Sunday, June 28, 2015

Huckleberry Finn

You were driven to Huckleberry Finn because you'd just come from reading  "a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that was made by Mr. Mark Twain."  

There you were, a scant ten years old, short, owl-eyed, a burgeoning reader, your biggest adventure to that time being driven in a raspy old Buick from your place of birth in Los Angeles to the hometown of your parents on the other side of the continent by a cranky man named Earl and his wife, Hazel, who sang off-key love songs.

To date, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been your conveyance out of the mundane your age dictated,  into vast, rolling rivers, hidden islands, secret caches, and the unfettered adventures of boys your age, compliant on the surface, like you, but accomplices to romanticism on the inside.

Huckleberry Finn grabbed you from the first line, so much so that you could go no farther in your reading that day.  Instead, you mulled that first sentence and its magnificent voice, again and again.  You were given over to reading, but you'd never, not even in Robert Louis Stevenson, come across a narrative voice like that.  

Never mind that you did not at the time know what narrative voice was, mind instead that the next day, you approached your teacher at Public School Number Ten to ask her, showing your copy of Huck, if writers such as Mr. Mark Twain were able to make a living from writing such things.

Your good luck was her response.  "Few writers have Mr. Twain's ability.  A writer would have to know many of the things he knows about telling stories."

Often, even at that age, your curiosity pushed you over the boundaries of polite deference to adults.  "Such as?"  you said.

And here, Mrs. DeAngelo burned her words and presence into your memory.  "Mr. Twain,"  she said, "Makes telling stories seem easier than it really is."  She spoke in the nasal, don't-give-a-damn about the final consonants on words so common to Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Over the years, you've learned much from Huck and Mrs. DeAngelo's advice, beginning with the realities of regional dialects.  You, California born and raised, spoke in an inflectionless range, emphasizing first words of sentences, then pausing at the end, translating the period as a half or full stop.

Huck Finn got you right into a colloquial, conversational tone, as though Huck were confiding directly to you, not merely relating a series of events.  The more times you read him, the more you realized how much you knew about how he felt.  With each successive reading, you became aware how far ahead of the narrative stream Mr Twain had been, back there in the 1880s, how close you felt to all concerned, how you'd become an eavesdropper at all the goings-on in the narrative.

You had no way of realizing it during those early readings, but you were teaching yourself to read beyond the story, wanting, and getting more out of the narrative from the way characters behaved to one another.

And that narrative voice Huck has.  The closest thing you'd come to it was Charles Dickens' venture into first-person narrative, Great Expectations. 

Somewhere into your college career, you made connection connection with Ernest Hemingway's observation, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."   Ever since you heard that assessment, you returned with some regularity to Huck, looking for such elements as theme, narrative, dialogue, and the motivation of characters.

Huck also intrigued you because of its format, which is driven by Huck's joining with the runaway slave, Jim, his growing friendship with him, and the cultural guilt Huck felt at helping Jim remain at large.

At one point, your reading of Huck prompted you to read Twain's magisterial Life on the Mississippi, which led you to see how Huck's efforts to get away from his abusive father had a thematic parallel to a Twain's own time on the River.  You also came to regard the famed feud between the Grangefords and Shephersons as one more vital theme, yet another significant influence on Huck, who was by no means the same person, at the end, taking off for the Territory ahead.  Could this feud, you wondered early on, have any inferential reference to what was called in your part of the country, the Civil War, and in other parts where you lived the War of Northern Aggression?

The more you read Huck over the years, the more you saw significant and important differences between him and Tom Sawyer.  For some time after reading Tom's adventures, he was your default role model; you wanted to be like him, were in your fantasy world, quite like him, the only thing missing in your fantasy an outlier friend such as Huck.

With each successive reading, you were more drawn to Huck than Tom.  You wished to be him, rather than Tom.  Then, a curious and wonderful thing happened.  Kipling Hagopian, a film producer and director friend of your dear chum, Barnaby Conrad, asked you to read a film script he was developing, in which Tom and Huck met in later years, when each was in his late thirties.

This pushed you over the edge to onward favoring and admiring Huck.  The fact of Mr. Twain bringing Tom into the later chapters of Huckleberry Finn was, in your belief, a tragic mistake, taking the edge off this grand picaresque romp, turning it into a needless teasing and bating of the runaway slave, Jim.

To learn so much from one novel has been the kind of education you needed when you began your own journey, down the river of narrative.

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