Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

I’m currently re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and am trying to understand what leads some people to call it “the great American novel.” It is a good book, certainly; entertaining, a witty satire, and not entirely devoid of morality. But I don’t see what would lead one to call it great.

My main argument against it, I suppose, that it’s not particularly complex. A book like Moby-Dick can provoke endless hours of discussion, but there doesn’t seem to be that much to discuss about Huck Finn. The central conflict (regarding whether Jim ought to be freed) is fairly simple, and it’s quite clear which side of it Twain’s on. And that’s about the only thing there is to talk about. The satire is funny, and he makes some valid points about antebellum Southern society and about how gullible people are in general, but once you say “so he’s satirizing antebellum Southern society and point out how gullible people are in general,” what more is there to say?

Does this mean that for a novel to be great it must be ambivalent, undecided, like Moby-Dick is so much of the time? I don’t think so. I think writers who are certain in their beliefs are often just as good, if not better, than writers who are eternally questioning. But confident writers still must acknowledge the other side of the argument, not just preach their own view as obviously right and anyone who disagrees with it as obviously wrong. I find that works that do this sort of glossing over usually do it because they don’t want to address the complications in their worldview. Mark Twain said the moral of Huck Finn was intended to be, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and indeed, anyone coming away from the book probably has arrived at that conclusion. The problem is, insofar as its true, it’s obviously true (that statement is un-disagreeable-with), but it ignores the question, “what makes for a sound heart?” In doing so, it doesn’t make itself a bad book, but it makes itself not a great book.

This isn’t to detract from what is great about Huck Finn. It’s brilliantly executed; great characterization, great representation of dialects, funny when it ought to be funny, serious when it ought to be serious. Good for it. But that doesn’t make it a great work, in my mind. Certainly not “the great American novel.”

(Note: I argued a few weeks ago that this is what is wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to say the same thing about Huck Finn; I’m not saying it’s a bad book, or even not a good book. I think it deserves most of the acclaim it gets. I just don’t see why it’s considered among the greatest.)


2 Responses to Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

  1. JokiLoki22 says:

    I have yet to read Huck Finn, sadly, though I have read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and I loved it. Simple as it might sound, maybe the key to a great book doesn’t rest so much in the theme as just how well it resonates with people, how well it manages to hold appeal to the masses over time. And perhaps it is the great American novel because of the option of freedom? I’m truly not entirely certain if I’m correct, as I have yet to read it. Having a middle-of-the-road approach to issues is certainly a great way to enliven readers. Once I was told that a sign of intelligence was being able to argue for an issue that you didn’t believe in and maybe that’s why many novels that do not preach a certain view are so much longer lasting.

  2. I think “the option of freedom” really is part of why people think of it as the great American novel. Americans love freedom, individuality, just going down the river on one’s own without owing anything to anybody. Americans also love Huck Finn’s moral (“a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience”) and the novel’s rejection of authority and civilization. The novel does a great job of encapsulating the spirit of America (or at least one version of that spirit), to a great extent, I think, because Mark Twain himself, for all his supposed cynicism, really was at heart a somewhat naive American*. So in that sense it is “the great American novel.”

    I just don’t think it’s a great work of art.

    *: I can back up this claim, I think, but it requires more time than I want to spend on it at the moment.

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