by Mark Twain
Rural wild child Huck escapes “sivilization,” fakes his death, and goes down the river with the escaped slave Jim, meeting all manner of folks, from feuding families to charlatans, on the route. Man, what can I say about this, possibly the Greatest American Novel? It has it all: adventure, dry humor, biting parody, an aw-shucks down-home tone that belies its sharp mockery, faked death, adventure, religion, freedom, irony, treasure, and of course adventure. And it tackles the Great American Question, slavery, head-on.
One of the recurring motifs is Huck’s ironic discourse on morals, which of course are presented backwards: Huck realizes he’s of “no account” and a bad seed, so he chalks up his desire to help a slave get to freedom as just part and parcel of his bad character and one of the many things that will send him to Hell. Of course, Twain means the opposite, and in fact Huck is one of the most compassionate characters in literature. He feels sick at the sight of death and destruction, and even feels sorry for the Duke and the King, two frauds who planned to sell Jim but were tarred and feathered. The interesting thing, to me, is how Tom Sawyer is presented. Although I believe Tom Sawyer is considered to be, in the conventional wisdom, one of literature’s clever, ingenious characters, he comes off in this book as a complete chowderhead, insensitive to the needs of others and the exigencies of the moment. Yes, his ornate, ridiculous, quite misplaced plans are funny to the reader, but with Jim’s freedom and life at stake, Tom really does appear to be a fool. Worse, it unfolds that Tom only agreed to help free Jim because he knew Jim had been freed by his “rightful” owner. Perhaps here Twain was parodying the kind of fresh-faced lad, breathing my country right or wrong, and full of inefficient schemes, who swallow everything they’re told and will die for their government without question – as Tom takes a bullet due to his stupid plan. Tom Sawyer aside, what an incredible novel. I stand amazed at Twain’s wit, prescience and noble spirit.