The problem with the story of "Huck Finn" is that the mighty river upon which Huck and Jim enjoy freedom and equality is sweeping them southward toward the densest slave states, where arrest and imprisonment are almost certain. This problem, too, repeats in American life, literature and politics. What happens when the river ends and our heroes must deal with the true grit of shore and soil? The American idealist has his dreams "fouled by dust," as Scott Fitzgerald puts it, and may end like Gatsby, ground beneath the wheels of status and power, the very same ones he hoped would drive his vehicle of transcendence. Or, like Willie Stark in"All the King's Men," he may lift the masses while destroying the souls of those close around himand perpetuating the corruption he once took arms against.
Mark Twain copped out by ending "Huck Finn" with the reappearance of Tom Sawyer, who succeeds in confining Huck and Jim under the pretense of hiding them, then reveals Jim is no slave after all, having been set free by Aunt Sally shortly after he disappeared. Huck "lights out for the territories," that is, he survives, sustaining the dream of the American Wild, from which great stories will ever go on arising.
But the particular problem of "Huck Finn" still waits at the mouth of the Mississippi and all along its shores. What do we do to escape slavery, the aftereffects of which still linger, and how can we tell the leaders who might make headway against treacherous currents from those who would simply exploit them and go with the flow?
Do we find our true America and come to grips with it through the grubby melodrama of political theater or in the bravest of our novels? Actually, the answer is both, or maybe neither, and in any case we can stop neither politics nor prose, in what Walt Whitman so rightly called "this our talking America."
Jeremy Larner is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter ("The Candidate") and author of, among other works, the novel "Drive, He Said."
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On they went, singing "Rest Eternal," and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.
Passersby made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: "Who is being buried?"--"Zhivago," they were told.--"Oh, I see. That's what it is."--"It isn't him. It's his wife."--"Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It's a fine funeral."
The last moments slipped by, one by one, irretrievable. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the earth and everything that dwells therein." The priest, with the gesture of a cross, scattered earth over the body of Maria Nikolaievna. They sang "The souls of the righteous." Then a fearful bustle began. The coffin was closed, nailed, and lowered into the ground. Clods of earth rained on the lid as the grave was hurriedly filled by four spades. A little mound formed. A ten-year-old boy climbed on it. Only the state of stupor and insensibility which is gradually induced by all big funerals could have created the impression that he intended to speak over his mother's grave.
Among the group of people waiting at the fortress was a schoolgirl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt and, by the loop at its neck, a red hot-water bottle. Certain buses used to pass that way then and passengers looking out will have noticed a schoolgirl. Imagine, a schoolgirl: she must have somebody inside. Who are all those people, anyway? Even from the top of a bus, lurching on past as the lights go green, the group would not have looked like the usual prison visitors, passive and self-effacing about the slope of municipal grass.