Monday, December 05, 2005

Huck Finn

The New Yorker's take on Huck Finn's audience

The caption reads "At last, a cinematic version of Twain's tale that truly represents our generation's ethos."

I'm working on a stage adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like its prequel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is considered a classic of American literature, and as such is rarely read outside the classroom. This is a damn shame, because it is not only hilarously funny and an exciting adventure, it's infused with Twain's religious skepticism, which is not limited to the classic line "all right then, I'll go to hell."

To get a handle on how the novel is considered a kid's story, consider some of the cinematic versions. In this 1992 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Jim doesn't even show on the cover, it's Huck and Tom. Disney Studios also leave Jim out in favor of Frodo Baggins looking extremely young and impish on the cover. According to Sean Axmaker's editorial review, you have to go back to 1939 for Mickey Rooney's version for something halfway decent. But really, the fact that there has never been a version of Huckleberry Finn aimed at adults says alot about the pervasiveness of the belief that it's no more than a Boys' Life adventure story.

Part of the problem is that since it is so closely related to Tom Sawyer, which really is a children's book, Huckleberry Finn is considered one as well. It's somewhat understandable, since Tom Sawyer himself makes an appearance at the beginning and end of the book. But everything in between really cannot be grasped by kids. I speak from experience. I've read the book four times, the first when I was twelve. I read it as an action-adventure story, and although I appreciated the excitement of the family feud and the Royal Nonesuch swindle, I didn't get Twain's whole sarcastic bemusement of Antebellum mores.

When I read it a second time in my early twenties, I not only picked up on that, I was astonished at all the funny bits I hadn't gotten. I thought the cutlery-switching scene at the end of the book was a howl. And who couldn't love this bit?

Once there was a thick fog, and the rafts and things that went by was beating tin pans so the steamboats wouldn't run over them. A scow or a raft went by so close we could hear them talking and cussing and laughing -- heard them plain; but we couldn't see no sign of them; it made you feel crawly; it was like spirits carrying on that way in the air. Jim said he believed it was spirits; but I says:

"No; spirits wouldn't say, 'Dern the dern fog.'"

But by the time I read Huck Finn in my 30s, I didn't think the cutlery scene was funny anymore, and in fact, I thought the ending of the book was shockingly weak. This is something I'll have to deal with in my adaptation.

I didn't know much about Samuel Clemens until watching a few bio shows on TV in the past year or so, including the Ken Burns one. Predictably, the Burns version is a bit portentous, and this illustrates the other problem with Huckleberry Finn. All the talk of its sociological and literary significance leads the small percentage of people who don't believe it's only fit for children to conclude that it's a boring slog. As a result far fewer people than you might expect - I'm talking about the playwrights of my acquaintance, who you would assume to be better read than most - have actually read the book, considering it is both entertaining and enlightening.

One of the non-Burns bios, I can't remember who was responsible for it, while not as thorough as the Burns actually questions the provenance of the pen name Mark Twain. While every other source says that Clemens got the name from a steamboat navigation phrase that meant two fathoms, (and naturally the Ken Burns piece made a big psycho-literary point about two fathoms meaning "safe waters") this other bio suggests most sacriligiously that in fact Twain was inspired by saloon slang - mark twain meaning you had two drinks on your bar tab. I'd love to know where they came up with that. It sounds just profane enough to be true, and gives you a more realistic perspective on things.

A great perspective on Huckleberry Finn can be had by reading contemporary reviews of the book.

The University of Virginia has a very good web site devoted to Twain and Huckleberry Finn and includes a section on these early reviews, as well as advertisements and illustrations, even the obscene illustration incident.

Life Magazine, showing that the belief that Huck Funn is a children's story is not a new phenomenon, snarks:

A very refined and delicate piece of narration by Huck Finn, describin his venerable and dilapidated "pap" as afflicted with delirium tremens, rolling over and over, "kicking things eveyr which way," and "saying there are devils ahold of him." This chapter is especially suited to amuse the children on long, rainy afternoons.

But the booby prize for historical laughingstock goes to The Boston Evening Traveller, which, luckily for somebody, is not attributed:

It is little wonder that Mr. Samuel Clemens, otherwise Mark Twain, resorted to real or mock lawsuits, as may be, to restrain some real or imaginary selling of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as a means of advertising that extraordinarily senseless publication. Before the work is disposed of, Mr. Mark Twain will probably have to resort to law to compel some to sell it by any sort of bribery or corruption. It is doubtful if the edition could be disposed of to people of average intellect at anything short of the point of the bayonet. This publication rejoices in two frontispieces, of which the one is supposed to be a faithful portrait of Huckleberry Finn, and the other an engraving of the classic features of Mr. Mark Twain as seen in the bust made by Karl Gerhardt. The taste of this gratuitous presentation is as bad as is the book itself, which is an extreme statement. Mr. Clemens has contributed some humorous literature that is excellent and will hold its place, but his Huckleberry Finn appears to be singularly flat, stale and unprofitable. The book is sold by subscription.

If you haven't read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" you have no excuse.
You can read the entire novel on one page here.