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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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STYLE AND POINT OF VIEW

When novelist Ernest Hemingway said that all modern American literature stems from Huckleberry Finn, among the things he had in mind were Mark Twain's writing style and the point of view of the novel. If you were to read some of the books published in and around 1882, you'd see that Twain's novel could be classified as revolutionary.

In his time, most novels were a form of uplifting entertainment, light reading that would do no harm and might even do their readers some good. They were written with a prim, well- behaved audience in mind, an audience that expected to read about people like themselves, and that was most comfortable reading the language they themselves used in public.

Even before Huckleberry Finn, Twain never identified with such people. As a comic writer and lecturer, he often made fun of them, though he did it without alienating them and in a way that made them laugh. His language was never vulgar, but he avoided the fancy literary language expected of writers in his day.

In Huckleberry Finn, he introduced a character who was very unlike his readers, and he had him speak in a way that probably would have offended the ears of many people. In choosing Huck as his narrator, Twain was locking his novel into an unschooled, colloquial dialect.


Other writers had used regional dialects before Mark Twain, and he had written stories himself in which characters didn't speak the kind of English taught in schools. But with Huckleberry Finn, he introduced readers to a likable main character who spoke like someone they might meet in the street, but not at a church social.

The word likable is important. It's one of the things that makes Huck unique for his time, as fictional characters go. Huck's story falls into the general classification of picaresque novels- stories in which we follow a central character through a series of adventures that may or may not cause him to change.

Probably the closest thing we have these days to picaresque novels is a certain kind of weekly TV series. Think of the action-adventure series in which a main character survives by his wits, usually engaging in violence and often breaking the law to get things done. In a series like that, the main character may be admirable because of his bravery or strength or quick thinking, but he isn't usually the kind of person parents want their kids to emulate.

For more than two centuries before Huck Finn came on the scene, picaresque heroes had played a large part in the popularization of the novel.

They were often thieves or murderers, though sometimes only liars and cheats. They rarely had any of the traditional virtues, and it's usually easy to see how the world would be better off without them. They might have been interesting, but they were rarely admirable.

With Huck, Twain broke this mold and started something new. He gave his readers a picaresque hero they couldn't fail to like. By making this character the narrator, Twain put him in the center of all the action, forcing us not only to see things through Huck's eyes, but to hear it all expressed through his language.

In this way, the language and the point of view are at least as important to the novel as anything that happens to Huck. And both may be even more important in the effect they have had on the novelists that followed Twain-on "all modern American literature," as Hemingway said.

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