Thursday, February 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Huck Finn!

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."

Ernest Hemingway

On this day 125 years ago, February 18, 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published by Charles L. Webster and Company, New York.

How do I know it was published by Charles L. Webster and Company, New York?

Well, since 1982, an analog of this Year of Superior Vision, 2010, I've been the proud owner of a facsimile First Edition of this Greatest American Novel.

And very proud of it I am.

I've read this book since I was in Second Grade. I've read it 15 - 18 times, and I started reading it again tonight.

I love this book. It is the quintessential American Novel. It examines the essential American conflict: freedom vs slavery, and without doubt the noblest character, the most human, the most loving is the slave, Jim.

Few moments in literature rival Huck's resolution in Chapter 31 to stand by his friend.

Motherless Huck, whose father is an abusive drunk, accepts on faith that his entire adventure down the Mississippi with runaway slave, Jim, has been sinful. He may not have good or proper breeding, but he knows right from wrong, and absconding with someone else's property is unequivocally wrong.

And Jim is property. Not a man. An asset. Capital. Physical plant. A factory.

Certainly not a father.

Though Huck knows nothing of karma, he's feeling bad about not having spoken up long ago. He's been carrying and protecting stolen merchandise, and finally resolves to clear his conscience by writing to Miss Watson, Jim's rightful owner.

Of course, he hasn't felt guilty until he learns "the king" and "the duke," two All-American confidence men, have sold Jim to a local farmer, and made him a slave again "and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars."

But Huck's feeling it now, acutely, and fears, "It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from [my home]town again, I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame . . . here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched . . . whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm . . . ."

The misplaced modifier is crucial.

Faced with the prospect of "everlasting fire," Huck resolves to pray. "But the words wouldn't come. . . . because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; is (sic) was because I was playing double. . . deep down in me I knowed it was a lie--and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie," Huck concludes.

So he writes a simple, one-sentence letter to Miss Watson telling where Jim is and where to send the reward money to get him back, and immediately feels better.

Then Huck begins to pray for his eternal salvation.

But not right away. First , he sits and thinks.

He thinks of how close he has come to going to hell. Then he thinks of the ease and joy of his life with Jim on the raft on the river. And he thinks of Jim looking out for him, and caring for him. And he remembers Jim saying Huck was the best friend "[he] ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now. . . ."

Then Huck looks down at the letter, and thinks:

"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. 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 says to myself:

'All right, then, I'll go to hell'--and tore it up."

If you've never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, start today.

If you've read Huckleberry Finn, read it again.

I hear you can get it on Kindle for a quarter.

There's no finer story in any language.

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