‘A Very Low Grade of Morality’ in…
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
‘You don’t know about me
without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mr Mark Twain…’ And in that work, as we have seen (BfK 183), Mr Twain is found, putting down with the unprejudiced eye of a local recorder, recollections of rustic goings-on in St Petersburg, Missouri some time in the 1840s. Pleased with his work, as were his public, he some time later handed over to one of the prime participants in that story the job of contriving a sequel, standing back to let Huck Finn tell it how it was.
To begin with
the one seems to get going where the other left off, except that the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson – ‘a tolerable slim old maid with goggles on’ – have already set about ‘sivilizing’ and schooling young Huck, a procedure with the fortunate outcome that he’s going to be able to write the book that will tell how his adventures ran their course.
For Pap comes back,
the drunken vagrant with a fondness for hick’ry stick exercises. He protests his rights as parent, claws our narrator from the sivilizers and so triggers the wild succession of flights and retrenchments that form the body of the story. And we are not taken far into their whirl of events before, hiding on the island where the boys had had their escapade in Tom Sawyer, Huck encounters Miss Watson’s nigger, Jim, who has run off for fear of being sold down the river to New Orleans. The two of them, fugitives both, make common cause with the third great participant in the tale, the Mississippi River itself. Characterised with great authority by one who knew its unreliable ways it carries them down into unexpected revelations of the perfidy of their fellow mortals.
It is a voyage into the comic and not-so-comic picaresque,
a genre foreshadowed in an early episode when Tom Sawyer summons the spirit of Don Quixote while organising a local exploit whose childishness will contrast mightily with the grim and satiric story that Huck will have to tell. Rogues and feuding families kill each other without compunction (rather as in present-day Britain), conscienceless swindlers delude the hick-town innocents (only to discover to their cost that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time), and even Huck and Jim are drawn to the devising of some necessary, but incompetently managed, deceits.
Like the river,
the flow and confusion of events could easily go on right down to the southern delta were it not that a barely credible coincidence brings Tom Sawyer back on stage. Unlike Huck, who has proved himself a percipient and quick-witted pragmatist, Tom returns us to second order pranks, the fruit of reading Dumas and the like, through which a denouement is contrived whose laboured comedy is at odds with the powerful originality of all that has preceded it. It is a flaw in Huck’s narrative that has long been contentious – ‘just cheating’ said Hemingway, who admired the rest of the book enormously — but it is only a small portion of the misfortunes and calumnies that have been the writer’s lot ab initio.
In 1884, with the book finished
and stereo plates already shipped to London for the English edition, it was found that some naughty artisan had interfered with one of the American plates with the result that the illustrator, E W Kemble’s, portrait of Uncle Silas sported what looked like a spring onion – or something worse – projecting from the crotch of that gentleman’s pants. Production had to stop for a correction to be made. The Christmas market was lost and the US edition was held over till 1885, a couple of months after the English one, which did make it for Christmas.
And when publication was achieved
many sensitive souls, including Miss Alcott and various New England public librarians, were scandalised by a work deemed ‘more profitable for the slums than… for respectable people’. And no sooner had those short-sighted objections been overcome and the book recognised as ‘the great American novel’ than a fresh cascade of obloquy fell upon it for its perceived racism and the repetition of the word ‘nigger’ two hundred times or more – doubtless someone counted. One wonders how such readers from one generation or the other had failed to notice that their objections were generated by one of the book’s greatest achievements: its perfection in the handling of the storyteller’s argot, local speech, and ‘the idiom of the people’ (nor did they heed the Chief of Ordnance’s Notice at the start of the book that prosecution, banishment, and execution would fall serially upon anyone attempting find a motive, a moral, or a plot in the succeeding pages).
As for the putative author,
he sensibly lit out for the Territory: ‘…if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and aint agoing to no more…’
The cover illustration is from the Collector’s Library edition, 978 1 904633 46 4, £7.99 hbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.