I picked Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the first book on my American reading challenge for the simple reason that it was the first new book I’d ordered to arrive through the door. When I opened it up it looked as fresh and tempting as a slice of hot buttered toast, and by all accounts it’s a seminal novel, marking a distinct break between the literature that had gone before and the works still to be written, which could never now be free of its influence. I should also say that it feels very strange to be writing my reading of the novel here in my blog, which has never before entertained such proximity to the work of the day job. Stranger still because the reading I have to offer is one that is ignorant of critical opinion, something I would never dream of attempting with a classic literary novel under normal circumstances. And so I find myself in an unusual position in relation to writing about a book: ‘je ne sais pas sur quel pied danser’ as the French usefully put it. I don’t know which foot to dance on, the academic or the informal, and in consequence I can only term what follows a naïve reading, child as I am in relation to the immense family tree of American literature.
But it struck me that a naïve if ambivalent response to the text was not such an inappropriate thing, for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains perpetually divided between the optimistic cunning of the child and the ugly knowledge of the adult, caught as it is across the genres of the picaresque and the social realist novel. My initial response was to sense a great wave of Romanticism lapping at the shores of that serene and wondrous river, building its camp with Huck and Joe and marvelling, Thoreau-like, in the plentiful bounty of the great American countryside. Perhaps the landscape itself was going to work its magic on these mismatched yet oddly similar travelling companions, cancelling out the inequality of race by uniting them in their common plight of powerlessness, and awakening in both of them a newfound respect for each other’s tenacious desire to survive. But it is impossible to read the novel with such a simple focus. Repeatedly the hope of a utopian idyll is undercut by brutality and violence of a kind that struck me as visceral and shocking, particularly in what I had mistaken for a children’s novel. Even descriptions of the river bank that seem initially to celebrate the pastoral turn their lingering attention onto something disgusting. It’s comic, yes, and disturbing because the reader doesn’t know ‘sur quel pied danser’ either. Do we embrace the searing social critique of the narrative, or allow ourselves to be assuaged by its endearingly childlike creativity?
But this is after all a polyphonic text, a text of many voices, and what voices they are! When I first started to wade into Jim’s speech patterns, I did not know how things would turn out between us. For all its varied accents, the literature of the British Isles tends to sprinkle phonetic spelling across a text with a light hand. Most of us reading Thomas Hardy just skip the tedious paragraphs of Yorkshire dialect, doubting whether anything of value is being said. But once I’d become accustomed to the sheer rhythmic musicality of Jim’s voice, not to mention the voices of dozens of other characters whose vocal patterns are reproduced faithfully, I felt a surprising intimacy with them. It gave the narrative a striking immediacy, a scent and flavour of the South that brought the episodic scenes vividly to life like a series of dramatic vignettes. I’ve often found it to be the case with polyphonic texts that there is no ultimate coherence, no overarching moral or symbolic meaning. Instead the different voices offer a clamouring chorus of perspectives that retain their heterogeneity to the very end, undermining the possibility of a neat and tidy reading. The episodic structure only enhanced this discontinuity for me. As the story worked its way through its adventures, I felt that the longer the text lingered in one location, the Grangerford’s house, or Aunt Sally’s for instance, the more fraught the text became with its inner contradictions until it could only restore harmony by moving off again, by embracing the rootless freedom of the vagabond. My knowledge of American literature is patchy to say the least, but I wondered whether the overlap of innocent, adventurous childishness with dark violence and prejudice is identifiable in the fascination some modern authors display (and I’m thinking here of Joyce Carol Oates and Bret Easton Ellis) towards the beastly potential that underlies the smooth, complaisant, domesticated, or perhaps I should say ‘sivilized’ surface of society.
I don’t want to talk about the racial aspect of the text as I daresay it’s been done to death. But I did find a somewhat fanciful reading constructing itself in my head as the novel progressed. I couldn’t help but see the text as an apprenticeship for Huck in the art of narrative. It’s not that Huck begins the text a poor narrator and ends it a competent one, oh no, although Huck’s closing words ‘if I’d a knowed what trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it’ seem redolent with intent to me. But rather that his journey through his adventures bring him into contact with all kinds of different forms of tale telling from which he must construct a new form of narrative. He shows his inherent natural talent with the fictional reconstruction of a murder in the cabin in order to escape his unpleasant Pap and thus start off on his travels; he knows verisimilitude is the key, but throughout this account, verisimilitude is all he will have. Essentially, Huck’s relation to narrative is purely mimetic; he remains an honest recording device for all that he experiences, removing his subjectivity from the frame by the relentless passivity of his stance. Tom, by contrast, embodies the force of narrative drive, with his amoral hunger for plot. As soon as he appears on the stage, he instantly takes over the direction of the story, demanding ever more excessive embellishments and digressions. Jim, in this model, becomes the central hinge of literary narrative in the way that he provides an alternative knowledge, an alternative reading to bring to bear on the events that occur. Jim is the force of defamiliarisation within the narrative, the original vision that forces us to question the ‘naturalness’ of ideology and the all-too-well-known world. His new take on the judgement of Solomon: ‘He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile er two, mo’er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fetch him!’ shows how he can create new meaning from the old. Many of Huck’s encounters, and I’m thinking particularly of the Duke and the King, rehearse a variety of different uses to which story telling can be put, how narrative can function as a means of conning people, as a form of survival, as a poignant critique of ideological complacency, as a means of subterfuge (when he dresses up as a girl), and as a vital if reckless embrace of the unknown. The odd final section seems to me a warning of what might occur if narrative is allowed to become unbalanced. Tom’s desperate quest for sensation leads Jim (meaning) to be locked out of sight while Huck is left recording distress and uncertainty. Tom has to be hobbled in order for some kind of harmony to return. As I said, it’s a fanciful idea, but I couldn’t shake off the impression of Mark Twain setting out a stall of narrative ingredients available to the author on the brink of a changing world, and wondering whether the power of Huckleberry Finn lies in the multiple, contradictory possibilities for narrative that the novel embodies.