A classic, Mark Twain quipped, is “a book which people praise and don't read.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the rare classic that is highly praised and widely read. Following World War II, it became required reading in most of the nation’s middle schools and high schools. It addressed many Cold War needs: More than any other major work of nineteenth-century American literature, its use of dialect and regional settings made it seem authentically and distinctively American. In addition, it spoke to the greatest contradiction in American history: the existence of slavery and virulent racial prejudice in a country dedicated to liberty and equality.
When we think of works of fiction that “changed history” we typically envision works of social reform, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, or of utopian vision, such as Looking Backward, or of scathing cultural criticism, like 1984 or Animal Farm. But there are other, more subtle ways that works of fiction can change history. These include powerful critiques of the American dream, like The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman, or metaphorical explorations of the connections between past and present, like The Crucible, the McCarthy-era examination of the Salem witch hunt. Huckleberry Finn is all these and more. It is a picaresque tale of adventure, a coming of age story, and a novel of escape and liberation (from slavery and an abusive family life). It is also a travelogue, a work of comic satire, sarcasm, and social mockery, and an impassioned critique of progress, civilization, and the cult of respectability. Equally important, it is a brilliant work of history that shows how the past illuminates and shapes the present.
Ernest Hemingway was right when he announced that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. Although many previous novels had included dialect (including Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Huckleberry Finn is the first major novel in which the narrator speaks in dialect. Unlike earlier works of fiction in which the narrator speaks in refined language and tells uplifting and ennobling stories, Twain’s narrator speaks in a distinctly natural American voice. Twain’s novel is “Huck’s autobiography,” as Twain put it in a letter to William Dean Howells, which is significant because Twain is showing that moral authority can come from a representative of “poor white trash,” and a juvenile delinquent at that, which was, at the time, something new in American culture. This is what prompted Louisa May Alcott to condemn the novel: “If Mr. [Samuel] Clemens [Mark Twain] cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he’d best stop writing for them,” wrote the author of Little Women.
Huckleberry Finn is not only one of this country’s undeniably great novels, it is also, perhaps, the most entertaining. One of our first “buddy stories,” Huckleberry Finn served as our prototypical tale of interracial friendship. Similarly, long before there were highways, it was the model for our later road novels (like On the Road) or road movies (like Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise).
Yet from its publication in 1884 and 1885, Twain’s novel has been subjected to bitter criticism. In the late nineteenth century, the book was disparaged as coarse, unrefined, irreverent, and vulgar. The Concord, Massachusetts, public library called it “trash of the veriest sort.” In the late twentieth century, the novel was condemned for its frequent use of racial expletives, its condescending portrait of the runaway, Jim, and its misogyny, depicting women either as nurturers or as controlling and repressive figures. In fact, Huckleberry Finn, like the greatest works of literature, is open-ended, offering complex portrayals of race and gender (as evidenced by repeated instances of cross-dressing), and a conclusion, as we shall see, that is far more ambiguous than readers sometime assume.
In interpreting a novel, it is often best to begin with the title. Why, we might ask, did Twain name his title character Huckleberry? In the late nineteenth century, the word referred to an utterly insignificant person or event. This is how Ralph Waldo Emerson used the term in his 1862 eulogy for Henry David Thoreau: “Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.” Twain’s ironic point was that precisely because Huck Finn was an outcast on the margins of his society, he was able to perceive flaws in his society that others could not.
Twain begins the book by telling his readers that they should look for no plot or moral lessons. The novel’s structure is episodic, and even though it is often read as if it were a straightforward critique of slavery and racial prejudice, it is much more problematic than that. The book’s organizing metaphor is that of a journey. Many of our most cherished myths and novels have been built around the notion of a harrowing odyssey. These include quest tales (such as the pursuit of the holy grail) and the bildungsroman, which traces a character’s moral and psychological development, from innocence and inexperience to knowledge, and from childhood to maturity. Like the other great novel that explores a trip along a river, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the journey is not simply physical, but metaphysical. It is a journey into the human psyche and the cultural subconscious.
The novel’s overarching theme is how young Huck has internalized his society’s racial prejudice yet is able, at times, to rise above it. Huck uses the word “nigger”—derogatory and offensive in 1884 as it is today—150 times or so, and yet is ultimately willing to go through Hell in order to help Jim achieve freedom. In short, the book underscores the extent to which individual and collective morality can be contradictory, and that political beliefs and personal behavior can be at odds. Huck hates abolitionists, and yet in the book’s most poignant scene, the book’s moral center, he apologizes to Jim for the indignities he has inflicted. Admits Huck: “I done it and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards.” Yet this is also a book without a clear, unambiguous hero.
Historians tend to read novels differently than literary critics, focusing less on formal elements of narrative and language than on themes and especially historical context. Viewed through the lens of history, the novel sheds a fascinating light on many subjects—and not solely the subject of slavery. For one thing, the novel rebuts the nostalgic notion that the past was a simpler, more innocent time. Huckleberry Finn lays bare the sordid underside of antebellum American life. Filled with chicanery, greed, illiteracy, bigotry, and brutality, including thirteen deaths, the novel presents us with a rogues gallery of hucksters, charlatans, braggarts, con men, and cheats. Huck’s father is a dissolute degenerate who beats his son for going to school. Twain himself was unable to romanticize or sentimentalize the past—by the age of twelve, Twain had lost his father and three siblings, and had watched as a slave was beaten to death.
Huckleberry Finn is also our greatest example of regional or “local color” writing, a genre that flourished following the Civil War. The war ushered in an era of centralization and organization building that undermined the culture of the nation’s unique regions. Local color fiction documented the distinctive cultures of those parts of the country that were being lost to social and economic modernization, in this case, the culture of the Mississippi River. And so the novel is a “people’s history” of a community and way of life that has been lost to “progress,” a concept that Twain hated. Indeed, it is Twain’s hatred of the idea of progress that makes him a modern writer, and his exposure of the illusions of progress makes him one of the nation’s most incisive cultural critics.
The novel also tells us a great deal about the impact of the Civil War on the American mind. Much of the serious literature prior to the Civil War was, by later standards, highly unrealistic. Especially influential were sentimental domestic tales and romances, imaginative representations of moral problems, rather than novelistic depictions of social realities. The grim brutality of the war led authors to experiment with more realistic forms of literature, which were free of embellishment or idealization.
Today, controversy continues to rage over the question of whether Huckleberry Finn is racist. This controversy is compounded by certain myths that have been shown to be false: That Twain fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and later deserted. Twain, whose parents had owned and leased slaves, and whose father served on a jury that sentenced two alleged abolitionists to twelve years imprisonment, had, by the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, come to abhor racial prejudice. He had married into an abolitionist family; had tried, unsuccessfully, to publish articles about anti-Chinese prejudice in San Francisco; and had become friends with Frederick Douglass. He even wrote a letter offering financial assistance to one of the first African American law students at Yale.
At the novel’s very heart lies the conflict between Huck Finn’s instincts and his conscience, which had been deformed by his upbringing. It is often assumed that the book can be read as a record of Huck’s moral growth, as he overcomes his society’s prejudices, risks damnation, and learns to respect Jim as an equal. But the book’s much criticized conclusion complicates any reading that suggests that Huck had overcome his society’s racist values. Once off the raft, Huck backslides, and once again plays pranks on Jim. On shore, the power of race ultimately trumps justice, democracy, and friendship. To reduce the book to a simple story of Huck’s triumph over prejudice is to strip the book of its moral complexity.
Literary interpretation changes drastically over time, reflecting shifts in critical fashion and social circumstances. Nothing better illustrates this principle than the changing understanding of Huck Finn. He has been celebrated as a symbol of youthful resourcefulness and spirited rambunctiousness and decried as a rowdy, a racist, and a reckless risk-taker. One prominent literary critic argued that Huck’s relationship with the fugitive slave Jim embodied a sublimated homoerotic strain that runs through classic American literature; another suggested that he was modeled on a black child named Jimmy, whom Twain called “the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across.” In our own era of diminishing expectations, Huck has been interpreted as an abused child—illiterate, homeless, beaten, neglected—and as a victim of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—fidgety, impulsive, disruptive, and easily bored. For over a century, Huck has served as a lightning rod for popular fantasies and anxieties about childhood.
When the novel first appeared, reviewers frequently deemed it a “boys book,” one of a growing number of novels through which boys could vicariously experience adventures that were impossible in an increasingly urban and industrial America. Today perhaps the novel’s greatest significance lies in its conception of childhood, as a time of risk, discovery, and adventure. Huck is no innocent: He lies, steals, smokes, swears, and skips school. He accepts no authority, not from his father or the Widow Douglas or anyone else. And it is the twin images of a perilous, harrowing odyssey of adventure and perfect freedom from all restraints that so many readers find entrancing.
Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Hutchinson, Stuart, ed. Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Leonard, James S., ed. Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Mensh, Elaine, and Harry Mensh. Black, White, & Huckleberry Finn: Re-imagining the American Dream. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Powers, Ron. Dangerous Waters: A Biography of the Man Who Became Mark Twain. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University and director of the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center, would like to express his profound debt to John Stauffer of Harvard University for sharing his many insights into the novel. Mintz is author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood; Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life; and Moralists & Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers.
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