The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

American voices

BEFORE

1823 The Pioneers, the first of James Fenimore Cooper’s saga the “Leatherstocking Tales”, offers conflicting views of life on the frontier in one of the first original US novels.

1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe creates multiple vernacular voices in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a sentimental story that inflames the anti-slavery debate.

AFTER

1896 In The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett paints a vivid picture of life in an isolated fishing village on the coast of Maine.

1939 John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath mixes local colour with social injustice in an epic story of a family’s journey west in the midst of the Great Depression.

With little history to speak of and few literary traditions to anchor them, US writers in the 19th century were engaged in holding up a mirror to the varied, complex populations of their rapidly evolving nation. One author blazed a trail, siting his story specifically in the Mississippi Valley in the Midwest with a poor white boy narrator like no other. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn relates his adventures in regional dialect, salted with philosophical musings and homespun wisdom, and along the way becomes one of the first authentic voices in American literature.

What is it about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that led Ernest Hemingway to declare it to be the starting point for all American literature? For a start, it empowered generations of American writers to shift literature from its centre in the New England colonies and site their works on home soil with local colour and vernacular speech. But what is also remarkable is the radical heart of this free-flowing “boy’s own” story. Twain’s novel was published after the American Civil War (1861–65), but is set 40 to 50 years earlier, when slaveholding persisted in the South and settlers were scrabbling for land in the West. Huck’s ingenuous thoughts reflect the numerous contradictions at the heart of American society.

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The use of regional dialect in notable examples of 19th- and early 20th-century American literature gave a voice – and thereby a form of representation – to races, regions, cultures, and classes that had previously been denied one.

Adventures down the river

Early on in the narrative, Huck introduces himself to the reader as an established character from a previous novel by Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which gives his account the credibility of social history. He feigns death to escape the civilizing folk of Missouri and the brutality of his father, and begins his journey down the Mississippi on a raft, in the company of Jim, a runaway slave. As they drift south, the barbarous reality of backwoods society encroaches whenever they make contact with the shore. In these one-horse towns, lynch mobs and gangs administer justice; tricksters play to the weakness of the crowd; loud-mouthed drunks are summarily shot; and a young gentleman who befriends Huck is murdered in a family feud.

In a text that is peppered with the offensive word “nigger”, subversion is played out through the talks between Huck and Jim. Newly escaped from being sold down the river by his mistress, Jim concludes: “Yes – en I’s rich now … I owns myself, en I’s worth eight hund’d dollars. I wished I had de money.”

Living on the raft in idyllic self-sufficiency, Huck and Jim are cast adrift from their social order, and a friendship develops. Later, as Huck wrestles with a Southern ideology that demands he should turn Jim in, he can remember the man only as a friend: “we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing … somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him…” By the time Tom Sawyer, the eponymous hero of Twain’s earlier novel, steps on to the page, Huck’s emotional development is almost complete.

Although it was condemned as “coarse” when it was first published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn injected American writing with a new energy, style, and colour. Its focus on the speech of real Americans stretched on through the voices of John Steinbeck’s dispossessed farmers in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to recent first-person narratives such as Drown (1996), Junot Díaz’s stories of Dominican-Americans in New Jersey.

"You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

MARK TWAIN

Born on 30 November 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which served as the model for “St Petersburg” in Huckleberry Finn.

After the death of his father, Clemens left school at the age of 12; he worked as a typesetter and occasional writer, and in 1857 became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. During the Civil War he prospected for silver in Nevada, then started writing for newspapers, adopting the pen name Mark Twain.

In 1870 Clemens married Olivia Langdon; they settled in Connecticut and had four children. Despite the success of his novels, a series of poor investments bankrupted him, but from 1891 he lectured widely, enjoyed international celebrity, and restored his finances. As Mark Twain, he wrote 28 books, and many short stories, letters, and sketches. He died in 1910.

Other key works

1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

1881 The Prince and the Pauper

1883 Life on the Mississippi

See also: Uncle Tom’s Cabin • The Sound and the Fury • Of Mice and Men • The Grapes of Wrath • To Kill a Mockingbird