The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a silly book about a silly boy who thinks the world is a movie and he’s the star. Tom Sawyer is the original frat boy, self-centered, egotistical, not exactly mean but so caught up in his own narrative that he likely thinks the rest of us are robots. He certainly treats us as such. It’s in his silly book that we first meet Huckleberry Finn.
In his first scene, Huck has a dead cat that he’s going to use to cure himself of warts. Twain gives us no indication at all of the character that Huck will become; instead, he’s used as a flat prop for Tom’s various shenanigans. At one particularly telling point, while Tom is sick in bed the entire town “gets religion” after a revival meeting. Afterwards, when Tom can’t find a single sinner to play with, he seeks out Huck – surely he won’t have reformed. But no, even Huck greets Tom with a quote from scripture, and Tom is plunged deeper into personal misery. Pure prop, as what we learn of Huck later convinces us that this would simply never happen.
Enough with that silly book. As soon as I open Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I know I’m in for something different. “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.” Exactly.
Huck’s language is a joy to read. This is not the flat, featureless character we encountered in the earlier book. No, Huck is a boy who notices things. He describes a world we never knew we knew.
The river looked miles and miles across. The moon was so bright I could ‘a’ counted the drift-logs that went a-slipping along, black and still, hundreds of yards out from shore. Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late. You know what I mean—I don’t know the words to put it in.
I think you do, Huck.
Above all, Huck sees the irony in others, and helps us see it, too, without ever rising above. That’s what makes this Huckleberry utterly different from his Tom Sawyer doppelganger. In his own book, Huck will never rise above.
A wonderful example of this occurs as Huck is attempting escape from his abusive, alcoholic father (known affectionately as Pap). While Huck plans a getaway that is so perfect no one will ever think to chase him, he says, “I did wish Tom Sawyer was there; I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that.”
Well, we know exactly what Tom Sawyer would do. He’d make Huck scrabble some inscription on the wall in his own blood, train a cockroach to make flapjacks, and write a letter to Pap warning him of the impending jailbreak (fortunately Pap can’t read). In short, he’d ruin the whole thing. But Huck doesn’t rise above.
One thing to remember about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that it is a deeply, deeply funny book. This as much as anything else keeps me coming back. In several of these entries, I’ll quote a passage that makes me laugh.
Huck has one of his funniest lines soon after the getaway, in which Huck has deftly faked his own murder. While hiding on Jackson Island, Huck watches fascinated as Tom Sawyer, Pap, and a gaggle of other people search the Mississippi for Huck’s “remainders.” They’re busy firing a cannon over the water, attempting to get Huck’s corpse to come loose and float to the surface, not realizing that Huck himself is watching their every move from an island right up against the boat’s bow.
Then the captain sung out: “Stand away!” and the cannon let off such a blast right before me that it made me deef with the noise and pretty near blind with the smoke, and I judged I was gone. If they’d ‘a’ had some bullets in, I reckon they’d ‘a’ got the corpse they was after.
*I use the term “slave” here to ease everyone in to what is to come. As you likely know, “slave” is not the term Twain uses most often in the book to describe Jim and the other forced servants, and it’s not the term I’ll use as I move forward. Instead, I’ll use a word that (rightfully) has become among the most offensive words in the language. It has to be there, and you’ll see why if you keep reading.