Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Some Thoughts about HUCKLEBERRY FINN
A few days ago an old friend zipped me a note about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, about the awkwardness some teachers feel with that text. Indeed, some (many?) have abandoned Huck (the poor lad can't seem to find a permanent home: his fate's a raft!) and turned to less controversial texts.
I want to spend a few days with Huck here--and relate my own history with the book and note that I taught it every year the last ten years of my career (to college-prep juniors). For me--and for many of the students, I think--it was one of the best parts of the year. (Of course, it was always the end of the year, too--so maybe that affected our fondness for it?)
I can't really remember when I didn't know about Tom and Huck. Those boys were just part of the cultural world I grew up in. Among the titles I remember on my parents' busy shelves were those two books--one was red, the other green (I wish I could remember which was which; it annoys me that I can't)--and it seemed to me that knowing those names was just part of what it meant to be, well, alive. I mean, if you said, "Tom Sawyer" or "Huck Finn," everyone knew of whom you spoke. I think most people still would, even in this era when neither book appears in the curriculum all that often and when young readers have found even naughtier and more adventuresome literary heroes to follow--Harry Potter, Edward Cullen, Katniss and the crew ...
Twain, as you can see, was one of the authors, and Huck Finn was one of his four titles; the others were Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and The Mysterious Stranger, this last a very odd choice since it is one of Twain's last and very darkest tales involving Satan as a principal character. At the end of the story, Satan says this to the first-person narrator:
"It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but You. And You are but a Thought--a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities."
He vanished and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.
So, the Authors-card people could have put, oh, Life on the Mississippi or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (though that book is also very dark) on the Twain cards; instead, they chose the little book that hosts such happy thoughts ...
I don't recall that I actually read either book before I heard them read in my fourth grade classroom back in Enid, Oklahoma, 1953-1954. Mrs. Stella Rockwell--one of the best teachers I ever had anywhere--would read to us every day after we came in from recess--if we were good. And we invariably were, especially during those weeks when she read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us.
I had a special pride in all of this, too, for Mrs. Rockwell, early in the year, had said that she would read aloud to us from books we brought from home. I came in the next day with Tom (red? green?), and she picked it! And when she finished, I brought in Huck Finn (red, green?), and she picked it! I was on the first roll of my life. And when she finished Huck, I brought in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and she ... did not pick it. She said, "Danny, we should give others a turn now." That was her way, giving people turns. My way was to sulk, and so I sought not to listen to whatever the next book was that some idiot brought in--Black Beauty or The Bobbsey Twins Fall into the Grand Canyon and Are Never Seen Again or some other stupid book.
Anyway, I loved those weeks with Tom and Huck, and a classmate, Pete Asplund, and I decided that we were Tom and Huck. He could come over to my house early on Saturday mornings and would get in the little patch of woods across Elm Avenue from our house. He would beat on a log with a branch and cry out, "Caw! Caw! Caw!" And I would get up and sneak out (not via the downspout but the stairs), join him in the "woods," and off we would go to play pirates or robbers or something else Tom-ian.
Later I would read those books again and would discover to my surprise (and delight, actually) that Mrs. Rockwell had left out some parts while she was reading ... some very good parts ...
TOMORROW: With Tom and Huck in high school and college