Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Even the Greatest Have Struggled! by DL Larson

It's good to look back at the great writers and study their work, learning from them, examining their techniques and hoping for inspiration to fill our own pages. The other day Rob Walker mentioned one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain. Most of us grew up having read Tom Sawyer, or perhaps watched the film on TV. Maybe you preferred The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, known as one of the great American classics. But did you know, ol' Sam Clemens nearly burnt the manuscript when only half done?

In July, 1876, immediately after the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain started another book, 'another boy's book.' In one short month, 400 pages were written, all about Huck Finn, good buddy of Tom Sawyer. But this beloved author only liked what he'd written 'tolerably well,' which means he didn't much care for it at all. He thought about burning it and starting fresh. He enjoyed working fast, so that wasn't the problem. The problem was the story didn't move him along anymore. And I understand what he meant by that. He let his characters free reign to get into whatever mischief they desired and then let them figure their own way out of a jam. It makes for intriguing writing. 'As long as a book would write itself' he once wrote, 'I was a faithful and interested amanuenis ... but the minute the book tried to shift to my head the labour of contriving its situations ... I put it away ... my tank had run dry.' And so, The Adventures of Huck Finn had run dry. The book stalled at Chapter 16, with no end in mind.

For nearly three years The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lay untouched. Then with 'fits and starts' he wrote more of Huck's escapades with his friend, Jim, a runaway slave. Finally, in the summer of 1883, the book was published. But no big hurrahs came. Most thought it a crude, untidy story. (paraphrase from the Library Committee of Concord, Mass.) It was characterized as a book more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable folks, considered to be the 'veriest trash.' Others called it a sequel to Tom Sawyer.

What Mark Twain actually did, whether he realized it at the time, I don't know, but he wrote similar stories about the same river town and the people who came from there. His books have been referred to as the two faces of Hannibal (Missouri.) One face/one book - Tom Sawyer, is nostalgic, reminiscing his childhood, the other realistic and unforgiving of the times of pre-Civil War. Both about boys revolting against the restrictions of society.

Mark Twain wrote as no one had ever written. His characters weren't like the well bred New Englanders of the day, they had South-western flavor. Not everyone liked this new way of describing characters and settings in such a 'modern' way. It took some getting used to. And the dialogues ... Twain's quote explains his reasoning for this: 'In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-western dialect; the ordinary 'Pike-County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were tyring to talk alike and not succeeding. The Author '

So that explains why it is so difficult for us to read Huck Finn. Our eyes are not used to slang to such a degree. I learned in some writing class years ago, a little dialect goes a long way. And I have to agree. It's more enjoyable to watch Huck Finn on TV than read about him. But Mark Twain opened doors to the writing world that no one else knew existed. Many years passed before scholars admitted to his genius in writing.

Ernest Hemingway eloquently stated, "It's (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

And to think Mark Twain only liked it 'tolerably well.' He was right about one thing. It made good kindling ... its fire has inspired many American authors.

Til next time ~

DL Larson

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