Learning from Twain
Currently my students are reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel fraught with controversy, yet a novel with a message of hope. My students are slowly getting into it as I allow them to record their favorite phrases from the novel on the board as we go through the novel.
We are not reading it out loud, but students are reading silently and answering some deep thinking questions about the novel that I have written for them. They have to respond thoughtfully, yet the biggest problem I have is that they absolutely hate reading. This fact is a subject of another blog post, however.
I teach Huck Finn periodically, and like all great literature I usually find something new within its pages each time. This time I found something quite extraordinary, as if Twain were reaching out of the past and teaching me something about writing.
As a writer, Twain fascinates me anyway. Here is a writer who was a well loved novelist, essayist and short-story writer who wrote Huck Finn and then received the worst critical attacks of his career. The Concord Massachusetts Public Library called it “trash of the veriest sort” and the novel was often called course, disparaging and vulgar. The critics of the time thought that a story told through the voice of an unreliable poor white trash narrator was excruciating and served little purpose.
In the roughest places one finds diamonds, however, and the novel (even though it uses the “N” word over 180 times) is much more than the language used. In chapter 15, for example, our poor white trash southern boy humbly asks the forgiveness of an African American run-away slave. One cannot read this passage without understanding the deep subtext of this scene and the symbolism that Twain was masterfully sharing with us.
It is text like this that challenges me to do more with my working-class action heroes. It challenges me to create a subtext for my heroes that is not forced or overtly preachy, but is blended well with the story, fits with the characterization and finds peace with the mood of the scene.
It is a lesson that we all could learn. Too much writing today is base and unimaginative, simply a rehash of other “best-sellers” when the true art is to actually have something to “say” rather than simply entertaining.
Let that be the challenge to all of us.