The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Twain on the Brain, the Sequel

January 16, 2008
Washington, DC

All the best books are sequels. Think about it. The Odyssey? Sequel. Ulysses? Sequel. Huck Finn? Sequel. In that spirit, I hereby present a sequel to my earlier Twain columns, this one about Tom and Huck and their roles in their own -- and each other's -- books.

It ought to be a fruitful topic, because Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn -- both the characters and their namesake books -- represent two sides of the same raft. Tom is topside, sunny, always flirting with the rapids but still hugging the shore of childhood and civilized life. Huck, meanwhile, stands for the underside, the deep, dark, wet, turbulent, rushing confusion of adulthood and moral awakening. Each, naturally, reflects half of the raft of contradictions that was Mark Twain himself.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


Nowhere is this contrast plainer than in three episodes that occur, with significant differences, in both books. First, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and then in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, each hero gets to live out every morbid, underappreciated kid's greatest fantasy: to spy on his own funeral and hear how sorry everybody is, and then to come back from the dead to a hero's welcome.

Tom merely lucks into his version of this perennial childhood fantasy, while Huck characteristically takes matters into his own hands. Inadvertently presumed dead, Tom sneaks back into town and has the archetypally delicious experience of secretly watching family, friends and sweetheart all cry their eyes out for him. Huck, on the other hand, deliberately fakes his own death to escape his father, who soon afterward -- in a terrifying scene, even for readers who don't know that Twain's brother died in similar circumstances -- turns up dead aboard "a steamboat that had killed herself on a rock."

To paraphrase Ian Fleming: Once is happenstance, but twice is enemy action. For Twain to use this scenario twice attests to the spell it always held over him. That he could use it to create two such different moods -- the one robustly comic, the other "powerful lonesome" -- only confirms his incomparable gift.

The second element both books share is the scenes Tom and Huck have together. Although Huck is the more mature character, Tom usually takes the dominant role in these encounters. An incorrigible know-it-all, utterly without self-doubt, Tom is forever forcing Huck into whatever scenario he's borrowed from superstition, or from some pirate story he's read. Huck plays along, much as Twain played along with his patient wife's never permanently successful attempts to force him into quitting smoking, drinking, swearing, or writing his more sacrilegious books. Interestingly, by the end of their close yet tragedy-shadowed marriage, it was Livy who was losing her faith in divine providence.

The last thing both books have in common is their endings. Without spoiling either conclusion for readers lucky enough to have those surprises still in store, one can say that each book ends with the undomesticated Huck reluctantly agreeing to give Tom's town life one more try. In a line eerily reminiscent of Twain's marriage, Huck says on the last page of Tom Sawyer that "If [the Widow Douglas will] let up on some of the rougher things, I'll smoke private and cuss private, and crowd through or bust."

The notoriously maddening ending of Huck Finn turns out the same way. Huck improbably winds up back home with his friend the runaway slave Jim, and the townsfolk will get yet another chance to housebreak Huck.

One mark of a great book is that even its flaws strike us as heroic and brimful of significance. Huck is the classic example. Twain can fudge the geography all he wants with Huck and Jim getting lost in a fog, but there's something's fundamentally haywire with a slave narrative in which the Underground Railroad rolls straight into the heart of the Confederacy.

Yet look closer at the problem and see if it isn't a flaw common to every imperfect life. Huck and Jim have gone wrong after the fork, they've overshot something crucial, they've lost their way and don't know how to get back. Who among us hasn't felt the same? Twain certainly did. He published his best book at 50 but lived to 75, and he never got his swing back as a novelist after Huck.

Huck and Jim's journey is an endlessly renewable metaphor, so large and versatile that even its principal flaw echoes in the lives of its creator and his countrymen. Tom Sawyer, meanwhile -- too mischievous for his teachers and aunt, but a model boy compared with Huck -- embodies Twain's, and America's, quintessential tension between the wilderness of the frontier and the coziness of the parlor. Twain saw as clearly as anybody since that we're all on this raft together, afloat between oceans, crewed by oarsmen of more than one color, tippy but not aground, not yet.