If there's a great American novel, it's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. No work is more American. Huck and Jim's adventures are those of every American struggling for identity, moral purpose, and geographic stability, the adventures of a population growing out of awkward adolescence to maturity and national identity.
Don't worry about Twain's use of the "N-word." Huck's language is ignorant because he's ignorant. Huckleberry Finn is too huge to be reducible to one theme (like racism or slavery), just as America isn't "about" one thing. The novel is purposefully huge and unrestricted, like the nation Twain observed.
In fact, the language makes the novel. Twain's mastery of Southern dialect is unrivaled; that he can 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 plot was boring we'd still listen to Huck talk. His voice is so thoroughly his 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, as when 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" of Hamlet to an audience of backwoods yokels.
Huckleberry Finn is 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.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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