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B A R R Y A. M A R K S University of Rhode Island The HuckFinn Swindle Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, I believe, essentially the work of a humorist. The tall tale provides both its structure and its theme. To understand Mark Twain’s masterwork in this light will, I think, produce insight into both the novel itself and the reason why generations of readers, including professional literary critics, have puzzled over its form and meaning. The tradition of Southwestern humor in general and the tall tale in particular represent inherently problematical genres, difficult — and, in some degree, impossible — to control. The fundamental nature of the tall tale, the manner of its telling, and the relationships among the teller of the tall tale, the tale itself, and the audience dictate uncer­ tainty. The esthetic rewards of a good tall tale, effectively told to a ready audience, are considerable; audience reaction can range, however, from soul-purifying laughter through nervous uncertainty to misplaced serious­ ness and even anger. Before turning to Huckleberry Finn, it will be helpful to explore the problems and the potential of Mark Twain’s humor in general. It is appropriate to begin with some evidence of the problems his audi­ ences had. In 1869 the Boston Daily Advertiser commented on Mark Twain’s Sandwich Islands lecture. “The audience gets into a queer state after a while,” the paper noted. “It knows not what to trust: for while much is meant to be seriously taken, the fun is felt to be the real life of the 116 Western American Literature thing; and yet they never know where the fun will come in.” Bostonians were by no means unique in not knowing how to respond to Mark Twain. Mark Twain himself was often unsure. Nothing is more instructive about the shape of Mark Twain’s mind and the hazards of his art than the still perplexing incident of the Whit­ tier birthday dinner. Accounts of the dinner differ.1 But Mark Twain’s own accounts of it differ: he changed his mind several times about his burlesque of Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow. In 1906 alone, twentynine years after the dinner, he recorded three different opinions. After re-reading the speech, he decided that “it hasn’t a single defect in it from the first word to the last.” Shortly thereafter, dictating his Auto­ biography, he said he had read the speech a few more times and had changed his mind: “I didn’t like any part of it, from the beginning to the end. I found it always offensive and detestable. . . . I expect this latest verdict to remain.” But when he read the typescript of this pass­ age, he wrote on it: “It did remain — until day before yesterday; then I gave it a final and vigorous reading — aloud — and dropped straight back to my former admiration of it. M.T.” In his essays, “The Petrified Man” and “My Bloody Massacre” (iSketches Old and New) Mark Twain actually claimed a perverse credit for two tall tales because readers did not recognize their humor. The petrified man story was intended, he said, to put an end to a mania for discovering extraordinary petrifactions which swept Nevada and California in 1862. I chose to kill the petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very deli­ cate satire. But maybe it was altogether too delicate, for nobody ever perceived the satire part of it at all. . . . From beginning to end the ‘Petrified Man’ squib was a string of roaring absurdities, albeit they were told with an unfair pretense of truth that even imposed upon me to some extent, and I was in some danger of believing in my own fraud. But I really had no desire to deceive anybody, and no expectation of doing it. I depended on the way the petrified man was sitting to explain to the public that he was a swindle. Yet I purposely mixed that up with other things, hop­ ing to make it obscure — and I did. Mark Twain’s petrified man was holding his hands to his nose in an insulting salute, but the sincere tone of the tale tended to obscure this 1See...


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