I came across a fun piece in Publishers Weekly by the author Antoine Wilson entitled “The 10 Best Narrators in Literature.” As he explains, the range of fictional narrators goes from the World Swallower to the Unreliable Narrator. The World Swallower is “the unhinged cousin of the old-school omniscient author-narrator (the one who used to say ‘dear reader’) . . . [who] stretches (or obliterates) the boundaries of what a character might be able to know.” At the other end for Wilson is the Unreliable Narrator, who can be comic or tragic, and “can tell just about any story while also reflecting our capacity for self-deception, our limited sliver of knowledge about the world, and the limits of language itself.”
Reading through Wilson’s Top 10 got me thinking about my own favorites. I’ve narrowed my list to five. Here’s my first one. Stay tuned for 2 through 5.
As Ernest Hemingway famously wrote in Green Hills of Africa, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” And it’s no stretch to claim that all narrators in modern American literature, or at least the most memorable ones,come from one narrator named Huckleberry Finn. The list of Huck’s progeny includes Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, Augie March, “Scout” Finch, and dozens of others.
Huck’s unique voice is there, in all its glory, from the very first sentence of the very first paragraph of the novel, which begins: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
And it only gets better. If you haven’t spent time with Huck Finn, open to page 1, settle back in your easy chair, and prepare to be enchanted by the greatest narrator in American literature.
It’s a voice that stays vivid and stays true through the novel’s final paragraph:
Tom’s most well now, and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
YOURS TRULY, HUCK FINN.Huck FinnMark Twain