New York World [unsigned]
1885: March 2


Were Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist less well founded and established, we might say that this cheap and pernicious stuff is conclusive evidence that its author has no claim to be ranked with Artemus Ward, Sydney Smith, Dean Swift, John Hay, or any other recognized humorist above the grade of the author of that outrageous fiction, Peck's Bad Boy. Huckleberry Finn is the story (told by himself) of a wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy or forty years ago. He runs away from a drunken father in company with a runaway negro. They are joined by a couple of rascally impostors, and the Munchausenlike "adventures" that fill the work are encountered in the course of a raft voyage down the Mississippi. The humor of the work, if it can be called such, depends almost wholly on the scrapes into which the quartet are led by the rascality of the impostors, "Huck's" lying, the negro's superstition and fear and on the irreverence which makes parents, guardians and people who are at all good and proper ridiculous. That such stuff should be considered humor is more than a pity. Even the author objects to it being considered literature. But what can be said of a man of Mr. Clemens's wit, ability and position deliberately imposing upon an unoffending public a piece of careless hackwork in which a few good things are dropped amid a mass of rubbish, and concerning which he finds it necessary to give notice that "persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot"? The story is entirely on the free-and-easy style, or, as the hero himself would express it, "it just sloshes along anyhow." There is an abundance of moving accidents by fire and flood, a number of situations more or less unpleasant in which he involves his dramatis personae and then leaves them to lie themselves out of it, a series of episodes and digressions apparently introduced to give Mr. Twain's peculiar sense of humor a breathing spell, and finally two or three unusually atrocious murders in cold blood, thrown in by way of incidental diversion.

The action of the story is laid in the Mississippi Valley and the time, very thoughtfully, from forty to fifty years back. Huck Finn, the quondam comrade of Tom Sawyer, after being put through a course of "sprouts and civilization" at the hands of the Widow Douglas, is reclaimed by his disreputable old father and carried off to the woods. The various doings and sayings of the pair were told with infinite grace and fancy and an excrutiating funny account of an attack of delirium tremens with which the old man is seized is introduced with thrilling effect. Finally Huck, to escape the frequent corrections with which parental authority sees fit to favor him, determines to run away and to avoid possible pursuit ingeniously contrives to make it appear that he has been murdered. The details are interesting and boys intending to leave their childhood's home to kill Indians will probably profit by them. After enjoying from a safe hiding place the moral sensation of seeing the village turn out in force to discover the secret of his untimely taking off he is unexpectedly joined by Jim, Miss Watson's nigger, who is running away to avoid being sold down South, and the two set off down the river on a raft. They meet, of course, with numerous misadventures from which they are extricated by Huck's remarkable ability to lie straight out from the shoulder. In fact, the reader will soon discover for himself that Huck's spiritual perceptions are confined to an unwavering belief in signs of bad luck. He prays for fish-hooks on one occasion and don't get them and accordingly "takes no stock in Providence."

The entertainment which the two frauds, who are known as the "King" and the "Duke," give at one of the river towns is also extremely elevated in character, and the "Royal Nonesuch" should find a favored place in the list of parlor exhibitions. The villainous attempt to defraud the orphans out of their inheritance, the cream of which was cleverly skimmed off for the Century, is however, their grand coup for a fortune. The two rascals pass themselves off as the two brothers from England and claim the property. The impostors succeed in deceiving everybody, though at times they run pretty close to the wind, notably on the occasion of their first meeting with the friends of him who, as the King expresses it, now lies "cold but joyful."


Well, then, pretty soon all hands got to talking about the diseased again, and how good he was, and what a loss he was, and all that; and before long a big iron-jawed man worked himself in there from outside, and stood a-listening and looking, and not saying anything; and nobody saying anything to him either, because the king was talking and they was all busy listening. The king was saying -- in the middle of something he'd started in on --

" -- they bein' partickler friends o' the diseased. That's why they're invited here this evenin'; but tomorrow we want all to come -- everybody; for he respected everybody, he liked everybody, and so it's fitten that his funeral orgies sh'd be public."

And so he went a-mooning on and on, liking to hear himself talk, and every little while he fetched in his funeral orgies again, till the duke he couldn't stand it no more; so he writes on a little scrap of paper, "Obsequies, you old fool," and folds it up, and goes to goo-gooing and reaching it over people's heads to him. The king he reads it and puts it in his pocket, and says:

"Poor William, afflicted as he is, his heart's aluz right. Asks me to invite everybody to come to the funeral -- wants me to make 'em all welcome. But he needn't a worried -- it was jest what I was at."

Then he weaves along again, perfectly ca'm, and goes to dropping in his funeral orgies again every now and then, just like he done before. And when he done it the third time he says:

"I say orgies, not because it's the common term, because it ain't -- obsequies bein' the common term -- but because orgies is the right term. Obsequies ain't used in England no more now -- it's gone out. We say orgies now in England. Orgies is better, because it means the thing you're after more exact. It's a word that's made up out'n the Greek orgo, outside, open, abroad; and the Hebrew jeesum, to plant, cover up; hence inter. So, you see, funeral orgies is an open er public funeral."

He was the worst I ever struck.


Of course the real heirs turn up, and the pretended relatives are obliged to leave in a hurry. The remainder of the book is taken up in telling how Huck, with the assistance of Tom Sawyer, who comes up smiling in the thirty-third chapter, contrive the release of Jim, who has been captured and is being held by Silas Phelps, Tom Sawyer's uncle, until he can be claimed. Jim is in much the same position as the celebrated pirate of the Spanish Main, who lay in a loathsome dungeon for nineteen years, and then, struck by a happy thought, opened the window and got out. There is no difficulty at all about contriving his escape, so the two friends are forced to supply the difficulty. Tom has read about famous prisoners in history, and insists on Jim's adopting all their customs. Accordingly he is kept hard at work scratching inscriptions on the walls of his dungeon cell, fabricating rope ladders and the like. Finally they fill his cabin full of garter snakes and rats for him to cheer his loneliness by taming. It works to a charm, and, as Huck tells us --


. . . you never see a cabin as blithesome as Jim's was when they'd all swarm out for music and go for him. Jim didn't like the spiders, and the spiders didn't like Jim; and so they'd lay for him, and make it mighty warm for him. And he said that between the rats and the snakes and the grindstone there warn't no room in bed for him, skasely; and when there was, a body couldn't sleep, it was so lively, and it was always lively, he said, because they never all slept at one time, but took turn about, so when the snakes was asleep the rats was on deck, and when the rats turned in the snakes come on watch, so he always had one gang under him, in his way, and t'other gang having a circus over him, and if he got up to hunt a new place the spiders would take a chance at him as he crossed over. He said if he ever got out this time he wouldn't ever be a prisoner again, not for a salary.


Then the escape takes place in which Tom Sawyer gets a bullet in his leg and they are all ignominiously brought back and Tom confesses that Miss Watson had died three months back, freeing Jim in her will.

The author informs us in an explanatory note that he uses no less than seven dialects, to wit: "The Missouri negro dialect, the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect, the ordinary Pike County dialect and four modified varieties of this last." Discriminating which is which in this extraordinary assortment will be found a pleasant literary amusement for people who are fond of puzzles.

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