Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn takes place (as the author states beneath the title:) in the “early nineteenth century”. More so than Tom Sawyer (excerpt here), Twain addresses the larger cultural and social issues of the era, the free states, slave states, the Mississippi slicing up through the nation like some kind of divining rod, or highway, how Jim wanted to get some abolitionists to kidnap his wife and kids out of slavery … all of those everyday things a slave would experience at the time. Huck Finn is not a pamphlet or a sermon, much to the dismay of the literalists in our midst. It’s a NOVEL, featuring flawed human beings. The book is controversial now, certainly, but it was controversial the moment it appeared. Huck Finn has always been a troublemaker, and I love him dearly for that. I love books that piss people off. I love books that certain types of people think none of us should be allowed to read. I love such books on principle. I remember I went off on “challenged books” once and some self-proclaimed member of the “religious right” who hung out on my site (merely to torture himself?) said, “I am troubled by your intemperate response.” Yeah, well, I’m troubled by your temperate response to the issue of censorship and book-banning. We live in a democracy, pal. Freedom of speech. Damn straight I’m “intemperate”.
I read Huckleberry Finn on my own (I later had to read it in high school) and I loved it. It was obvious to me even as a child that everyone in the book speaks in their own dialect. It’s kind of like Dickens’ books, where you really can hear the conversation, because Dickens almost spells it out phonetically. I was caught up completely in its plot (although, as Twain says in a note before the book begins, that anyone attempting to find a plot in the book “will be shot”). I was on the raft with Jim and Huck, I lived their adventures with them, I wanted Jim to be free, I knew he couldn’t go back! I loved all of the adventures they had along the way. It’s a fantasy: Huck and Jim on their raft, free man and slave … sailing on the Mississippi: while they are on their raft, all is possible. It is when they are forced to pull the raft over to one side of the river or the other, and step out onto the land, that they get into trouble. As long as they are in motion, out on the water, they have a chance. And to those who say, in an apologetic tone, that Huckleberry Finn reflects some of the racist attitudes of his day, I reply: OF COURSE HE DOES. Because he lived THEN and not NOW.
I read it because I had read Tom Sawyer as a kid and was totally intrigued by the glimpses I got of Huckleberry’s character. From the first sentence of Huckleberry Finn I was hooked:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.
Looking back, what hooked me in was the voice. The “voice” of Huckleberry Finn represents a huge leap forward in American literature. It still feels contemporary now. Holden Caulfield sounds like Huckleberry Finn. The first-person narration means there is no distance between the reader, and Huckleberry, our guide. Where he goes, we go. Where he makes a mistake, we stroll right into the thick of it with him. We don’t have anyone else to take us on the way, it’s all him. He is one of the greatest characters in our pantheon.
I know I’ve mentioned before my fantasy as a kid of being an orphan, thrown upon the world with no support, and I would have to make my way on my own. Huckleberry Finn does have a loser father, but his life represented my fantasies as a kid. Adrift with no “adults”? Having to deal with conmen, dangerous barking dogs, being chased? Sleeping under the stars? Sign me up!
Huck Finn’s famous statement at the end of the book (“All right then, I’ll go to hell”) speaks to his essential decency.
And that’s what makes his ridiculously funny stopover at the Grangerford house one of my favorite parts of the book. Unlike grade-school-lothario Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn doesn’t have any interest in girls. Becky Thatcher is a big character in Tom Sawyer but there really are no “girls” in Huckleberry Finn, just grim humorless female authority figures, and who’s going to feel romantically about them?? But at the Grangerford house, on the run, flying by the seat of his pants, using another name, he meets Emmeline Grangerford. Or, he doesn’t really “meet” her, because she’s dead, but the house is full of her unfinished paintings and bad poetry and Huck becomes a bit obsessed with her. He thinks about her. He even prays for her soul. It’s an extraordinary little section and really shows Huckleberry’s compassion, his ability to SEE between the lines.
Now there are some things he can’t see, like how bad Emmeline’s poetry actually is, and how her paintings are probably ATROCIOUS (it’s one of the funny things in the scene: Twain blatantly telling us what Emmeline painted, letting the awfulness speak for itself, only Huckleberry, who has no taste in art or literature, thinks everything he encounters is AMAZING). Huck looks at her paintings and wonders about a person who would do such paintings, who was she, did anyone love her like she obviously loved people? Was she okay where she was now?
This quality will come up again and again in Huckleberry Finn: his intuitive ability to see people – and yes, sometimes it comes too late, but it’s a gift, and it was a gift to me as a kid reading it. Because it taught me how to see. I mean, I was already a sensitive little thing, but Huckleberry’s ability to see really struck me, and made me want to be more like him. He reads her AWFUL poem (“stomach troubles laid him low” … hahaha) and feels sad because she obviously cared so much that she would write a poem, and he wondered who cared about her, and who would write a poem for her. So poor illiterate Huck Finn tries to write a poem for her, a dead girl he had never met. This really touched me as a kid and it still does.
So while the Grangerford section and the paintings of Emmeline may not be the most famous part of the book, that’s the excerpt I want to post today, because they had such power for me as a little girl. Even though I first encountered Emmeline’s horrible unfinished painting when I was 10 years old, years and years and years ago, I still, to this day, remember exactly what the painting was, and what parts were unfinished, and the multiple pairs of arms, etc.
EXCERPT FROM Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
They had pictures hung on the walls — mainly Washingtons and Lafayettes, and battles, and Highland Marys, and one called “Signing the Declaration.” There was some that they called crayons, which one of the daughters which was dead made her own self when she was only fifteen years old. They was different from any pictures I ever see before — blacker, mostly, than is common. One was a woman in a slim black dress, belted small under the armpits, with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil, and white slim ankles crossed about with black tape, and very wee black slippers, like a chisel, and she was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow, and her other hand hanging down her side holding a white handkerchief and a reticule, and underneath the picture it said “Shall I Never See Thee More Alas.” Another one was a young lady with her hair all combed up straight to the top of her head, and knotted there in front of a comb like a chair-back, and she was crying into a handkerchief and had a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up, and underneath the picture it said “I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas.” There was one where a young lady was at a window looking up at the moon, and tears running down her cheeks; and she had an open letter in one hand with black sealing wax showing on one edge of it, and she was mashing a locket with a chain to it against her mouth, and underneath the picture it said “And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas.” These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods. Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard. She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick, and every day and every night it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon — and the idea was to see which pair would look best, and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up, and now they kept this picture over the head of the bed in her room, and every time her birthday come they hung flowers on it. Other times it was hid with a little curtain. The young woman in the picture had a kind of a nice sweet face, but there was so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me.
This young girl kept a scrap-book when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head. It was very good poetry. This is what she wrote about a boy by the name of Stephen Dowling Bots that fell down a well and was drownded:
ODE TO STEPHEN DOWLING BOTS, DEC’D
And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?
No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
‘Twas not from sickness’ shots.
No whooping-cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.
They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.
If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain’t no telling what she could a done by and by.