John McIntyre

THE American novel

February 18 is a day to celebrate, because it was on February 18, 1885, that Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the definitive American novel.

Ernest Hemingway famously said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' " Calling it "one of the great masterpieces of the world," H. L. Mencken said, "I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson. I believe that, admitting all his defects, he wrote better English, in the sense of cleaner, straighter, vivider, saner English, than either Irving or Hawthorne."


There are those who see F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby as the definitively American book, picturing our national inclination to make and remake ourselves as we would prefer to be, with the consequences. I had an adolescent gratitude for Sinclair Lewis and his exposure of the stifling limits of middle-class culture in Main Street and Babbitt. And I suppose that a perverse case could be made that no one but an American could have, or would have, bound together half-insane obsessions, the contours of good and evil, the struggle with the natural world, and a catalogue of mundane technical details in Moby-Dick. John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy has the stifling middle class, the yearning to break free, and the sex.

But Huck Finn is elementally American. Its robust colloquial voice has our distinctive accent and tone, a virtual declaration of independence from the formal English of Hawthorne, Wharton, and James.


Its hero embodies our characteristic rebelliousness, our impatience with authority and convention, our disinclination to be "sivilized" against our will.

And, importantly, it has race, the issue that will not go away: slavery, the protection of which was the fatal flaw in the Constitution, the underlying issue in the complex of tensions and animosities that brought on the Civil War, and the source of the legacy of racism that troubles us to this day.

Twain grew up in racist society, and he pictures it accurately. He pictures Huck's casual racism accurately, and he shows how Huck, by his association with Jim, comes to reject the racist culture that is his heritage, and to think independently. It is a novel of liberation, another classic American theme.

It is a mordant irony, and a reminder of how sharply Twain looked at us, that his book cannot be taught in some of our schools because of its historically accurate portrayal of racism. Our Aunt Sallys are still among us.