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.
Reading Notes: Words and Whuffie
Thursday reading notes (plus happy anniversary to us)
Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Only With Books (and No Pinning)
“Mr. Queed, you are afflicted with a fatal malady. Your cosmos is pure ego.”