Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway’s Debt to Huckleberry Finn

Debt to Mark Twain
Although Hemingway acknowledged his debt to Mark Twain most lavishly––”All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn……It’s the best we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since”––yet he did not elaborate on this statement. In his enthusiasm for Mark Twain, Hemingway grossly ignored the contribution of such well-known authors as Hawthorne and Melville to the evolution of American literature. Nor did he care to give due credit to Stephen Crane and Henry James. However, Hemingway’s inclusion of the word modern in his praise of Huckleberry Finn indicates clearly the direction his allegiance should take.

Perhaps the closest parallel between the works of these two writers lies in their style-the technical method of presenting material. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain raised the colloquial speech of his day to the level of a full-fledged literary language, which culminates in the works of Hemingway. If one were to pick up passages from Huckleberry Finn and transplant them in Hemingway’s first person narratives it would be difficult to make out their foreignness. For example, here is Huck at the termination of his stay with the Grangerfords :
                I have felt easy till the raft was two miles below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then we hung up our signal lantern, and judged that he was free and safe once more. I had’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corndodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens––there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right––and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there wasn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped and smothery but a raft don’t. You feel, mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
The similarity in technique and tone can be illustrated by quoting a passage from Hemingway’s story My Old Man :
                I was nuts about horses, too. There’s something about it, when they come out and go up the track to the post. Sort of dancy and tight looking with the jock. Keeping a tight hold on them and may be easing off a little and letting them run a little going up. Then once they were at the barrier it got me worse than anything. Especially at San Siro with that infield and the mountains way off and fat wop starter with his big whip and “jocks finding them around and then the barrier snapping up and that bell going off and then all getting off in a bunch and then commencing to string out. You know the way a bunch of skins gets off. It you’re up in the stand with a pair of glasses all you see is them plunging off and then that all goes off and seems like it rings for a thousand years and then they come sweeping round the turn. There wasn’t ever anything like it for me.
Both the passages sound unliterary. Both have succeeded in entering into the unconscious mind of the narrators and express their emotions in a language that would be most natural to them. There is no artificiality, because that would have robbed the passages of their effect.
Use of Dialogue
Again in dialogue, both the writers have used the same technique more or less. Today the style is well established, and it causes no surprise. The ease with which the two authors weave words and phrases that are important in their dialogues makes them authentic, and the meaning sinks in the mind of the reader.
No Authorial Comment
Both the writers avoid any direct comment on the events. This restraint makes their writings highly objective. Twain told his story from the point of view of an imaginative but unregimented adolescent. The advantage is obvious : he could achieve a more effective exposition of the events and conditions treated, with a minimum of direct moralising and subjective colouring. Bryant N. Wyatt remarks that Hemingway “makes even further use of this objective method. The crisp, laconic, unadorned relating of facts has become the earmark of his narrative technique.” There are innumerable scenes of death and violence in Hemingway but these acre handled with detachment. The last scene in A Farewell to Arms illustrates beautifully how Hemingway succeeds in injecting g-eater poignancy than he would have achieved by shedding teans on Henry’s loss. Hemingway insists on underlining the minute details, and not the pathos of the situation, because in the process of narration there is a danger of their being blunted. Here is an illustration from To Have and Have Not :
                As he stood on holding the Thompson gun in his left hand, looking around before shutting the hatch with the hook on his right arm, the Cuban who had lain on the port bunk and had been shot three times through the left shoulder... sat up, took careful aim, and shot him in the belly. Harry sat down in a backward lurch. He felt as though he had been struck in the abdomen with a club. His back was against one’ of iron-pipe supports of the fishing chairs and while the Cuban shot at him again and splintered the fishing chair above his head, he reached down, found the Thompson gun, raised it carefully, holding the forward grip with the hook and rattled half of the fresh clip into the man who set leaning forward, calmly shooting at him from the seat. The man was down on the seat, in a heap and Harry felt around on the cockpit floor until he could find the big faced man, who lay face down, felt for his head with the hook on his bad arm, hooked it around, then butt the muzzle of the gun against the head and touched the trigger ... The gun made a noise like hitting a pumpkin with a club.
Motion-Picture Technique
Each and every detail has been depicted as in a motion picture. There is a marked simplicity, bordering on starkness but it has a bearing on his philosophy. The overall effect is that the reader becomes identified with the person who is experiencing the events, .and emotions. The details stand on their own : they are seldom subordinated to the main event but in their totality they have a cumulative effect and they act like dynamited.
Violence Objectively Treated
Hemingway’s penchant for violence and death has a close parallel in Mark Twain. “One of the wonders”, remarks Bryant, “of Twain’s masterpiece is that it succeeds in encompassing and exposing so many violent incidents and sinister machinations while maintaining its status as wholesome and outwardly humorous work, one perfectly suitable for high-school reading lists and not the least sensational in the pejorative sense.” Mark Twain too excels in revealing with aloofness the brutal murder of the drunken Bogg’d by Colonel Sherburn, and the formation of the lynch mob. In all his revelations of injustices of his day he is realistic and consummately objective.
Besides the similarities in style the two authors display certain affinities in subject matter. Huck and Tom symbolize two diagonally opposite views on life :
                Tom Sawyer is romantic, Huck pragmatic. This contrast in temperament becomes one of Hemingway’s recurring: topics. As a matter of fact, his most favourably treated protagonists are the realists, the persons who possess a sense of pragmatic and concrete value, who have their-feet on the ground ; and his most pathetic characters are stuffed shirts, suffering from baseless illusions. Paco, the central figure in The Capital of the World typifies the latter category.
In Hemingway’s own words
                The boy Paco had never known about any of this nor about what all these people would be doing on the next day and on other days to come. He had no idea how they really lived nor how they ended. He did not even realize they ended. He died...full of illusions. He had not time in his life to loose any of them.
This polarity among the characters is fully brought out in The Sun’ Also Rises. Cohn is arch illusionist, white lake is a realist. Brett turns down Cohn’s proposal, but would like to have Jake’s company, even though he is an impotent person sexually.
Subconscious Fears
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, the realist, makes elaborate use of popular superstition. In Chapter I, Huck kills a spider, and declares that this act of his would fetch him some bad luck. In Chapter IV, he narrates how he upset a salt cellar once, and how nervous he felt for he feared some ill luck would pursue him. He never questions the basis of his beliefs. He also goes in for the remedies that would keep evil off, but he has no faith in their efficacy. He is deeply immersed in the culture and environment of which he is a part. In Hemingway’s writing, this aspect takes on a­more symbolic and less easily defined meaning. It occurs more than, once in his novels, establishing always a tone of foreboding an atmosphere of imminent disaster. In A Farewell to Arms Catherine fears that she will be dead in the rain, and she does die at the end of the novel and rain continues to fall. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the gypsy woman, Pilar, predicts Jordan’s death, and at the end he lies on a hill-slope waiting for death and the fascist cavalry officer, Barrendo.
The Role of Rivers
The use the two authors make of rivers in their works is more than coincidental. The river, Mississippi, in Huckleberry Finn has been called a kind of god, for Huck and Jim find their only refuge on the raft floating on the river. Here on the raft they feel secure from the brutalities that they have witnessed on the shore. In Hemingway, water plays more than an ordinary role. On the banks of the Irati, Jake and his companion feel a sort of religious awe. In the Big Two-Hearted River, Nick recovers his sanity and balance which seem to have been shattered by the war. He nurses his wounded psyche back to health and regains his confidence to face the world once again. In A Farewell to Arms, Henry jumps into the Tagliomento and emerges cleansed of his false illusions. The eternal Gulf Stream mocks at the puny struggles and achievements of human mortals. And Santiago achieves a sense of identity, fishing in the same Gulf Stream.
Quest For Identity
Perhaps the most outstanding concern of the two authors is -one allied to the Socratic dictum “know thyself”. Hemingway’s novels and short stories reveal a pattern of quest for the most enduring values, values that could make life a worth-while experience. The famous Hemingway code enshrines some of these values. Similarly Huck explores what values he ought to cherish. After playing a humiliating prank on Jim, he takes issue with contemporary convention and renounces all his prior ‘conditioning’ by saying : “It made me feel so mean I almost kissed his foot ... It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger but I done it, and I wasn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.” This resolution of a moral dilemma made Huck feel good afterwards. He also throws overboard Miss Watson’s morality, and the accepted religious views. Both writers fall back on experience as the only test of truth.
One may not accept Hemingway’s moral, and philosophical convictions but he remained true to them throughout his life. His range may be limited to his personal experiences only, but his art is solid and purposeful. Considering the singularity of his art, the significant fact is that so many of its threads seem to run back to Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn.

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