"ALL MODERN American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills of Africa. He wrote at least two clear expressions of that sentiment--the sexually ambivalent story, "The Last Good Place," and A Farewell to Arms. In each, a couple flees the States, and in each they are fugitive not only from laws but from constraint on their love; in each, a young woman cuts her hair short and appears mannish; in each, the flight becomes a quest for the state of nature, the New Eden--an America of the mind.
Greg Matthews, an Australian, in his first novel writes a sequel to Twain's great Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Matthews has read Twain ardently and no doubt he has read Hemingway too. But he overlooks the implications of "modern" in Hemingway's famous statement. Hemingway wrote about the American fiction he was helping to make in response to Twain and to the spirit of America. But he also wrote, and wrote about, a fiction that Twain helped to define for Hemingway. It had to do with a young man's loss of his father, his attraction to and flights from figures of the mother; and that young man's utterly American journey to the dark frontier (a psychic as well as physical one) in the absence of women, but in the presence of the other-colored companion and guide. (Think of Hemingway's "The Battler," Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg.) Hemingway's comprehension of, and love for, Huck Finn's adventures was intense, American, both personal and literary, and was made palpable in his fiction.
While I intend no disrespect for Matthews--he has labored long and hard, and he has mastered much of the apparent sound of Twain--his sequel echoes none of the personal or cultural resonances to which I allude. It strikes me that nearly any intelligent reader or writer can digest some Twain and emerge with such lines as, "Dirt on its own's a mighty good thing . . . and water on its own is mighty good too, but when you mix 'em together you get mud." This is what Matthews does: he mixes a lot of events and conversations and remembered Twain together, and he emerges muddied. He ventriloquizes for 500 pages. After the Widow Douglas' house burns down--the fire gets rid of the burden of Jim's family, freeing Jim and Huck to journey on--our lads make their way with Forty-Niners to the California gold rush. We find once more that Huck is in drag, that religion's a sham--there is a Whorehouse of Christ the Lamb--and there are traveling theatricians, hundreds of lies, and some amusing though not inspired doggerel. Jim is in and out of danger because of American bigotry; sex is alluded to; Huck on and off sees signs, and then the person, of his "dead" father.
John Seelye's The True jump on page 10 author id goes on page 9 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1970, is an intelligent critic's response to other critics as well as to Twain; it listens to Hemingway's further comment on the Twain--"If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end"--and it concludes with a devoted nod to Hemingway. It is moving literary criticism in fictional form.
But Matthews writes as if nothing in Twain or anywhere else were moving. He speaks of feeling, to be sure; but he evokes little; and his humor is capable of nastiness. Jim's family must be got out of the way so that the sequel can progress. Matthews burns down the Douglas boarding house where the family lives and works. Our lads are of course out of danger. Jim mourns the deaths and reminds us that Elizabeth, his daughter once thought to be deaf and dumb, has recently recovered her hearing. He says, " 'Po little 'Lisabeth . . . Now she ain't ever goin' to talk.' " Huck--out of all the reactions Matthews could have conjured--reminds us of his distaste for school, not the deeper humanity that Twain makes clear again and again, by saying, " 'Look at it this way, Jim, now she won't have the bother of learning.' " There is something obscene there, particularly if we recall that in Chapter 23 of the original, Jim remembers how, after his daughter recovered from scarlet fever, she was mysteriously disobedient to him. He slapped her for not listening to his instructions, and only afterward learned that she'd been struck deaf. He says, " 'De Lord God Amighty fogive po' ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long's he live!' "
Finally, the ghost of Pap becomes Pap-not-really-dead. Pap, in Matthews' book, is a shallow, cunning wastrel. As such, he loses the force he had in the original. A ghost is of course less frightening if it is subsequently seen as natural; in Twain's book, Pap was, alive or presumably dead, a nightmare figure out of childhood's deepest terrors. Now, in Matthews' book, he is only a second-rate crook. In novels, such unfinished business as fathers presumed--but not surely known to be--dead, their apparent ghostly signs, take on mythic force and mystery. Such matters propel and motivate, and they enlighten us about the original Huck Finn. In the sequel the protagonist responds to a plot that is only on the surface--Pap is alive and a nuisance and a threat --for it is made by language and event, but is made of nothing that is within the being of the boy. Pap's life in the sequel is less real than his authentic-feeling absence and ghostliness in the original.
Twain once considered writing a sequel to his Adventures, in which Huck would be a mad old man. Twain's Huck is more likely to have been a persuasive Ahab than Matthews' Jim would be a Queequeg or Huck an Ishmael --and Matthews does threaten a sequel to Moby-Dick on his final page. To him, apparently, all American fiction is susceptible of endless visits and revisits, a kind of literary Disney World.
Why not, then, a sequel to A Farewell to Arms? And then a sequel to Papa's African writings, with a sequel Papa saying to a sequel Kandisky that all modern American sequels begin with a sequel to Huckleberry Finn? A novel must feel necessary to live and work. I am wondering, then, without wanting to be as cruel as Matthews is to Jim, why his novel came to pass, and then survived its author's fiery gaze.