There are innumerable editions of classic works of literature available, and it would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to offer a “review” of something like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is, after all, somewhat beyond my likes or dislikes. The inclusion of this great American novel in Barnes & Noble’s series of classics, however, is worthy of comment.
The series is attractively designed, with introductions and notes by scholars who may not be specialists on the author concerned, but often do bring fresh insights to the works themselves. In the case of Huckleberry Finn, the author of the introduction and notes is Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia University (and a noted expert on jazz, as well).
O’Meally’s critical stance is strongly informed by his being an African American whose formative years were the 1960s. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that he concentrates on the racial context of the relationship between Jim and Huck, with the expected emphasis on the use of the “n” word in the novel. He also brings to bear his knowledge of jazz and blues, and makes an intriguing if not completely compelling case for Twain’s masterpiece being cast as a kind of “proto-blues,” foreshadowing, experiencing, and sometimes reveling in “troubles.” All in all, the introduction is intelligent, thought provoking and sometimes lyrical in a discussion that reflects the underlying poetry of Twain’s work.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been controversial since its publication; most recently, it has been one of the victims of attempts to sanitize literature lest the minds of our children be sullied by anything that might provoke real thought. From the standpoint of the racially sensitized beginnings of the 21st century, I think we need to go beyond that particular aspect of the book (although this is not to deny that race is an essential part of the story). Frankly, I see it as being a picaresque odyssey, a journey down the Mississippi through America then that has a lot to say about America now. The story meant one thing to readers when published in 1885. It meant something slightly different during the 1960s and 1970s. I think it means something else again to us now – that, after all, is what makes a work of art great: it reflects the times in which its audience lives while maintaining a core meaning of its own, but this core meaning can be elusive because it seldom lends itself to clear explication. I don’t think race is the core meaning of Huck Finn, although it has been the hot button on this particular book. I think race is the path that Twain used to lead us into the quandary of understanding morality and the decisions a moral position requires in the face of a world that is all too willing to accept pat answers (preferably received from someone else) rather than face making those choices. This is what gives the story its tragic dimension as well as providing the bite in its satire. (On taking another look at the “Comments and Questions” at the end of the book, I discovered that this opinion was shared by none other than the Atlanta Constitution in a review at the time the book was published.)
That said, I am impelled to point out something that O’Meally does not discuss, having perhaps encountered too many trees in his search for the forest: Twain’s book is intoxicatingly rich, in language, in experience, in context. It is much more than a study of race: it is a mordantly funny portrayal of life in America before the Civil War, full of bitter, bitter satire, as told by Huck, whom I must take as almost completely amoral and at the same time one of nature’s innocents (and perhaps that is not such a disparate pairing after all). It is both wide-eyed and knowing in its rendering of humanity’s propensity to believe and those who would take advantage of it. (Another reflection of America now.) It is deservedly considered a classic.
Some final comments on the Barnes & Noble Classics: In addition to the introductions and endnotes, each volume contains a short biography of the author, a section on “The World of” relating significant events of the time, “Comments and Questions” with sources ranging from contemporaneous reviews to letters by the author and questions “for further discussion,” a section of further readings, and discussions of other works, such as films, inspired by the book. The text also includes footnotes defining and explaining terms used in the text that may not be familiar to modern readers. I found these last highly distracting, and would have much preferred a glossary at the end rather than the constant interruption of explanations that I can build from context anyway, if it should happen that I don’t know the word. And titles range through the entire realm of world literature, from Twain to Swift to Dostoevsky.
(Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)