I’m in the midst of teaching a summer course, Appreciating Literature, and so have once again been presented with the opportunity to re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Each time I visit Twain’s masterpiece, I’m struck with its thematic richness, its satiric underpinnings, and its poignant and often very funny plot. I’m particularly in awe of the artful manner in which Twain develops and weaves the novel partly as bildingsroman and partly as variant on the picaresque novel. Most agree that it is Huck, the novel’s first person narrator (Twain’s voice, often, thinly-veiled), who is the hero, but I see Huck AND Jim as co-protagonists; both, together, pursue the freedom they desire and both, together, must work through the obstacles standing in their way. In any case, what this novel does is to help us see beneath the surface, beneath the veneer, and discover what and who people really are at their core.
This time, though, I’ve discovered something I’d not noticed previously, and that is how small portions of the novel, as narrated by Huck, are wonderfully poetic. A great passage of this sort occurs, for example, in chapter four and begins with the sentence, “Pretty soon it darkened up and began to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it,” and it ends with a wonderful simile that describes the thunder as sounding “like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.” My favorite is probably a passage from chapter fourteen. It begins with the sentence “Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe.” This passage ends with a brushstroke that shifts the passage from the realm of the romantic poem (defined, of course, by Wordsworth as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . [that] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility") and into the realm of the realistic poem, as Huck notes how the celebration of beauty may occasionally be tempered by the rankness of “dead fish laying around. . . ." Here beauty isn’t overwhelmed by the stench; rather, beauty is better defined by it.
So here I sit at my desk thinking of Huckleberry Finn as a poet, and I’m also thinking about how the novel ends, with Huck saying, “and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I’m rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” The irony of course is that the Territory Huck sees in terms of the romantic, as a place of escape, will soon cease to be as manifest destiny, technology, and the Civil War do their game-changing work. What we know for sure is that Huck’s fate is the same as our own, to face one dilemma after another in an existential quest for freedom. I’m thinking that Huck will have no choice but to remain the poet. There will be so much more to articulate, and Huck has the gift. Huck’s is a story of ethics. “There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” The poems I most admire tend to be a lot like Huckleberry Finn: a little rough, a little uncivilized, and more than a tad unsure of their own moral character. But at their core, beneath whatever stylistic guise is assumed, these poems inevitably reveal an engaged and frank moral center, they place me on a raft and challenge me and leave me different than I was before.