"Huckspeech", by Neil Schmitz
Chapter 5: Modern Critical Interpretation: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1984: 143


Reviewed by Jeff Martin


After writing roughly sixteen chapters of Huck Finn - around the point where Huck and Jim float past Cairo - Mark Twain must have discovered that steamboats aren't the only things that can run aground. In fact, during the eight years he spent grappling with the novel, Twain discovered something no humorist ever wants to realize - his book had turned almost deadly serious. What's a humorist to do when that happens?
Twain didn't really know, as both the number of years he took to complete the novel and its unsatisfying ending suggest. But as Neil Schmitz points out in his article "Huckspeech," the novel really never could have been anything else but serious, simply because of the language in which Twain makes Huck tell his story. As Schmitz suggests, it is this "Huckspeech" that almost "dooms" Twain's story to automatic seriousness. How so? Consider this: at the heart of humor, Schmitz notes, is exaggeration - or "stretchers" as Huck puts it. Nineteenth century American humorists appealed to the humorous value of exaggeration all the time, particularly by writing dialect phonetically to caricature its speakers. But from the very first line of the story, Huck resolves not to exaggerate (for the most part), and this immediately strips away the humorist's greatest tool. That alone would leave most humorists fumbling around, but Twain increases the difficulty by making Huck tell his story in the vernacular, the "low style" of the ignorant and innocent - a practical language that looks to describe the world as it is, and not in the eloquent, often idealized terms of Romance fiction. Huck does not possess the witty wordplay of someone like Tom Sawyer, he cannot produce genies or caravans of riches from ordinary things, and therefore he "fails to generate pleasure from unpleasure", which is one of the major goals of humor. Huck simply describes life as it is, and it is often gritty and harsh and mean.
Huck's tangled position between the two worlds of literacy and illiteracy further complicates Twain's dilemma. Huck loves Tom Sawyer and wants to be the clever wisecracker he is, but Huck also admires Jim and wants life to be "free and easy" as it is - at least in Huck's mind - with Jim on the raft. Traditionally, humorists mined the wealth of difference and paradox which exists between the worlds of the literate and the illiterate (the Writing Lesson is a classic example - a student who does not know how to read or write makes amusing mistakes as the exasperated teacher tries to coach him), but here we have a crossbreed, and that's baffling. Huck has learned a little reading and writing, but he is also still much taken by the woods and the outdoor life, and his "Huckspeech" is not that of the "educated." What is he then? He is not enough of one or the other to make amusing caricatures. He is, Schmitz suggests, a victim caught between the two, much as Jim is a victim caught in the murky middle ground of slave and free, and therefore "Huckspeech is a version of nigger-speech...the speech of the slave, the discourse of the victim." It is not accident that Schmitz plucks the word "nigger" from the dialect and makes it the focus of every one of Huck's hardest decisions. The grim irony is that while Huck considers himself superior to Jim much of the time, he is, in fact, in much the same position, and that he is unaware of this fact is quite sobering. At the end of the novel, Huck "was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing" but can't, nor can he write the letter that would get Jim captured. Both worlds - illiterate and literate - fail him in the end. What's a reader to make of that?
As we have said in class, so Schmitz also says: Twain decides "not to go to hell" and puts a humorous veneer on a story that can't quite handle it. Tom Sawyer and the world of exaggeration and fiction rush in to finish the novel and we're left feeling a little slighted, a little unsatisfied with how things end. How much, after all, Schmitz questions, can humor know without exaggeration or evasion? Mark twain! The ending scrapes bottom.

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