I can’t think how I have never got round to reading this before. I was inspired by reading in the Introduction to something else (tip: Introductions are a great source for reading recommendations) that Huckleberry Finn is widely regarded as the true beginning of American literature. Indeed, it is a triumph of narrative voice. Huckleberry, the narrator, just leaps off the page. It’s strange really, as this was for Twain a sequel, and Huckleberry a secondary character to Tom Sawyer, so it’s odd that it is this book, and not the other, that is his masterpiece.
The book is about a young boy who runs away from his abusive father along with an escaping slave by floating down the Missisippi on a raft. Written that way, it sounds rather bleak, but somehow it is comic. After all, as Huck says:
Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
The story is full of boys-own still hijinks, that do get a little wearing, but it is redeemed by lovely little passages like this:
When I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody's dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it's spirits whispering—spirits that's been dead ever so many years—and you always think they're talking about YOU. As a general thing it makes a body wish HE was dead, too, and done with it all.
It’s also always fun. Take this description of an undertaker:
When the place was packed full the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke; he moved people around, he squeezed in late ones, he opened up passageways, and done it with nods, and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham.
Huck’s friendship with the slave, Jim, is the warm heart of this novel. What is very difficult for a modern reader is how Huck struggles with this friendship:
He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them. It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.” Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.
Huck never turns Jim in, and it is strange and sobering to see how often he considers doing so. Twain grew up in the geography and time period of this novel – this book joins many others in being a masterpiece made out a childhood – so perhaps this just shows how white people really did think about this topic then, and it is a good challenge to us to hear about it.