Mark and Huck

December 13, 2008 @ 12:51 pm | Filed under:

Scott and I (especially Scott) have a great fondness for Huckleberry Finn—the character and the book. Fondness, respect, admiration. It’s funny that whenever I’m asked to name my favorite authors, I never think to include Mark Twain among their number. Yet I have only to read a paragraph, a sentence even, of his work, and I’m reminded what a prominent position he actually holds on the list.

I’m not alone. Roger Ebert, in a lyrical, hilarious, and touching piece about his longtime friend Bill Nack (“Perform a Concert in Words“), speaks with great enthusiasm of Twain’s singular gifts:

I still have the first real book I ever read…It is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The inscription says, “To Roger from Uncle Bill, Christmas 1949.” I was halfway into second grade.

My grandmother, Anna B. Stumm, said, “Do you think Roger can read that, Bill?”

Uncle Bill said, “Bud, can you read?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then he can read it.”

I lay down on my stomach on the living room rug and started reading. I hardly stopped. “That boy always has his nose in a book,” my Aunt Mary said. “Mary, he’s reading,” my Aunt Martha said. I didn’t know a lot of the words, but the words I did know were a lot more interesting than “Run, Spot, run!” and I picked up new ones every time through, because I read it over and over for a year, getting to the end and turning straight back to “You don’t know me without you have read a book by Mr. Mark Twain…” It was the best book I had ever read.

Snip—but do go read the snipped part, which contains Twain’s blisteringly funny critique of James Fenimore Cooper’s work. For that matter, read Ebert’s entire post, which is full of gems. He continues with a quote from Huckleberry Finn:

Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale under-side of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest — fst! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs — where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.

How did you think Mark Twain wrote? Four sentences. The fourth one 179 words long. As a boy, I thought it was the realest thunderstorm I had ever seen. It plays like Beethoven. Mark Twain introduced America to its vernacular. Not how we speak, but how we caress and feel words. Before him, there were great writers like Poe and Melville, who I still read with love. But I sit on the porch steps next to Sam Clemens in his rocking chair, and he speaks in the voice of his Hannibal childhood–straight and honest, observant and cynical, youthful but wise, idealistic and disappointed, always amused, and sometimes he rolls the words down stairs–where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know. They bounce themselves right into poetry.

The long sentence isn’t a stunt. Thunderstorms do seem to sustain themselves forever and then suddenly lull and regather. The flashes and claps punctuate the constant rolling uneasiness. I don’t know if you can describe one in short sentences. That was the limitation of Hemingway’s style. “Grumbling, rumbling, tumbling” when it comes is not an effect, but like all good descriptions simply the best way to say it, evoking the way storms wander away from us, still in turmoil. Look how he uses fst! to break the flow.

Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. The word was throughout is always better than the word were, and keeps Huck’s voice in view. The remarkable thing is that we accept this poetic evocation as the voice of an illiterate boy. Darkened up is better than darken, and darkened down would be horrible. Lighten is the right word, perhaps never before used like this, allowing him to avoid the completely wrong thunder and lightning, without having to write the pedestrian and there was thunder and lightning. It keeps it in Huck’s voice. An English teacher who corrects lighten should be teaching a language he doesn’t know. And look at these words: It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely…No, don’t look at them. Get a musician to compose for it. Notice how lovely softens the blue-black and nods back to it soothingly.

It isn’t merely Twain’s language that makes him a master, however; it’s his understanding of human nature, and his honesty in writing about people as they really are. I recently read blogger and newsman Fred Clark’s entire page-by-page review of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind (no mean feat, that; Clark spent some four years critiquing the book in weekly posts on his blog, Slacktivist, and his shrewd and informed insights are well worth your time). In one post Clark hits upon exactly what it is about Huck Finn that Scott and I so admire:

Jesus was always saying this kind of thing: You want to live? Die to yourself. You want to be first? Be last. Want to come out on top? Head for the bottom. Want to win? Surrender.

You want to get saved? Get lost.

Which brings us to what is, for my money, the greatest scene of salvation and redemption in literature:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:”All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” — and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. … And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

This is, of course, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The piece of paper that poor Huck tore up was the letter he had written to turn in his friend, the escaped slave Jim. Huck had been taught, and he sincerely believed, that doing so was his duty as a good Christian (and as a good, law-abiding American). He had been taught, and he sincerely believed, that failing to do so would damn his soul to Hell.

Study that a minute. Turning in Jim would condemn his friend to years of misery in this world, but his own immortal soul would be damned for eternity — and what are a few mortal years compared with that? Weigh such a choice on the scales that [LaHaye and Jenkins] use in Left Behind and Huck’s choice is clear. But that is not the choice he makes.

“All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” he says. And the angels in heaven rejoice.

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14 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Tabatha says:

    You brought tears to my eyes with that! OK, I get teary easily. But still! Beautiful. I remember being so struck by Twain’s The War Prayer when I was young.

  2. Beth says:

    So. When I read this post title I thought to myself, self: the baby is a boy, and these are the names they’re considering. Or perhaps Huckleberry would be the blog-name.

    Yes, I am baby and baby-name obsessed. And I happen to love Huckleberry for a boy.

    Aside from that *smile* thank you, so much, for this post and the links.

  3. Melissa Wiley says:

    Funny you should say that, Beth, because Huck and Mark have indeed been at the top of Scott’s boy-name list six times running now. For various reasons we are leaning a different direction, but I actually have long assumed Huck would be the blog name for our next boy.

  4. Penny in VT says:

    Melissa – excellent post, and so timely for us – My Dh and our 10 year old are just finishing up reading Huck aloud. They finished Tom Sawyer earlier this year.

    Amazing stuff. And Huck is a great blog name! Interestingly, Finn is a pretty common boys name around here,

    Stay well and stay writing! Thanks for this great post 🙂

  5. Meredith says:

    Great Lissa!! This was my favorite read today 🙂

  6. MelanieB says:

    Oh I do love Huck Finn.

  7. Beck says:

    Oh, I LOVED this. I don’t think you should name your baby Huckleberry, though. Not really.

  8. Kathy says:

    In the words of my 11 year old “Huck is the best!” What a great entry.

  9. Patricia says:

    My 16-year-old son just finished a paper in which he had to respond to Jane Smiley’s critical essay about Huckleberry Finn, in which she argues that the book should not be revered as it is. How it fails to be a good argument against racism.

    Now, I loved A Thousand Acres, but I’ll never read Smiley the same again. (If I read her at all.) Her essay got my son and me fuming! But then he went on to write his own wonderful essay on how Smiley had completely misread the character of Jim, so some good came of it.

    There’s an audio version of Huck Finn, read by Patrick Fraley that is absolutely wonderful. He’s a talented reader, with just the right accent. Makes the book so vivid. Made my kids and me fall hard for Huck. And willing to put up our dukes against Jane Smiley any time!

  10. JW Lee says:

    “,,,,And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.”

    My question is why he has chosen the word “steal” instead of, for example, get, free, etc. Is it somehow associated with his conscience telling him what he’s trying to do is just morally wrong?

    AND…(sorry to bother you)

    What does the phrase “for good” mean here?
    For ever or compeletely?

    Mostly confused learning english…cheer me up, please:-)
    Merry christmas!

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    I think he uses the word steal because all his upbringing has taught him that slaves were someone’s property. To help a slave escape would have been considered—by the people of Huck’s community— stealing the slaveowner’s property, just as setting a horse free would have been a form of theft.

    So yes, Huck does believe that what he’s doing is wrong. He believes that because that’s what all the “good” and upstanding citizens of his community have taught him. The belief is deeply ingrained. But beneath that cultural conditioning is something stronger–the REAL voice of conscience speaking to Huck, telling him that no man should be in bondage to another one. C.S. Lewis would call this Huck’s understanding of Natural Law, the sense of what is fair, right, good, honorable, that is hardwired into all human beings. Huck has been *taught* that freeing a slave is wrong, is theft, but his internal moral compass, his conscience, is telling him otherwise—and he chooses to act on that prompting of conscience, even though he believes (because he has been taught) that this action will condemn his soul to Hell.

    As for “for good,” in this context it is an idiom meaning “forever.” “As long as I was in” (as long as I was doomed to hell) “and in for good” (doomed to hell forever), “I might as well go whole hog” (resign myself to being past redemption and stop worrying about society’s rules). He thinks helping Jim escape has damned him forever, so he might as well feel free to anything bad that strikes him as worth doing.

  12. JW Lee says: