“Many times I was sorry I didn’t succeed…”

If I had the money and the time I would put a certain quote from Mark Twain on a motivational poster. Well actually, maybe I should take the $13.62 I just won in the Idaho state lottery* and print up about a million of these little babies:moose

Yeah, I know–what’s so motivational about a big, dumb moose? Well, frankly, nothing, I just needed a cheesy nature photo to insert into the poster. And I think I can state quite confidently that there is nothing in nature cheesier (or more motivational) than the moose.

Look at that quote. Doesn’t it seem like something a sports hero or a business titan might say?

But with Mark Twain, it’s never what you think it is, and the genius of his work is all about context. He actually made this statement in reference to his well-documented suicide attempt in San Francisco, before he got rich and famous. Inspirational? Well, he still has “hope” for future attempts…I guess.

The thing about Mark Twain is that he’s always talking about something and its “opposite” at the same time. This has something to do with the fact that he’s a humorist. His writing isn’t just full of irony–irony is the point of his writing. His stories try to communicate a certain way of looking at the world that gives equal weight to various contrasting ideas at the same time. If he’s being tragic, the contrast might make you cry. If he’s trying to be funny, the incongruity (the “disconnect”) of those ideas might make you laugh.

But Huckleberry Finndoesn’t exactly fit this pattern. A thoughtful reader of this book will find themselves laughing, then crying because of the deeply tragic thing they’re laughing about, then laughing again at the absurdity of it all. Personally, I don’t really think it’s all that funny. I mean, it has its moments, but I think the book itself is written out of Clemens’ profound sense of lost innocence and, well, guilt. Clemens was a man who could blame himself for anything, and when he writes about Huck in the semi-autobiographical mode you get the sense that he’s confessing his own lifelong sins of ignorance and racism. And he’s not confessing to remove the guilt, but rather to admit continuing guilt and shine a light on the on-going problems for which he (and his society) were responsible. 

Something that always bothers me is the book jackets that always claim that Huck is one of literature’s most-beloved boy heroes. But in making that claim they acknowledge only a portion of what Twain was writing about. Huck is also a tragic victim, and sometimes even a malicious abuser of basic human dignity. He’s just a little kid, and he does childish things, but it’s still him that does it. What do the actions of a child mean? Who is to blame when they hurt others and themselves?

These are just some of the questions I’m grappling with these days as I try to understand this story, and also to justify using it as an assigned reading in our class. There are plenty of reasons not to read a book like this in school–I’ll consider some of them in my next post. But I’m struck every day with Twain’s honest and unflinching look at authentic human behavior.

There’s really no answer for why people do what they do; a human life doesn’t really meanany particular thing. No matter how goofy the setting and the bit players, stories about these deep questions are rarely ha-ha funny, but it feels worthwhile anyway. So I hope everyone is enjoying the story, but not too much. More on that tomorrow.

MT

* Fictionalized detail added for emphasis. Under no circumstances should any person play the Idaho state lottery. Or eat potatoes.

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