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Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield

The tradition of American literature accurately reflects the notion of an American identity and purpose. In the great writing of American authors there is a repeated theme which pitches innocence against experience, freedom against the constraints of conventional life, honesty against compromise and corruption, America against Europe. Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, though separated by a century, both stand centrally in this tradition, as do Thoreau in his cabin in the woods, Hawkeye in the prairies, Isabel Archer in Florence, and Ellen Olenska in new York.

All of these characters, like Huck and Holden, seek an uncorrupted life, but are acutely aware that such a life is difficult to achieve. Huck Finn has to flee from the world which would “sivilize” him, staging his own death, even, but everywhere sees the folly, hypocrisy and cruelty of the human world. “The Catcher in the Rye, in fact, is a kind of Huckleberry Finn in modern dress. ”(Branch, 21). Holden, like Huck, feels his basic moral sense offended by the modern world and seeks to flee from it.

Holden accepts failure in the end, and perhaps Huck’s decision “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (Twain, 369) is also doomed, as the “territory” itself becomes incorporated into the conventional world. But Huck never loses his “sound heart”, as Twain called it, while Holden, perhaps because the progress of modernity has made hope so much more difficult, teeters on the edge of derangement, and sees only despair. Huck and Jim flee from what claims to be “sivilization”, but what in fact turns out to be, in the course of the book, a corrupt and immoral world.

Its assumption of moral superiority is questioned almost instinctively by Huck’s practical questions. The widow and Miss Watson think that the problems of human life can be dealt with by their naive pious optimism, singing hymns and looking forward to going to “the good place” and sitting on a cloud. At the same time they are slave-holders. There is no living meaning to their religion. Compare it, with its “spiritual gifts” (Twain, 60), with the solemnity of Huck’s feelings on the river:

It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a little kind of a low chuckle. (119) The language of the narration is important here in that it is a deliberate refusal to be “cultured” and to write a “literary” book. Holden similarly talks to us in his own vernacular, describing those he dislikes for their dishonesty as “phoneys”.

The main effect is to describe the world, and emotions, with a new freshness. The island is the location of their first essays in the free life, and it has many of the characteristics of Eden. It is the world before man corrupted it, full of plentiful supplies of food, natural shelter, an opportunity to live close to nature. Once they set out on the raft journey southwards the only true freedom is in the middle of the river. Every time they touch land they encounter trouble. The wrecked steamboat stages the brutality of criminals.

The Shepherdson house, for all its apparent gentility, presides over the insanity of murder, culminating in a scene of nauseating barbarity – the wounded boys jumping for the river, the Shepherdson men running along the bank and shooting at them, and crying “Kill them, kill them! ” (175) and the bodies whose eyes Huck covers respectfully. Huck’s moral nature is agonized by the events; “I don’t want to talk much about the next day … It made me so sick, I most fell out of the tree” (172-5). But his horror is mixed with an uncontrollable sympathy for human stupidity.

Typically, he even sees himself as guilty – as if he cannot bear to attribute so much evil to the human race as to suggest that it is their faults. His tears over Buck, “for he-was mighty good to me”(175), are the single flash of human feeling amongst all the lunacy. Then we hear Colonel Sherburn’s denunciation of cowardice, the intoxicated folly of the people at the camp meeting, and the sentimental indulgence at the funeral of Peter Wilks – “funeral orgies” (232) as the king so inspiredly calls them.

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