The often uncomfortable truths depicted in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” have made Mark Twain’s epic a favorite of generations of readers and literary luminaries, while the novel has also raised a variety of censorship hackles since its U.S. publication in 1885.
About 20 million copies have been sold to date, and 200,000 copies are still purchased every year by readers wanting to follow 14-year-old Huck’s adventures on the Mississippi River as he attempts to get runaway slave Jim to the free North. Huck is an illiterate, homeless, and profane free spirit whose self-developed view of the world has made him the favorite character of top writers from William Styron and Ernest Hemingway to William S. Burroughs.
Fortunately, Huck is also a favorite of Island author and writing coach John Hough Jr., who will talk about his favorite truant on Monday, June 25, at 7 pm at the West Tisbury library. The event, free and open to the public, is part of the ongoing “Islanders Read the Classics” program sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Islanders Write, and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association.
The Times talked with Hough about one of his all-time literary faves.
Why do you like “Huck Finn” so much?
There is no book more fun to read. The Huck Finn character is endearing and interesting, I think the most interesting in fiction. He is a wonderful blend of sophistication and naiveté. I have lost count of the times I’ve read it myself, starting around age 12, but I remember my father reading it aloud to us kids before that, so that’s an important part.
Second, it’s a wonderful story, full of characters like the swindlers, the Duke and the Dauphin. You can’t wait to see what happens next. The narrative is so accessible, and it goes down easy. Huck talks to us for more than 300 pages, and we love listening to him.
The book has ruffled feathers from the get-go. The Concord library banned it in 1855 as “coarse and uncivil.” More recently, objections have been raised about the use of the n word and perceived racial slurs in the dialogue. What should we make of that?
I’ll be talking about that. The truth is that Twain’s Huck Finn doesn’t demean black people. He demeans the mindless hatred of white people. A town in Virginia tried to ban it two years ago. The effort was dismissed as ludicrous. Negative reaction is not widespread. As Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley commented at the time of the Virginia incident, the sad thing is that educators don’t understand literature.
What is it about the characters in “Huck Finn” that continues to draw readers to the book after more than 160 years?
Jim, the runaway slave, is both illiterate and the smartest character. His capacity for love and kindness is striking. For example, when Tom Sawyer is shot helping him to escape, Jim insists on taking Tom to a doctor, even though he knows he will be recaptured. Huck is a completely different character. Hemingway called him the best character in American literature. There is a darkness about Huck that is deep, real adult stuff. Kids read the book and love it, but adults understand it better. The Widow Douglas, who befriends the boys, has been described as the first fully developed female character in that literary time.
Now, Twain had a dim view of the human race, but he is able to draw the ambiguities in our characters, to create good, well-meaning people like Widow Douglas, and to describe the idiocy of authorities telling us what should be important to us as human beings.
John Hough Jr.’s “Islanders Read the Classics” talk on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” takes place on Monday, June 25, at 7 pm at the West Tisbury library. John Hough Jr. will also be part of a pitch panel at Islanders Write on Monday, August 6, at the Grange Hall.