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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 174

  In the futile critical exercise of contending which is the greatest American novel, choice ordinarily narrows down at last to The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn—a sufficiently antipodean pair and as hard to bring into comparison as tragedy and comedy themselves. Each in its department, however, these two books do seem to be supreme. The Scarlet Letter offers, by contrast, practically no picture; Huckleberry Finn, no problem. Huck undergoes, it is true, certain naggings from the set of unripe prejudices he calls his conscience; and once he rises to an appealing unselfishness when, in defiance of all the principles he has been taught to value, he makes up his mind that he will assist the runaway slave to freedom. But in the sense that The Scarlet Letter poses problems, Huckleberry Finn poses none at all. Its criticism of life is of another sort. It does not work at the instigation of any doctrine, moral or artistic, whatever. As Hawthorne, after long gazing into the somber dusk over ancient Salem, had seen the universal drama of Hester and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth being transacted there, and had felt it rising within him to expression, so Mark Twain, in the midst of many vicissitudes remembering the river of his youthful happiness, had seen the panorama of it unrolling before him and also had been moved to record it out of sheer joy in its old wildness and beauty, assured that merely to have such a story to tell was reason enough for telling it. Having written Life on the Mississippi he had already reduced the river to his own language; having written Tom Sawyer, he had got his characters in hand. There wanted only the moment when his imagination should take fire at recollection and



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