Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/34

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
16
Mark Twain

plot, suggested by Charlotte M. Yonge's The Prince and the Page, is fascinating to the youthful imagination; and the notion underlying it is to the older reader the most characteristic element in the book. The exchange of clothes and stations effected by Tom Canty and Prince Edward, later Edward VI, provided for the prince opportunities for feeling the common lot which the democratic author would gladly have given to all the monarchs of Europe. Occasionally writing over the heads of his audience, he utilizes the situation to express his inveterate sense of the evil of monarchical institutions and in particular his peculiarly flaming indignation at obsolete English penal laws. Humorous situations, sometimes tragically humorous, are abundant; but neither in the simple and vigorous prose of the narrative nor in the archaic style of the dialogue does one find at full strength the idiom and the first-hand observation for which one values Tom Sawyer. The Prince and the Pauper is a distinguished book in the class to which Little Lord Fauntleroy was added in 1886; but it is overshadowed by Mark Twain's own work.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) overshadows it; but that is nothing. Huckleberry Finn exceeds even Tom Sawyer almost as clearly as Tom Sawyer exceeds The Prince and the Pauper. Mark Twain had conceived the tale in 1876 as a sequel to the story of Tom. In the course of its long gestation he had revisited the Mississippi Valley and had published his superb commemoration of his own early life on the river. He wrote his second masterpiece of Mississippi fiction with a desire to express what in Tom Sawyer he had hardly attempted, what, indeed, came slowly into his possession, his sense of the half-barbaric charm and the romantic possibilities in that grey wilderness of moving water and the rough men who trafficked on it. He had given power to the earlier story by the representation of characters and incidents which are typical of the whole of American boyhood in rural communities in many parts of the country. He gave power to Huckleberry Finn by a selection of unusual characters and extraordinary incidents which are inseparably related to and illustrative of their special environment. He shifted heroes, displacing quick-witted, imaginative Tom by the village drunkard's son, because Huck in his hard, nonchalant, adventurous adolescence is a more distinctive pro-