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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 2 Sep 2001 19:22:12 -0500
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I am posting this review to the Forum on behalf of Errol C. Sull who wrote it.
-Barbara Schmidt



Charles Norton. _Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain: Death, Deceit, Dreams and
Disguises_. Xlibris Corporation, 2000. Softcover, 8.54 x 5.38. Pp. 208.
$21.99. ISBN 0-7388-4144-7.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit:

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Errol Craig Sull
<[log in to unmask]>

Copyright (c) 2001 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

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

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:

What, if any, are the themes that make it important as a work of literature?

If it is as important as many claim it to be, then why has it been banned
regularly for several reasons in various places since it was first
published in 1885?

Was the author aware of all the issues the book raises?

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:

Twain quote: "My books are water: those of the great geniuses are wine.
Everybody drinks water."

_Huckleberry Finn_ was originally self-published.

Twain had "Mark Twain" registered as a trademark to protect his interests.

Laura Hawkins was the model for Becky Thatcher.

In _Huckleberry Finn_ Twain brings in pieces of books he read as a youth:
the Bible, _Gil Blas_, _Don Quixote_, _The Arabian Nights_, _Robinson
Crusoe_, and others.

As a student Twain did not excel, except in spelling.

Twain's brother Henry was killed in a steamboat accident; Mark Twain would
have been on the boat as well had he not been involved in a shouting /
shoving match that forced him to leave the boat.

Twain used his name of "Mark Twain" for the first time in February 1863
when he signed a dispatch (as a reporter for the Virginia City _Territorial
Enterprise_) he submitted from the state legislature at Carson City, NV.

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.