It's hard to read Ron Powers' engaging new Mark Twain: A Life (Free Press) and not conclude that there's a congenital defect in the very heart of American literature. Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Flags of Our Fathers, argues that the man born Samuel Clemens "democratized the national voice by availing it of vernacular; rough action that sprawled over waterway and open terrain; comedy political consciousness, and skepticism toward the very idea of lofty instruction."
Where earlier authors looked to England and Europe for aesthetic inspiration and cultural validation, writes Powers, Twain provided a "radically new native voice [that was] diametrically the opposite of Jamesian eloquence [and which] radiated, in its very homespun ardency, a new sort of American truth."
You don't have to buy that argument fully to agree that Twain (1835?1910) helped literally to bring it all back home. He didn't just speak in an unmistakably American argot; he simultaneously conceptualized and criticized our national character and experience–and took for granted that they should be his grand subject matter. Whether memorializing the Mississippi River, traveling to the Holy Land, or introducing "Yankee ingenuity" to King Arthur's court, Twain was constantly measuring, defining, and questioning what it meant to be American as the U.S. grew in power, prestige, and influence throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
So what's the problem? Only this: Twain's acknowledged masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, inspires almost universal ambivalence among its biggest fans. "It's the best book we've had," pronounced Ernest Hemingway in 1932. "All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." Oh, but one more thing, counseled Papa: "If you must read it you must stop where…Jim is stolen from the boys [and imprisoned by a slave catcher]. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating."
As Powers puts it, "Huckleberry Finn endures as a consensus masterpiece despite these final chapters" in which Tom Sawyer leads Huck through elaborate, ineffectual, and grotesque machinations to rescue the runaway slave from Tom's Uncle Silas (even worse, we eventually learn that Jim has in fact been free the whole time). Most critics feel that once Tom Sawyer shows up, Huckleberry Finn devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy that cheapens the deep, transgressive bond that has evolved between Huck and Jim.
Yet it's fitting that Twain's most important and enduring work inspires feelings of awe and disgust (and not just on formal grounds–the American Library Association rates Huckleberry Finn as one of the most challenged books in K?12 schools, mostly for its heavy use of racial epithets). Twain himself was a bundle of discrepant impulses that somehow helped him rather than hindered him on his way to becoming the representative American of his age. Like another major 19th-century chronicler of America, Walt Whitman, Twain not only contained multitudes but contradicted himself.
The Missouri native fought briefly for the Confederacy but idolized U.S. Grant for preserving the Union (he eventually published the statesman's best-selling memoirs); wrote in favor of rights for African Americans but was fond of telling racist jokes (and co-authored with Bret Harte the grotesquely anti-Chinese play Ah Sin); assailed the Gilded Age yet formed a close personal and professional relationship with the robber baron Henry Rogers; lampooned con men and scam artists yet went broke by investing in crackpot inventions and get-rich-quick schemes; and so on.
Back in the mid-20th century, it was fashionable to argue that our national culture was, as Lionel Trilling put it in 1940, "a dialectic" and that our most representative writers "contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions." That gloss helps explain why Twain remains a central figure in American culture: His oeuvre is shot through with moral and intellectual conundrums. Indeed, understanding Twain as a contradictory character may even help to salvage the end of Huckleberry Finn.
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain had invented the American archetype of the prankish, wildly imaginative boy with a taste for adventure. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain reveals in ugly detail the limitations of that adolescent mentality when confronting the reality of American race relations. Caught in his own solipsistic worldview, Tom not only is incapable of understanding Jim's suffering; he puts the slave in mortal danger to fulfill his own romantic notions of escape and derring-do. In so completely deconstructing his signature creation, Twain not only forces his readers to re-evaluate a national icon, he embodies the American dialectic.