The proposer began with a brief introduction to the life of Samuel Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain. (“Mark Twain” was a Mississippi River term: the second mark on the line used to measure safe depth for a steamboat.)
He was born in 1835, and grew up in Missouri beside the Mississippi River. The two books are set in the period of his own childhood, before the American Civil War. A particularly relevant biographical detail in relation to Huckleberry Finn is that he studied and worked for four years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
As a child, the proposer had received a copy of Tom Sawyer as a birthday present (at this point another member of the group brandished his copy adorned with a school prize label – apparently in those days it was considered suitable reading for an eight year old!). The proposer wanted to see if the books conjured up the excitement he experienced reading them as a boy. (By contrast, another reader referred to his resistance to Mark Twain and also Dickens as a youngster, when they were pushed at him by a well-meaning literary aunt. He thought however that a big part of the problem lay in the small type of the editions current at the time.)
The proposer also wanted to test our response to the view that ‘Tom Sawyer is great fun, Huckleberry Finn is great literature’.
In support of the second assertion, he drew attention to the various significant American writers, including Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Scott Fitzgerald, who have praised Huckleberry Finn very highly. Hemingway accorded it seminal influence: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” — from Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa (1934)
The first member of the group to offer an opinion after this introduction swooped like a vulture to a fresh kill. He had found it a huge struggle to get through Huckleberry Finn and thought the storyline was ‘silly’. Having got this off his chest, he folded his wings and stuck out his beak defiantly.
Another reader timorously proposed the opinion that the books were so different that they could have been written by different authors.
Someone said how much they had enjoyed the descriptive writing about the river and natural events such as thunderstorms. He also opined that the river in this book had no real symbolic significance, and no-one challenged this. (Another member of the group suggested that interesting comparisons might be made with other books about river journeys, such as Heart of Darkness).
He commented further that It was a picaresque novel, but whereas most picaresque heroes end up by returning home – perhaps wiser than they set out – in the case of Huck he has no real home, and intends to set out into ‘Injun’ territory at the end of the story. To some degree, the arrival of Tom Sawyer in the latter part of the story represents ‘coming home’ for Huck.
There was a consensus that Huck’s characterization was convincing and sympathetic. It was pointed out that although he reveals a good heart he does not have the independence of thought to challenge the moral foundation of slavery, or the concept that ‘niggers’ are subhuman. In this respect however Huck’s attitude is simply typical of the time, and in no way extreme.
It was pointed out too that Huck himself stood in the position of slave to his father, and that a judge confirmed that he was the property of his father, irrespective of his welfare. Like Jim, Huck is imprisoned in a cabin, but his escape is masterfully pragmatic, unlike the elaborate nonsense invented later by Tom Sawyer to free Jim. Tom is in fact a character who doesn’t live in the real world, whereas Huck is very down-to-earth and lives in the moment. Huck however doesn’t question the superiority assumed by Tom, or query the absurdity of his ideas.
There was general agreement that the last part of Huckleberry Finn greatly overplayed the joke of the elaborate fantasy woven by Tom, and became merely tiresome. Like Hemingway, most thought that the novel should have ended earlier. It was noted that there was a three year hiatus in Mark Twain”s writing process, before the ending was written, and we wondered about whether an effective editor would have let the latter part of the novel pass unchallenged.
The preponderance of dialogue in Huckleberry Finn was noted, and its apparent authenticity admired. It was remarked that the authorial voice in the two books was different: in Tom Sawyer it is Mark Twain who addresses us, in Huckleberry Finn it is Huck.
We kept returning to the characterization of Huck. His story doesn’t come to a conclusion. He refers repeatedly to a wish to die, and to his lonesomeness. He has low self-esteem. He has no home, he is just running away, and at the end he is still running. The world outside him keeps encroaching (for example in the persons of the duke and the king, or the attempts of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson to ‘civilize’ him). And yet he embodies the qualities of boldness, adaptability and quick-wittedness that make up the archetypal ‘frontier spirit’.
We didn’t spend as long on the character of Tom Sawyer. Essentially a fantasist, the main quality he shares with Huck is that they are both prodigiously accomplished liars.
The violence of Huckleberry Finn was remarked upon, and it was suggested that it provided some historical context for the casual violence and addiction to guns that characterize some elements of society in the USA today.
Another reader admired how both books provided a compendium of contemporary superstitions and ritual behaviours. (As an example, Huck Finn: “I’ve always reckoned that looking at the new moon over your left shoulder is one of the carelessest and foolishest things a body can do.”) Both the ‘nigger’ Jim and the boys are full of these beliefs, and it was suggested that for these uneducated characters this network of superstitions filled the place that religion held for some of the white adult characters.
A member of the group interested in the visual arts proposed that Tom Sawyer was like representational art, and Huckleberry Finn was like abstract art– playing with ideas and language rather than too concerned with plot and structure. There was a general feeling that from a structural point of view, Tom Sawyer was the more satisfying achievement, yet Huckleberry Finn was the more ambitious and stimulating work.
What then of the initial assertion that ‘Tom Sawyer is great fun, Huckleberry Finn is great literature’?
Well, there was more or less unanimity of agreement on the first point, but a degree of dissension on the second. It was felt that Huckleberry Finn had historical importance in its influence on American literature, and was in many respects a very fine piece of writing, but that it lacked the sophistication of the best European novels of the period. Of course the phrase ‘great literature’ has no precise definition, so this comparison should not be taken as excluding Mark Twain from any pantheon of great writers.
Our conversation began now to wander like the great Mississippi itself around various mudbanks and shoals. We observed that many aphorisms were attributed to Mark Twain; that his autobiography and other writings showed him in general an astute commentator on American life; that he was lionized in his lifetime and received various honorary degrees.
The games in Tom Sawyer reminded us of our own childhood activities – spud guns, swapping cigarette cards, marbles.
We speculated about colloquial expressions related to the books – being an ‘Aunt Sally’, or being ‘sold down the river’.
We talked about modern versions of slavery, and the rights and wrongs of buying cheap clothing in western countries that might have been produced using child labour or near-slave labour.
We discovered from the vulture, who turned out to have read on the sly Mark Twain’s autobiography, that Twain at first wrote right-handed, and then because of rheumatism, changed to left-handed and finally to dictation.
This led to conjecture about the intellectual and creative significance of left-handedness, and a straw poll in the group that revealed that two out of the nine people present were left-handed, approximately in line with the average for the population at large.
It now dawned on us that we were following a deceptive tributary of our chosen river, or, to use a popular colloquialism, we were up a certain creek without a paddle. So we closed our dusty school-prize tomes, switched off our i-pads and kindles, and slunk off into the night.