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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

February 27, 2011

The newly-released first installment of Mark Twain’s autobiography is now on my bookshelf, but I wanted to first revisit his most famous work. Like most people, I read this in high school or junior high and, I imagine like most people, I got the plot but missed much of the humor and social commentary.

This book is, of course, about Huck Finn, somewhat of a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At the beginning of the novel, we find Huck in the care of the widow Douglas and her sister, who are attempting to civilize him, as he calls it. Huck is a good-natured boy, mischievous but pure of heart. He and Tom Sawyer have just found a small fortune in gold (in Tom Sawyer), and soon thereafter Huck’s abusive, whiskey-loving father shows up to claim the money. When Huck reveals that he has assigned a local judge as caretaker of the funds, his father kidnaps him and takes him upriver. Huck eventually escapes and sets off on a series of episodic adventures in which he encounters one hair-brained character after another, finally reuniting with his old friend Tom Sawyer.

Twain is one of, if not the, greatest American humorists, and Huckleberry Finn is filled with wit and irony and all varieties of comedy. Every once in awhile I’d come across a passage, usually describing life on the river or the natural scenery, that stopped me in admiration. Here’s one of several that I marked:

“The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.”

But aside from the humor and the wonderful writing, there are two elements that lay heavy and dark over the entire book. The first is Huck’s abusive father. He comes and goes throughout the book, and Huck’s attitude remains positive, but there’s always the feeling that his father lurks just off-stage, ready to return to Huck’s life at any moment and bring with him all sorts of badness.

The second heavy element is the overt racism throughout. The story takes place sometime between 1835 and 1845, before the Civil War, in Missouri, a slave state.   Much of the book concerns trying to get Jim, a freed slave, back up north to find his family. Huck himself is a fairly open-minded boy, but he is a product of his environment, and there are times when his racism comes through in shocking clarity. In one notable exchange, Huck is making up a story about a steamboat that he was supposedly on, explaining to Tom’s Aunt Sally why he is late:

“We blowed out a cylinder-head.”

“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”

These moments are comments more on society than Huck himself—he remains a likable character. But even in the last episode, where Huck and Tom aim to break Jim out of a shed where he is being held, their mission is play in their eyes, just another adventure. For Jim, it is a matter of life and death. The boys are being silly, but they’re also showing how painfully ignorant they are.

It’s the inclusion of these two subjects—Huck’s abuse at the hand of his father and shepherding of Jim through a racist south—that elevate this book beyond just a clever, well-written story. As likable as Huck is, he remains oblivious to the seriousness of the events around him. It’s the use of him as narrator that makes this novel so powerful and poignant. Through his naïve eyes we see a shameful chapter in the history of our country. A country that should know better. A country that in some ways is on the verge of social change, but in many ways is still a long long way from the bend in the river.

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