The First Great American Novel
‘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. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.’ So begins one of the most influential and controversial novels in the history of American literature. As Ernest Hemingway wrote of it, ‘All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’ For many critics and readers, it is the first ‘Great American Novel’; for as many more, it is a relic mired in the vile language of antebellum racism that is best kept out of schools and public libraries, much as the statues of Confederate generals in the southern states are well past their sell-by date. For readers anticipating the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it is certainly a shock. Twain had changed a lot since that first novel.
As with most things, the truth of these polarised positions is probably somewhere roughly in between. There is a lot of uncomfortable language in Huckleberry Finn – which should never be acceptable, however prevalent it unfortunately still is – but this is a matter of contemporary realism rather than blatant racism. Publishers’ attempts, therefore, to expurgate it for modern readers have failed, because the novel then ceases to be what it truly is: a savage deconstruction of a society that views itself as moral and ‘Christian’ yet still owns slaves, written by an ardent abolitionist who grew up in that world and knew it well. In his posthumously published autobiography, Twain had written of his childhood in Missouri, ‘I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.’ You can’t really write about slavery before the Civil War and have all those southern white folks talking like New York Times readers. The novel is also a stunning evocation of this long-vanished world, the landscape and the culture, and the customs, idioms, and daily routines of everyday life along the Mississippi in the 1840s. Not only was Twain writing from personal experience, he was also an accomplished travel writer. Conceptually, the novel Huckleberry Finn reminds me of most is James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its honesty, precision, and its celebration of language. Just as Joyce had said that if Dublin were ever erased from the face of the earth, it could be reconstructed from the pages of his book, so it is with the Old South in Twain’s remarkable novel. That alone is a reason for reading Huckleberry Finn. If you want to understand contemporary America, this novel is a vivid evocation of its past that no history could rival. It truly is the ‘Great American Novel’.
Twain had concluded Tom Sawyer with a vague promise to ‘some day take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be’. His initial plan was to write ‘Huck Finn’s Autobiography’, taking the character of Tom’s best friend into manhood, and he began the project immediately after the publication of Tom Sawyer in the summer of 1876. He wrote four hundred pages in the first month and then, he later confessed to his brother, his ‘tank had run dry’. He wasn’t too sure that he overly liked what he had written so far either, and abandoned the manuscript at what is now the ending of Chapter Sixteen. This is a critical point in the plot. Huck has escaped his drunken father and Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, has run rather than be sold, and they are now travelling together. Having narrowly avoided capture on Jackson’s Island (where Huck, Tom and Joe had played pirates in Tom Sawyer), the two are drifting downriver on a found raft. Jim is heading for Cairo in Illinois, a free state, but they become lost in a fog and miss the town, leaving Jim drifting south, back into the slave state of Kentucky. Twain stopped work on the book completely for about three years and went on to write The Prince and the Pauper instead. He then completed it ‘by fits and starts’ over the next four years while primarily working on his remarkable memoir Life on the Mississippi, finally finishing it in the late summer of 1883. The novel was subtitled ‘Tom Sawyer’s Comrade’ and Twain described it to a friend as ‘a kind of companion to Tom Sawyer’. This suggests that he still viewed it as another children’s book although it had, in fact, become something very different, much like Huck himself, who goes beyond the nostalgic portrayal of Tom, becoming a much more realistic and emotionally deep character.
Huckleberry Finn, the ‘romantic outcast’, was, of course, the most interesting character in Tom Sawyer after the novel’s hero. He was the ‘juvenile pariah of the village’ and son of the town drunk:
Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance…
Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.
Like Tom Sawyer, Huck had a real antecedent, Twain’s childhood friend Tom Blankenship, the son of an alcoholic sawmill labourer who lived in a ‘ramshackle’ house near the river behind Twain’s family home. Unlike Tom, who needs his community in order to rebel against it, Huck is completely outside it. He is entirely free of any social conventions. Having discovered treasure with Tom and become independently wealthy, Huck’s apparent ‘reward’ at the end of Tom Sawyer is to be adopted by that community in the form of the Widow Douglas:
Huck Finn’s wealth and the fact that he was now under the Widow Douglas’ protection introduced him into society—no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it—and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear. The widow’s servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed, and they bedded him nightly in unsympathetic sheets that had not one little spot or stain which he could press to his heart and know for a friend. He had to eat with a knife and fork; he had to use napkin, cup, and plate; he had to learn his book, he had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.
He ‘bravely bore his miseries’ for three weeks, ‘and then one day turned up missing’. Tom convinces him to stay by joining his imaginary ‘band of robbers’, but at the start of Huckleberry Finn he has, again, had enough of being ‘sivilized’ by the window and her strict spinster sister, Miss Watson. Worst, his father has turned up and is harassing him for money, to the extent that he kidnaps Huck and keeps him locked in an isolated cabin. Huck fakes his own death and runs away from the widow, his father, and his money, finding Jim hiding out on Jackson’s Island having similarly escaped Miss Watson. After some initial misgivings about helping an escaped slave, Huck follows his heart and throws in with Jim after the first of many darkly symbolic scenes showing the different ways that the locals perceive white and black fugitives. Huck is taken to be a runaway apprentice and is given sympathy and the offer of help by the same family who are planning to hunt Jim down with dogs for the reward.
Although a much more complex novel than Tom Sawyer, the story of Huckleberry Finn is deceptively simple. Huck and Jim drift down the Mississippi Valley through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, ending up in Arkansas where Tom Sawyer re-joins the narrative having been left behind in St. Petersburg in Chapter Three. During their journey, Huck and Jim have many close calls and adventures. They encounter a variety of communities and colourful characters along the river, which Twain brings richly to life through the lilting vernacular of Huck’s first-person narration and the inner processes by which he interprets these people and places. As in Tom Sawyer, Twain’s vivid memories of childhood on the river and his time as a riverboat pilot before the war give the text its authenticity. These memories exerted a complicated pull on him throughout his life, and all his best writing flows from them: ‘I confine myself to the life with which I am familiar,’ he later wrote. ‘I confine myself to boy-life out on the Mississippi, because that had peculiar charm for me.’ So complete, in fact, is the fusion of Twain the travel writer and memoirist with Twain the novelist that a long passage excised from Huckleberry Finn in which two drunken raftsmen work themselves up to a fight is reproduced without alteration in Life on the Mississippi. Similarly, the novel is presented as autobiography (by Huck) – the opening lines establish it as such – and a serious cultural retrieval (by Twain). He is particularly interested in linguistic verisimilitude, adding an explanatory note that:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
The concluding point shows Twain the literary craftsman heading off criticism in advance because it is an unwritten law in fiction that accents are best described, never phonetically realised. Yet Twain pulls it off, as Joyce later did in Ulysses, by understanding the music of the spoken word and its regional idioms. T.S. Eliot described this as ‘a new discovery in the English language’. Here then is the essence of the ‘Great American Novel’. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain cuts the mooring line with the English and European literary traditions that continued to exert a huge influence on his relatively new country by writing a novel using entirely American voices, locations, traditions and experiences.
Throughout the novel, Twain’s descriptions of the natural world and the sublimity of the huge river are stunning:
Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs—where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.
But storms can be waited and ridden out and are all part of life on the river. To Huck, they seem magical rather than dangerous, while they also deliver up a deal of useful debris afterwards including, of course, the raft. Mostly though, life on the water is relaxed and safe: ‘We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.’ In Huckleberry Finn, the river is not the threat.
There is a fascinating tension, throughout the narrative, between Twain’s nostalgia for the Old South, which had deeply informed Tom Sawyer, an idealised portrait of a world lost to war and progress that now had, he wrote to his wife on a visit, ‘not a suggestion of romance’ anywhere, and an authorial voice that is much more realistic and critical. This is resolved by the contrast between life on the raft and off it, until eventually even this tiny piece of Eden is corrupted by the depraved con artists the ‘King’ and the ‘Duke’. Since Tom Sawyer, Twain’s world view had darkened. While one can still see the nostalgia for the ‘freedom’ of childhood in the text (and, perhaps, of his own youth and class before being ‘sivilized’ by education, marriage, and respectable literary celebrity – he often joked about the ‘civilising’ influence of his wife), the major theme of Huckleberry Finn is one of moral protest. Off the raft, at every stop, southern society across classes is shown no mercy by Twain. In every episode, individuals, families and communities are depicted in a fallen moral state that they regard as perfectly natural and normal: people are racist, treacherous, cruel, cowardly, greedy, stupid and hypocritical, with the violence of the ignorant and easily manipulated mob never far from the surface, worked up by newspapers, politicians and fraudulent preachers. Small time river pirates execute gang members to protect themselves over the pettiest of thefts; two feuding aristocratic families go to church armed to hear sermons on ‘brotherly love’ before murdering each other’s children; lynch mobs are got up; and in the most extreme episodes, the King and the Duke repeatedly show that there’s no easier way to rob someone than through religion: all ‘soul-butter and hogwash’. (In his autobiography, Twain described ‘our’ – American – Christianity as ‘bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory’.) As Huck tells us in desperation, ‘It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.’
And with that, the novel’s critique becomes universal, a commentary on all humanity. And there is a real disgust there, worthy of Swift or Gogol. This ‘civilised’ society is contrasted with the selfless nobility of Jim (whose reward for self-sacrifice is to be put once more in chains), and the ‘heart’ of Huck Finn, whose naive yet pragmatic observations effortlessly cut through all the lies and hypocrisy. As David Ulin wrote in the LA Times, ‘This is the first-person point-of-view taking root in American literature, the voice of the outsider, cut adrift from all he thought he knew. This is the lost boy going on the road (or the river), living beyond the strictures of society, while in the service of a bigger truth.’
Having struggled early on with the implanted ideas that a runaway slave is stealing from his master and the right and ‘Christian’ thing to do is turn Jim in, Huck reasons it all out:
I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
And thus, an outcast white boy and a runaway slave become friends and allies, putting both of them at risk. Twain later wrote that Huckleberry Finn was ‘a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat’. This is why Huck refuses to be ‘sivilized’. To be ‘civilised’ would be to adopt the norms and values that he has realised are so fake and repugnant. He prefers to be completely outside society, as he effectively was in St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer. When Miss Watson warns him that he’s bound for hell, Huck’s view on her heaven is: ‘Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.’
Towards the end of the novel, Tom Sawyer reappears, in a final section that Hemingway dismissed as ‘just cheating’, while African-American writer Ralph Ellison argued that ‘it is precisely this part which gives the novel its significance’. You must make your own minds up about this. Read the novel and see what you think. It may be that the episode is intentionally satiric, as Tom employs his normal fantasy antics to a very real-world problem that only narrowly avoids ending in disaster as a result. Huck sees the flaws throughout but is nonetheless drawn into the game; not the first character in the story to be seduced by absurd but persuasive rhetoric. It might be that Twain was trying to bring his bleak vision back into the fold, by returning to the style of Tom Sawyer, and it certainly satirises the tradition of romantic European fiction, which he despised (Ainsworth’s Tower of London is obliquely referenced as a handbook for the right way to behave in prison by Tom). Either way, the effect is discordant, hence Hemingway’s famous dismissal. Huck has, in fact, already seen through Tom Sawyer in the First Act, when he realises that his games are just ‘lies’ which he equates with Miss Watson’s Christianity. Having put both to the test, Huck finds that neither delivers. In the bigger world that Huck now inhabits, and in the novel itself, Tom feels out of place, although the two do reunite in two shorter and more flippant novellas, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), both narrated by Huck. In Tom Sawyer, literary fantasies came true; the world of Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, is one of hard truths and brutal Darwinism.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in Canada and the UK in December 1884, and in the United States in February the following year. Severally libraries in America promptly banned it from their shelves. The following example, reported in the Boston Transcript, is representative of the common arguments:
The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.
On hearing this, Twain remarked to his editor, ‘Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as “trash and only suitable for the slums.” This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!’ The popular author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, wrote that if Twain ‘could not think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them’, while New York’s Brooklyn Public Library banned the book as ‘obscene’, to which Twain sardonically replied:
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.
There would appear to be a lot more of Twain in the character of Huck Finn than there is in Tom Sawyer, leastways the older Twain. Finally, fixating on Twain’s reputation as a ‘humourist’, many critics just didn’t think the book was funny.
This is not to say it didn’t sell, and by the early twentieth century the critical legend was being built, the heavyweight American scholar H. L. Mencken declaring Huckleberry Finn ‘one of the greatest masterpieces of the world’ and Twain the ‘true father of our national heritage, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal’. Hemingway’s remarks took the same line, and T.S. Eliot described the character of Huck as ‘one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other discoveries which man has made about himself’.
Because of its depictions of race, however, this view is far from unanimous, with generations of parents, teachers, librarians and academics arguing that however notionally sympathetic the portrayal of the escaped slave Jim is, Twain is unable to ever fully escape racial stereotypes and confirms them by frequently falling back on the character’s lack of education and superstition for a cheap laugh. Then, there’s the language. As the Washington high school teacher John Foley wrote in a powerful Op-ed in the Seattle Post Intelligencer: ‘all novels that use the “N-word” repeatedly need to go’. According to the American Library Association, Huckleberry Finn is the fifth ‘most challenged’ book in the United States. And so, the debate continues, and is a debate that should continue. There isn’t an easy answer with a text like this. Unlike, for example, D.W. Griffiths’ epic 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, another iconic but deeply troubling piece of American art which presents the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of White America, Huckleberry Finn is not overtly racist. Rather, it depicts a time when southern American society was overtly racist. Huck initially struggles with the prevailing value system into which he was born, but quickly rejects it through a process of reason and compassion. For me, the novel’s more misanthropic than anything else, with the slight glimmer of hope that children can see things as they really are and make up their own minds. As much as anything else, Huck represents the progressive rebel, which was also exactly what Twain was.
Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin – founding editor of the Journal of Transnational American Studies, and former president of the American Studies Association and the Mark Twain Circle of America – offers a path through the critical mire in her book Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices. In her ground-breaking study, Fishkin places Huck, Twain and the novel in the context of their relation to African-American culture as a whole, arguing that the character of Huckleberry Finn illustrates the correlation, and even interrelatedness, between white and Black culture in the United States. ‘By limiting their field of inquiry to the periphery,’ she writes, scholars on both sides of the divide ‘have missed the ways in which African-American voices shaped Twain’s creative imagination at its core.’ As the leader of the biker gang in Katherine Bigelow’s beautiful evocation of the post-war south explains to a black bartender, ‘I ain’t as white as I look.’ We could make a similar argument for the cross-cultural music of Elvis and Eminem, both of whom grew up in poor multi-racial areas where ethnicity was of less importance, especially among the young, than income and social status, producing rich and revolutionary fusions of different musical styles. In literary terms, this was Twain’s legacy too: full cultural assimilation, with human beings not judged by race or wealth or faith, but by the decency of their actions. Ultimately, it is the inclusivity of Huckleberry Finn that makes it great.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real man behind the persona of ‘Mark Twain’, had many demons, and struggled with his own fame, which he found creatively inhibiting. This was a conflict he often confided to friends. His desire, he told one, was to write ‘to please himself’ and not the ‘general public’, a book ‘which should say my say, right out of my heart, taking into account no-one’s feelings and no-one’s prejudices’ a book that would be, he said, ‘without reserves’. Huckleberry Finn would seem to be the closest he came to this, which is why it returns to its opening statement of verisimilitude at the end, concluding ‘YOURS TRULY, HUCK FINN’. And like it or not, that’s American history.
Image: Mickey Rooney in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1939
Credit: APL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo