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Twain's Finest Works,
This review is from: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Wordsworth Classics) (Paperback)
Tom Sawyer (TS) of course is the idealised half of the story, recounting glorious days, and childhood escapades : oozing innocence and nostalgia from every sentence. There is an undeniable charm and sweetness to this perfect world, where good always triumphs, and where each chapter is as benign as the stuff you might find in Tom's pocket: "a piece of blue bottle glass to look through... a fragment of chalk... four pieces of orange peel..."
From witnessing murder, to being stuck in caves, the reader never suspects a bad ending for anyone but the baddies themselves. Tom is always utterly safe. I suspect that's why we readers love TS, because it takes us to the idyllic childhood we all wish we'd had, but that can never truly have existed... envisioned as it is in a vacuum, free from danger, free from conscience.
Writing Huckleberry Finn (HF) a few years later, the author was unwilling to repeat this feat. Although there is humour and boyish-shenanigans aplenty, Twain was no longer able to ignore the racism in America at that time, nor indeed "whitewash" slavery from this work as he had TS. Twain uses his "sequel" to focus on the escaped slave Jim, and his search for freedom, recalled through the eyes, and more importantly, the rhythmic vernacular of Huck.
Many scholars now read HF as a satire of American attitudes at the time; the farcical treatment of Jim towards the end of the novel is seen as a parallel to the continued gross injustices suffered by the black population after the abolition of slavery. It is Jim's kindness and compassion that shines through, whilst Huck struggles throughout with his own (and society's) views towards slavery in the light of the reality of Jim. Opponents cite the use of the "n" word, and humour at Jim's expense, as being proof that Twain did nothing more than repeat and condone stereotypes of the time, but this seems the knee-jerk response of a rather cursory reading. Regardless, there's no doubt that Twain felt guilt on behalf of his nation: it's a fact that he paid the tuition fees for one of the first black students to study Law at Yale, writing: "We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours...".
I appreciate this is a rather serious review for a book often cited as being for children, but I think the absence/presence of race and slavery are vital to a deeper understanding of the works. I do recommend buying an edition that includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: reading only one of these novels would do them both, and the author, an injustice.