Almost done for the night! I have one more essay to finish up after this one (I really wish the internet wasn’t down the majority of yesterday). This specific piece of text, however, is my final essay for my Survey of American Literature class at Bridgewater State University. The focus of this essay is as the title suggests – the qualifications of Huck Finn as the first American epic.
Huck Finn: The First American Epic
There have been many stories that we have read this semester that featured the lead character going on a journey and undergoing some sort of multi-faceted transformation: Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” featured a transformative journey through the woods that provided a religious awakening for the lead character, Ambrose Bierce’s lead character in “Chickamauga” saw the horrors of war whilst on a jaunt through the woods and even stories like Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” displayed how the effects of nature can be in relation to the human being. All of these stories, while each significant in their contribution to American literature, are miniscule in comparison to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Twain’s Huck Finn has the size, scope and qualifications to rightfully earn the definition of American Literature’s first Epic.
Huck Finn is the largest novel we have read this semester spanning more than 290 pages – 293 in total. The size, in comparison to some of the earlier works of literature that we have read this semester is jarring, frankly. Before looking at any page in the story, the book, by its sheer number of pages, shows a change in American society. An ability to mass produce so many copies of such a massive tale is the unwritten allegory to the American adventure that Huck sets out on.
The journey of Huck is so varied and so diverse that it really touches on all the developments of the growing culture. The mystical nature of the woods is one of those developments. Throughout the majority of the work Huck and Jim travel throughout a wilderness that is undefined and mirrors an aversion to the new, unexpected aspects of the new world often with some sort of religious or socio-economical quality. Huck says the following in chapter 16: “We didn’t say a word for a good while. There warn’t anything to say. We both knowed well enough it was some more work of the rattlesnake-skin; so what was the use to talk about it? It would only look like we was finding fault, and that would be bound to fetch more bad luck – and keep on fetching it, too, till we knowed enough to keep still.” (Twain, 16). What Huck is saying really delves in to the unknown nature of their journey and the apprehension something bad is about to happen because they are unfamiliar with the world they are currently travelling through. The same set of Ideas is mirrored in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne writes: “The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. … But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” (Hawthorne, 993). In both situations the scene adds to the emotion of the character. Both men grow more frightened because of where they are and what could possibly become of their own futures.
Huck Finn also really has similarities to Bierce’s “Chickamauga.” The main character in “Chickamauga’ is a little dumb boy who is unaware, and cannot relay anything if he was aware, of the situation around him – that idea has Huck all over it, especially Huck in relation to the Duke and the King. The two old con men get Huck and Jim to help them put on a play that really swindles the money out of each town they travel to, they are able to do this up until they are found out and the King and Duke get tarred and feathered. It’s at that point Huck sees the two men for what they really are. And in that moment Huck says the following: “It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings CAN be awful cruel to one another.” (Twain, Chapter 33). I think that realization is mirrored in “Chickamauga” when the little boy reaches his burnt down home. Bierce writes: “The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries–something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey–a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil.” (Bierce, 129). While Huck didn’t openly weep at the site of what happened to the Duke and the King, I think there was that realization that humans have the capacity to live peacefully but still commit acts of violence and destruction against one another.
The last story that really relates to Huck is Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” Crane’s story is the recounting of a journalist in a lifeboat after a ship wreck. The story chronicles the reactions of four human beings when placed in an unfamiliar circumstance and extreme conditions. One of the things that both Twain and Crane do is show how the protagonists rationalize the situation they are in. Crane writes:
“It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction, but the men did not know this fact, and in consequence they made dark and opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation’s life-savers. Four scowling men sat in the dingey and surpassed records in the invention of epithets.” (Crane, 342).
The same type of idea is present in Finn when Huck says the following:
“WHEN I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about YOU. As a general thing it makes a body wish HE was dead, too, and done with it all.” (Twain, Chapter 32).
There are really two things to take into consideration when looking at these two quotes. While Crane’s characters are apprehensive of nature, fearing the prospects the storm may possess, Huck has a transcendentalist type of view of nature, with Huck reveling in this open air experience.
While it may be very quick, the progression of Huck’s character has been highlighted in these few paragraphs: Huck has been oppressed by the society around him and goes on a journey in the woods, throughout this journey Huck stops in several places and learns many things about himself and the world he lives in, and then by the end of the novel he is able to look at the world from a new perspective. How does this not chronicle the journey American literature has taken up until this point? We went through periods of Bradstreet and Bradford which moved into the ideas of Whitman and Thoreau, all the while minorities like Frederick Douglass and Tecumseh were being heard and examined by a culture growing in connectivity. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a simple journey story about Tom Sawyer’s poor friend; it is the story of the expanding American people, giving itself the justification to call it the first American epic.