Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Real Problem with HUCKLEBERRY FINN

The real problem with Huckleberry Finn has nothing to do with the novel's notorious and historically accurate 219 uses of the word 'nigger.' (About which, Twain's comedic descendant Stephen Colbert said it best: "Mark Twain isn't just a great writer; he's a great rapper.") No, the real problem, the problem that remained unspoken in the highly-circumscribed media 'debate' over the book, is the fact that this widely-acknowledged 'great American novel' does not deserve the first of those adjectives. While it contains some great moments (Huck and Jim on the island and the raft in the book's first third, Huck's famous "All right, then, I'll go to hell" turning point scene later), the novel as a whole is fatally flawed by a series of poor authorial decisions. Once the two con men climb aboard the raft, the novel goes south faster than the flooded Mississippi, and Twain must have seen it floating swiftly away, because at this point he began to pad furiously. The last two-thirds of the book contain more padding than a room full of Victorian furniture. The misadventures of the duke and dauphin are bad enough, but when Tom Sawyer arrives, the book's quality drops like a boulder down a well. Tom's annoying schemes and his good-naturedly sadistic tormenting of Jim are like a long, painfully unfunny joke drawn out to soporific length--and then drawn out even further. I'm surely not the only reader who ends the book hoping that Jim's first act as a free man will be to whup that little white boy's ass all the way back to Missouri. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one-third great and two-thirds tiresome. While acknowledging that it's an essential and highly influential work of American literature, we should not overestimate its quality.

5 comments:

Joe Miller said...

I'm not sure if those examples are flaws when considered in the light of Twain's mockery of silly adventure novels, and more particularly the ludicrosities exhibited by the antebellum South as inspired by the novels of Walter Scott (think of the capsized riverboat of the same name). Each of Tom's cruel exercises for Jim are derived from popular European romances as exemplars of how prisoners are supposed to behave; he's trying to impose fictional molds on a sparse and terrifying reality. Twain is showing the fax-chivalric tendencies of the antebellum South for what they were; quixotic, wrongheaded confusions of fiction with reality.

BRIAN OARD said...

Joe,

Twain would probably have agreed with your reading, but for me his obvious satirical intentions don't overcome his tedious execution. I've long thought that Huckleberry Finn is really three separate tales that should not have been bound together. "Huck and Jim" would have been a brilliant novel if Twain has taken it all the way downriver to 'Newrleans'; "The Duke and the Dauphin" might've been better as a stand-alone short story; I don't think the Tom Sawyer stuff is salvageable: it's a millstone around the novel's neck.

mentormemoir said...

I don't know. What other book is able to offer such a lacerating comedy of manners but in the voice of an unwittingly naive narrator? She grumbled over the food but there was nothing wrong with it (Huck's understanding of grace) Once I found out she was going to heaven, I figured I wouldn't go for it. If I was well-behaved and let the widow sivilize me, then I could join Tom's band or robbers. I don't have the book in front of me, hence the horrible paraphrases, but the wit in the early sections alone makes the book worthy of its fame. The novel does fall apart, because Twain never could decide what genre he was writing in--but the very dilemma that Twain confronted and couldn't resolve parallels the dilemma that Huck faces--so at the very least the incoherence at the end represents an interesting problem--not merely a sign of bad writing.

Ricker Winsor said...

I just finished it and was so disturbed by how Twain went from great to lousy in the second half of the book that I did a google search about it and found Brian Oard's very lucid critique. Happily, for my peace of mind, I could not have said it better or maybe as well, despite being a writer myself. The first half of the book is magnificent. How people of such talent cannot be aware of these differences in quality and honesty is a puzzle. Sadly, I see it from time to time in other fine artists as well. RW

Ricker Winsor said...

P.S. Specially when Tom Sawyer shows up it is "sold down de riber".