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Monday, January 17, 2011

My encounter with Huck Finn

by Jamie Lutton

I have been dodging this book for forty years.

I read, for example, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, when I was about ten, and enjoyed the sort of preachy story about class differences that Twain tells in this book. It is a good yarn, but Twain signals his punches.  The writing is good, though; I could read this book again, easily; I think I read it two or three times in the last forty years.

I also really like Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; this is a good time travel story that, again, has a lot to say about class prejudice, and entrenched ignorance. The first illustrations in this book were suppressed for being politically and religiously subversive.   They are particularly good little ink drawings, showing bloated priests and kings being carried on the backs of weak, ragged peasants,etc.  Most editions with all of those those illustrations are pretty hard to find.

But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I could not read. It  is the chapter where Huck's dad catches up to him, Chapter 5, and bellows at him for learning to read, that had me putting the book down, over and over, not able to go further.

Twain has slipped in a dagger where we were not looking. It is Huck's father who is the second subversive figure, here, next to the outrageous character of Huck, himself:  Huck's resistance to 'civilizing',  his desire to loaf and just be, captures the secret heart of all children who might come across this book. How many of us wished to ditch books and just be Outside, playing? To go Nowhere, and just see what turns up? That he was completely illiterate, and did not mind too much, but could hunt and fish really well, and take care of himself in the wild makes him even more outrageous.

Huck is three dimensional, real, with all the character problems and troubles a real child has. The parents who examine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn notice that Huckleberry is a 'bad boy', even before they notice all the uses of the 'n' word,  but they miss how 'bad' Huck's father is, and that he is right there in the text for the children to see, and to remember, and compare to the authority figures in their own lives. Even if their own parents are sober, the child reading the text might have an uncle or aunt like Huck's dad. . . . ..   .  There are so many adults that act like Huck; he is almost a stand-in for Parent, and if not Parent, the State and Government itself.  But we, like Huck, think that this is normal, he slips by the modern reader, as we are anxiously looking at how  the black character Jim's is presented.

The subversive nature of Jim, who seems to be the only rational, kind, totally good adult in the book, is secondary to setting up Huck's father as the standard for Parenthood, for the irrational, raving adult.

This part of the book, starting in chapter 5,  is amazing.. Huck's dad is a very believable character, if you are familiar with the habitual drunkard.  Huck describes his father as a man middle aged, hairy, ragged, ruined by drink, pale with misuse of his body, dirty, illiterate, and angry. And  Huck does not like his father, and fears him; this is foreshadowed in the earlier chapters, that he fears him showing up, in very eloquent prose. that this preys on his mind, but he knows no adult could help him, that he knows this well.  This is  the typical experience for the child of an alcoholic. No matter how awful the parent, the child is the parent's property, even if the child is in danger of his life.  Huck is going about in fear, and has no one to help him, even though he supposedly has 'guardians' to look after him.

His father, as described by Huck, is also lonely. I noted that he kept his son close by him, ostensibly because he wanted to extract money from his guardians; but from the text, it was evident so that he would not have to be alone. He must have loved the boy,  but would never say so, or act like it by rational standards. While he had his son with him; he had removed him from his guardians and from school, he maintained a fabrication of a household; functioned better, hunted, cooked, lived in a shack; but when he was by himself, he roamed the land a homeless person, drinking and gambling and getting into fights with people over and over, barely functioning as a rational creature.  His son was his reason for living, even though it was a parody of life, as he lived only to drink. Huck can't see this, as he grew up with his dad, and thought this was a kind of normal. Normal, even though he was beaten daily, and badly, and kept locked up. When he is not locked up, he and his dad hunt, and fish, and quietly hang out in the wilderness together. In the text, he recalls his father telling him about how to get by in life - the rationale on stealing things like chickens, for example.

This modern tone of Huck's dad is what makes this great literature alone. The conversation between Huck and his dad in Chapter 5 could have been written yesterday.  Twain dared to put a realistic violent drunken parent on the page, the sort of parent who, no matter what you do, you are wrong; as in real life.  And the child as property, to perhaps kill if they think that is what they want to do, when they are in that mood.  And, above all,  the child has to listen to them.  Huck's father is what makes this book subversive, and is the hidden subversiveness. Huck is the real slave, here. Childhood as slavery.  No one wants to say 'this book should not be read' when this book challenges the right of fathers, parents, to batter their children.  People are looking at the wrong part of this book to "suppress"..

I am sure some children, reading this book, look up and say to themselves "this reminds me of Dad. Or Mom, or my uncle or aunt, or grandparent", and have trouble reading further.  Me? I had to put the book down, again and again, over the years, as it was as if the book was going to reach out and throttle me. I had a parent who was like this; who I will write more about, in another blog, when I am ready to treat the subject fairly.

So, to read the first subversive parts of the text, read Chapter 5 in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some people who analyze this book, say that the hero will end up like his father, in the end.  It is us to the reader, reading about his friendship with Jim, to hope that he will not, and that there is hope for change in the human heart.

(For another view of Huckleberry Finn, see here.)

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