Thursday, January 23, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Twain

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Personally, my favorite work by Twain is a speech he gave to a group of girls, entitled ‘Advice to Youth’:
            “I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then. I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgingly--
“Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.”
He continues to exhort the young lasses when wronged to hit those who would be their opponents with bricks, get up late each morning, learn to lie properly, and be careful to not play with loaded firearms. It’s a brilliant sendup, marvelous satire, and classic Twain at his wittiest. But this jovial essay pales in comparison with the significance of his great work, and arguably the greatest work in American fiction: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) in Missouri, about a day’s walk from the Mississippi River. Later in life he would make his way on the riverboats as a pilot, from which he got his nom de plume (‘Mark Twain’ being called out when the river was at two fathoms deep). Further adventures took him around the country and abroad, as a journalist and then an author. By the 1870s, now a family man, he moved to Connecticut, and there wrote the novels for which he is now famous. He is many American’s favorite historical figure, rough and ready like Teddy Roosevelt, but humorous and smart, like Ben Franklin. We picture him equally at ease on the Pony Express and the Mississippi as he was giving lectures and being a man of letters. Of course, as is also requisite for a blue-blood, he was uneasy with Europe, and his first work, ‘Innocents Abroad,’ dealt with this distinction in American and European character. It was a distinction he continued to realize in his works for the rest of his life, and why his works that are often considered the first to be truly American.
‘Huck Finn’ deals the painful legacy of America’s slavery. Huck is fourteen or fifteen, wide-eyed in some ways, but a young man in others. Having escaped town on a raft for amusing, yet somewhat sobering, reasons, he ends up floating down the river with an escaped slave as companion, named Jim. It is their companionship that is excerpted here, and the moral choices he faces in the antebellum South, a few years before all Americans were required by law to return runaways. The most popular American novel of the century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ deals with the same subject, but in a moralizing, heavy-handed, and not particularly pleasant way. Twain tackles these themes with firsthand experience and gentleness that doesn’t preach.
There are many rich passages in ‘Huck Finn’ from Finn watching his own funeral, to meeting the eccentric King (based on real-life acquaintance and San Francisco notable Emperor Norton). But unlike the other amusing anecdotes, America’s slave-owning past defined us as a country, and Huck Finn’s navigation of the then murky moral terrain of escaping with a runaway gives the novel its enduring legacy. Finn is an American we can identify with. The book is written in dialect, and Finn is no one special – an average boy, getting into scrapes as boys are wont to do. He is distinct from Hester Prynne or Captain Ahab in that sense. Ordinary Americans were not previously worth writing about.

Twain lived to see the 20th century, and is the last literary figure we’ll read who predates Modernism and Joyce. It is fitting in a section defined by industrialism as America became a factory-based powerhouse, that its great novel is the story of a rural boy lazily drifting down America’s river. The pace of change by the turn of the century had left many nostalgic and questioning the role of civilization. The next selection we encounter will deal with a philosopher who radically rejected the industrial society of the time.

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