The end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is profoundly American. After some rip-snorting adventures down the Mississippi River, the "thirteen or fourteen or along there" year old Huck Finn eschews “sivilizing” at the hands of his aunt and reckons to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.”
Huck’s is a defining national gesture, rolling your shoulder out of the grip of conventionalism and testing the strength of your contents against the unknown. It’s almost a genetic inclination: it was there at the initial settling of the so-called untamed land, was there at the end of Huck Finn, and was there at the head of On the Road when Sal Paradise lit out for a whole different sort of wilderness to disprove a “feeling that everything was dead.” When the American West was, for all intents and purposes, broken and tamed and it seemed there were no more territories to light out to anymore, American set out for the moon.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885. In that vantage of narrating, Huck estimates the action of his story took place “forty to fifty years ago.” In that case, the fictional Huck would be lighting out not too long after a sixteen-year-old Christopher “Kit” Carson left his conventional rural life in Missouri (Carson was in Howard County, about 100 miles southwest of Hannibal, the model of Huck’s fictional St. Petersburg) to become a mountain man and trapper in the “virgin” West. Kit Carson trapped and traveled thoroughly and successfully through the unmapped regions of the continent, gaining a reputation for his smarts and cunning. That reputation landed him a guide job with John Frémont, who – with Carson’s help – laid the spiritual and cartographic track through the wilderness that would accommodate the coming American expansion.
With much thanks to Frémont’s boasting, Carson’s backwoods acumen and derring-do earned him a reputation back East. Carson became a folk hero in his own lifetime, the star of serialized adventure stories and dime novels – just the sort of blood and thunder fare that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and their friends would base their own play and imaginings on.
Of course, these tales of trapping, mountain manning, and Indian killing – Carson was especially lauded as a killer and scalper of Indians, those savage scourges of American expansion – were bloated, bombastic exaggerations that ignored the real hardships. But it was romanticized spurious stories like this, which kept just barely a pinkie toe in reality, that became an accelerant for young Americans who were feeling their once New World turning into the Old World and were itching for change, for challenge, to light out for the territory and to prove to themselves that not everything was dead.
To the reader, Huck’s declared plan for escape at the end of Adventures has sequel written all over it. Tom and Huck had all the makings of folk heroes; Tom the calculating trickster, Huck the capable, honorable huckleberry. At the end of Huck’s story, you can’t help but imagine all the adventuring Tom and Huck would do after their time on Big River. However, as it looks back from the vantage of “forty to fifty years” hence, there’s a tacit foreboding to the end of Adventures. With history in mind, to say in 1845 that you were going to “light of for the Territory ahead of the rest” is as ominous as a character in a horror movie announcing they’re going to investigate a strange noise they heard. Those years will be tough.
Twain did manage a lackluster sequel of sorts. The story Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians finds Huck, Tom, and Jim travelling the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie. Since then, a few authors have submitted their weak tea version of the further adventures. Finally, one hundred and thirty years after the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Robert Coover – one of America’s most revered postmodern writers – has written what feels like a worthy successor to Twains beloved classic.
Following the foofaraw of Go Set a Watchman, readers wouldn’t be blamed for being just a bit sequel shy. Like Atticus Finch, Huckleberry Finn has transcended literary figure to become animate in most people’s minds. Coover, however, handles Huck faithfully and ably. There’s no “turns out Atticus Finch’s a racist” shocker here. In the venerable, playful hands of Coover, Huck is still a perennial, compulsive rightdoer struggling to make it through a world that has a habit of rewarding wrongdoing. And Tom Sawyer is ever the opportunist, not letting anything or anyone stand in the way of an adventure. In Huck Out West, Twain’s familiar characters are true to form – it’s the world and its stakes that have become more serious and severe, the consequences of adventure irrevocable.
True to his word, Huck left civilization for the Territory, Tom and the now-free Jim in tow. But Coover quickly lets the reader know that the baby teeth have fallen out of this adventure. Huck tells that the going was hard early on, and, finding themselves destitute, he and Tom – well, mostly Tom – decided to sell Jim to a group of Cherokees, using the money to buy riding boots. It’s a trade-off that apparently suits them well as soon after they fall under the employ of the famous Pony Express.
They spend their early years “adventuring around without no thoughts about next day.” For Tom, life was still viewed through the lens of a dime novel. When the Pony Express goes bust (around 1861), the two “pards” find themselves broke again. They take odd work guarding “wagon trains and run dispatches and handle horses and scout for whichever armies and exploring parties” they happen to come upon. When they join up with the Union, Huck struggles with authority, whereas Tom takes to it, palling around with all the bosses. When Tom learns of the planned simultaneous hanging of “mor’n three hundred Sioux warriors” up in “Minnysota”, Tom demands they go. And it’s there that they separate, Tom thrilled by what a scourge the law could be, Huck – with his stalwart sense of right – uninterested.
Huck then finds himself “drawed out by Tom Sawyer’s stories and still here long after he’d upped and gone.” For six years, dreadfully lonely, he wrangles horses, rides shotgun on wagon trains, murders some buffalos, works “with one or t’other army”, fights Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, all the while dreaming of saving enough money to buy Jim’s freedom back. His life is an always hard, often unhappy one, though not without its joys and friendship. Eventually Huck falls in with Union army, under one General Hard Ass, the general whom he will desert and run from for the rest of the book.
It’s in the Lakota protected Black Hills that Huck hides out, at the time occupied sparsely by an old hermit whiskey-maker and a loony old prospector named – hint, hint – Deadwood. It’s Deadwood’s discovery of gold that brings the foundational trouble in Huck Out West. Because, as Huck says, “there ain’t much worse can happen to a body than getting rich. All good is fool’s gold.” And, of all the trouble that wealth is certain to bring, the worst thing it attracts – for Huck’s purposes, at least – is the exact same sivilizing he initially he fled rom.
(It might seem like I've given away the whole book, but don't sweat it: these are all adventures that Huck sums up in the first few pages.)
Coover’s Huck is a wonderfully pure observer of the West. “We made the war, not them,” he says, for instance, defending his friendship with “injuns”. Like Carson, he has an uneasy but highly reverent relationships with America's greatest foes. “We been bullying in and taking away everything they s’posed was their’n. They’re only just defending theirselves.” He aspires to take in the wilderness, not take it, a position that, a progress starts to kick down the door, he increasingly has to defend. Opposite from the unfortunate first draft version of Atticus Finch readers found in Go Set a Watchman, Huck is so wonderfully and expansively the Huck of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even through his heaps of hardships and travails, he stays himself.
There were two major waves of westering in 19th century America. The first wave consisted of the Kit Carson types, and all the boys that read the exaggerated tales of his adventures. This exodus was a rejection of civilization and meant a life that was, as Huck finds out, hard, lonely, and precarious. Many men in the territories made their living as trappers, sending pelts for fashion back East. A combination of over-trapping and changes in fashion effectively put these trappers out of business, but many were able to supplement their lost income by acting – as Carson did – as guides for Eastern adventure seekers who wanted to experience for themselves the thrills they’d read about in their dime novels and men like Frémont, who desired to tame the wild land. In effect, the mountain men cleared the way for the next wave of comers, and undermined their own desire for apartness. When you go off the beaten path, you can't help but make a new path.
The next wave came waving the banner of Manifest Destiny. That being the idea that America and Americans were inherently great, and therefore anywhere that Americans went would become great as well, the wilderness reformed in the American image. These ultimately turned out to be “the rest” that Huck was trying to get out ahead of. "Go west young man, and grow up with the country,” implored John Babsone Lane Soule in 1851 – that declaration later to be taken up more famously by Horace Greely in 1965. Such a philosophy -- just as cooked up and exaggerated as the exploits of Kit Carson – propelled a mass national migration that has ever sense left those who wound up in the West struggling to untangle rhetoric from reality.
Huck Out West is well matched to its predecessor. Twain’s book is something of a song of innocence; Coover’s very much a song of experience. Read together, they make for a compelling and entertaining coming of age story for the country. Read together, they exemplify how the American Myth and the American Experience are rarely the same thing, how the national desire to make your own way will always have on its heels the national desire to conquer and “civilize." Read together, in the state that country currently finds itself in, Huck Out West more or less wonders, as many have found themselves doing over the past year, when exactly America was ever so great.