John Baker was born and grew up in Hull, and now lives in York with his wife and family. He is the creator of Sam Turner, a gritty Northern Private Eye working out of that city. The series includes Poet in the Gutter, Death Minus Zero, King of the Streets, Walking with Ghosts, Shooting in the Dark and The Meanest Flood. John also writes a second series, of which the first novel, The Chinese Girl, introduces ex-con Stone Lewis. The book is set in Hull and is a novel about masks, violence and exploitation, and the necessity of confronting the past. The second novel in the Stone Lewis series is White Skin Man. Below John writes about Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
John Baker on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Ernest Hemingway called Mark Twain's book the beginning of modern American literature:
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.Norman Mailer:
The mark of how good Huckleberry Finn has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page.For T.S. Eliot it was a great work of art, and W.H. Auden said it was a key book for understanding the United States. 'It is not a boy's book,' Mark Twain wrote to a friend. 'It will only be read by adults.'
The book, first published in 1885, has been regarded as a subversive masterpiece for many reasons, but a clue to the greatest of these was given by Twain himself during a lecture tour of 1895. He said:
Next, I should exploit the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience. I should support this doctrine with a chapter from a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat. Two persons figure in this chapter: Jim, a middle-aged slave, and Huck Finn, a boy of 14... bosom friends, drawn together by a community of misfortune...During his early life Twain worked as a printer and he absorbed the stories and anecdotes which appeared in popular publications of the time. He also managed to assimilate the technique of this kind of writing and undoubtedly enjoyed the humour in it. Later he worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, and this experience is obvious in the text of Huckleberry Finn. Even his pen name comes from this period; in the language of the river, Mark Twain means 'two fathoms deep and safe water'.
In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing - the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave... or hesitate to promptly betray him to a slave catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, and carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-holders is comprehensible - there were good commercial reasons for it - but that it should exist and did exist among the paupers... and in a passionate and uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable... It shows that that strange thing, the conscience - that unerring monitor - can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.
The plot of Huckleberry Finn, the story itself, is merely superficial. The power of the novel lies in the moral questions that face Huck and, by extension, faced all Americans throughout the 20th century, and that linger too in our own time. Conscience apart, the legacy of slavery and the continually vexing question of race relations, addressed head-on in the novel, but ignored or sidestepped by successive governments for many years, give a stature to Huckleberry Finn that few other fictions can emulate.
Huck and his companion float up and down the river, observing and encountering life on the banks; they are always concerned with right and wrong and the ever-fluctuating line between.
The novel is rich in symbolism, the Mississippi standing in for murk and grime and silt, the underbelly of the American way, as well as steadfast determination, going with the current, heading for the promised land. But ultimately the river is life itself, or America. It is whatever it throws up. You approach it first from one direction, then from another. Every time it looks a little different, or something is added or taken away from the mix. Huck's primal personality takes little for granted, and it is through his eyes, not the eyes of the author, that we experience this long and winding journey. The boy is a whirlpool of conflicting emotions and attitudes. He doesn't want any 'sivilisin', instinctively valuing his independence; on the other hand he is stretched between mendacity and generosity, often looking to do the best he can in any given situation without causing himself any loss or missing out on the main chance.
Tom Sawyer is a childhood prankster, a boy who will grow up normally and toe the line, get a job and settle down, marry a wife, become a father. Huck is the antithesis of that. He is the shadow - what man might be if he could escape the limits of convention and throw off his innate ability to dream everyone else's dream. He is not perfect. He's a prototype. A signpost.
And Huck himself is, of course, unforgettable. Of all my fictional encounters, and there have been many over the years, only two have been stubbornly there for me while the others slowly fade into insignificance. They are Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn.