slipped into with “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Twain will make a point regarding an ugly part of society and then beat it into the ground. Then beat it into the ground some more. Then park a paddleboat on it to make sure it was sufficiently buried into the ground.
This is best seen in the characters of The Duke and The Dauphin, two con-men who insert themselves into Huck and Jim’s journey and engage in increasingly disturbing con-jobs. The characters are meant to be both humorous and disturbing, but in combining the two attributes, Twain only succeeds in making them annoying. An annoying character in large doses can kill any story, but double up on the annoying factor and the tediousness becomes so thick you could float a truck on it.
Yet, Twain outdoes himself in the annoying character department by bringing in a character that many readers previously loved, then making him so annoying you’d like to bitch-slap him with a brick. Twice. And then a third time just for good measure. The character? Tom Sawyer.
I loved “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It is a great book with a great character who is fun, likeable, kind and fairly sharp-witted. In “Huckleberry Finn” though, Twain takes away all of the positive attributes and replaces them with whiney, annoying, mean, and fairly dull-witted.
Tom is this way at the very beginning of the book and as a reader you just want him to go away. You start to wish that his fake drowning in his own book would have been for real. All he wants to do is play games as characters from books he’s read but doesn’t understand. When Huck and Jim finally begin their journey down the Mississippi I actually sighed with relief that Tom was now out of the story.
Um, too soon on the sigh of relief thing.
Twain brings Tom back at the end of the novel, but now, after having read all the experiences Huck has been through Tom is even more annoying. Jim has been captured and Tom begins planning a pointless elaborate scheme to free him –a scheme that continues to grow and grow to the point that I may have screamed out loud for a few seconds (not sure, could have been minutes). What makes his scheme to free Jim so ridiculous is that if he and Huck wanted to free Jim, all they’d have to do is walk by and open the door to the shed where he is being held.
What really sinks it altogether is that by the end of the story Huck has seen a murder, more than a few other killings and dead bodies, and has had a front row seat to the ugliest parts of humanity. He’s witnessed or been involved in things that would forever change any person –man, woman or child.
But he doesn’t change. Let me repeat that. He doesn’t change. At all.
At the end of the book, he’s still willing to go along with Tom’s crap. He still lies, cheats and steals. He hasn’t grown one iota from what he was at the beginning of the book, despite all he’s experienced. Which, frankly speaking, makes him seem pretty stupid.
Some say that this non-growth business is part of the point Twain was making. Sorry, I’ve gotta cry bullshit on that one. If that was the case, it was a pretty poor attempt.
I’ve read that Mark Twain may have written “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in three separate time periods, which accounts for why the book feels like three pieces cobbled together. Perhaps his intent or purpose changed each time.
Throw out the beginning of the novel, and then throw out the end, and then throw out a good chunk of the center section in the middle, and Twain would have had one hell of a great novella.
I have a theory that he knew the book was different and he wasn’t sure how it would be received. I also think he knew that in many ways the book simultaneously sucks and blows. I think that’s why he prefaces the book with:
NOTICE PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narra- tive will be
prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons
attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
The notice gives Twain and ‘out.’ If the book had been poorly received, if critical reviews had been predominantly negative, he could laugh it off, saying, “Well, I did kinda point that out in the notice.”
Hey, I never said Twain wasn’t smart.
Maybe next time I’ll take on that Hemingway guy. I hear he’s pretty highly regarded as well.