Today we are focusing on two authors who might well be called the “bad boys of literature”. I am posting their favorite books together because, although they both lived somewhat of a rebellious life and rebelled against some of the confines of literature, they both share some favorite books.
Henry Miller is not an author for whom it is difficult to list favorite books. He did, in fact, write an entire book about the subject. Entitled “The Books in My Life”, Miller described these books as “a vital experience”. What a glorious critique for any author to receive!
Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed “There is no friend as loyal as a book!” It was said that he would, on occasion, send a list to select friends of those books he would “rather read again for the first time… than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”
One of the favorite books of both of these acclaimed writers was written by a writer we’ve already discussed – Mark Twain. The book is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. This novel by Mark Twain was first published in the United Kingdom in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English, characterized by local color regionalism. I will note here and now that it is often on lists of books to be banned or censored because of the language.
Sometimes listed as “Adventures of…” and other times “The Adventures of …”, this book is unusual for its beginning. It opens with a “notice” from a character named G.G., identified as “the Chief of Ordnance.” G.G. demands that no one approach the novel with intent to find morality and/or seriousness. In its declaration that anyone looking for motive, plot, or moral will be prosecuted, banished, or shot, the Notice establishes a sense of blustery comedy that pervades the rest of the novel. This is followed by an insert from the author himself called “the explanatory”. The Explanatory takes on a slightly different tone, still full of a general good-naturedness but also brimming with authority. In the final paragraph, Twain essentially dares the reader to believe that he might know or understand more about the dialects of the South, and, by extension, the South itself. Twain’s good nature stems in part from his sense of assurance that, should anyone dare to challenge him, Twain would certainly prove victorious.
Those wishing to have this book banned object to the language of the period. To be sure, the language was inflammatory, not in intent perhaps but in usage. In his book, Twain accurately portrayed the period historically as well as the absurdity and lack of humanity in assuming people should be valued by the hue of their skin. It also portrayed the class structure and how those caught in the middle might object, seeking a better form of humanity.
One might say that the yearnings of Huckleberry Finn are reflected in the lives of Arthur Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Both men engaged in adventures trying to find themselves and a better version of man. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a serious novel, and Twain’s note on dialogue speaks for the authority and experience of the author and establishes the novel’s anti-romantic, realistic stance. In short, the Notice and Explanatory, which at first glance appear to be disposable jokes, link the novel’s sense of fun and lightheartedness with its deeper moral concerns. This coupling continues throughout Huckleberry Finn and remains one of its greatest triumphs. It is the approach I feel that Miller and Hemingway also sought in their own works.
This series is about more than just favorite books. It is about how those books have influenced not only the lives of writers but also our world. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” asks a very important question – What is freedom? Huckleberry Finn presents two main visions of freedom in exploring questions about the meaning of liberty and at what price, if any, a person is truly free. Both Huck, an abused, neglected young boy, and Jim, a black slave, seek freedom, though they have very different ideas about what freedom means. Both seek that freedom by running away from their life situation and the Mississippi River becomes their avenue to freedom.
One of the unforeseen effects of this book was the opening of a youth crisis shelter eighty years after the book’s publication named Huckleberry House. A shelter for runaway and homeless youth located in San Francisco by Larry Beggs, this shelter offers counseling, food, shelter, and medical attention as needed. Today Huckleberry Youth Programs also sponsor Huckleberry Youth Health Center, Huckleberry’s Community Assessment and Resource Center, both in San Francisco as well as the Huckleberry Teen Health Program in San Rafael, CA. Huckleberry’s for Runaways opened its door on June 18, 1967. Their efforts helped change being a runaway from a criminal offense to the concerned social problem it is. Today the justice system is able to encourage voluntary communication with parent and child using family therapy and other helpful tools instead of merely incarcerating the child.
Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, and Ernest Hemingway all sought to reflect the times in which they wrote of but also to illustrate the idiosyncrasies that humans often portray in their living. Often humankind seeks to emancipate itself from itself. We create the very constrains within which find ourselves bound and then rebel against. In their writing, they all asked us to take a good look at ourselves and then, if possible, make tomorrow a better day and create a better world.