The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
1884, United Kingdom
Literary, adventure, children's
Approx. 110,000 words
The changing world of Huck Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those modern classics you should re-read every ten years or so. Partly because, like most classics, it keeps giving, offering up more and different aspects each time.
Read in youth, it may come across as the adventure story promised in the title. Unlike The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to which it is a sequel, this novel has an engaging, overarching narrative, mainly to do with Huckleberry Finn's escape down the Mississippi River with runaway slave Jim. Various twists involve them with other characters and settings, but the subplots are woven into the main story. They don't stand apart as discrete "adventures" as in the book's episodic progenitor.
In fact, the weakest parts of the Huck Finn epic may be the novel's bookends in which Tom Sawyer makes appearances to get up to his usual hijinks. In the last part of the story, Tom's delaying of breaking Jim out from capture to satisfy romantic notions of prisoner escapes—in a parody of such adventure stories—fits the gravity of the situation poorly and is annoying. (Don't blame Twain too much for this though. Tom Sawyer at the time was his overwhelmingly most popular creation and was needed to draw readers to Huck's more provocative story. Covers of the first editions of the novel took pains to point out that Huckleberry Finn was "Tom Sawyer's comrade".)
More mature reading may highlight the underlying moral issues, Huck's inner struggle between acting as his humanity compels and following what narrow-minded society thinks "right". It could prompt a meditation on the light and dark sides of the American dream, or any other number of serious topics dressed up in a nevertheless delightful and moving tale.
Other times Twain's subtle humour may stand out for you. Or the novel's horror—a lot of death and vicious human behaviour are found in its pages along with the lighter moments.
In different readings, either the author's humanism or his latent cynicism may come to the fore.
The monstrous big river
It may also be Twain's quickly developing style that blows you away. The first-person account in Huck's own uneducated voice is ground-setting work. As is the persistent sticking to the vernacular as Huck and Jim mix with different peoples and different tongues along the river.
Ernest Hemingway famously called Huckleberry Finn the beginning of modern American literature. Technically he may have been wrong about this but you can see how right he was in many ways.
Some of the most transporting passages of Huckleberry Finn actually do read like later writers—the direct, simple style in the rhythms of speech:
Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!
A little smoke couldn’t be noticed now, so we would take some fish off of the lines and cook up a hot breakfast. And afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by and by lazy off to sleep. Wake up by and by, and look to see what done it, and maybe see a steamboat coughing along up-stream, so far off towards the other side you couldn't tell nothing about her only whether she was a stern-wheel or side-wheel; then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor nothing to see—just solid lonesomeness.
Smooth out the grammar and this could be Joseph Conrad writing a couple of decades later. Tweak the slang a bit and stretch out the fishing, and these long languid compound sentences joined by and's and then's could do a Hemingway story proud.
Rooting out racism
But a particular characteristic of this modern classic makes re-reading especially interesting—urgent even. And that's its handling of the issue of race. How we react to reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a barometer of where we are as a society in the struggle against racism.
The story of Huckleberry Finn takes place before the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but it was published well afterwards, when the hopeful period of Reconstruction had ended, leaving the former slaves without genuine freedom and equality in the United States. By this time Twain was painfully aware of his earlier neglect of—his obliviousness to—the plight of the blacks, especially in Tom Sawyer. Against the tenor of his times, the southern-born author took the bold step of making his main character, just a boy, confront the issue and side with a black man, a runaway slave.
Readers at the time, as you can imagine, were divided. Controversy raged over the novel and it was banned in some places. It was both praised and attacked for being pro-black, at a time when the segregationist Jim Crow laws were being promulgated to keep blacks down in the South. But it was also criticized for representing them badly. In Huckleberry Finn, Jim and the other black characters are kind and caring human beings, but they are also superstitious, ignorant and servile, often acting as the butts of humour. Some saw this as reflecting the reality of the slave-owning days, while others found it insulting.
Over time, the book's overall anti-slavery, anti-racist content helped it survive as an enlightened classic, and in the twentieth century it became known as the great American novel.
Left right there, its assessment may be similar to that of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which a stereotypical, grasping, Jewish moneylender is depicted in a great work that preaches mercy and exposes antisemitism. Both the novel and the play have been moved on and off high school curricula as protests and defences have been launched.
As we progressed through the century, though, one aspect of Huckleberry Finn started gaining the most attention. A certain derogatory word for blacks had been used casually over the years. It's found even in the titles of works by Conrad, Agatha Christie and Flannery O'Connor. But by the 1960s civil rights era, if not earlier, the word became more readily identified as racist language, especially when uttered by a white person. Its constant use throughout Huckleberry Finn became an embarrassment. Twain's defenders could point out he employed the word realistically—that is, only in the thoughts or speech of characters who would have thought or spoken it. In his own voice, Twain never used the word. But still it left many of us, raised in later times, uncomfortable, to say the least.
As we've advanced in our understanding of racial issues, more recent readers have noticed other parts of Huckleberry Finn that they might have glossed over previously. Like how Twain pulls his punches, especially in the latter parts of the novel. The boys' assistance of Jim's escape becomes more of a comedy routine, leaving the man's dignity in tatters. He seems also completely unable to think or do anything for himself at this point and is subservient to the kids' whimsies. Further, it's revealed in the last few pages that Jim's freedom never was at stake and Huck's help is without consequences. Plus, it turns out Jim had been duplicitous, hiding the news of Huck's father's death to keep the boy with him.
More recent readers may also detect a certain patronizing tone to the novel that arises from the story of a runaway slave being related from a white person's perspective. In particular, it's told from the perspective of a white kid, without whose continual assistance the black man never would have survived the "adventures" on the river.
You can find countless other problematic issues in this novel written by a man trying to rise above the prejudices of his age in nineteenth-century America.
I'd like to say that awareness of none of these issues detracts from the greatness of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But that would be naïve. They do create difficulties in appreciating the novel. They certainly should affect how—or if—we teach this novel to the young.
We can still, however, appreciate what is great in this novel. Its boldness, its groundbreaking style, its brilliant story-telling and characterization. Its re-creation of a world we otherwise might never have known. And we can appreciate what is well-intentioned in this novel and at least partly achieved: its humanitarianism, which was exceptional for its time.
So keep reading Huckleberry Finn periodically, for those good things but also to check on your own development—and to see how far we've come, partly thanks to writers like Mark Twain who took those first shaky steps.