“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.” I’m your huckleberry shirt. Ernest Hemingway famously declared in 1935. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” While the novel has taken several hits over the years from people who object to the use of the n-word, the novel remains a great critique of the racism embedded in Southern antebellum society. It’s an endearing comedy that criticizes the attitudes towards blacks and slaves and gives us the iconic Huck Finn.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
A poorly educated boy whose travels with the slave, Jim, help lead him to understand that what he’s been taught about slavery and about blacks is wrong. But if you ignore for a moment the controversies that swirl around the question of racism in both the use of the n-word and in how strong Twain’s anti-racism tone runs throughout the novel, this is a uniquely American novel, told from the point of view of a young boy who is both innocent and outsider, who travels the river to escape confinement and to serve a larger truth. The story is told in Huck’s voice, follows his logic, shows him to be smarter and more wily than some of the adults he comes across.
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And certainly, someone with a bigger heart. The novel is told in the first person. I’m your huckleberry shirt. Allows an uneducated, poor white boy to travel in the company of a man with a good heart who certainly treats him better than many of the other adults he runs into. It opens up like a found document, an extended journal in which we are allowed to tag along and when Huck decides he’d much rather brave the damnation of hell rather than return Jim to slavery, we can only agree that private conscience outweighs public law. The reading experience is way too intimate for that. Just you and the author’s words and all the characters and situations the two of you can dream up together.
One size fits all suits no one. And if you required to read a novel, say, in English class. That’s like having somebody tell you what to wear in your imagination. I can remember how I hated that. Turned me off to Dickens for decades. But if you see some value in reading Huck Finn, you might enjoy reading it anyway. Mark Twain said of his own work that he wasn’t writing for the cultural elite: comparing fine literature to wine, he observed that not everybody likes wine, but his own work he likened to water: “Everybody drinks water,” he said.
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He defined a “classic” like a book “that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” I’m your huckleberry shirt. Making his stories entertaining for everybody was important to him. Mark Twain wrote some great stories, and Huck Finn is one of his best. Throwing together a fugitive slave and a white trash racist runaway boy on a raft drifting down the wild Mississippi through the Old South was an inspired idea. Having the boy tell the story in his own words—with no clue what was on the author’s mind—and letting that stand as the whole story was a revolutionary stroke of novel-writing genius. It changed literary history.