If there's a great American novel, it'sThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.No work is moreAmerican. Huck and Jim's adventures arethose ofevery American struggling for identity, moral purpose, and geographic stability, the adventures of a population growingout of awkward adolescence to maturity and national identity.
Don't worry about Twain's use of the "N-word." Huck's language is ignorant becausehe'signorant.Huckleberry Finnis too huge to be reducible toone theme (like racism or slavery), just as America isn't "about" one thing.The novelis purposefully huge and unrestricted, likethe nation Twain observed.
In fact, the language makes the novel. Twain's mastery of Southerndialect is unrivalled; that hecan maintain Huck's uneducated voice and bad grammar throughout proves his genius and draws us in. The plot is intriguing with its faked deaths, family feuds, bad Shakespeare, and endlessly changing identities (not to mention Jim's dangerous bid for freedom), but one senses that even if the plotwas boring we'd still listen to Huck talk. His voice is so thoroughlyhis voice.
But the significance of Twain's style is more far-reaching. He gives voice not just to an ignorant Southern boy, but to an entire nation (no small feat considering the recent animosity of the Civil War). Huck is intelligent and ignorant, experienced and innocent, cunning and naive. His exploits can be boyish, but they're also expressions of developing morality, echoing America's youthful bravado and rapid growth to maturity.
It's Twain's absurd, brilliant humor which grabs our attention in the end. He takes us to dizzy heights of hilarity, then drops us into tragedy, aswhen Huck winds up in the middle of a family feud of comically epic proportions that reveals its darkest underside when he finds his new friend dead after an attack from the rival clan. But there are lighthearted moments, such as the King and the Duke's "recitations" ofHamletto an audience of backwoods yokels.
Huckleberry Finnis nearly perfect. Twain's eloquence, humor, and intellect make most serious novels seem like picture books. It's wildly funny and inescapably sad, rational and emotional, universal and specific, vice-ridden and virtuous. It's the most honest tribute to the American nation that has ever been written, or likely will be.
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