In “Say It Ain’t So, Huck,” Jane Smiley’s exception to the canonization of Huckleberry Finn sits astride a harsh judgment and a keen, savvy critique with quite some grit, and presents an interesting insight into an otherwise unquestionable masterpiece of American literature. While she succeeds in making her point and poking holes into the artistry of Mark Twain, I find her lacking in honesty on the moral issues raised in the novel and her comparisons between the novel and some of the more contemporary American novels, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
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Let us begin with Smiley’s take on the elevation of the novel into the limelight. According to her, the novel rode on a rollercoaster of luck, on the backs of journal reviews, and on what she seems to describe a patchwork by its admirers to cover up for its shortages (Arac, 1997). Interestingly she also states that the novel had its admirers, but this she fails to grade. I would say this as the first American-style novel true to the American and not the British style was bound to have its footing whichever way it landed on American readership, and writers such as Elliot, with his boyhood connection with the River Mississippi, would only be symbolic of how many Americans can find identity with the text. I find altruistic the notion that these reviews and clear patchwork were the propellants rather than the smoke behind the trail of Mark Twain’s work (Ellison,1964). Which brings us to the question: were the shortcomings of Mark Twain’s work forgiven before the novel could be acceptable? Or rather, does Twain need this pardon?
To answer these, let us investigate Twain’s itinerary in penning down the novel. In 1876 Twain did the first sixteen chapters in the spate of a few months, abandoning the entire text for seven years until he got inspired by a visit to the Mississippi while writing “Life on the Mississippi”. He picks up the novel after his notorious penchant for sporadic writing, and from the point of the steamboat crash that split up the two boys, he pens down the rest of the novel in a few months (Thomas,1997). The argument for this is that his mind by then got set out differently from the way he had started, and this vividly shows in the text.
This presents a remarkable artistic kink, and the loss of flow between the two parts of the novel does need a little pardon. Little, because when Twain’s work was continuing it was not a necessity that a novel flows from cover to cover as one continuous story. Twain wrote his novel as ideas came to him, as a work of everyday living, and less as a work of art or from ideas he read from others, as Stowe did in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which Smiley inadvertently prefers to “Huckleberry Finn”. Inevitably, seven years of separation somehow have to show up in the grain. As a contemporary writer, though, Smiley may also be forgiven for missing this fact. Moreover, the thrill in the novel has already happened before the last twelve chapters, and the rest of it does little to diminish-or add value. Indeed, there have been many arguments that the reader can stop reading at the beginning of the last twelve, which however I do not buy into.
Smiley also picks on Trilling for his opinions on Twain’s use of untruths spoken by Huck. From the foregoing, it was not Twain’s style to hide behind a veil of fiction when he could spell out his raw tale as it happened. Thus, I consider Huck’s sentiments as being Twain’s own, and Trilling cannot be forgiven here for attempting to take that from him. Smiley does catch him in the act, perhaps out of too much zeal trying to extol his perceived might of Twain’s, or perhaps making a less than noble and very unnecessary attempt to make his work ‘meet a requirement’ for ‘installation’. Whichever way, this is very attractive for Smiley and she makes a good apply (Twain,1996).
However, Smiley’s ongoing bias with the setting of the novel and failure to read Twain’s mind comes out when she argues against the appraisal of the honest, unbiased subtlety of his prose and use of vernacular as well as colloquial American language. Smiley needs to realize, again, that this was the first truly American novel, and the books that she compares it to were perhaps not so much so, not so much for their choice of artistic style over a faithful recording as to their tendency to get influenced by earlier works of literature, not least of all Huck Finn itself (Cox, 1966).
Whether there was a homoerotic attraction between Huck and Jim is at best a speculation only Twain can resolve. I find no reason to believe that this was the case, and similarly, I find no reason to believe Leslie Fiedler had it in her mind that Huck Finn needed any more introduction into American literature than Twain had ingrained. Smiley’s argument that this was preset to ‘link Huck Finn to ‘lesser’ books’ lack merit as Huck Finn did not need the ‘lesser’ books, only the reverse is more plausible. The comparison of Huck Finn to American literature was a reverse idea, and not a very good one. This act does not add to or indeed diminish, the greatness of the novel any more than it confers greatness to the ‘lesser’. I would it does however bring it into a more modern company and acceptance for Americans for whom the Civil War era is the only history, just like a British edition would with British readers.
The relationship between the two lads does not end there, however. To understand it better, we have to go back to the setting of the novel: it is the 1830’s in antebellum America, where there is a great moral and political divide between the north and the South centered on slavery. Huck is a young Southerner, probably in his early teens, hosted by the woman of a young black slave, Jim. It is the era where slavery is a way of life in the South, and where it is morally right to have a slave. The use of the ‘n’ word is rife, and it is even a moral dilemma for Huck whether to help Jim escape or not. As such, Huck-and Twain does not come across to me as a racist any more than he is simply reflecting the popular culture at the time. I see him as being more of the opposite, for in the end, it is good that triumphs over evil in his conscience.
From the foregoing argument, Smiley does get some facts right and succeeds in setting off a great debate on morality and racism as well as the artistic qualities of Huck Finn. However, she does not succeed in making the novel any lesser. Her choice over Huck Finn, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is far less complex, and though it is a better book against slavery, that is beside the point because Twain did not set out to do that. Twain has a unique descriptive style, with moments of brilliance and some dull ones, but he never lost his step, and in the end, claims him a place among our very best works of prose.
Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.Print.
Cox, James. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.Print.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. The Common Law. New York: Dover, 1991. Print.
Thomas, Brook. American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.Print.
Twain, Mark, and Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.Print.