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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

huck2

Author: Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
First published: 1884, by Chatto & Windus (U.K.)

Huckleberry Finn is a liar!

Yes, that’s what he is, there’s no getting around it.

But is there such a thing as a good lie? A “good” liar? A justified lie? One of Twain’s main assertions in Huckleberry Finn is that there is.

“I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another,” Huck begins, and this early sentence—truthfully—could stand as the jumping off point for an analysis of liars and lying in the entire book. I don’t think Huck thinks of himself as a liar per se, but he is certainly aware of what he’s doing when he’s lying. The elaborate lie Huck spins in Chapter 16, which leads two river men to suspect that Huck’s raft is carrying his small-pox infected family, rather than an escaped slave, causes Huck to feel the “wrongness” of such a lie in his conscience. But the lie also saves Jim from being captured and returned to slavery, and so, Twain forces us to ask ourselves, how wrong can this lie be?

Huck’s impromptu, homespun lie here is a premonition of the great moral crisis that is yet to come—the crisis that eventually emerges in Chapter 31 when Huck, going against everything he’s ever been taught, beats down his goading conscience and decides to set Jim free. “It was awful thoughts,” he says, “and awful words, but they was said . . .

. . . And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

This is a remarkable moment of contrasting principles and feelings: wickedness and rectitude, stealing and returning, slavery and freedom—wrong and right. Going the “wrong” way (which is of course, the right way) will involve telling yet more lies, and these lies will, strangely, lead Huck to a place of moral righteousness that his culture won’t let him understand, let alone describe.

“If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book,” he later concludes, “I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more.” Huck has exhausted himself with the complexity of his own words, and the slipperyness and arbitrariness of their meaning. One doubts, however, that this is the last lie—or story—that Huck Finn (or his creator) will ever tell.

The Keepers of the House

Author: Shirley Ann Grau
First published: 1964, by Alfred A. Knopf

I feel like this novel doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Before a few months ago I had never even heard of it, and now, having read it, I can only place it in my personal pantheon of Great American Novels. The Keepers of the House is exquisite in everything from its sultry and at times disturbing language to its irrepressibly keen examination of race relations in the American South.

Divided into different “perspectives” in the fashion of William Faulkner, the story follows many generations of the Howland family, and unfolds mainly through the eyes of Abigail Howland, the granddaughter of William Howland (actually he’s one of many William Howlands) around whom much of the historical drama revolves. It’s common knowledge in their rural Alabama town that William Howland has for years been intimately involved with his mixed-race housekeeper, Margaret, and has fathered three children with her (all of whom “pass” for white). What the town doesn’t know, however, is that Howland legally married Margaret in Ohio so that their children would not be born illegitimate. This sin against the white cultural codes of the pre-Civil-Rights-era South returns to haunt Howland’s granddaughter, as well as her racist husband, who is in the running for the Alabama governorship.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, this masterpiece of a novel should be read by anyone who is interested in understanding the painful subtleties of American racism and the hypocrisy and violence that inevitably follow. The Keepers of the House is at once an excruciating and beautiful portrait of what love can overcome—and what it can’t.

Photo credit: backgroundpictures.org

Beloved

"Abandoned Farmhouse" by Audrey Staples

Author: Toni Morrison
First published: 1987, by Alfred A. Knopf

Sixty million, and more.

It’s very difficult for me to write about this novel, for what can one say about something that renders horror so beautifully? Any words I might conjure up about Beloved can only stand weakly in the shadow of its awesome power.

But I’ll try.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, a former slave from a plantation in Kentucky, now living in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. It’s the story of her lonely daughter Denver, who was born in a leaking boat during Sethe’s escape. And it’s the story of Beloved, Sethe’s other daughter, who has “returned” to the house at 124 Bluestone Road, eighteen years after her violent and bloody death. Ultimately Beloved is a gorgeous, luxurious, hideous account of American slavery and its enduring effects.

It’s no mystery as to what makes this story so “beautiful”—it’s the language. Toni Morrison’s language creates a richly textured, sensual world, even as it describes unimaginable events and situations from one of the darkest periods of our history. As one friend of mine says, “When I read Beloved, I feel like I’m being simultaneously soothed and beaten.” That’s exactly it . . . an effect achieved in no other novel I know. And aside from the artistry, it is a textbook, a history lesson. Morrison’s gift to us, in the most stunning prose, is a visceral and beautifully crafted account of America’s ugliest moment.

Paul D did not answer because she didn’t expect or want him to, but he did know what she meant. Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight copper dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother—a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom.

Photo credit: Audrey Staples