The First Great American Novel

Originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

‘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…

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