Riding the raft - another look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
Chatto & Windus
"So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us."
Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel is a book about rivers. The currents of the mighty tributaries that run through this loose, baggy story - mainly the Mississippi - join the dots of a story that amounts to a chaotic set of incidents.
Huckleberry Finn is kidnapped by his father (the town drunk), fakes his death and goes on the run - or the raft - with Jim, a slave who has made his own bid for liberty from Huck's guardian, Miss Watson. Travelling by water across the American South, the pair encounter drama at every stop. They wear various disguises to evade the law, take up with the "duke and king", a charming and terrifying pair of con men, assume fake identities (one of which is Tom Sawyer's), and eventually return home.
As the opening quote suggests, the Mississippi is a metaphor for freedom. For Huck this means release from the claustrophobic lure of civilised life with Miss Watson and the chaotic violence of his upbringing. For Jim, the river offers a glorious, but perilously fragile hope of freedom: "If we minded our business and didn't talk back and aggravate them, we would pull through and get out of the fog and into the big clear river, which was the free states, and wouldn't have no more trouble."
This language is optimistic indeed. Rivers were also the means for the slave trade as well as the rare escapes from it, as Twain's own prose demonstrates: "Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and she was ashamed she ever was going to sell him down the river, and said so; and she set him free in her will."
Written after the civil war, Twain's novel is nostalgic (Huck and Tom's childhood pleasures) and scathing: the hints of conflicts to come and the racism of the South. This creates some uncomfortable moments for 21st-century readers, as Twain's political fury is undercut by his now outmoded, and offensive terminology, which climaxes in the final chapters where Jim is reduced to a buffoon.
Somehow these polarities suit a river that is lovingly envisioned but never less than treacherous, as Huck's father and several other characters find to their costs. It is apt that the river winds through to the very end. One can imagine it running long after the characters whose lives it propelled.