Catcher in the Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry in the Rye

Teaching Huck Finn after Catcher in the Rye, I’m struck—again—by how much the second book owes the first.  Both boys suffer in their doubt.  They navigate without maps but, even if they had them, neither boy seems capable of reading a map’s signs.  Despite their impressive independence, neither can sustain himself, neither can accept help, and neither can pray.

Most of my students find Huck more likable.  Huck uses of the n-word heavily and, maddeningly, fails to abstract his affection for Jim into a rejection of Slavery. But Twain’s implicit affection for Huck usually wins readers over.   Huck is a liar like Holden—they see themselves as terrific fiction makers—but students often think Huck kinder because he witnesses violence without adopting it.  He is a victim.  Huck’s father Pap beats him regularly and, before Huck’s escape, chases him around a locked cabin with a knife, calling his son the “angel of death.”  Huck overhears thieves planning to kill one of their own.  He spies on a feud and the death of a new friend.  He watches an assassination of one man by another and the impotent crowd that wilts in the killer’s righteousness.  Yet Huck doesn’t take up violence himself.  Disillusionment never really sticks.  He remains a nice boy.

In contrast, Holden experiences little violence—a pimp punches him in the stomach over the price of a “throw”—but he often imagines violence.  He wears “a people-shooting hat” and thinks about chopping a guy’s head off with an ax, and pictures slamming the heads of profanity-writers against the steps until they are “good and bloody.”  He calls someone “a royal pain in the ass” in a fit of anger, and readers hear about his punching out all the garage windows after his brother’s death.  My students know he has a fuse and scoot back in their chairs when I ask if they could be Holden’s friend.  He may be more perceptive than Huck—not a wise fool but a wise smartass—yet readers trust him less.  His disillusionment galls them.  Most waffle over whether he’s a nice or not.

The difference creates reverse polarities. Some readers appreciate Holden in the end, but loving him requires heroic empathy and generosity.  You have to see his flaws—and who can’t?—without blaming him.  Every class contains a healthy number of Holden haters, people entirely intolerant of his voice.  At the opposite extreme, my students forgive Huck so much.  Though I find the escape Tom orchestrates for Jim unfunny, the pointless torture of a gentle and affectionate man, my students excuse Huck because resisting Tom isn’t in Huck’s nature.  And they laugh.  They are ready to see tearing up the letter revealing Jim’s location as a rejection of Slavery when it isn’t.  Many leave the book eager for a sequel despite Huck’s abject misanthropy in the last few paragraphs.

When students ask which book I like better, I hide behind art and say both have merits.  Salinger did not rewrite Huck Finn.  He was not “copying,” but transmuting what wasn’t new even in Twain’s time.  After all, how many naïve protagonists is an experienced reader likely to meet?—I could be writing about how Twain rewrote Tom Jones.  Salinger places his hero in a world less blessed with landmarks and thus speaks to his own zeitgeist and personal battles. Huck has the great issue of his century to define himself against. Holden has no clear moral imperative to orient him.  They are books, I say, refitting literary conventions to new times.

Still, my answer is a dodge.  For me, they are equally agitating—one because the main character’s affability can’t save him from unconscious cruelty and the other because the hero’s failings kill most of his credibility.  A solicitous reader sees these books are not what they purport to be.  Are readers meant to embrace either Huck or Holden?  One’s sweetness masks bile.  The other’s bile drowns its sweetness.

I’d be cutting my own throat if I said what I’d like to—my students aren’t asking the right question.  Are we supposed to read only what we like?  As unpopular as it is to say so these days, books can be medicinal.  While it’s wonderful to enjoy reading, some great books go well beyond entertainment, and some aren’t entertaining at all.  I’d like to tell my class to look for works that bother them.  I’d like to tell them to stop thinking about “good” and “bad”—I’m so exhausted hearing about it—and study their response.  A better question may be, “What does your reaction to Huck or Holden say about you?”


Filed under Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, J. D. Salinger, Laments, Mark Twain, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Writing

3 responses to “Catcher in the Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry in the Rye

  1. I wonder what your students’ reactions would be in you taught those two books in reverse order. I wonder how much of their affection for Huck owes to the charm of the remove of time.

    Incidentally and amusingly, I took the What Book Are You quiz, and I am The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Parts of the description (“With an affinity for floating down the river, you see things in black
    and white. The world is strange and new to you and the more you learn about it, the less
    it makes sense”) seem apt. Others (“You probably speak with an accent and others have a hard time
    understanding you and an even harder time taking you seriously. Nevertheless, your
    adventurous spirit is admirable. You really like straw hats”) are hilariously far off the mark.

    I was Moby Dick on a FB quiz–pretty scary. I don’t think about of Huck as “black and white” because he spends so much of the novel going back and forth in his thinking about Jim, and he doesn’t know what to do about the King and the Duke or the Wilks and a number of other matters.

    Curiously, I don’t teach these books in the same class. The freshmen read Catcher in the Rye and the juniors Huck Finn. I usually don’t have to make the connection for them, and they often tell me how much better they like Huck than they remember Holden.

  2. Sarah

    Hi, David,

    As usual, I always love your writing. It’s thoughtful, thought-provoking, and often lyrical in its syntax. But you’ve stepped on one of my favorite characters in literature, so I have to respond.

    You’re forgetting all the violence Holden has experienced. At the young (and impressionable) age of 13 he sees his “perfect” younger brother die of leukemia. Violent? Maybe not, but it certainly elicits him to question the fairness of the world. Most of us don’t have that sort of impetus to examine an inherently unfair world so young. Shortly after the death, Holden lashes out–by punching out the windows. Not because he is violent, but because he is in pain–AND–perhaps most importantly, because he needs his parents to see his pain and help him. But they leave him in the garage all night. Then they ship him away to boarding school after boarding school after boarding school. They push him away because he will force the issue of Allie (he always forces the issue, whether it’s in writing compositions for Stradlater or talking about him with Phoebe). He won’t forget him–can’t forget him–yet everyone else feels like that have to forget him.

    And then he goes away to Elkton Hills where he experiences his doppleganger’s death–James Castle–at the hands of six ruthless boys. Their punishment? Mere expulsion.

    His best friend next-door-neighbor Jane? Is molested by her stepfather, a “booze hound who’s running around the house naked, with Jane around, for godsakes.”

    Sunny? Is “young as hell–around my age”–and has been pressed into prostitution by Maurice, the aforementioned pimp who punches Holden. You’ll remember he doesn’t have sex with Sunny because he simply can’t be the person, the corrupt adult, who has any part in taking away one’s innocence.

    And then there’s Mr. Antolini–the revered teacher–who attempts to molest when he is at his emotional nadir.

    And through all this, Holden doesn’t want to hurt anybody as much as he wants to help EVERYBODY–at least every kid. He wants to spare Sunny, he wants to balance out the weight on the see-saw, he wants to save the ducks in Central Park, he wants to catch every child before the fall of the cliff.

    His visions of violence only really come when he’s protecting others–you’ll remember the smashing of the head is really to prevent the obscenities on the wall of an elementary school. Poor Holden, he doesn’t understand the word was written by a child her/himself. If he had, he would be disillusioned, but he would NEVER envision a violent act against that child, for chrissakes.

    He’s only misanthropic about those who deserve his misanthropy. His a kid; on the one hand, he doesn’t understand the world’s unfairness, but on the other, he’s experienced far too much of it to think it’s not what the world is truly like.

    Oh, and remember his hand? He purposely punched it through several garage windows after Allie’s death. He couldn’t make a good fist and punch anybody ever again, even if he really did want to.

    I appreciate the correction. You know this book very well, much better than I do.

    It wasn’t my purpose to step on anyone. I only meant to ask why readers respond so differently to the two characters, not how they might or should respond. The other half of my question, after all, is how to account for Huck’s gentleness. He’s experienced something like what Holden has—where’s Huck’s mother, for instance?—but he doesn’t react as Holden does.

    Just as you say, I think we should regard Holden with more sympathy. I like him, and you certainly give a reader plenty of reasons to say his violence comes from somewhere and is understandable. I’m just wondering why readers—and, granted, I’m mostly talking about adolescent students here—often fail to notice what you have, that Holden deserves sympathy.

    I did not mean to offend. —D

  3. Pingback: Walking Around The Year | Signals to Attend

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