- One Hundred Years of "Huckleberry Finn": The Boy, His Book, and American Culture, and: Mark Twain: A Sumptuous Variety
As the Great American Novel that was the beginning of modern American literature enters its second century, we can be thankful that the old debate over its right to stand as a classic has remained buried. Several writers in these two collections point out that the book's inherent greatness is signified by its continuing resistance to the inanities of critics who would demand a comforting resolution of its exasperating ambivalence and the insanities of censors who somehow manage year after year to find it offensive where it isn't. (Why is it that the censors never seem to see the book's one truly dangerous effect? Huckleberry Finn teaches young people that authority is always opposed to truth, that everything they are being taught inside school and out is hazardous to their moral health.) Fortunate also is the failure of the literary doctors to find any way to cure Mark Twain of chronic black satire, a disease whose symptoms include violent outbursts of irrational humor, manic cynicism, and raging depression. Moreover, Huckleberry Finn sails on in spite of its own awesome leaks, split seams that would sink an ordinary novel.
The birthday was not the only excuse for a party here: the writers in these two collections honor the inexhaustibility of a great book. All the essays are valuable, and a few are even surprising. But the books are both quite expensive—if the scholar were to afford but one to put on the shelf with Louis Budd's recent Our Mark Twain, it would have to be One Hundred Years. The book is packed. Sattelmeyer and Crowley have also done us the favor of organizing the essays loosely into groups that "illustrate the enormous range and variety of problem and interest, of interpretation and analysis, that still, after so many years, attach to so many dimensions of the book and its life." The editors call these dimensions "worlds," and they mean both the worlds inside the novel and the worlds of the readers who have been changed by it. Huckleberry Finn didn't just make its mark—it left impact craters everywhere.
The first two sections of One Hundred Years contain essays on the novel's genesis, [End Page 255] its relation to Twain's other books, and its place in the context of his life and thought. These are useful investigations, and many of them provide the added pleasure of opening rather than closing questions. Louis Budd suggests we look at the photograph of the heliotype bust of Twain to understand this "American God of the comic gift," but the real result of doing that is still another jolt of exhilarating perplexity.
The essays in Sections Three and Four are devoted mostly to various contexts of the reception of Huckleberry Finn. We have seen it as a boy's book (not a bad place to start, considering that it supports any smart young person's vision of the fatal absurdity of grown-up "sivilization"), a compendium of American vernacular expression, a cornerstone of our classes in American Lit, a critique of all the traditions and institutions that constitute American society. Hamlin Hill talks about how we regard the book's humor today; Jan Gordon tells us about its reception in Japan, where his students saw Huck as they see themselves, "controlled at virtually every turn in the river by the authority of some text"; and Allison Ensor treats us to a survey of the rich variety of illustrations depicting Huck—pictures that of course show us more about the artists and their worlds than they do about Huck, whose image remains the one we formed upon first reading the amazing opening lines of his yarn. The last section contains some fresh close readings of the...