Thursday, February 18, 2010

Happy birthday, Huck Finn

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 2:39 PM

Today is the 125th anniversary of the first U.S. publication of author Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s one of the foundations of American literature, an endless source of humor and insight, and, yes,  one of this writer’s favorite novels — even though, as lit scholars will tell you, Twain botched the ending. It doesn’t matter, because what comes before the final couple of chapters is so rich and deep and full to overflowing with clarity of thought, drama and raucous humor, any ending would have been inadequate. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column, “My Own Bible,” in which I related some quotes from Huck Finn, along with what I got out of them, in italics. Here are a few excerpts:

"We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed — only a little kind of a low chuckle." Some of life's finest moments are the simplest and are to be enjoyed, going with the flow without overanalyzing everything.

"All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot. It's the way they're raised. All kings is mostly rapscallions." Rulers and politicians may be necessary, but don't ever think they're necessarily honest, or even always mean well.

"H'aint we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?"  The idea of "communal wisdom" is too often an exercise in delusion.

[Huck agonizes over whether he should tell his benefactor, Miss Watson, where to find her former slave Jim (as, Huck believes, society and God expect him to), or follow his conscience and help Jim escape from his new owners] "I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, 'All right, then, I'll GO to hell.'" At times, it's better to follow your own moral compass than to blindly obey societal rules you feel are cruel and hypocritical.

If you'd like to read the original essay, click here.  (It is also included in Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of 50 columns and features I've written for CL, available at Paper Skyscraper, Park Road Books, Joseph Beth, and Borders Morrocroft.)

First U.S. edition of Huckleberry Finn
  • First U.S. edition of Huckleberry Finn

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