Friday, July 8, 2011

Tom, Huck, and Twain (Un-Shirted)

Before this year, I had never finished a novel by Mark Twain. Don't get me wrong: I had tried before--at least six or seven times in the last decade--but I could never get to that last page. The closest I ever came was with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I read about two-thirds of it, just enough to pass a quiz, and tossed it aside. Eventually, I sold my copy of it back to the university bookstore. Probably for two bucks and some change.

In a few weeks, though, my family and I will be visiting Hannibal, Missouri on our way to Branson, and I want to go there with at least some Twain titles in my quiver. I mean, I don't want to tell some pink-haired docent that I've never taken the time to read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. That would be embarrassing. Like trying to talk football without knowing what a first down is.

So, I've been reading Twain--or, more accurately, listening to recordings of Twain's books. Two weeks ago I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I'm about halfway through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sam Clemens willing, I'll be able to get my hands on a recording of Twain's recently released autobiography before hitting the road.

Of course, what has surprised me most about Twain is how entertaining his books are when you hear them read aloud. Admittedly, this should not have surprised me. Twain is, after all, known for being a regular nineteenth-century maroon. But, one of the things that has always bothered me about his writing are those endless, seemingly irrelevant tangents.

They wear a reader out.

Listening to them on CD, though, has been a whole new experience. Part of it, I'm sure, can be blamed on the A+ performance of the actor reading the book. But I'd also like to think that part of it is Twain himself. The guy was a genius for comedy, and I'm beginning to see his tangents--especially those in Huckleberry Finn--are instances where he's really flexing his comedic muscles.

But the tangents aren't the only aspect of his novels that I'm finding entertaining. I also like how he presents childhood in a grandly Romanticized way. Just the way I remember it. When Tom Sawyer gets into a fight with a new boy in town, for example, Twain tosses realism aside and casts it as the incomparable life-or-death struggle all childhood scrapes are in the minds of young combatants:
In an instant both boys were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other's hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory.
Of course, the literary critic in me wants to say that passages like this one are just Twain's way of poking fun at Walter Scott and the popular melodramatic novels of his day. But the part of me that still remembers childhood wants to pat Twain on the back and tell him he got it all right.

So far, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is shaping up to be just as good, if not better, than Tom Sawyer. Of course, it's hard to compare the two books since they differ so much in style, tone, and content. By far, Huckleberry Finn is the most interesting character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Twain did well to write Huckleberry Finn in the first person. For one, it gives us the unfiltered musings of Huck, who lacks his friend's Romanticism. Huck sees and feels things with a clearer eye and deeper emotions than Tom. Notice, for instance, the maelstrom of feelings that come to him as he witnesses the tragic end of the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud:

All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns--the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river--both of them hurt--and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell ALL that happened--it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them--lots of times I dream about them.
I stayed in the tree till it begun to get dark, afraid to come down. Sometimes I heard guns away off in the woods; and twice I seen little gangs of men gallop past the log store with guns; so I reckoned the trouble was still a-going on. I was mighty downhearted; so I made up my mind I wouldn't ever go anear that house again, because I reckoned I was to blame, somehow. I judged that that piece of paper meant that Miss Sophia was to meet Harney somewheres at half-past two and run off; and I judged I ought to told her father about that paper and the curious way she acted, and then maybe he would a locked her up, and this awful mess wouldn't ever happened.
When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.
That's heavy stuff. In these three paragraphs, Huck experiences disgust, regret, fear, guilt, sadness, and gratitude. It's a emotional gamut that Twain executes in an entirely believable way, totally devoid of the tongue-in-cheek emotionalism of Tom Sawyer. And it's part of why Huckleberry Finn is so good.

So, like I said, I'm hoping that readings these books will make it so I don't come across as a total newb in front of the pink-haired docents in Hannibal.  Not that I care that much about what museum docents think about me. I just don't want to be one of those tourists who shows up thinking Mark Twain was a country singer or Colonel Sanders' older brother.

And if I do end up sounding like a newb, I'll just toss my pretensions aside and ask them what the heck the deal is with Twain's shirtless picture. I mean, seriously, it's not like they had Facebook back then.

1 comment:

  1. .

    Maybe you should read a bunch of the shorter pieces. They you can drop bon mots about little things mere tourists never bother with.