The San Francisco Chronicle [unsigned]
1885: March 15


"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" must be pronounced the most amusing book Mark Twain has written for years. It is a more minute and faithful picture of Southwestern manners and customs fifty years ago than was "Life on the Mississippi," while in regard to the dialect it surpasses any of the author's previous stories in the command of the half-dozen species of patois which passed for the English language in old Missouri. Mark Twain may be called the Edison of our literature. There is no limit to his inventive genius, and the best proof of its range and originality is found in this book, in which the reader's interest is so strongly enlisted in the fortunes of two boys and a runaway negro that he follows their adventures with keen curiosity, although his common sense tells him that the incidents are as absurd and fantastic in many ways as the "Arabian Nights." Here is where the genius and the human nature of the author come in. Nothing else can explain such a tour de force as this, in which the most unlikely materials are transmuted into a work of literary art. The plot is extremely simple. Huckleberry Finn, who appeared incidentally in the veracious adventures of Tom Sawyer, concludes to go down the Mississippi to get rid of his drunken father. He falls in with a runaway negro, and the book is given up to the adventures of this couple on a raft on the river, re-enforced by two sharpers known as the Duke and the King, and afterward by Tom Sawyer. In many parts of the book, but especially at the outset, some of the conversations are unnecessarily spun out, on the style of the elder Dumas when he was writing at so much the word, but when the story gets under good headway it is remarkably well proportioned, and the interest is never allowed to flag for a moment. The very best episodes are those which detail the swindling schemes of the two river sharpers, who impose upon Huckleberry and the negro by declaring that they are scions of royalty. These chapters were printed in the Century under the title of "Royalty on the Mississippi," but they left the fate of the two heroes in doubt, so that most readers of the performances of the "Royal Nonesuch," and the personation of the two brothers from England will want to know what was the final result of their schemes.

The incidental descriptions of character are always good. Take, for instance, this small picture of Huck's father--a typical Pike county drunkard:


He was most 50, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through it like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn't no colorin his face, where his face showed--it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a whote to make a body's flesh crawl--a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes--just rags, that was all.

On the raft, while floating down the Mississippi, Huck has an excellent opportunity to exercise his gift for lying. This is simply phenomenal. The boy enjoys mendacity; he lies for the mere lust of lying, and the ingenuity with which he piles one fiction on top of another will excite the reader's wonder and admiration. Just before the runaways get fairly started, Huck visits a neighboring town to get information and encounters a farmer's wife. He is dressed up in an old calico gown and pretends to be a girl searching for her relations. The woman suspects his sex and tries various devices to ascertain if her suspicions are true. Among these is threading a needle and throwing a bar of lead at the rats which swarm around the house. Finally she makes Huck own up that he is a boy, and then gives him this sound advice in regard to personating a girl:


"Don't you go about women in that old calico. You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle, don't hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it. Hold the needle still and poke the thread at it--that's the way a woman most always does, but a man always does 'tother way. And when you throw at a rat or anything hitch yourself up a-tiptoe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot. Throw stiff-armed from the shoulder, like there was a pivot there for it to turn on--like a girl; not from the wrist and elbow, with your arm out to one side, like a boy. And mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don't clap them together the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle, and I contrived the other things just to make certain."

Some of the most succulent humor is connected with the swindling exploits of the Duke and the King, who "work" the towns along the bank and make considerable money. Their crowning work was in playing the role of the English heirs of old Peter Wilks, a moneyed resident of one of the river towns, who had just died. In the construction of this plot Mark Twain surpasses himself and the amount of really plausible lies which he manages to dovetail together is something extraordinary. A half-dozen times the adventurers are on the eve of exposure, but their fertility and luck save them. Space is lacking to do more than give one extract from this episode, which is a story in itself, descriptive of the Arkansas undertaker at the funeral of old Peter:


When the place was packed full the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke; he moved people around, he squeezed in late ones, he opened up passageways, and done it with nods, and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn't no more smile to him than there is to a ham.

They had borrowed a melodeum -- a sick one; and when everything was ready a young woman set down and worked it, and it was pretty skreeky and colicky, and everybody joined in and sung, and Peter was the only one that had a good thing, according to my notion. Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait -- you couldn't hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn't seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, "Don't you worry -- just depend on me." Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people's heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker's back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people's heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, "He had a rat!" Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don't cost nothing, and it's just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn't no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.


There are dozens of descriptive bits as good as this and others in which there is no attempt at caricature, such, for instance, as the picture of the old one-horse cotton plantation of Phelps, which any one who has seen the South will recognize as a type. What Mark Twain can do in short sketches of persons is shown by the portrait of old Mrs. Hotchkiss, which is one of the best things in the book. Any one who has ever lived in the Southwest, or who has visited that section, will recognize the truth of all these sketches and the art with which they are brought into this story. To all readers we can commend the story as eminently readable. The person who can withstand the abounding humor of this book must be proof against all jokes except of the Joe Miller order. The volume is very well gotten up, the illustrations adding materially to the fun of the story.

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