Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is not only Twain's best work, but is considered by some, one of the greatest novels ever written. Episodic in form (as Twain warns, "persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot"), Huckleberry Finn is clearly, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, one of the three most ambitious and artistically successful novels of America's 19th century.
But what is it about Huckleberry Finn that makes it stand out? Most young people reading it will declare that they thought Tom Sawyer was better, and for them, they would be right. It is a difficult novel to teach. The dialect is actually difficult for some inexperienced readers. The satire and ironies are often lost on some readers, and some minorities are offended by what they think is its racist tone. That, however, is an historical irony if ever there was one. Twain's intent was to belittle and make fun of the racist attitudes of most Americans. The very fact that Jim and Huck were able to achieve a fast friendship and to negotiate together the epic journey down the Mississippi with Jim often showing superior wisdom and a right smart common sense did not sit well with some prejudicial mind sets. Today what offends is the language, in particular the use of the "n" word.
But what makes Huckleberry Finn a great novel is first and foremost the indelible character of the often self-effacing Huck Finn himself and his compelling, lyrical, and ever so beautifully observed narrative. There is only one other novel in American literature that can be considered in the same league as far as first person narratives go, and that is Nabokov's Lolita. Strange to say Humbert Humbert and Huck Finn have one thing in common, an uncommon ability to make their differing worlds extraordinarily vivid through painstakingly clever and absolutely authentic voices. Both Twain and Nabokov achieved this rare veracity because of their command of language, their sense of character, and their fine ear for the nuances of speech.
Sense of character is also what makes Huckleberry Finn a great novel. The characters are so real they practically jump off the page. Even the minor characters are Shakespearean in their psychological verity. It is not exactly a co-incidence that the Duke of "Bilgewater" and the "King of France," those ornery rascals rescued by Huck and Jim, were experts in ersatz Shakespeare and various dodges. Twain knew people, and he knew them well. Too well, one might say, considering his low opinion of humankind.
The effective--even rhapsodic--use of dialect is another thing that makes Huckleberry Finn a great novel. Writing a novel in dialect is a difficult thing to do well. Many have tried it and many have failed. Most writers are well advised to limit their use of dialect to the speech of their characters. But Twain was a master of dialect of many sorts, and was able to have Huck Finn narrate the entire novel in his voice while at the same time employ the various dialects of the other characters. Nabokov--although I don't think he ever acknowledged this--was undoubtedly influenced by Twain's authentic use of dialect; but because his narrator was a transplanted European professor of literature, he had to narrate in standard English; indeed a most eloquent standard English. Yet, one notices that Nabokov through Humbert took some delight in reproducing Lolita's authentic speech, her mid-twentieth century, New England, urban teenaged dialect.
Finally, what makes Huckleberry Finn a great novel is its humor. Twain was a master of all sorts of humor. (He was a great public speaker and story teller.) The language of the novel itself is replete with "malapropisms, puns, misquotations, understatement, exaggeration, incongruities, illiteracies, and absurd spellings," to quote from Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, p. 259--most done for comedic effect. Additionally, the yarns themselves, the "stretchers," as Huck has it, are wondrous funny, and Huck's commonsensical take on life often contrasted humorously with what he actually saw and experienced.
Here's one of my favorite passages from the book to illustrate the master's humorous style. The ragged "King" is about to divulge "the secret of" his "being" to the supposed Duke of Bridgewater and to Huck and Jim. He says, doing the "Duke" one better:
"Bilgewater, I am the late Dauphin!"
Huck writes, "You bet you Jim and me stared, this time. Then the duke says:
'You are what?'
'Yes, my friend, it is too true--your eyes is lookin' at this very moment on the pore disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette.'
'You! At your age? No! You mean you're the late Charlemagne; you must be six or seven hundred years old, at the very least.'
'Trouble has done it, Bilgewater, trouble has done it; trouble has brung these gray hairs and this premature balditude. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin', exiled, trampled-on and sufferin' rightful King of France.'"
It is the sheer density of Twain's artistry that most impresses me. I wish I had room to quote the rest of the page as Huck goes on to describe how they "majestying" him so that it "done him heaps of good." There is so much on practically every page. I know of no other writer except Shakespeare who can reveal so much in so few words, and who could use words so creatively.
This is a great novel and anyone who cares about American literature has read it or will.