Why Literature? The Case for Huckleberry Finn
- Friday, February 22, 2013
Parents often ask my wife Missy and me why we give classic literature such a prominent place in our curriculum. We live in a math/science world, after all. I think it’s fitting that my answer usually takes the form of a story...
When I was a boy, I loved Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read it a dozen times. In my imagination, I camped on Jackson’s Island a thousand nights, glided down the Mississippi on a thousand log rafts, and outwitted crooks in a thousand daring escapes. The atmosphere of the book was intoxicating to me—it seemed that Huck lived the ultimate summer vacation, and I wanted to live it with him. One summer I even convinced my friends to help me build a raft and float it down the little river that ran past our house. Supplied with sack lunches, straw hats, and fishing poles, we spent a glorious vacation reenacting Huck’s adventures.
It would not be an overstatement to say that I entered Huck’s world in my mind’s eye and lived his story in my heart. I recreated all its details as faithfully as I could. This was no English assignment; this was an adventure. I was not doing the work of a literary critic or even the work of a student; I wasn’t working at all. Absorbing Twain’s book wholeheartedly, without preconceptions, without designs of judgment or evaluation, I was reading to experience, the way a hungry man eats. I wanted to see through Huck’s eyes, to be in his world—and I did, and I was.
In his wonderful book An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis says that this is one of the great powers of literature, a power that it shares with only a handful of art forms: the ability to multiply our experience, to draw us into foreign worlds and allow us to experience them from the safety of our own. “My own eyes are not enough for me,” Lewis says. “I will see through those of others.” I would not have put it in those words as a boy, but I remember feeling that hunger for a broader experience.
As I grew up, I never stopped reading Twain’s novel. Every few years I went back and relived my old pleasures—and as I did, I noticed that the story had more to say to me each time. Huck’s world seemed to grow with me, to mature as I matured. I began to understand that Twain’s boyhood adventure story was merely the setting for a deeper, darker tale. Huck’s relationship with the slave Jim and the terrible choices it involved fell on me as powerfully now as the sunny atmosphere of the Mississippi valley had before. I moved gradually from a sensory experience of the story to a mental grasp of Twain’s theme and purpose. Twain had hooked me by the heart as a boy—as I grew up, he began to engage my mind and make a claim on my opinions.
This is not to say that the sensory, setting-related pleasures passed away. On the contrary, they matured right along with me. I began to notice Twain’s wry, ironic wit in lines that had gone right over my head as a boy. I laughed out loud now, instead of just reading in wide-eyed wonder. I discovered that Twain was not only a master at weaving an atmospheric spell; he was also hilarious.
But I began to notice as well that behind the humor was a bitterness that had been invisible to me before, an argumentative stance toward his characters and their foibles. As I grasped Twain’s theme, I heard his voice more clearly and realized that he had written Huck Finn to grapple with a problem—to identify something deeply wrong with American society and to assign blame for it. He was making a case and asking me to take his side. As I learned my own mind, I found that I could not agree wholeheartedly with every point he made, much as I loved his characters and their story. But perhaps because of that love, the grown-up in me spent as much time and energy thinking about Twain’s argument as the child in me had spent reveling in his story. I was drawn irresistibly into a kind of discussion with Mark Twain in my own mind and heart, and found myself contributing to that discussion, drawing on my own ideas and experience.
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