The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those books which has a host of satellites orbiting the work. These are people’s expectations, memories of reading the book in school or seeing a movie. Like standing next to Starry Night in the MOMA, reading the original is both astonishing and underwhelming at the same time.
Huck Finn is underwhelming in this aspect: Twain relays on the same plot devices to get things moving as he did in Tom Sawyer. Mistaken identity, faked murders, childhood pranks that seem to never end, and regional stereotyping. The book runs long in certain sections, dragging along, losing the thread of the plot.
But then there is the astonishing Huck Finn. When Twain explains Huck’s interactions with his father, we realize this is an abused, neglected boy. The comic aspect of the character turns a touch sadder, with our more modern sensibilities of such things.
The very long appearance of Tom Sawyer and his help in trying to free Jim, the escaped slave, becomes an accidental moment of pathos. Here is a man’s freedom on the line, and it is entrusted to a boy with an overactive imagination and nothing to lose.
With its strengths and weaknesses The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will always loom large in American fiction. It capture a time, a place, a style of language and takes this local manifestation and makes it uniquely national. Few novels can claim such a feat.