Death and Humor in Huckleberry Finn
Huckleberry Finn can be read as a boy's adventure novel, as a work of serious literature, as a humorous historical account, as biting social satire . . . I'm sure I could go on. This is a book that has delighted generations of readers - it's rollingly funny, rife with adventure - and hopelessly morbid. That's right. I read Huckleberry Finn and it made me think of death. The novel has a strange way of dealing with death. There's a pretty high body count, yet each individual demise becomes an opportunity for high comedy. We laugh, and the novel will laugh with us. But it won't cry. Perhaps this was a nod to time and place. As far as the poetry of the time suggests, life in America in the late nineteenth century was not exactly cheerful. Take this poem, published less than a year before Huckleberry Finn, as just one example:
When I am gone -
Say! Will the glad wind wander, wander on;
Stooping with tenderest touches, yet
With frolic care beset,
Lifting the long gray rushes, where the Stream
And I so idly dream?
I feel its soft caress;
The toying of its wild-wood tenderness
On brow and lips and eyes and hair,
As if through love aware
That days must come when no fond wind shall creep
Down where my heart's asleep!
Hast thou a sympathy,
A soul, O wandering Wind, that thou dost sigh?
Or is't the heart within us still
That aches for good or ill,
And deems that Nature whispers, when alone
Our inner Self makes moan?
"Longing", by William M. Briggs 
Stop snickering, because I promise it will get worse. I found this poem in the January 1885 installment of The Century Magazine, the same issue that featured an excerpt from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. I was struck just as much by the morbid insensibility of the lines as by their arrhythmic dullness. So I kept reading. I found several other poems like "Longing"- poems that rely on death as a paperweight to hold flighty verse down. Talk about invoking the muse. Strangely enough, one of the excerpted bits of Huckleberry Finn contains some morbid poetry of its own. The two chapters of the novel dealing with the Grangerford family appear in the December 1885 issue of The Century. The late Emmeline Grangerford amazed family and friends with melancholic epistles reflecting on the deaths of neighborhood children. Twain ascribes the delightfully bad "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd" to his fourteen-year-old poetess but the effort is clearly a mockery of the so-called "obituary poem", a form that reached the height of its popularity in the 1870s.
Obituary poems were sentimentally sacrilegious acknowledgments of the recently deceased and, amazingly, these "tributes" often...