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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn () Top 100 Books of the Millenium (28)

A subject of controversy today, as it has been since its publication, Huckleberry Finn is by any measure, despite obvious flaws, one of the great works of American Literature.  Much confusion surrounds the interpretation of Twain's story, mostly because of the presence of Jim, who was one of the first multi-dimensional black characters in all of fiction.  There has been a resulting tendency to grant him primacy of place in analysis of the novel and to read it as a statement, pro or con, about Slavery.  This is really not the appropriate way to understand the story.  Jim is obviously vital, but his story is secondary, or at least only complimentary, to that of Huck himself.  For our purposes, we'll try looking at the novel as if Huck was the central character, which of course he is, a fact which would apparently surprise most modern critics.

Approached in this way, we can see that, far from being an aberrational instant of a major popular author tackling the race question, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead falls directly into the mainstream of American Literature, with clear antecedents in The Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick and obvious successors in everything from the Western to the hard-boiled detective story and most directly in works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (see Orrin's review) and Cool Hand Luke.  If we look at just the novels named above, we find that they all share the same central theme--dissatisfaction with the secure but restrictive clutches of "civilization" and the desire for freedom.  Each of them is about men who have escaped or are trying to escape from some form of civil society, from some system that denies them liberty.

This is particularly important in the case of Huck Finn because, while academics view it strictly through the lens of Jim's escape from Slavery, the core of the novel is Huck's dash for freedom.  Indeed, while Twain is often criticized for the elaborate scheme that Tom and Huck develop to free Jim at the end of the novel--criticized because it turns his state of slavery into a joke and a source of amusement for the boys--the critics miss the point that it is Huck who ultimately ends up reenslaved.  This is why the story concludes with his famous vow:

    I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to
    adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it.  I been there before.

I think you've got to grant Twain the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he was not merely setting up a sequel.  Presumably we can take this statement seriously and it would appear to reveal the entire point of the book--Huckleberry Finn views the formal structures of civilization as intolerable.  It is in this sense that the book fits into the continuum of our Literature and of our politics and gives it a valid claim to being one of the great American novels.

Before we go, a couple of other similarities in these books deserve mention.  One conspicuous shared aspect of these novels is that they are all specifically about men.  Women appear only as oppressors or figures of idolatry. If you've read some of the other reviews here (try Orrin's review of A Handmaid's Tale for instance), you will not be surprised to hear that I believe this is a function of the concrete difference in the political philosophies of the two genders--men tend to favor freedom and the risk it entails, while women most often opt for security even at the cost of surrendering liberty.  Even if you disagree with this theory, which would put you in good company, it is certainly true that the central story line of all of these books involves the heroes moving away from more secure settings into riskier but freer environments.

The other noticeable similarity of the stories is the frequent presence of the "noble savage" character.    Whether it be Chingachgook or Queequeg or Jim or The Chief, they represent man in the state of nature, unsullied by the dandifying influences of civilization.  They are nearly aspirational figures, archetypes brought along in order to show the hero what he could be like if he succeeds in freeing himself.  This is a curious residue of the idyllic beliefs of men like Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson.  I won't take the time here to discuss this fully; I merely note that the theme recurs and point out that the idea that primitive man was somehow more free than modern man is asinine.  Hobbes had it right when he referred to life in the state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short."

From the foregoing analysis, it may seem to some folks that I am trying to diminish Jim's stature or deny Twain's originality; this is not the case.  Instead, I am suggesting that in mankind's long and schizoid struggle between Freedom and Security, America is the place, more than any other, which has sought to vindicate the cause of Freedom.  It is natural, therefore, that our very best literature draws upon these ideas. Huckleberry Finn has many flaws--it is overlong; it has really jarring changes in tone; at times it is merely cruel when trying to be funny; and for the modern reader, the portrayal of Jim is quite disconcerting, so condescending as to make us uncomfortable--but it is above all else a quintessentially American novel and Huck is an archetypal American figure.  As a nation, we represent the ideal of "lighting out for the Territory", of providing captive peoples with freedom and opportunity.  It is in this context that, regardless of its shortcomings, Huckleberry Finn must be reckoned a central text in the American Canon.


Grade: (A-)


Mark Twain Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Mark Twain
    -REVIEW: of The Life of Mark Twain: The Final Years 1891-1910 by Gary Scharnhorst (Scott Bradfield, Spectator)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Welcome to The Mark Twain House (Hartford, CT)
    -Mark Twain (Most Web)
    -Mark Twain in His Times (The Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, Stephen Railton,  Department of English, Univ. of Virginia)
    -The Mark Twain Papers and Project, The Bancroft Library
    -Mark Twain at Large: His Travels Here and Abroad (An Exhibition from The Mark Twain Papers of The Bancroft Library University of California, Berkeley)
    -The Mark Twain Association of New York Home Page
    -Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies
    -LINKS: Mark Twain Resources on the World Wide Web  (Jim Zwick, Boondocks)
    -LINKS: Ever The Twain Shall Meet: Mark Twain on the Web
    -LINKS: Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources Compiled by: Barbara Schmidt
    -Peter Salwen's Mark Twain Page
    -TLC Guide to Mark Twain (The ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center)
    -Guide 4: Crossroads - Mark Twain and American Humor
    -Literary Research Guide: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) (1835 - 1910)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain  (SparkNote by Joel Walsh)
    -ETEXT: Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (University of Virginia)
    -ETEXTS: A Collection of Online Literature: Mark Twain
    -ESSAY: A Private History : Moments in the Friendship of Mark Twain and U. S. Grant (Rachel Cohen, Double Take)
    -ESSAY: What Huck and Jim Really Said in That Cave (DEIRDRE CARMODY, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: A Scholar Finds Huck Finn's Voice in Twain's Writing About a Black Youth (ANTHONY DePALMA, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Scholars Preserve Twain's Wit and Bite (CAROLE BURNS, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Selling 'Huck Finn' Down the River (SEYMOUR CHWAST, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: How a Clergyman From Hartford Freed Huckleberry Finn (Russell Banks, NY Times Book Review)
    -Mark Twain Forum book reviews
    -REVIEW: of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Dwight Garner, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN A Biography By John Lauber  (Guy Cardwell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of INVENTING MARK TWAIN The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens By Andrew Hoffman  (David S. Reynolds, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of OLD CLEMENS AND W.D.H. The Story of a Remarkable Friendship By Kenneth E. Eble (Carl Bode, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  WAS HUCK BLACK? Mark Twain and African-American Voices By Shelley Fisher Fishkin (James R. Kincaid, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: THE SAGEBRUSH BOHEMIAN Mark Twain in California By Nigey Lennon (Bernard L. Stein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Frederick Crews: The Parting of the Twains, NY Review of Books
        Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America by Susan Gillman
        Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind by Sherwood Cummings
    -REVIEW:  Marius Bewley: Split in Twain, NY Review of Books
        Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography by Justin Kaplan
    -REVIEW: Ellen Moers: The "Truth" of Mark Twain, NY Review of Books
        Susy and Mark Twain: Family Dialogues arranged and edited by Edith Colgate Salsbury
        Mark Twain and Bret Harte by Margaret Duckett
        Mark Twain: Jackleg Novelist by Robert A. Wiggins
        Mark Twain and the Gilded Age: The Book That Named an Era by B.M. French
    -REVIEW : Go East, Young Man Trekking to the Holy Land.  American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania by Hilton Obenzinger (Bruce Kuklick, Books & Culture)