The following review appeared 2 September 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Like many who are serious about Twain, I have a rather large collection of critical works on and about the man and his writings. These can be divided into two categories. The first are those that are quite detailed and "weighty" in their approach to the subject, and thus of great value for scholarly research, dissertation development, and theoretical musings. The second category are those that are lightweight and nary a twain's depth in original research. These are excellent for the teacher new to Mark Twain, for the person needing a quick snippet or two of interesting Twain facts, and for the Twainaholic who collects all critical works that speak to the author. Charles A. Norton's Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain: Death, Deceit, Dreams and Disguises falls into this latter category.
Norton's sub-title Death, Deceit, Dreams and Disguises is a broad one. To be sure, critical works have come and gone with a primary focus on but one of these. Yet I liked the alliteration; it seemed to entice with a promise of "here, in this small tome, all you've ever wanted to know about the four 'Ds' in a neat package."
I am a reader who expects a book to be nicely structured so that it's easy to see where the author is taking me as he or she makes point upon point in reaching the ultimate position of his or her work. Thus it was not surprising that I expected this book to address the "themes" of death, deceit, dreams, and disguises in a fairly structured manner so that I could follow the author's points, theories, and insights related to each area. I was surprised to find that no such creature existed and, in fact, it wasn't until page 182 that Norton takes each item and succinctly talks of each. Prior to this, "death, deceit, dreams, and disguises" is mentioned collectively three times, as if to remind the reader that this really is what the book is about; just be patient and I'll get there. Like Huck's trip down the river, Norton's book meanders with a stop in some death here, a tad of deceit over there, a few dreams around the next bend, and occasional disguises underfoot. Much of the book's "journey" (pages 72 through 160) seems to spend more time doing a Cliff's Notes look at the novel.
Chapter 1 of the book is entitled "The Enigma of Huckleberry Finn," and it is in this chapter that Norton solidly establishes his book is geared toward the first time teachers of Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norton writes:
The treatment here of Huckleberry Finn, because a majority of the readers will not have read in great detail anything about the life of Mark Twain, presents an extended biographical treatment, but it also includes some useful details and views that more experienced Mark Twain readers may not be familiar with (p. 15).
The "enigma" of Chapter 1 is simply a laundry list of questions about the novel, including:
These are the "Holy gee!" questions that college freshmen and others new to Twain ask, but definitely not the material of new critical ground.
Okay, now we know: someone picking up this work to better understand the complex issues of death, deceit, dreams, and disguises in Huckleberry Finn will not have read much about Twain. Yes, Norton does offer some interesting biographical items about Twain and Huckleberry Finn. It's the sort of fascinating color commentary that makes any ho-hum play-by-play spring to life, if only briefly. Some I had not known, others I had forgotten, but certainly all are nice to know; a few:
All of which is not heady stuff, but interesting ... and "interesting" helps propel along any non-fiction book. And any data, anecdotes, or stories that add to the historical foundation of Huckleberry Finn certainly add to the understanding of the novel.
Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 are titled "Strange Beginnings for a Great Novel," "Learning on the Road," "Going into the Territory," and "A Book and a Marriage." They do little to expand on the sub-title of Death, Deceit, Dreams and Disguises, rather continuing to focus on Twain's life from boyhood through 1871.
Chapter 6 titled "Writing Tom Sawyer" offers an example of what is fairly common in the book--tossing in bits of historical info without any reference to where the material came from. Norton writes:
Huck's speech characteristics descend from the vernacular of English immigrants working with slave populations in Virginia; touches of the Appalachian vernacular of Kentucky and Tennessee people carried to Missouri by the Clemens family and friends; and the speech of Huck's model, Tom Blankenship, an undereducated Pike Country (sic) and black vernacular found in Missouri (p. 56).
I may be old-fashioned but I like to know what is original with an author and what has been learned from others to help bolster his or her point. Again and again Norton gives us information that certainly is interesting but offers no clue as to his sources.
Chapter 7 titled "Finishing and Polishing Huckleberry Finn" is in essence only an introduction to Twain getting ready to write Huckleberry Finn. Norton discusses Twain's feelings on racial prejudice; Twain's need for and interest in writing for money; Twain's interest in writing on the hypocrisy of churches and other aspects of life; and the founding of his publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Company. Again, nothing new here and certainly nothing that talks of death, deceit, dreams, or disguises.
One item discussed in Chapter 7 is illustrative of Norton's tendency to make vague references to obscure items that he assumes readers of his book will understand. Norton states "...but the discovery of an altered illustration that made it appear obscene delayed the release [of Huckleberry Finn]." Some readers may ask, "WHICH illustration was altered?" It makes no difference that many readers will already know it was the Phelps illustration (with the caption, "Why do you reckon 't is?" in Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn), it is incumbent on the author to be more specific.
Other examples of assuming readers may know something they don't abound, such as:
"He occasionally showed his feelings of racial prejudice as he did in a letter on August 24, 1853 at age 18 (p. 67)." The quote begs examples from the letter, as well as the nature of the letter, i.e., to whom it was written.
"There are some parts of the story, most very minor, that do not work in the novel and could have been left out (p. 76)." The obvious question: which parts?
Speaking of the objections raised to the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, Norton writes: "The matter has been debated on at least one occasion on a widely watched television show (p. 82)." I'd like to know, which show?
Again, on the controversy surrounding the language of Huckleberry Finn: "Jonathan Arac [Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target] says, in commenting on a leading Mark Twain scholar ... (p. 83)." Is it too much to want to know just WHO is this leading Twain scholar?
Chapter 7 concludes with Norton writing about a topic he obviously has a passion for--the First Amendment--and his views on the minimum grade level one should be at before the novel should be taught. Unfortunately, neither has anything to do with the sub-title of his book and each merely takes us on a side trip away from any logical direction he may be trying to establish.
Still searching for definitive information on Death, Deceit, Dreams, and Disguises, I came to Chapter 8. It is in this chapter, which often dragged with its re-telling of the novel, that Norton finally begins to find his stride as a critical writer. One of the best passages of writing in the book is on page 140, where Norton discusses the influence the post-Reconstruction period had on Twain's writing Huckleberry Finn. While this only obliquely ties into the four "Ds" it is nonetheless very good critical writing. Sadly, this type of writing is found too infrequently in Norton's book.
Chapter 9 titled "After 'The End'" is a review of the public and media reception of Huckleberry Finn and a reminder that the book was not considered the "great American novel" when first published.
Chapter 10, the final chapter, titled "The Renaissance of Huck Finn and Mark Twain" is really the heart of Norton's book. The other nine chapters could be condensed into several pages, and if combined with Chapter 10, would have better served as an academic journal contribution rather than a book. It is in this final chapter that Norton summarizes his sub-title of Death, Deceit, Dreams, and Disguises. Each of the four "Ds" gets a few paragraphs; I would have rather seen the book divided into four sections, each focusing on Death, Deceit, Dreams, and Disguises. Had the author done this initially, he may have determined that he either did not have enough to write a critical book or that more research was needed.
Norton's bibliography is divided into two sections. The first is headed "General Information" which lists The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (LeMaster and Wilson, eds.); and Mark Twain A-Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings (R. Kent Rasmussen.) The second "Special Editions" list contains six different editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are many references to works made throughout the book, but these never appear in the bibliography.
Norton's book is self-published, and in self-published works the occasional typo is not unexpected. Yet because they tend to be uncommon these are quickly batted aside as a pesky mosquito and the reading and comprehension continue, unabated. However, when those typos turn into errors of grammar, sentence structure, wrong words, and misspellings on the majority of the book's pages--as they do in Norton's book--the writer must be brought to task. Not only does this reduce the overall credibility of the writer, but such constant distractions detract from the reader's focus on the content of the book. I don't believe that anyone takes pleasure in writing a book review that is less than stellar. Indeed, each of us who reviews a critical work on Twain hopes for a new view on the man and/or his writings. We are eager for a refreshing breath of criticism that gives us pause to think and re-think. Norton's book does have its place, but it is a work that should have been given much stronger structure, a few more edits, and lots more proofreading before it was published.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Errol Sull is an Adjunct Professor at Niagara University
where he teaches two semester-long courses in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
He has written three books, and written for Harper's, Gourmet,
American Heritage, and other publications. His essay on the use of Huckleberry
Finn in teaching prison inmates is included in Vic Doyno's upcoming CD release
of the novel. He hosts the Annual Mark Twain Birthday Party & Symposium,
and recently performed his "Huckleberry Finn Rap" at the International
Mark Twain Conference at Elmira, New York in honor of Lou Budd's 80th birthday.
This is his first review for the Mark Twain Forum.