Huckleberry Finn Forever

THE WORKS OF MARK TWAIN: ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN Edited by Walter Blair and Victor Fisher, Berkeley: University of California Press, in cooperation with the University of Iowa, 875 pp. $65

THE American poet and novelist James Dickey once wrote that Huck Finn is not merely a good human being, he ``is profoundly good ... at times ... almost saintly.'' Why, then are people always trying to change him?

Tom Sawyer tries to change Huck, hoping to make Huck see spice caravans where there are only Sunday-school picnics. The Widow Douglas undertakes to ``sivilize'' him. Even the novel's first American illustrator, Edward Windsor Kemble, whose work appears in this edition (and on this page), tried to change Huck. Kemble took Twain's character, a bright, hardscrabble 14-year-old who occasionally lies, steals, smokes, swears, and skips school, and turned him into a slightly tart version of Beaver Cleaver. But the people who have most wanted to change Huck Finn are the readers of the novel.

Like John Steinbeck's ``Of Mice and Men'' (1937), the book that raised the most objections in the nation's school curricula during 1988, ``Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' (1885) contains offensive language. Written in mid-19th-century dialects, Twain's novel frequently employs a vulgar racial epithet, used as a form of address or as invective. Where early reviewers found the book to be ``a pitiable exhibition of irreverence ...,'' many contemporary readers object to its racial tags.

High school teachers who use the novel must walk a thin line between setting the book in the context of a regrettable passage in American history and apologizing for that history to the point that ``Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' becomes solely a novel about slavery.

I suspect that what has made the novel controversial since its publication is not its language but the puzzling personal character of Huck. Academics are overly fond of calling Huck pure of heart, a view that may have started with Twain, who saw his character as ``an exceedingly good-hearted boy.'' But to see Huck as good - profoundly good - from the start is to deny him the spiritual pain through which he achieves a measure of moral development.

Americans have loved not Huck, but the idea of Huck, pure and free on that raft, eating his meal of corn-dodgers and buttermilk: ``there warn't no home like a raft ... other places do seem so cramped and smothery.'' Unlike the rest of us, readers have mused, Huck does not have to accept authority - church, state, or parental. He is on permanent school vacation.

The Huck I know is not that unlucky.

Intent on finding his own way in the world, Huck is unaware of the degree to which the world has found its way into him. The novel is as much about Huck's unlearning as it is about learning. Huck's conscience, which, for one so pure-of-heart bears an uncanny resemblance to received ideas, grinds at him - with questionable results. He reckons he will ``die of miserableness'' if he participates in freeing a slave; his spirit balks at the first surges of affection he feels for Jim.

When, toward the end of the novel, Huck changes his mind and decides to help free Jim, he does so despite the threat of ``everlasting fire.'' ``All right, then,'' he says to himself, ``I'll go to hell.'' He's still on that raft, but there's nothing pure or free about it. It is a costly trip.

I have read ``Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' about a dozen times in as many years, trying to find out what happens to Huck at the end. This last time, the novel's language fairly danced (imagine a character ``contented as an angel half full of pie''), but the book's creaky finale was all too apparent. The circumstances of the reunion of Huck and Tom Sawyer seemed strained; the rescue of Jim struck me as more cruel than humorous. Ernest Hemingway suggested that one stop reading the novel at about this point. ``The rest is just cheating,'' he said.

A better idea, I think, is to read the last chapter first, to know, unlike Huck, where you're going. It is a brief, breathless summary in which Huck learns what has become of his fortune and his father. Dry-eyed throughout these revelations, Huck would rather think about Tom's heated vision of ``howling adventures'' out West. Huck's a kid again - and this is where I become confused.

Does Huck Finn carry any lessons with him, the residue of the cruelties and kindnesses he observed along the river? Is he in any sense the shriven boy who swore he'd go to hell to free a runaway slave? Or has Huck become a situationalist, mindful only of his present circumstances, basically those with which the novel opens? This time it's Tom's Aunt Sally who threatens to ``sivilize'' him. ``I can't stand it,'' Huck says. ``I been there before.'' Where, I still ask myself, has Huck Finn been before?

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