Thursday, October 07, 2004

Book review: Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

There's a little blurb on the cover of my copy from Hemingway, saying that all American literature springs from Huckleberry Finn. Maybe it's true, maybe not, but it's clear there is a style about Huck Finn. The language is exceedingly simple, the plot consists of a series of more or less unrelated scenes. But the dialect rings very authentic; Jim's voice as a slave, and Huck's voice as an uneducated Missourian. I think the most intriguing thing of all about the book is Huck's certainty that stealing slaves is an unethical thing to do. He goes back and forth, anguishing over whether to turn Jim in or help him escape to a free state, eventually deciding that, since he was born a bad person, he's just going to help Jim escape and chance the eternal flames. Now, if this book had been written in 1983, this would have been the absolutely predictable decision that the character would have made. We all know slavery is, and was, evil, and for a book in 1983 to come to any other conclusion would have been either (a) unthinkable, or (b) Literature. But I wonder how inevitable the conclusion was to readers in the early 19th century.

Huck Finn makes a lot of banned books, of course, and let me see if I can get my blog on any available banned blog lists by revealing why: the constant repetition of the word nigger. I suppose it's less likely now, though, due to its relatatively common usage black-on-black. So I'd guess anyone Googling for that word will find my blog pretty low down on the list. In the book, the usage is absolutely authentic; Huck uses it, Jim uses it, every character in the book uses it. At any rate, I distinctly remember reading a letter of Abraham Lincoln referring to "Darkies", and I haven't heard anyone suggesting that his books be banned.

The flak over banning of books is really a tempest in a teacup, though, IMO. The only true definition of censorship is when the government disallows the book entirely. To claim that a book has been censored just because a single school library has decided not to carry it is disingenuous, especially in these days when pornography is available for free and books can just be downloaded. I don't buy into the NRA-style slippery-slope arguments. Things that are right, are right, and a library's freedom to make its own decisions about what books to carry is right.

I suppose the key question about Huck Finn, though, is how relevant is it, really, today? I can't answer that. For literary critics it's probably important as the Book That Spawned American Literature, but I find that analagous to playing Pong, The Game That Spawned American Video. It was a great game then, but today's games are a lot better.