The Liberating Power of the Twang
Some books don’t seem to lend themselves as well to being read aloud. No matter how great they are, for whatever reason, they are harder to present orally.
One such book is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the touchstone of American fiction. Central to the book is Huck’s voice. The novel is presented in the first person and reading it you quickly inhabit Huck’s mind and world view. Huck is both naive and street smart at the same time. He is plucky and alert and still able to be duped or fooled. The prewar Mississippi River is a very foreign place and Huck is our guide. Much of it is familiar to him and it becomes familiar to us through his guidance. Much of it is alien and foreign to him – dangerous even – and we feel that through his own discoveries.
Reading to oneself, it is easier to fall into Huck’s method of storytelling. He disarms us with Twain’s notorious first sentences: “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
Huck’s storytelling style is pell-mell – the events and sentences and twists and turns and occasional moralizing or interpreting come one after the other with little pause. There is a cascading sense of curiosity and discovery as the anecdotes and stories and circumstances and characters who people the Mississippi follow one after another. Huck’s occasional pauses to interpret or philosophize are welcome but usually brief. Huck Finn is an unending ride – a tour of Americana.
And then there is Huck’s voice – a voice from 19th century America, Missouri to be precise. A largely uneducated voice and hence full of slang. And nonstandard English. This is a celebrated part of the book – intended by Twain to be so – and one of the many sources of its influences. But it presents certain challenges to an oral reading.
Daunting challenges Huck’s voice is full of charm as you decipher his locutions. But try to present his unfamiliar lingo and it becomes more difficult. Adjusting to the pace of his stories can be even harder. Good reading is usually stately and graceful, respecting and attending to punctuation, drawing out the language and whatever verbal riches lurk. No one wants to read at a breakneck pace and yet many of Huck’s tales demand it.
But I may have found a solution. One which applies to other works as well. Let’s discuss the liberating power of the twang.
A year ago, I read my family Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Newbery winning book about a boy and a dog in rural West Virginia. The narrator, 11-year-old Marty Preston, doesn’t drop a lot of ‘-ing’s, but he does say ‘ain’t’ and uses ‘don’t’ for doesn’t and employs a handful of other verbal mannerisms we associate with a rural environment. It was hard – impossible – for me not to read Marty without a bit of an accent. Call it Southern, call it rural, call it Western – it doesn’t really matter – I am guessing you know what I mean. Nearly everyone can do a ‘hick’ accent. To some it comes naturally. Others may need to borrow from a film or TV show. (The world abounds with them.) Understand – I mean no disrespect when I call it a ‘hick’ accent. I use the term colloquially. It’s just an accent that drawls and is not scrupulous about things like ‘ing’s. When you fall under it’s sway, it becomes easier to say “ain’t” (if it normally is difficult). And lots of other moments in a character’s speech become liberated. Emphasis. Enthusiasm. You’re just generally looser when you start using it. You don’t need to become Gomer Pyle to give such a character his voice.
Marty Preston is a reflective little boy, so he doesn’t need to be oversold. Indeed his reflections impart a quiet dignity. (And how many taciturn cowboys haven’t presented dignity with their ‘hick’ accents.) But I found that reading Shiloh that way opened up the book. The accent gave Marty’s voice life. It gave the book momentum. It freed me and my listeners. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s prose is strong enough that dressing it up with Gomer Pyle is unnecessary. But a little twang – what I would now like to call the liberating power of the twang – released Marty and Shiloh for me. It allows you to read Shiloh with a kid’s enthusiasm, and as long as you don’t overdo it Marty can still present the quiet dignity he possesses.
I brought that Twang to Huck Finn. Heck, it could have come from anywhere. When you read The Indian and the Cupboard, you’ve got to do something to dress up the cowboy, Boone. He is a tobacco-spitting Texan and outsize all the way, nearly stepping out of a tall tale. It doesn’t really matter who you draw your twang from. When I faced Huck Finn again the lilt and freedom of Marty Preston helped me out. Huck is a hick, too. He’s one we respect. We know he will share himself and his conscience. But he’s barefoot and dirty and can’t wait to get some peace and privacy to smoke his corncob pipe. He needs some twang to tell his stories. The first sentences tell you so.
How much twang is up to you. But adding it frees up the prose of Huck Finn considerable. It allows you to adopt a different persona, one perhaps looser and freer than your own. It is liberating. So run with it. When Huck is telling a story, imagine him slapping his knee and sell it. When Huck is talking with the Tom’s gang – or dealing with the raftsmen on the Mississippi River (e.g. the Child of Calamity – a true character from a tall tale) – bring in Boone and ham it up. (Imagine him slapping his cowboy hat on his knee and stomping the floor with his boot.) Be demonstrative. Huck will seem dignified in comparison.
Adding the twang makes it easier to read faster – Huck’s pell-mell stories – without being embarrassed or self-conscious or losing your listener. Instead it will bring your listener closer with anticipation. It will suggest the trust that Twain’s prose and storytelling style demand and merit.
And it will really come in handy when you get to – and spend considerable time with – the Duke and the Dauphin. Occasional readers tire of these characters – they are so over the top and so conspicuously transparent. They don’t understand why Twain extends the joke so long. (Twain has other fish to fry – things to reveal about identity and dissimilitude on the American frontier that we needn’t get into here.) Twain intends more than short term jokes with the Duke and the Dauphin. The story about the funeral (and potential inheritance) they stumble into has long-term play. But adding the theatrical touch – Huck’s twang – makes it all a little easier to take a deep breath and dive into the silly antics of the Duke and the Dauphin and their mock aristocracy.
The twang can’t solve everything. And it’s certainly not for everything. And I am not suggesting here for a minute that one need become attentive to or expert in the variety of Western or Southern or rural or agricultural accents. That is the province of the professional. But I am suggesting that adding that twang, dropping those ‘ing’s, letting the drawl flow – that all of that will loosen you up and loosen up a book’s prose. It’s like a shot of verbal whiskey, steeling you for the challenge and loosening your tongue. Take a slug and let loose the liberating power of the twang! Once you get off the Mississippi, a whole world of Americana awaits you.