© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name “Mark Twain,” is one of the most prominent figures in the history of American literature. Born in Florida, Missouri, and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Clemens grew up on the margins of an America that was still in the process of forging its own cultural identity. But he himself became very central to that project and would, by the end of the nineteenth century, be one of the few American writers to have become well known around the world, though he was especially famous in America. Called the “father of American literature” by William Faulkner, Clemens was particularly famous as a humorist, though much of his work, especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, addresses serious issues that go right to the heart of the identity of the American nation.
After working as a journalist, a riverboat pilot, and a failed prospector, Clemens gained immediate attention as a writer with the publication of his humorous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865), which is still widely read and taught in American schools. Though he wrote a great deal of journalism and many travelogues, Clemens is best remembered for his fiction, including an early time-travel narrative in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). But his reputation today rests largely on Huckleberry Finn, which was itself a sequel to the earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a less sophisticated work aimed largely at a young audience.
Huckleberry Finn, at first glance, would seem to be an adventure story for boys (a humorous, Americanized version of the kind of stories that Tom Sawyer himself was fond of reading and then attempting to replicate in real life), but more than a century of critical analysis has demonstrated that this novel is not only a sophisticated work of literary art but also one that probes some of the most painful depths of American history. It is not without reason that Ernest Hemingway declared, in 1932, that Huckleberry Finn is “the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Indeed, Huckleberry Finn is one of the best-known and most beloved works in all of American literature. Yet it is also a work that has had an extremely vexed and controversial critical history. For example, it enjoys the odd double status of being the single book that is most often taught in American schools, as well as one of the books most often banned from American classrooms and school libraries. As Jonathan Arac has carefully outlined, Huckleberry Finn’s lofty reputation (which for him reaches the level of idolatry) has itself become a problem that has made it difficult to resolve many of the important critical issues that the book raises. For one thing, the book is so respected that many readers seem to have contracted amnesia with respect to some of its more uncomfortable or controversial moments, thinking of it simply as an uplifting story whose protagonist, through the purity and innocence of youth, realizes the evil of slavery and fights to free the slave Jim, even though it goes against everything the society in which he was born and raised has taught him to believe. This simplistic and unequivocal message, meanwhile, has been furthered by decades of teaching Huckleberry Finn in American high school and even junior high school English classes, settings in which clear and straightforward interpretations simplify matters considerably, even if they often do a great deal of violence to the texts being interpreted.
Huckleberry Finn, Language, and Genre
Huckleberry Finn is prefaced by a warning notice to readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” The tone of this notice makes it clear that we should be prepared for a comic tale—and one constructed in a rather ramshackle fashion. And we will not be disappointed as we read the book, though this claim that the book has no motive or moral will in time become highly suspect. This notice is then followed by an explanation that the following novel will be constructed from a number of dialects. Indeed, beyond these opening notes, the first thing one notices about Huckleberry Finn is its language. The novel is narrated in first person by its eponymous protagonist, an uneducated early adolescent boy—identified in his own narration as “thirteen or fourteen or along there”—who lives in a Missouri town on the banks of the Mississippi (based on Clemens’ own hometown of Hannibal) around 1840. Huck tells his story in his own language, and (because of his lack of education and sophistication) that language differs considerably from the kind of literary language that was typical in nineteenth-century novels. At the same time, the opening paragraph has a self-consciously literary quality in that Huck Finn introduces himself as a character from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, though he claims that this book was essentially a true story: “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” (1).
This opening adds to the comic tone of the novel, because all readers presumably know that Huck is an entirely fictional character and are thus in on the joke. Meanwhile, we are also quickly introduced to the kind of backwoods dialect with which Huck will tell his story throughout, a kind of narrative language very unusual in English-language literature up to this time, and one whose closest predecessor is probably the Russian tradition of skaz, a form of oral narration that achieves comic effects precisely because of the obvious gap between the linguistic sophistication of the narrator and that of the author. But this gap also produces a sort of double-voiced effect in which readers are alerted to the fact that what they are reading might be more sophisticated than it appears, so that they should be attentive to subtleties in meaning.
Among other things, Huck’s lack of linguistic sophistication helps to reinforce the naïve innocence and good humor with which he approaches the world, allowing him to convey a story filled with ugliness in a way that is much more palatable than it might otherwise have been. But this point of view also sometimes allows Huck to get right to the heart of things without any of the complications that might have been introduced by a more sophisticated narrator. In this sense, Huckleberry Finn can be identified as a “picaresque” novel, a type of novel in which a hero from the fringes of society narrates their adventures from the point of view of an innocent outsider, uncontaminated by the corruption of the society they observe (and often inadvertently satirize). The picaresque hero, or “picaro,” typically narrates their story in episodic form as they travel about, largely at random, from one place to another observing various aspects of society and the world without losing any of their fundamental innocence.
The picaresque novel is an old European form, and aspects of the picaresque can be found at least as early as classic Roman texts such as Petronius’s Satyricon (late first century AD), though the Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) is generally considered the first true modern picaresque novel. However, Huckleberry Finn also takes the form into specifically American territory with its emphasis on movement through a realistic geographical landscape. In this sense, the novel can be seen as an early example of the American road novel, in which plot is largely supplied simply by geographical progression from one location to another. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) is perhaps the best-known example of this form, but aspects of the road narrative appear in any number of American novels. In the case of Huckleberry Finn, of course, the “road” is replaced by the Mississippi River, which, if anything, gives the novel even more of a sense of being rooted in a specific geography.
Given the time and place of the action, the geography of Huckleberry Finn has a particularly political connotation. 1840 America was divided along the stark lines of a fundamental contrast between slave states and free states. The plot of the book involves Huck’s attempt to escape his drunken, abusive father—but also to escape the confines of civilization, as represented by the Widow Douglas and others. But it also equally involves the flight of the slave Jim from bondage in Missouri, which was a slave state, though one that was unusually far north. The fact that Huck and Jim necessarily travel south on their river raft adds a certain irony to their journey, given that the natural direction of flight to freedom from Missouri would be north. Huck and Jim, however, do plan eventually to flee into the free state of Illinois (across the Mississippi from Missouri), though they miscalculate and travel too far south. Most of their adventures occur in the slave states of Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Huckleberry Finn, Slavery, and Race
In one of the key “comic” moments of Huckleberry Finn (one that is not actually comic at all), Huck tells Tom’s Aunt Sally (a very pious Christian woman) about a supposed steamboat explosion. “Good gracious!” she responds. “Was anybody hurt?” Huck calmly replies in the negative, then adds that the explosion “killed a nigger,” as if a black person could not be counted as “anybody.” Indeed, Aunt Sally’s subsequent relieved response shows just how deeply ingrained in her world was the social attitude that black people were not really human: “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Huckleberry Finn certainly delivers a strong anti-racist and anti-slavery message. The moment when Huck decides to help Jim even though it violates some of the most sacred principles of his society, declaring, “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell,” is surely his finest moment. This moment has also sometimes been regarded as the finest one in all of American literature. In reality, though, Huckleberry Finn is anything but simple. It is, in fact, a complex and rather unruly novel that wanders, sometimes rather clumsily, from one episode to another, undergoing sometimes striking tonal shifts and participating in a number of different genres, some of which are not terribly compatible with the others.
The multigeneric character of Huckleberry Finn is no doubt one of the reasons why such a widely admired novel has generated so much critical disagreement. Originally regarded by most critics as an adventure story for boys, the novel came under considerable criticism almost immediately upon its publication due to the fact that so much material in the book is clearly not suitable for children. Interestingly, though, this type of criticism was often aimed as much at the “coarse” language of the novel than at its content.
Still, many observers over the years have complained about the abusive treatment of Huck by his “Pap,” finding the depiction of this treatment extremely uncomfortable, especially in a book for children. One might argue, of course, that child abuse is more relevant to children than to anyone else. In any case, Pap’s treatment of Huck, combined with his diatribes against the interference of the “govment” in his life, inadvertently serves as a strong argument for precisely that sort of interference, while also reminding us that such wrongheaded complaints about government interference, still prevalent today, have a long history in America. Meanwhile, Pap’s virulent racism suggests that such anti-government attitudes might have a great deal to do with America’s racist heritage, government, after all, being charged with the task of ensuring equal rights to all Americans of whatever race. It is thus no coincidence that Pap’s diatribe against government interference in his treatment of his son segues directly into complaints about the government granting rights to African Americans, even going so far as to allow them to vote in some states. He thus relates, with outrage, the story of a black man from Ohio, who was not only a college professor, but (still worse) a voting citizen:
“They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin.”
The irony of an oafish man like Pap being outraged, strictly on the basis of race, that an intelligent, sophisticated, well-educated man is allowed to vote could not be more clear.
Structurally, meanwhile, this aspect of the novel can also be seen as an important support for its critique of slavery. Huck, as it turns out, is beaten, abused, and kept in captivity, a fate that necessarily brings outrage to most readers. However, Huck’s treatment by his “Pap” is, in some ways, not all that different from the treatment suffered by slaves all over the South. Pap, in fact, makes it clear that he regards Huck essentially as his property. By placing Pap’s treatment of Huck in a context in which it is obviously a cruel outrage, Clemens potentially provides us with a fresh lens through which to view slavery, which had been widely naturalized in the slave states so as to appear “normal.” The realization that slaves are being treated much in the same way that Huck’s father treats him helps us to see that there was nothing either natural or normal about slavery.
Huck, as a naïve young boy, does not consciously see the parallel between his situation with his father and the situation in which Jim finds himself as a slave. However, Huck does perhaps sense this parallel unconsciously, which might explain some of his sympathy for Jim. At the same time, the parallels between the situations of Huck and Jim potentially make an important comment on the intersection of race and class in America. As a poor white citizen of a slave state, Huck in many ways has more in common with Jim than with wealthier white people, parallels that would become even stronger after the end of slavery. Systemic racism, however, encourages poor white people to identity with other white people, treating poor nonwhite people as others toward whom they can feel both superior and hostile, while ignoring the fact that the poor of all races are being exploited by rich white people.
An additional comment on slavery occurs in the final portion of the novel, in which Tom Sawyer, knowing Jim to have been freed, nevertheless plays an extended game with the man’s life, allowing him to be kept in chains while Tom plays an elaborate game of executing a romantic escape vaguely modeled on the adventurous stories he is fond of reading. This last bit of extended cruelty has outraged many readers, but again the very cruelty and unfairness of Jim’s treatment in this section of the novel helps to emphasize the cruelty and unfairness of slavery in general. Moreover, that Tom can play a game with a man’s life in this way serves as an important reminder that, to Tom, Jim is not really a man, but a thing, even though Huck has long since come to a different understanding.
One reason why so many readers have been displeased by this ending has to do with the generic complexity of Huckleberry Finn. It is certainly the case that this last segment of the novel has no place in an adventure story for boys, and we might recall that even Hemingway (who so admired the novel in many ways), felt that the entire last section should have been omitted. Indeed, this last section is essentially an extended critique of the kind of story that many have assumed Huckleberry Finn itself to be, demonstrating the unrealistic nature of many nineteenth-century stories of adventure for boys, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But surely the discordance of this last section with such adventure stories comes about not because Huckleberry Finn is a bad juvenile adventure but because it is not a juvenile adventure at all but a complex literary novel meant for sophisticated adult readers.
The Complexities of Huckleberry Finn
Huckleberry Finn was never fully appreciated as a complex literary novel until the 1950s, when American literary history was completely rewritten in an attempt to support arguments that American literature was more sophisticated and more “literary” than Soviet literature, which was depicted (unfairly) in the Western rhetoric of the Cold War era as propagandistic hack work with little artistic merit. As part of this project, literary historians scoured the available store of American literary texts looking for texts that could support this argument. Thus, Moby-Dick was promoted from oddity to masterpiece and William Faulkner was promoted from regional outsider to modernist genius. Meanwhile, Huckleberry Finn was suddenly discovered to have been a literary masterpiece all along, the vernacular language in which it was written having been an outburst of literary genius rather than a countrified joke.
But praise carries its own burdens, and the new canonical status of Huckleberry Finn also brought new criticisms. By the late 1950s, Huckleberry Finn, despite its brilliant take-down of the entire system of slavery, was being seen as offensive to African Americans, partly because of its stereotypical depiction of Jim, but even more because of its spectacularly liberal use of the N-word (the word appears in the text over 200 times, thus averaging out at roughly once per page)—something that makes the book a bit awkward to talk about to this day. Much has been said about this topic since that the 1950s, and Arac notes that we should not dismiss out of hand the notion that this usage is a serious problem. Indeed, he concludes that defenses of the novel on this and other scores have often been as simplistic as attacks on it. Considering this problem seriously, however, Robert Sloane concludes that the problematic vocabulary of the novel is actually a strength. He notes that the N-word appears only nine times in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which suggests that the word is deliberately emphasized in Huckleberry Finn. Sloane concludes, then, that “Twain’s manipulation of the n-word is not accidental, but part of a coherent plan to show racism as so integral and pervasive as to be inescapable” within the world depicted in the novel (82). On a similar note, someone with perhaps more authority on the African American experience, Toni Morrison, has declared that the use of this word is absolutely necessary for the text to deliver its message, just as it is necessary for Jim to be depicted in the “unassertive, loving, irrational, passionate, dependent, inarticulate” way that he is (309). In this way, Morrison concludes, the text is able to make important statements about the “parasitical nature of white freedom” in America, about the way in which “freedom” for some has so often been conceived only in opposition to the bondage of others (310).
Of course, the depiction of Jim to which Morrison refers is filtered through the perceptions of Huck, as is everything depicted in Huckleberry Finn. As readers of the novel, we really know very little about what Jim is like and what sort of interior life he might have. All we see is what Huck sees. Huck, meanwhile, is an innocent boy who doesn’t always understand what he sees. He knows at a deep level, despite everything he has been taught to believe, that Jim is not only a person but a good one who deserves more than the lot he has been given as a slave. And yet Huck never intellectually questions the system of slavery or the validity of the systemic racism that makes slavery possible in his world. Moreover, and just as important, Huck also assumes that Jim himself never questions the fundamental superiority of the white people he encounters, even though most of the white people in the book are problematic and possibly scoundrels, if not downright monsters. The unquestioning acceptance of this racial hierarchy on the part of both Huck and Jim (as perceived by Huck) is thus one of the most profound comments in this book on the extent to which racism had become a central founding precept of the world of the antebellum South.
And this is the world on which Huckleberry Finn most obviously comments. After all, the story as it is could not take place after the Civil War, primarily because of the end of slavery—but also because the rapid encroachment of civilization had made the Mississippi River and its banks a far less wild place by 1884 than it had been forty years earlier, cutting off opportunities for the kind of backwoods adventures Huck encounters on his travels. At the same time, Clemens comments on American society in ways that are relevant both to the 1840s and the 1880s, as when the whole episode of the Duke and the King provides important insights into the kind of hucksterism that was increasingly rampant in America in the 1880s and that would ultimately provide important background for the spectacular rise of American consumer capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Indeed, it is important to recognize that Huckleberry Finn also comments on the world in which it was written (Clemens composed it between 1876 and 1883) and published (the novel first appeared in print in the United Kingdom in 1884 and in the United States in 1885). The novel was thus written just as the circus founded by P. T. Barnum (one of the greatest of all American hucksters) in 1871 was coming into its own, an enterprise that served as an important forerunner both to the modern American entertainment industry and to consumer capitalism in general.
Of more obvious importance, Huckleberry Finn was conceived, written, and published at a time when opposing slavery was hardly a brave or controversial stance; such opposition was simply the prevailing view in the United States at the time, held by almost everyone except diehard holdouts in the Deep South. But, of course, the problem of racism was still very much at the center of American social reality in the 1870s and 1880s, and many scholars have explored the way in which Huckleberry Finn addresses this issue, not only in the time period of its action, but also in the time period of its composition and publication.
For example, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, as part of an argument for the strong influence of African American culture on the novel, has suggested that the controversial final section of Huckleberry Finn “may be read as a commentary on American race relations in the post-Reconstruction era” (74). That is, Jim is kept in bondage even after he is no longer a slave, just as African Americans, especially in the South, had still failed to win equal rights at the time the novel was published. Indeed, scholars have increasingly come to recognize that one of the complexities of Huckleberry Finn is that it serves as a commentary, not just on 1840s America, but also on 1880s America.
Of course, it is also important to recognize that the issues related to racism that are raised in Huckleberry Finn remain highly relevant today and that we should not regard these issues as quaint relics of a nineteenth-century past. For example, Andrew Spencer reads the novel’s treatment of race through the lens of critical race theory, an approach that has been so much in the news in recent days. By so doing, Spencer is able to demonstrate that the novel conducts a powerful critique of the crucial role played by white privilege in American society, a phenomenon that remains extremely relevant today—though Spencer also concludes that the novel’s critique was perhaps too subtle to be grasped by most readers at the time of its publication.
This time was a complex one. Huckleberry Finn was written during one of the most crucial and most widely misunderstood periods in American history, a period that saw the unraveling of the project of Reconstruction that had begun after the Southern defeat in the Civil War and that was designed to ensure equal rights for African Americans in the postwar South. Clemens wrote the novel precisely in the years between the controversial election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in 1876 and the disastrous 1883 Supreme Court rulings that struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, marking the effective abandonment of the project of African American equality in the South and allowing the institution of a system of “Jim Crow” laws that effectively stripped African Americans of most of their rights as American citizens in the South, relegating them to a second-class status from which they would truly begin to recover only with the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Brook Thomas has presented a detailed account of the Reconstruction period and the demise of that project, arguing forcefully for the importance of understanding this history if one is truly to understand Huckleberry Finn. Further, Thomas argues that despite decades of serious study, Twain scholars still do not seem to have understood this period very well. For him, the ongoing importance of Huckleberry Finn lies in the large number of “contradictions and unresolved conflicts it registers.” Moreover, Thomas argues that those contradictions remain highly relevant in our own time: “Twain’s response to Reconstruction embodies those contradictions, contradictions very much part of today’s political culture, one still unable to remedy one of its most egregious wrongs” (21).
Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Morrison, Toni. “Jim’s Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn.” In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain: (A Case Study in Critical Controversy). Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, pp. 305–310
Sloane, David E. E. “The N-Word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Reconsidered.” The Mark Twain Annual, vol. 12, 2014, pp. 70–82.
Spencer, Andrew. “‘A Fiction of Law and Custom’: Mark Twain’s Interrogation of White Privilege in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The Mark Twain Annual, vol. 15, 2017, pp. 126–44.
Thomas, Brook. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Reconstruction.” American Literary Realism, vol. 50, no. 1, Fall 2017, pp. 1–24.
 Another opening note identifies the time of the action as “forty to fifty years ago.” Assuming that this time is dated from the time of publication that would place the action roughly sometime between the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s.
 Clemens himself responded to such criticisms by sarcastically nodding his agreement and pointing out that he himself had been morally ruined in his youth by reading the Bible, the content of which was clearly unsuitable for children.
 The novel employs a similar strategy in relating the comic story of the would-be lynching of the white Colonel Sherburn in Arkansas, an idea that clearly comes off as ridiculous in the text. This story might seem inappropriate, given that lynching is no laughing matter, but it does serve to suggest that the very idea of lynching, such a cruel part of American racial history, is absurd and could never be seriously entertained in a civilized country.
 On the other hand, the politics of this phenomenon were such that John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, perhaps the most sophisticated American modernist “novel,” was relegated even further to the margins of literary history because of its openly leftist political stance.
 Clemens’ home during the writing of Huckleberry Finn was in Hartford, Connecticut, only about 50 miles northeast of Bridgeport, where Barnum was serving as the town mayor when Clemens started writing the novel.