Thursday, 28 June 2007

Huck, Jim and The River

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Hemingway apparently said this. As mentioned previously, I've decided to read some older books that perhaps I have missed out on in the past due to not studying Literature at school. I've heard a few suggestions from people, and shortly after I posted about it noisms loaned me a couple of books.

I still have Moby Dick to read, but I thought that I would start by reading The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, as I remember when I was eight or nine I read some of either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. I don't remember what I thought about it at the time, and if I'm honest I don't know what I make of it now.

Whenever you read a book that was written some time ago it can be difficult at first to appreciate what people might be talking about, or to relate to their situation. At the end of the day, we are all human though (and I guess not many people pre-20th century wrote about being other than human) so we have that to grab hold of, so it is merely the difference in circumstances that can confuse. For me, in reading Huckleberry Finn, the big thing that astonished me was the attitude to slavery.

OK, I understand that it was written at a different time, but to see Huck thinking and accepting that he will go to hell for helping Jim escape is quite a hard thing to relate to. Did people really think so little of other people? I suppose that despite tabloid headlines and celebrity slip-ups we do like to think that we are living in better times, when racism and prejudice are merely things that happen when we're not careful. It's a lie, you only have to look harder and see the prejudice that is still a very great reality in some parts of the world and in our own societies.

Still, that, for me, was the most shocking attitude in the book, that people could think that way about other people, and that the slaves would seem to just accept it.

It's not that I dislike Huckleberry Finn, actually there is a lot to like about it, although I think some of the episodes in it do go on for longer than is neccessary (the king and the duke long outstayed their welcome in my opinion); the incidents that Twain puts Huck and Jim through are genuinely interesting - and I suppose what surprises me is that after everything they go through on the river and all their trials and tribulations Huck really does think that he is damned for deciding to help Jim, even though Jim has time and again shown him exceptional kindness and true friendship.

(what was also quite amusing is that I was reading noisms annotated copy from whenever he studied the book; running across "V IMPORTANT" and "funniest line ever" in several places was a different way of reading a book)

Part of me thinks that the final few chapters are a little too convenient, too many things suddenly turn out right - Jim's freedom, the fate of Huck's father (one wonders if Miyazaki has ever read Huckleberry Finn) - but in some respects life is just like that, things can seem to be going all wrong and then everything surprises you and comes together.

Part of me yearns for their raft, for just floating down the river. In the same way, I first really longed to travel when I read On The Road - but both Huck and Jim's journey and Kerouac's travelling are closed off to me, they're just not realities any more (unless I'm wrong and someone knows that these sorts of "trips" are still made in America). Still, they make me want to get out there and see more of the world.

I don't know if Hemingway is right or not, and I'm still uncertain about how much I really enjoyed Huck Finn. Saying that, the way that the themes - especially the idea of drifting along the river - have stayed in my mind since I've finished it, I can't help but recommend it if you have never read it. And if you have read it, maybe you should find time to re-read it.

I've just started Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, and after that I'll go on to Moby Dick.

One day, however, I am certain that I will join Huck and Jim on the raft again, and see where the river takes us...


mattiecore said...

Moby Dick is awful. I hated it.

I think it's probably very different reading Huck Finn in America and in the UK. The US has, of course, had a very bad history in terms of social equality, and our educational system teaches us about our history of slavery and genocide (Amerindians) starting from an early age. I'm not sure how these sorts of things are taught in the UK, but after years and years of looking at the US's past while in America, you begin to understand how and why people were so accepting, how and why it changed, etc. And of course they wish to instill the idea that social inequality is a bad thing, but many children have parents whose social/racial efficacy is just too strong. Suffice it to say it's a tricky matter.

I would agree with Hemingway in that Huck Finn basically revolutionized the American fiction novel, but I'm reluctant to say it's necessarily the best. Being revolutionary does not entail being the flat-out best of your kind.

noisms said...

I don't think Huck Finn is the best American novel, but some of the scenes between Jim and Huck are absolute comic gold; the confusion about the story of King Solomon especially. There's also a wonderful poignancy to how the slave system has screwed everybody's sense of morality so much that they can only understand the King's decision in terms of money and ownership.

The fact that Huck thinks he might be going to hell for helping Jim is one of the great moments in American literature, I think, and what's more, it's a really uplifting one - Huck might think he's damned for eternity, but there's fundamentally enough good in him to do what's right. It's a very positive message about human nature, and a passionate indictment of a whole way of life, all at the same time.

I didn't much like Moby Dick either, especially the interminable lectures on the ins and outs of whaling ships. But the last portion, where Ahab takes on the whale, is very good.

noisms said...

I would agree with Hemingway in that Huck Finn basically revolutionized the American fiction novel, but I'm reluctant to say it's necessarily the best. Being revolutionary does not entail being the flat-out best of your kind.

Definitely. I think works like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises have much better claims than Huck Finn. Funnily enough, revolutionary books are almost by definition less entertaining - Manhattan Transfer is a good example of that.

mattiecore said...

I would agree with you on The Great Gatsby.

I've actually not read The Sun Also Rises. The only Hemingway I've read is For Whom the Bell Tolls.

zero_zero_one said...

On reflection I find that I am actually quite taken with Huckleberry Finn, I think that that was a good recommendation.

And I would also agree that The Great Gatsby is a better novel; I might try to slot that into my summer at some point.

I'm slightly puzzled, noisms, why you've given me Moby Dick to read considering that you've said you don't like it... Ah well, I'll get to it as soon as I've finished Altered Carbon.