In this edition of his biweekly literature column, author Lee Miller examines the true American dream through the lens of Huck Finn, Mark Twain and Hurricane Irene.
In 1865, Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) was hired by the Sacramento Union newspaper to report on a newly opened passenger boat service between San Francisco and Honolulu. Twain used a fictitious character, Mr. Brown, to present conversations, attitudes, information, inelegant ideas and sometimes foul language to relate the overall experience of the passage. This “deadpan lecture” technique was very effective and funny. It allowed the author a great deal of flexibility in reporting (sometimes well into the realm of tall tale), since Twain was merely repeating the information provided by Mr. Brown. In addition, it created a tone of optimism, adventurousness, freedom and natural heart that helped to define American literature.
Twain masterfully uses this same tone and “deadpan lecture” technique in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A boy named Huck tells the tale of escape from adult society. Huck runs away from Miss Watson (a philanthropist who tries to civilize him) and his drunkard father Pap (who tries to beat civility out of him), leaving St. Petersburg, Mo. down the Mississippi River. Miss Watson’s slave Jim joins Huck—an illegal flight joining a legal one, and Twain’s first poke at racial hypocrisy in the story.
Jim and Huck develop a genuine friendship on the raft, encountering many dangers and adventures along the way: the storm on Jackson Island; the looting of a house that floats down the Mississippi; Huck’s scouting a local town while disguised as a girl; an intense feud between two wealthy families, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons; and finally the “Royal Nonesuch” of two confidence men named the King and the Duke. The King’s final scam is to “sell out” Jim for $40 to the plantation of Silas and Sally Phelps, who turn out to be Huck’s relatives. Jim is set free because Miss Watson has died and granted Jim’s freedom in her will.
Ernest Hemingway declared that all American literature begins with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With regard to tone, Hemingway may be correct. What makes the story a classic, maybe the classic of American literature, is a raw tone: optimism, adventure, humor, fearlessness, creativity, freedom, friendship and a genuine heart. The reader believes that Huck and Jim will make out all right in the end. Some have called this the “American spirit,” where a sound heart overwhelms an “ill trained conscious.” This raw optimism in the face of danger is repeated again and again in contemporary movies, and may be a reason for the Harry Potter series’ stunning popularity in America.
Yet, has this “American spirit” been reduced to a sphere of entertainment while lost in real, day-to-day life? The 2008 election of Barack Obama seemed to momentarily rekindle this optimism—only before it was once again quickly overwhelmed. The spirit of contemporary American media is increasingly counter to Huck Finn’s mid-1800s attitude. Pessimism, fear, seriousness, individual isolation and hints of Armageddon have appeared to wear down the contemporary American spirit. The tone of any nightly news broadcast directly opposes that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The passage of Hurricane Irene along the East Coast of America highlights this negative attitude. The storm began with predictions of doom, overstatement, exaggerations and fear-mongering. After the storm, when places like upstate New York and rural Vermont did experience significant unexpected damage, the heightened fear faded into a sideline fight over federal appropriations. The real challenges of rebuilding, requiring optimism and community, seem left behind.
On a smaller scale, can a dearth of American spirit be seen in Santa Fe? A gorgeous Saturday afternoon passes with zero kids playing in a local park. Why is no one there? Fear? Over-scheduling? Disinterest? Virtual communities overtaking real friends? If it were the 1800s or even twenty years ago, there might be a girl or boy in that tree house/slide with some friends, pretending he or she was holding stolen treasure in a hideout…the treasure of the American spirit.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s challenges and adventures in 20th century India.