I’m painting the Fox River and I want to immerse myself in river lore so I recently re-read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to see how the novel brings the Mississippi River to life, to savor its particularly American flavor. Earnest Hemmingway claimed that all modern American writing comes out of Huckleberry Finn. I loved reading the book a second time and found that it had a lot to tell me, not only about life on the river, but about art as well.
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer represent, for me, two different kinds of artists. Huck is an introvert, practical and efficient - if naïve and vulnerable in his approach to the world. He knows he is dependent and must bow to both the world’s measurable and immeasurable forces. He carefully plans his strategies and charts a wary path. Tom, on the other hand, is an extrovert, style-conscious and careless. He approaches the world as a half-baked drama that awaits the flourish of his finishing touch. Time and context mean nothing to Tom as he improvises his own present and melds whatever history and myth come to mind in free association. Huck is a modern realist; Tom is a postmodern stylist.
Huck Finn cowers before his father, submits to the terrible duo of the “king and duke,” yields to Tom Sawyer, and contends with his own conscience. He patiently observes the folly of others as he plots his and Jim’s freedom. Huck picks his way through scores of capricious entanglements while the Mississippi River faithfully flows through them all, swelling and falling in season. Huck’s tactical attempts to respect his felt obligations to so many fickle masters magnify the river’s reliability in stark contrast. The river, after all, becomes the story’s one enduring constant.
For my part I fear that to address the Fox River in a Tom Sawyer-like flourish of style and bravura is to risk losing the river to art. I want, on the other hand, to discover the river through art. That requires a Huck Finn approach, a more searching, contingent, less swaggering and style conscious hand.
Written by Joel Sheesley, Artist-In-Residence, Fox River Initiative