If, as I hope to show in a later essay in this series, Henry Thoreau (1817-62) is the father of American expository prose, Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the father of most modern American fiction. His work represents a break with the genteel tradition, introducing a democratic style, a democratic cast of characters, and a democratic way of looking at American society. He took the crude dialect humor of journalists like Petroleum Nasby and Artemus Ward, mixed it with the rough frontier humor he had known during his apprentice days in the West, consumed the dross in the crucible of his imagination, and produced in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876), a moving story of astonishing depth and clarity. Hitherto, characters like Huck and Jim, not to speak of the King and the Duke, were regarded as too low for serious fiction. Henry James, just beginning his career in the 1870s, felt that he had to go to Europe to find the background for his stories of the complications of American innocence--his native land was too barren of the subtle usages of traditional civilization--but Twain, on the barest of stages and out of the commonest clay and in the simplest of tongues wrote a novel about innocence that became a world classic.
What is astonishing is that he knew so little about what he was doing. He abandoned the manuscript for six years and almost destroyed it, and he thought The Prince and the Pauper (second-rate trash) a far better novel. I cannot think of a major American writer less conscious of what he was doing. And yet when his instincts were working just right, he could perform wonders. As an example let me cite what most critics regard as a major flaw in the book: the sections at the beginning and end of the book dominated by Tom Sawyer. Since Tom is a very superficial character--the conventional mischief-maker is always forgiven his essentially harmless pranks--these chapters distract us from the moving depths of the chapters in the middle devoted to Huck and Jim on the raft. What the critics don't see is that the reader needs that distraction; without it he cannot gauge the profundity of the central chapters. Those are insulated, protected by the Sawyer chapters, and their specialness is thus preserved. And we can only appreciate the quality of Huck's clear-eyed realism when we compare it with Tom's superficiality and sentimentality. Without the Sawyer chapters the power of the core of the book would be much diminished. I'm certain Twain did not consciously know this, and I doubt if he would have understood it if it were explained, but a writer's deep instincts guided him aright.
By democratic style I mean Twain's use of the vernacular, and his prefatory note about the different dialects shows how painstaking he was in this regard. The device of Huck as narrator may be called false naivet. Huck is naive but his creator is not. Naive doesn't seem quite the right word for Huck; he's no fool, he's not taken in by frauds, he can make up elaborate alibis in a moment, he's sharply observant, as when he notes with devastating realism the squalid riverside towns with their shiftless inhabitants.
There couldn't anything wake them up all over and make them happy all olike a dog-fight--unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.
But we think of him as naive, especially compared to the relatively worldly sophisticated Tom Sawyer, in that there's a simplicity, directness, and freshness about his character, an openness to experience, that's constantly reflected in the way he speaks. Naturally he does not use literary language or anything aiming for elegance. Look at this passage describing the coming of dawn on the river:
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line--that was the woods on t'other side--you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see the little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away--trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks--rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds came so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in the swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up . . .
He moves progressively from one sensory impression to another as the light increases; we see the river awakening as Huck does, and we sense what lies just beneath the words: his wonder. Do not think that Twain has merely copied vernacular speech; he has used its words and its rhythms, carefully arranged, to create literary pictures that would be beyond the capacity of a real Huck Finn. His genius has created the style, put the words in the boy's mouth that make us see the sunrise as he does and that strikes the chords of sympathy between character and reader. Thus does great writing transcend its time. Huck's style frees him to a great degree of the constraints of time and place.
One of the persistent themes in the book is Huck's distrust of society, any society, whether of the sordid towns or the widow Douglas; it's "civilization" and he wants no part of it. In this connection, note that Tom Sawyer's antics, which make him a major bore in the book, are dictated by "books" as he says; he's relatively sophisticated but that's no virtue in Huck's eyes. This strain of anti-gentility, anti-authority would be another aspect of the Huckleberry Finn legacy.
Ernest Hemingway once said that "All modern fiction comes from Huck Finn," a remark so general that it can mean much or little, depending on how we wish to read it, but surely the most obvious point is the one I made in the beginning: that Huckleberry Finn represents a break with the genteel tradition, democratizing the novel. We can test the truth of Hemingway's remark by looking at other American writers. Critics in the 1920s often linked Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) to Hemingway, but the resemblance between their writing is superficial and coincidental; they both drew from the same source, Mark Twain. Here's the opening of the first story in the Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the book that made Anderson's name:
Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that has been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon, and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun.
Nothing in the book rises far above this level of awkward simplicity. Listen to this passage near the end describing a visit to the grandstand the night after the county fair:
The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and country around. Farmers with their wives and children, and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
These passages are not merely simple, they are inarticulate, and for good reason, as we shall see. George Willard, the eighteen-year-old protagonist who works on the local paper and who leaves for Chicago at the end to become a writer, is more sophisticated but less mature than Huck Finn, just as Anderson was certainly not in the same league with Mark Twain. In the twenty-three short chapters of Winesburg, Anderson tells stories about the townspeople, usually one to a chapter, but the stories are not very circumstantial because the author focuses always on some peculiarity that seems to him the essence of character. In most cases they live lonely, strangely inverted lives, and the artlessness of the prose gives the impression, not that Anderson created them but that he discovered them. That is no mean feat.
When one thinks about the book, the George Willard theme fades away; it is the grotesque, usually secret lives of the characters that are remembered because the reader knows this truth: that all of us are lonely and none of us are strangers to hidden fixations and half understood compulsions. It is their inability to communicate, to make themselves known, that is most striking, most poignant, and psychologically so true. The style is vague and weak compared to Huckleberry Finn; he didn't have Twain's power, but he didn't want it, wouldn't have known what to do with it, not just because he was naive and childish (he was), but because what he was describing--the solitariness of every human being and the hidden ways people use to try to break out of it--is necessarily nebulous, a matter of moods and shifting feelings. Twain's book was like a key that opened a door to a new place where writers were free to slough off their literary garments. Anderson wrote simply about humble country people's frustrations; without the example of Huckleberry Finn it is impossible to say what he would have done.
Ring Lardner (1885-1933) was a sportswriter in Chicago who began writing humorous stories about baseball players just before the First World War, gradually expanding his cast of characters until he attracted attention and critical acclaim in the 1920s. His stories are slight; except for a few ("The Golden Honeymoon," "Haircut," "Champion") they hardly have any thematic interest. Most of them, and his epistolary novel You Know Me Al, are told in the fist person in the form of letters or dairies or monologues, and that's Lardner's strength because he had perfect pitch when it came to recording speech, especially of the lower middle class. This is the first entry in the diary of an eighteen-year-old girl:
I am staying here at the Inn for two weeks with my Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and I think I will keep a kind of diary while I am here to help pass the time and so I can have a record of things that happen though goodness knows there isn't lightly to anything happen, that is anything exciting with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule making the plans as they are both at least thirty-five years old and maybe older.
Here's a ballplayer:
O'course Art knowed the boy was with the Jackson club as soon as they was interduced, "cause Art's uncle says something" about the both o' them bein' ball players, and so on.
The narrator of "The Golden Honeymoon":
"Well Mother," I say, "when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain't heard me say before? But it may be new to others as they ain't nobody else lived with me as long as you have."
So she says: "You can bet they ain't, as they couldn't nobody else stand you that long."
You can't get ahead of Mother.
A fight promoter:
If you ever been to St. Joe, you know the Chicago society gals that attends them dances. If you want to see one of them in the middle of the week, go up to the Draperies and ask for Min.
He speaks of common things in the common tongue. I enjoy Lardner because his voices remind me of ones I heard when I was growing up in a New Jersey industrial city in the 1930s and '40s, but of course such specificity means early obsolescence; most of his topical references would have to be footnoted today, and the patterns of speech must seem antique to anyone under fifty. Lardner's characters are beautifully defined by their style, but they are also imprisoned by it, doomed to an early death. To understand why this is so and why, as I pointed out when I quoted the sunrise passage from Huckleberry Finn, as Huck's style frees him from the constraints of time and place, we have to recognize that Twain created the style, he simulated the speech--he did not copy it as Lardner did. But I would not run down Lardner; there are subtleties in his stories and his characters that are easily overlooked. What his work shows us is that writing about people in their own style can have immediate impact but a short life.
Ernest Hemingway's (1896-1961) work is most obviously influenced by Huckleberry Finn. He wrote novels, but he will be remembered for his stories, written in a direct, seemingly simple style closely reporting the sensory data of the scene. Probably no modern writer has described the material world so clearly. The characters he writes about are boxers, bullfighters, mobsters, soldiers, waiters, gamblers, et al., definitely not types from the genteel tradition. Reading his stories as a teenager, I was bowled over by their tremendous power, realizing only many years later that this was an ambiguous gift. Hemingway was driven by compulsions quite at odds with the charismatic charm he used to dominate those around him, and the effort to maintain the integrity of a coherent, functioning personality created great tension which determined, to a considerable degree, the way he wrote. Someone once said that reading a Hemingway story is like being a passenger in a truck loaded with dynamite being driven over a shaky bridge. Of course he often wrote about tense, testing situations, but there seldom is any relaxation in his stories. We come to feel that, no matter the ostensible subject, the story is really about the tension that broods over it. And since the style determines the characters (in Lardner it's vice versa), there tends to be a sameness about them. In what I think is his finest story, "The Big Two-Hearted River," the tension is managed very adroitly. Nick, the only character, is trying to put the immediate past (the war) behind him by recovering his past before the war, and the story is about the form of the attempt-making camp, going fishing. The tension is implicit in the descriptions of his acts, their intensity and the way they are ritualistically elaborated. It's clear that he's trying very hard, and he has his fingers crossed.
This is the opening:
The train went up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
It is nowhere stated in the story, but I think it fair to say that the fire (which occurred in 1916) is analogous to Hemingway's experience of the war. But the river is still there:
It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. . . . Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
He starts out into the country:
Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. . . . Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.
Note this description:
Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes. He crawled inside the mosquito bar with various things from the pack to put at the head of the bed under the slant of the canvas. Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been all this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
Besides the obvious satisfaction here, we feel the underlying tension: the creation of "his home" is defensive-"nothing could touch him"--and we feel it in the repetitions. He makes us feel Nick's pleasure in his acts, his satisfaction, and we are drawn into that feeling; there can be no higher praise for a piece of writing.
To go back to the subject of style, look again at the quotations above. It looks so simple, and evidently a lot of writers thought it was, as one can see from the magazines of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, filled with their futile imitations. It is not enough to write simple declarative sentences, leaving out the adjectives; a writer has to have the artistic genius to choose the words and sentences and to order them. It is possible to analyze the structure of a paragraph to see why Hemingway made the choices he did, but it's something else to do it yourself. To write simply is not simple at all.
Hemingway's stories are the artistic culmination of the line from Huckleberry Finn, but his achievement is not the equal of Twain's because he lacked his breadth of character and depth of heart. The line continued but its products became less and less artistic. Think of John Steinbeck, or Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, or that caricature of Huck, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Today we recognize it by its lowlife characters, its coarseness, squalor, and profanity.
Hemingway's statement also has a negative implication: the end of the genteel tradition--but he was mistaken. That tradition did not die with Henry James but continued in the work of Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Including the last-named may seem surprising since there are obvious traces of Huckleberry Finn in his books, notably in his mixed cast of characters, and to some extent, in his style (As I Lay Dying, The Hamlet). That leads us to a fresh revelation, what we might call the democratic tradition in American letters. Cooper belonged to the genteel tradition--but think of Leatherstocking. So did Melville, our greatest, most eloquent novelist--but think of Ishmael, Queequeg, and the crew of the Pequod. Wharton wrote Ethan Frome and Summer. And Gatsby had a humble, shady past. We cannot escape our native ground. The best American fiction will nearly always include characters without pedigrees, and since Twain they will speak in their own voices.
The other lesson of this essay is that what really matters in art is not the writer's ideas or tradition but his genius and that's a variable quality. Twain wrote many books, but only two are first rate--Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi--because they are about the great river that was the central experience and totem of his life. *
"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." --John F. Kennedy