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Saturday, April 13, 2013

My encounter with Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (updated)

by Jamie Lutton

I have been dodging The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for forty years...though it was written over a hundred years ago, and set in the South before the Civil War. The problems the child Huck faces come too close to home for me.

A thousand reviews of this book are written every year, but a lot of them miss the point I got from Huck Finn. The message I got from of the book was the experience of looking at adults through Huck's eyes, and finding them wanting.

It is merciless how Twain points out their inhumanity to Huck, to Jim and to each other. The most extreme case is Huck's father (though many who write about this book overlook this, and think the treatment of Jim the slave to be worse).

You can read The Prince and The Pauper, an easier book to get through, (and another favorite of mine)  to encounter a similar father, in both the father of the 'pauper' and Henry the Eighth. Twain  relies there  on what the reader would know about Henry the Eighth, and then contrast the two fathers, and show that they, too, are identical in the ways that matter, not just their sons.

Both boys in that book feared their father's violence and mercurial temperament. Twain proposes a 'better world', and attacks the class system, by showing that the boys were identical (he does this in Pudd'nhead Wilson, too, check that novel out)  All three boys, the prince, the pauper, and Huck, look out at the world and show it up to the 19th century reader and the readers in our time, to be a cruel place full of lies.

In Huck Finn, the fear he has for his father is the great shadow that lies over the book. Other adults are wicked, hypocritical and foolish in turn, and show their lack of humanity toward JIm, the slave, and Huck.  But the boy's fear of his father in chapter four is what makes this book great in my eyes. This is the one of the first times in fiction, that I know of, that an alcoholic, violent parent is depicted without mercy in fiction, from the point of view of a child. I can only think of Dickens parents or adults to compare,and the rawness of the effect of strong drink is not as clearly laid out. (In say, Great Expectations, it is just 'madness' that affects Miss Haversham)

It is the terror that Huck feels that makes reading this book so difficult. .

For all the adults who have forgotten, this is the terror a child feels when they fear their parents.  For a child of two alcoholics, like myself, this is where I put the book down, and could not finish it, for many years.

Twain has slipped in a dagger.  It is Huck's father who is the second subversive figure, here, next to the outrageous  and anarchistic character of Huck, himself. This father is the greatest argument to give a gallows laugh over the ''rights'' of parents over their children. Anyone who works in Child Protective Services should read this chapter, before thinking of returning a helpless child to an adult to has been drunk and abusive.

Reviewers miss that this book is a great rant in favor of the right's of children (as well as blacks).

Huck's resistance to 'civilizing',  his desire to loaf and just be, his smoking (!!) captures the secret heart of all who might come across this book.

How many of us as kids wished to ditch books and just be outside, playing? To go nowhere, and just see what turns up? That Huck is 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. This book is revolutionary, an open call to freedom to anyone who comes across it. Many fictional characters in many books have been modeled on Huck. The first I read was the runaway boy in My Side of the Mountain, who lives in the wilds of the Catskills for 2 years, very like Huck .

The parents and educators who examine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rail about all the uses of the 'n' word in this book, which is used to good effect to show how badly black slaves were regarded by whites in the Antebellum South.. They usually 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 older brother, a bully in school, uncle  or aunt like Huck's dad, or a teacher they are terrified of. Every child knows a violent person who has power over them. . . . ..   .  There are so many adults that act like Huck's dad; 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, Huck's father slips by the modern reader, as we are anxiously looking at how  the black character Jim is presented.

The subversive nature of Jim, who seems to be the only rational adult in the book, sets up  Huck's father as his foil. Huck's father is the subhuman here; that is the most subversive quality of this book, contrasting with Jim's humanity and kindness.

Huck's dad is a very believable character, if you are familiar with the habitual drunkard, who has fallen into the degenerate state of advanced alcoholism.

Huck describes his father as a man  hairy, ragged, ruined by drink, seemingly older than his 'middle age', which was probably about 35.

 He is pale from the misuse of his body, dirty, illiterate, and angry.  Huck is terrified of his father;  this is made clear, that he fears him showing up and taking him away all in very his rough prose. that  preys on his mind that is father will show up and he knows no other adult will understand, and prevent this.

This is the modern feel of this book; it is the eternal typical experience for the child of an alcoholic, in all eras.

No matter how awful the parent, the child is the parent's property, even if the child is in danger of his life. This is true in 2013 as it was in 1840, say. Huck is going about in fear, and has no one to help him, even though he supposedly has 'guardians' to look after him.

The brilliance of this books is that Twain shows the father's remnant of his humanity, in 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 the father would not want to 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, the father maintained a fabrication of a household; functioned better, hunted, cooked, lived in a shack; but when he was by himself, the father 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 detailed description of Huck's dad, both bad, very bad, and good is what makes this great literature.   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. 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, not the use of the 'n' word, but the depiction of the real world of a child of an alcoholic  

The most common analysis of this book say that Huck will end up like his father, when he grows up.  It is us to the reader, reading about Huck's friendship with Jim, and his open skepticism, his wit and his scorn of the hypocrisies of adults,  to hope that he will not.

To hope that there is hope for change in the human heart.

For John's take on this book, look here:
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/what-huck-finn-means-to-me.html

2 comments:

  1. I'd be curious to know your reaction to my HUCKLEBERRY FINN GROWS UP, in which Huck makes some choices so that he will be as little like his father as possible; in which he finds in the Cherokee Indian Mankiller a substitute father; and in which he makes an effort to be a better father to his own son than Pap Finn was to him.

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    1. Hello:
      I do not know this book; I will find a copy, read it, and get back to you. Thank you for your reply;
      The only writing I had read about Huck Finn's future speculated that he would end up very like his dad; I read that in passing in one review (the author of which I do not recall) decades ago. This review, vaguely remembered, is what led me to look at the father again, and examine my reaction to this book.
      I am writing this blog partly to improve my writing, as I want to write a book about books, as a legacy for all my years selling books to the public (30 years in May). Also, for the fun of it.
      I do wonder about Mark Twain's father...the reoccurring drunken fathers, whenever he has a young man as a protagonist, is telling.
      In passing, I am influenced by Alice Miller's books, esp. For Your Own Good, where she talks about the replication of physical abuse of children through generations. I read the book 20 years ago, and it has had a huge effect on my world view.
      This is a very long response to your message, so I will close here.
      Regards,
      Jamie Lutton
      Owner
      Twice Sold Tales Capitol Hill

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