by David E Romm
Mark Twain's Huck Finn is sometimes considered the first American novel. The themes and characters are unique to this country, and are presented in a vivid portrait of two friends on a raft. The defining moment of American literature is when the white Huck decides to save the escaped slave Jim, even though it is against the law and against the wishes of his family and society, "because he's my friend".
The problem with Huck Finn is that it's dated. What was common language back in Twain's time is now offensive to many. And rightly so. The book is defended because it is one of the reasons American society changed. And rightly so. Huck Finn brings to light American pre-Civil War culture in a way that merely stating the facts could not. Criticizing Huck Finn for being racist is as wrong headed as criticizing the original Star Trek for being sexist: They both took prevailing attitudes and gave them a good swift kick in the pants, while telling an entertaining story that was popular at the time. And they both helped change the culture in which they were originally presented.
Davy, by Edgar Pangborn, deals with similar issues. But the story is post-holocaust pastoral, set roughly 250 years in the future, after an atomic war has destroyed most of society and left the rest of the people on a technological level about that of Huck Finn. Instead of a raft tieing the friendship together, the human and outcast mutant are tied together by love of music.
How the friendship develops is quite different in Davy than in Huck Finn, but the elements of the friendship are similar: Society can't tear them apart when they have a mutual bond. Unlike Twain's novel, Pangborn's is still eminently readable, and hasn't caused any attempts at censorship. That's because Davy, set outside of any real society, cannot be held to the precepts of any society. Of course, it is a reflection of the 50s and early 60s; pre-Kennedy Assasination, pre-Great Society. It's not directly about slavery or McCarthyism, but reflects on both.
Another aspect that ties both novels together is that they were both written in two segments. Twain wrote the second half of Huck Finn much after the first, and the novel suffers for it. Twain introduces Tom Sawyer, who plays foolish games with Jim's attempt at freedom. This poor addendum to the important story severely diminishes the impact of the novel. Using a popular character probably helped sell the book at the time, but it's one of the few bad writing choices Twain made. Davy, meanwhile, was a novelette before it was expanded to a novel. The latter part of Pangborn's novel continues Davy's journey into manhood, and tells a gripping, human story of love and death. Pangborn wrote many stories set in this future, but Davy is the most successful.
Huck Finn will be continue to be read for its insight into humanity and for its description of America in the early 1800s. Davy will continue to be read because its an engaging tale with insight into humanity that cannot be placed in any one era. Twain's story is powerful because its set in a specific time; Davy is powerful because it isn't.