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95: HUCK

#95: HUCK. When I picked up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently to reread it, I realized it had probably been a good thirty years since I’d had it in hand; and for five days I was in the excited, cheerful mood one gets into from being in the grip of a great book, a wonderful book. It echoes, often sardonically, any number of things from the European literature behind it, from Homer to Cervantes; but it is the culmination of that tide in our national literature when, on Emerson’s orders, writers sought to become purely and expressively American. It is also the rare exception to the rule that sequels must be inferior to their originals. Tom Sawyer is still a splendid book—better than a romp, as it was drawn from the author’s true pleasure in recalling his Missouri childhood—but I for one read its charms at a bit of a distance, and when Tom re-enters Huck Finn, the book relaxes into a kind of facetiousness, and the ending merely glides into port. But by the early climax of the novel—the great cleansing moment in our literature, when a fourteen-year-old boy says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”—Twain has given us a far darker and more profound vision than anything in the anti-Walter Scott parody of the last pages; he has accomplished an inspection of the American condition, deployed his range of symbols, and sharpened his gallery of characters with a pungency and vivideness it would be hard to overpraise. Twain is now our known master of dialect, and our great comic creator, but what struck me on this reading was not just the energy and invention but the sheer beauty of the prose; and not just in the nightstruck passages on the river, but in the moral clarity behind the jabber of human collisions that make up the plot. Even in the shallows of the later chapters Twain can rise to “He had a dream and it shot him.” “Singular dream,” says the doctor in response, and we agree. Take Huck Finn with Thoreau’s Walden, with Whitman’s and Dickinson’s poetry, and with Douglass’s Narrative, and I’d say you have the cream of our nineteenth-century literature, maybe even our literature as a whole.

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, with notes by Michael Patrick Hearn (Clarkson N. Potter, 1981), does its job thoroughly and adds in E. W. Kemble’s original illustrations; Hearn compares Kemble’s contribution with Tenniel’s work on the Alice books, and I’ve come to agree. The Portable Mark Twain, my favorite of the Viking Portable series, has the complete Huck Finn plus the pick of Twain’s best short stories and letters, including “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”—still one of the sharpest and funniest cannonades in our critical literature.

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