In Green Hills of Africa, Kandisky asks Hemingway : “What about the good writers ?” Hemingway replies : “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers ... All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. 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.”
Natural American Speech
It is an extremely pompous statement but one can see how indirectly Hemingway acknowledges his own debt to Mark Twain and specially to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In this book Mark Twain had turned away, from the literariness of the English literary style. He made an American boy speak the natural spoken English of his native land––one might call it American. He is one of the first few writers who had an excellent command of a natural spoken American language. He is among the first few writers who introduced it into literature and, at the same time, made a good job of it.
Freshness of Language
When a language grows out of the experiences of the people and has not become stylized yet, it carries with it a freshness and a poetry which are usually absent in the decadent literary parent language. The American that Mark Twain used grew on the banks of
. Similarly, the language that Hemingway used in his early stories grew directly out of the experiences of Nick Adams and other characters like Frederic Henry, or the prostitutes in “The Light of the World” or the language of the race-course as in “My Old Man”. Mississippi
The Language of Experience
Hemingway brought into his earliest school-pieces, in the imitation of Ring Lardner, the language of the sportsman. Later, his journalistic experience had shown him that language is a living reality and it acquires freshness in the hands of those who are engaged in the activities of life. He also brought to literature the language of the brothel, the bar-room, the bull-ring and the barrack. Here is a passage from My Old Man :
I couldn’t see my old man anywhere. One horse kneed himself up and the jock had hold of the bridle and mounted and went slamming on after the place money. The other horse was up and away by himself, jerking his head and galloping with the bridle rein hanging and the jock staggered over to one side of the track against the fence. Then Gilford rolled over to one side off my old man and got up and started to run on three legs with his off hoof dangling and there was my old man lying there on the grass flat out with his face up and blood all over the side of his head. I ran down the stand and bumped into a jam of people and got to the rail and cop grabbed me and held me and two big stretchers bearers were going out after my old man and around on the other side of the course I saw three horses, strung way out, coming out of the trees and taking the jump.
One can see that it is the language of a young boy who has grown up among jockeys, stables and the race-course. Similarly, in “The Battler” we see another young boy, Nick, describing his experiences in his own language:
“When are we going to eat, Bugs ?” the prize-fighter asked.
“Are you hungry, Nick ?”
“Hungry, as hell.”
“Hear that, Bugs ?”
“I hear most of what goes on.”
“That ain’t what I asked you.”
“Yes. I heard what the gentleman said.”
Into a skillet he was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs, crouching on long, nigger legs over the fire, turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side baste the eggs with the hot fat.
And in A Farewell to Arms we come across the aimless chatter of fighting men when they are waiting for action to begin:
“Priest today with girls,” the captain said looking at the priest and at me. The priest smiled and blushed and shook his head. The captain baited him often.
“Not true ?” asked the captain. “Today I see priest with girls.”
“No,” said the priest. The other officers were amused at the baiting.
“Priest not with girls,” went on the captain. “Priest never with girls,” be explained to me. He took my glass and filled it, looking at my eyes all the time, but not losing sight of the priest.
“Priest every night five against one.” Every one at the table laughed. “You understand ? Priest every night five against one.” He made a gesture and laughed loudly. The priest accepted it as a joke.
“The Pope wants the Austrians to win the war,” the major said. “He loves Franz Joseph. That’s where the money comes from. I am an atheist.”
“Did you ever read the Black Pig ?” asked the lieutenant. “I will get you a copy. It was that which shook my faith.” “It is a filthy and vile book,” said the priest. “You do not really like it.”
“It is very valuable,” said the lieutenant. “It tells you about those priests. You will like it,” he said to me. I smiled at the priest and he smiled back across the candled light. “Don’t you read it,” he said.
“I will get it for you,” said the lieutenant.
“All thinking men are atheists,” the major said. “I do believe in the Free-masons, however.”
Huck and Nick
One can clearly see that the famous Hemingway style of narration and dialogue has its roots in the style of Mark Twain. Both writers were trying to use everyday language for narrating the experiences of two sensitive boys Huck and Nick. Both of them demand in their writing a fidelity to truth. They are sceptical of the literary language which, they thought, had become decadent and therefore unfit for the new type of experiences that they were dealing with.
Hemingway’s debt to Mark Twain is also perceptible in his conception of the character of Nick Adams. “The pattern of violence, psychological wounding, escape and death” are common to the experiences of Huck and Nick. Nick grew up in
Northern Michigan where life was row. Huck grew up on the where life was glory. Huck is over-exposed to violence as Nick is. Each event in the life of the two boys leaves a scar which is difficult to obliterate. All along the way there are bloodshed and pain. There are thirteen separate, corpses which Huck saw and he wished “I hadn’t come ashore that night to see such things.” And lots of times Huck dreamed about them. He is tortured by night-mares and suffers from insomnia as Nick does. This exposure to violence makes .these two boys disgusted with mankind in general. They put up with this aspect of the life as bravely as they can, but in, the process they themselves become casualties. Mississippi
Huck : A Mouth-Piece
Huck’s journey is a series of escapes from the world into the mysterious river, the
. “His strange journey down the glamorous Mississippi , blurred, mythic, and wondrously suggestive, becomes in the end a supremely effortless flight into a dark and silent unknown.” This is true literally as well as metaphorically. In the end, Mark Twain is forced to drop Huck altogether because he does not know how to manage this psychologically wounded boy. He turns over the story to Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain did not know how to manage Huck because the author himself had not been able to solve his own complications of life. He had unfortunately invested in, the boy some of those complications. All that he could do was to follow the pattern of a compulsive fascination for death and Huck’s experiences became an ideal-symbol for it. Mississippi
Nick : A Mouth-Piece
In Nick, we notice the deadly influence of the Bible-quoting mother and in order to escape from these sad realities he runs away from home. He is knocked off freight cars, meets evil in his encounters with murderers, crazy prize-fighters, prostitutes, homo-sexuals, lesbians and the like. The area of operation is
Northern Michigan and later the war-theatre of Europe. Nick is too, nexperienced to shoulder the responsibility of the knowledge of evil. With Nick’s coming of age the American childhood comes to an end and the American nation enters the confused period of adolescence. Nick tells again and again what happens to innocence when it meets with something that is evil in one form or the other. He is a pilgrim, in the journey of life as Huck was. The unsettled conditions after the war in Europe are not much different from the frontier condition’s prevalent during Huck’s life. Both are symbols of the beatings that innocence takes. Nick becomes the prototype of Jake Barnes in, The Sun Also Rises and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms.
The American Myth
The pattern of Nick’s experience is not, therefore, different from that of Huck. As Philip Young says : “Huck or Nick is the American myth in which the American nation reads much more than what meets the eye. It is the complexity of life that baffles Nick or Huck or their modern descendant, the American youth.” This explains for the continued popularity of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway’s fiction. Hemingway’s debt to Mark Twain is patently obvious.