I am ashamed to admit that until this past week, I had never read any Mark Twain. How does a person enter their 6th decade of life, born and raised in the United States, and not have read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? I have no explanations or excuses, but I thank Badkittyuno, who drew my name in the holiday book exchange, for guarding my shameful confession and sending both books to me.
In some respects the two classic novels are like a lot of contemporary YA fiction: they feature orphaned children who seek adventure, break rules, bravely face hardship, and remain loyal to their friends. Adults in these stories are often brutish and violent. But Tom and Huck are quintessentially American heroes or anti-heroes if you prefer. They don’t pine over the past and their parents, and their moral code is somewhat malleable. They are not crusaders, a la Harry Potter, but rather individuals looking out for themselves and occasionally letting their consciences guide them toward doing the right thing for someone else. What they lack in “book smarts,” they make up in “street smarts.” I can imagine boys like this growing up to be great statesmen or successful hucksters. Either way, making it on your own is part of the “American way” that they represent.
Tom and Huck’s home lives seem to feed into their desires to break free and live independently. Huck prefers to steer clear of his alcoholic and abusive father and live the life of a homeless wanderer. Tom’s Aunt Polly can be tough, although Tom generally cares for her and she for him. But neither boy likes to be told what to do or be given responsibilities. They have no use for polite society and its constraints. Tom and Huck are “all boy” in a very traditional sense of the expression. They play hooky, go fishing, and engage in a lot of pretend play featuring pirates and robbers. They live in a world where the approach to parenting might best be described as laissez faire (no “hover parents” here), and while aspects of this world are quite bucolic, Twain also shows the darkness and violence that goes right alongside it. On one hand, you have antics in church and the schoolyard, on the other you have boys witnessing murder and trying to help a runaway slave in the Antebellum South. One of the admirable qualities in both boys is that they always have a plan. Tom and Huck don’t panic in the worst of times. They know how to handle themselves, whether they’re lost in a cave or on a raft on the Mississippi during a storm.
Tom and Huck’s distrust of authority, their ability to work out solutions to their own problems, and their unique morality are themes that run through both stories. When they witness a murder in the graveyard, they tell no one, guided by a fear of retaliation and a desire to enrich themselves with the information they’ve gathered. When Huck and Jim hook up with the “king” and the “duke,” whom they’ve saved from a tar and feathering, Huck has no problem with their hucksterism; he has a problem when he thinks the Wilks sisters, who have been so kind to Huck, are going to be harmed by them. Neither Huck nor Tom seems to have a problem with slavery or returning runaway slaves; but Huck feels moral qualms about turning in Jim, who has treated him as a friend and trusted him. Given that Tom and Huck are just boys, the lack of a strict and true moral compass is understandable and sometimes humorous. Still, reading this today, one can’t help but think of modern examples of that moral ambiguity. (I think of the politicians who opposed gay rights until their own kid came out, or people who claim to be deeply religious but behave so hatefully toward people of color or the LGBTQ community.)
After reading Twain, I can see the impact he has had on American writing and humor. Writer/performers such as Garrison Keillor and Tina Fey seem to be descendants of Twain. Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson could have been a Twain creation (although it is interesting to note that actor Nick Offerman names Laura Ingalls Wilder but not Mark Twain as a personal influence.) Twain is an expert yarn-spinner, combining wit, humor, and social commentary into some ripping tales. And the fact that they can still engender political and social debate just goes to show that their “classic” status is well earned.