Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The Great American Novel
It doesn’t exactly fit Seekerville but it sort of does so I’m doing it anyway.
The man--whose name escapes me, but a brainy guy, like a college professor--said that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a turning point in American literature. I’ve heard Huckleberry Finn referred to in glowing terms before--even as the Great American Novel. And of course I’ve heard of it being banned from libraries and schools for it’s constant use of a word that we’ll just call “The N Word.”
I get the discomfort with The N Word but, though I read it once as an adult and enjoyed it, I’ve never really gotten why it was so great.
In this speech (I’m adding my own impressions so I’m not REALLY stealing his speech) he made me realize that Huckleberry Finn is more than simply a young man's wild adventures.
Huckleberry Finn and Jim, a runaway slave in 1840 America, set off on a raft ride down the Mississippi. The story, on it's surface, is a series of adventures as they float downstream. It becomes serious when they miss a turnoff on the river that will lead Jim to free state Ohio and realize they’ve floated into the south and Jim, being black, is now in a slave state and in grave danger. Interesting and fun and Twain uses it to illustrate his love for the Mississippi. Right?
It's a good book.
I liked Tom Sawyer better mainly because the slangy dialects in Huck Finn made it really hard to read.
But in this man’s speech, he talks about a moment that he believes defines the beginning of the truly American novel. Huck knows that by all the laws and standards of right and wrong, helping Jim escape is a sin. Huck writes a letter confessing that he has helped Jim escape and telling where Jim is. This is the right and honest thing to do. Huck thinks it all through. If he sends this letter he becomes a new and honest boy, a good boy. It’s the Christian thing to do and if Huck wants to get into heaven he’s got to start living a Christian life.
This moment, when Huck tosses that letter away and decides to go to hell rather that do something that is wrong in his own conscience, is a turning point in American literature.
It is the first time an author fully captures what it means to be an American. To make his own choices. To live by his own morality. To be free.
Up until then most American literature had been morality plays. Novels like Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.
The man who was speaking referred to Huckleberry Finn as the first book that tore itself free of the Puritan roots that drove most fiction. The first book that went west, then turned and looked back to the east and came from an American viewpoint. Huck’s decision was a powerful statement of a man’s right to live by his own standards of right and wrong.
But it also demanded that man have standards. It doesn’t say to abandon a moral code, but rather to embrace a moral code--then be faithful to it, even in defiance of the law when the law is corrupt.
A quote from Mark Twain about Huckleberry Finn. "A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience." Twain goes on to describe the novel as "...a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”
We all struggle with this as we write Christian fiction. As Christians we are often called to a higher law than the law of the land. Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” To me that is an admonition to obey the law of the land. But as we write our books we try to rise to the level of Christian right and wrong, which is higher than the laws of the state.
If you’ve got a different view of Huck Finn, tell me about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And if books have touched you in a profound way—deeper than just entertainment—tell me about that, too.
Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a signed copy of a slighly less renowned American novel....Deep Trouble.