The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
The following entry provides criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Long considered Mark Twain's masterwork as well as a classic of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was the first important American work to depart from European literary models. It used frontier humor, vernacular speech, and an uneducated young narrator to portray life in America. Although at first the novel was roundly denounced as inappropriate for genteel readers, it eventually found a preeminent place in the canon of American literature. Huckleberry Finn, wrote Ernest Hemingway, is the novel from which “all modern American literature comes. … There has been nothing as good since.”
Plot and Major Characters
Begun as a sequel to Twain's successful children's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows a similar picaresque form as its predecessor, but has a much more serious intent. Narrated by the title character, the story begins with Huck under the protection of the kindly Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Fearing that his alcoholic father, Pap, will attempt to claim the fortune that he and Tom had found (in Tom Sawyer), Huck transfers the money to Judge Thatcher. Undaunted, Pap kidnaps Huck and imprisons him in a lonely cabin. Huck escapes, leaving a trail of pig's blood to make it appear he has been killed, and he finds his way to Jackson's Island, where he encounters Miss Watson's runaway slave, Jim. One night Huck, disguised as a girl, goes ashore, where he learns that people believe that Jim killed Huck, and that there is a reward for Jim's capture. The two set out on a raft down the Mississippi River but are separated when the raft is struck by a steamboat. Swimming ashore, Huck is taken in by the Grangerford family, who are engaged in a blood feud with the Shepherdsons. In time Huck finds Jim and the two set out on the raft again, eventually offering refuge to two con artists, the Duke, and the King. These two perpetrate various frauds on unsuspecting people, claiming to be descendants of royalty or, at other times, famous actors, evangelists, or temperance lecturers. Learning of the death of the well-to-do Peter Wilks, the Duke and the King descend upon the family, claiming their inheritance as long-lost brothers. Huck helps to foil their plans, and he and Jim attempt to slip away without the Duke and the King, but the rogues catch up with them and the four set out together. When they come ashore in one town, Jim is captured, and Huck is shocked to learn that the King has turned him in for the reward. After a battle with his conscience, Huck decides to help Jim escape. He goes to the Phelps farm where Jim is being held and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who is the nephew of the Phelpses. Huck decides to impersonate Tom. When the real Tom arrives, he joins in the deception by posing as his brother, Sid. He concocts an elaborate plan to rescue Jim, during the execution of which Tom is accidentally shot, and Jim is recaptured. From his sickbed, Tom announces that Miss Watson has died, setting Jim free in her will. He got involved the “rescue,” he says, simply for the “adventure of it.” Jim then reveals that Huck's father is dead, that he had found the body in an abandoned boat. Aunt Sally Phelps suggests that she might adopt Huck, but the peripatetic Huck cannot foresee living in “sivilization” and resolves to “light out for the territory.”
Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat,” and the novel traces Huck's moral development as he encounters a seemingly haphazard array of people and situations. During his journey down the river, with its series of encounters, he undergoes a rite of passage from unthinking acceptance of received knowledge and values to an independently achieved understanding of what is right. In his decision to free Jim, Huck overcomes his “conscience,” which, formed by a racist society, tells him this act is wrong, to reach a higher morality. Twain skillfully plays upon the irony of that moment as he describes the conflicts between what Huck has been taught and what he gradually acknowledges to be right. Another dominant theme in the story is the contrast between the constricting life on shore and the freedom offered by the river. Huck and Jim's journey is widely regarded as a symbolic statement on the corruption of society and a condemnation of a “sivilization” which encourages greed and deception, destroys innocence, and enslaves human beings. Whether the novel speaks to a typically “American” theme of unlimited mobility and broader horizons is a question still being asked by readers and literary critics.
When Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885, critical response was mixed, and a few libraries banned the book for its perceived offenses to propriety. Such controversies, however, did not affect the book's popularity, and it has remained the best selling of all of Twain's works. After Twain's death his works gradually became elevated as national treasures, but following World War I commentators such as William Faulkner and Van Wyck Brooks cast doubt on the greatness of Huckleberry Finn. Hemingway's comments on the novel, along with the centenary of Twain's birth in 1935 and favorable comments by Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot in the late 1940s and early 1950s, revived the book's reputation. Later critics gave it nearly universal acclaim, praising its artistry and its evocation of important American themes. A recurrent critical concern was the role of Jim, who was variously called only a foil for Huck's exploits, a possible homosexual partner, or a father figure. Others critiqued Jim's role as a racial stereotype, while Twain defenders said he was used to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry of southern separatism. During the 1950s a number of critics such as Bernard DeVoto and Leo Marx raised objections to the abruptness of the book's ending, but by the 1960s Twain was again being lauded by such scholars as Walter Blair and Henry Nash Smith. The hundredth anniversary of the American publication of the novel in 1985 sparked new editions, bibliographies, and critical appraisals. Around this time, more and more questions were being raised about the racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn, and a number of public schools sought to ban the book from their required reading lists. In addition, African American critics and others continued to challenge the book's reputation as a classic of American literature. That controversy goes on, even as criticism of the novel has taken new directions. Since the 1990s some scholars have continued to do close textual readings, and others have emphasized the novel as a cultural product. The question of literary canonization has been addressed by critics such as Jonathan Arac and Elaine and Harry Mensch. Other commentators, including Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, have noted the importance of the confluence of white and Black cultures in the story. Several new editions, especially the annotated edition published in 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, have encouraged further scholarship. Critical interest in Huckleberry Finn, then, shows no signs of waning, and debates over its stature and reputation, and the issues the novel raises, appear certain to continue.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (short stories) 1867
The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress (sketches) 1869
Roughing It (sketches) 1872
The Gilded Age [with Charles Dudley Warner] (novel) 1874
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (novel) 1876
A Tramp Abroad (sketches) 1880
The Prince and the Pauper (novel) 1881
Life on the Mississippi (memoirs) 1883
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1884
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (novel) 1889
Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Tale (novel) 1894
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Sieur Louis de Conte (novel) 1896
The Mysterious Stranger (novel) 1916
Mark Twain's Autobiography (autobiography) 1924
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SOURCE: Lester, Julius. “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, pp. 199-207. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Lester maintains that Huckleberry Finn fails to confront the realities of slavery.]
I don't think I'd ever read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Could that be? Every American child reads it, and a child who read as much as I did must have.
As carefully as I search the ocean floor of memory, however, I find no barnacle-encrusted remnant of Huckleberry Finn. I may have read Tom Sawyer, but maybe I didn't. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are embedded in the American collective memory like George Washington (about whom I know I have never read). Tom and Huck are part of our American selves, a mythologem we imbibe with our mother's milk.
I do have an emotional memory of going to Hannibal, Missouri, with my parents when I was eight or nine, and visiting the two-story white frame house where Mark Twain lived as a boy—where Huck and Tom lived as boys. In the American collective memory, Twain, Huck, and Tom merge into a paradigm of boyhood which shines as poignantly as a beacon, beckoning, always beckoning to us from some paradise lost,...
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SOURCE: Sloane, David E. E. “Huck Acts, an Escape from Sivilization.” In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: American Comic Vision, pp. 50-60. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Sloane notes the importance of Huck's ability to act with determination to shape his and Jim's fate in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]
Huck is a passive hero for most of the book. The negative description of his mother, his isolation and loneliness, and his laconic deadpan, self-effacing manner of humorous speech all seem to account for this passivity. Nevertheless, he reacts on Jim's behalf on several occasions in important ways. Unfortunately, the last part of the novel is dominated by twelve chapters in which Huck seems to do little in contravening the travesties worked by Tom Sawyer. The events of chapter 7 are crucial in establishing Huck's other side—his ability to act with determination. As readers who recognize this ability, we are prepared to find the last fifth of the novel especially frustrating.
Huck is aroused by his father after a night of terror, and offers a self-protective lie to escape further violence. We see our first extended view of the Mississippi River as Huck finds and hides a drifting canoe to use once he can “fix up some way to keep pap and the widow” from following him. Pap's “style,” by no means as elaborate as Tom's but equally compelling,...
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SOURCE: Mason, Ernest D. “Attraction and Repulsion: Huck Finn ‘Nigger’ Jim, and Black Americans.” CLA Journal 33 (September 1989): 36-48.
[In the following essay, Mason discusses Huck's ambivalent attitude toward Jim and suggests that readers should rethink their admiration for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]
According to most of the literature on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's final decision to help Jim escape represents Huck's belief in and affirmation of Jim's humanity. In a very dramatic scene, Huck states emphatically that he will steal Jim out of slavery and willingly “go to hell” for doing so. Yet closer reading of the novel reveals that Huck supports Jim and his quest for freedom somewhat as a rope supports one who is being hanged. On two occasions he deliberately decides to turn Jim in; both efforts are frustrated by his conscience. Notice, however, that it is a conscience which merely tells Huck that Jim is essentially a “good nigger”; it is not a conscience which tells him that Jim is a human being like himself who simply wants to live and be free. Slavery for Huck was one thing, but a free “nigger” was quite another. Clearly, the hand handing out its alms can often look like a fist. Huck's intention is to acknowledge Jim as a fellow human; but his effect is to treat a human being as a “nigger.” The full ambivalence of Twain's work cannot be measured...
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SOURCE: Camfield, Gregg. “Sentimental Liberalism and the Problem of Race in Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 46, no. 1 (June 1991): 96-113.
[In the following essay, Camfield discusses Twain's debt to the dynamic of literary sentimentalism in Huckleberry Finn.]
Mark Twain is one of those rare writers loved by both academics and the larger public, though it should surprise no one that the academy and the public seem fond of him for different reasons. One can get some idea of the popular response to Twain by looking at how he has been marketed since his death. His tremendous popularity led Hollywood quickly to turn his works to account; studios produced film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as early as 1920.1 The best known of these, the 1939 MGM version starring Mickey Rooney as Huck, purifies the tale by eliminating all of Tom Sawyer's appearances, by having Huck convert so completely to abolitionism that he convinces the Widow Douglas (not Miss Watson) to set Jim free at the end of the tale, and by having Jim sail off on a steamboat to the free states to join his already free wife and child. While the movie does not whitewash the political problem of slavery, the ironic ambiguities are stripped away in favor of a conventional happy ending, complete with heartwarming violin music to mark Huck's conversion and Jim's freedom.
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SOURCE: Cummings, Sherwood. “Mark Twain's Moveable Farm and the Evasion.” American Literature 63, no. 1 (September 1991): 440-58.
[In the following essay, Cummings notes that Twain evades the issue of race in Huckleberry Finn by placing the Phelps farm in Arkansas.]
The Quarles farm, southwest of Hannibal, where young Sam Clemens spent his summers with his aunt and uncle and their slaves, was as important in Mark Twain's imagination as Hannibal itself. Used simply as setting, the farm came, as Mark Twain said, “very handy to me in literature once or twice.”1 His most signal use of it was to turn it into Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas Phelps's plantation in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Located where Huck and Jim's long raft voyage down the Mississippi ended, the Phelps place must be considerably south of its Missouri counterpart, but just how far south is a matter of disagreement. There are scholars who put it in Arkansas and others who put it in Mississippi or Louisiana. It is the purpose of this study to sketch the history of that disagreement, to offer a precise location for the farm based on fresh analysis and evidence, and, more importantly, to suggest how the disagreement is a consequence of Mark Twain's own ambivalence.
In 1958 Henry Nash Smith referred to “the ‘one-horse’ plantation of Silas Phelps near Pikesville,...
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SOURCE: Hirsh, James. “Samuel Clemens and the Ghost of Shakespeare.” Studies in the Novel 24, no. 3 (fall 1992): 251-72.
[In the following essay, Hirsh traces the influence of Shakespeare on Huckleberry Finn, and explores the anxieties Twain experienced in comparing himself with Shakespeare.]
Because Shakespeare's works are so famous, a later writer's adaptation of Shakespeare is apt to seem trite unless the source is significantly transformed, but this transformation may obscure the influence. Like the location of the purloined letter, Shakespeare's influence sometimes does not become obvious until after it has been pointed out. The extent of Samuel Clemens's indebtedness to Shakespeare, for example, has only recently begun to be charted in detail—by Howard G. Baetzhold, Alan Gribben, and others.1 The present essay is an attempt not only to indicate further examples of this indebtedness, which is often disguised by the particular methods of transformation used by Clemens, but to demonstrate that the influence of Shakespeare provoked anxiety for Clemens throughout his career and that his struggle with the ghost of Shakespeare, although sometimes bitter, was a key factor in the creation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Clemens was self-conscious about literary indebtedness. His frequent comments on the issue throughout his career are remarkably...
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SOURCE: Skandera-Trombley, Laura E. “The Charmed Circie.” In Mark Twain in the Company of Women, pp. 30-34. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
[In this excerpt, Skandera-Trombley discusses the effects of women and women's fiction on the composition of Huckleberry Finn.]
Mary Ann Cord played a crucial role in the shaping of Clemens's fiction. Born enslaved in Virginia, Cord had been sold twice and had all her children taken from her before she escaped to the North (Jerome and Wisbey 8). Charles Langdon's daughter, Ida Langdon, in an address delivered to the Elmira College Convocation in 1960, remembered Cord as a “dogmatic Methodist” (Jerome and Wisbey 62). Cord was very likely a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first African-American church founded in Elmira in 1841 (Sorin 15). And indeed Cord's denomination is shared by Roxana in Pudd'nhead Wilson; it is Roxana's recent conversion to Methodism that saves her from being sold down the river by her master.
While summering at Quarry Farm, Clemens composed a short story written partly in black dialect, which was probably influenced by Cord. As Sherwood Cummings notes, this story later gave rise to the main plot and theme of the first section of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This short story, entitled “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” related the...
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SOURCE: Smiley, Jane. “Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's ‘Masterpiece’.” Harper's 292, no. 1748 (January 1996): 61-7.
[In the following essay, Smiley casts doubt on whether the reputation of Huckleberry Finn is deserved, comparing its cultural message unfavorably with that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.]
So I broke my leg. Doesn't matter how—since the accident I've heard plenty of broken-leg tales, and, I'm telling you, I didn't realize that walking down the stairs, walking down hills, dancing in high heels, or stamping your foot on the brake pedal could be so dangerous. At any rate, like numerous broken-legged intellectuals before me, I found the prospect of three months in bed in the dining room rather seductive from a book-reading point of view, and I eagerly got started. Great novels piled up on my table, and right at the top was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which, I'm embarrassed to admit, I hadn't read since junior high school. The novel took me a couple of days (it was longer than I had remembered), and I closed the cover stunned. Yes, stunned. Not, by any means, by the artistry of the book but by the notion that this is the novel all American literature grows out of, that this is a great novel, that this is even a serious novel.
Although Huck had his fans at publication, his real elevation into the pantheon was...
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SOURCE: Park, Clara Claiborne. “The River and the Road: Fashions in Forgiveness.” American Scholar 66 (winter 1997): 43-62.
[In the following essay, Park traces similarities between Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling's Kim.]
When Lionel Trilling collected the essays that became The Liberal Imagination, was it chance or subliminal recognition of affinity that caused him to place his discussions of Huckleberry Finn and of Kipling side by side? Five years separated the essays—that on Kipling written in 1943, in response to the then recent essays by Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot (“critical attention … friendlier and more interesting than any he has received for a long time”), that on Huckleberry Finn in 1948. No interior references united them. If Trilling remembered Kim (Kipling's “best book” he'd called it in a long and appreciative paragraph) when he identified Huck Finn as a “picaresque novel, or novel of the road” and quoted Pascal's “rivers are roads that move,” he did not say so.
Kim, of course, is also about a road, a road that one of its own characters compares to a river. And on that road journey a boy and a man, separated by race and culture, bonded by love. The end of that journey, too, is problematic, a betrayal, Wilson had called it, of the complex relationship that made the book so much more than a...
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SOURCE: Arac, Jonathan. “Nationalism and Hypercanonization.” In Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time pp. 133-153 Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Arac disputes the idea that Huckleberry Finn, is emblematic of quintessential “American” values.]
THE NATIONALIZATION OF LITERARY NARRATIVE
I am not an Americanist by professional formation, and as in the 1980s I came to focus my teaching and reading in American literature, I was struck by what seemed to me, compared with other national literatures I knew or had studied, a state of hypercanonization. By hypercanonization I mean that a very few individual works monopolize curricular and critical attention: in fiction preeminently The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. These works organize innumerable courses in high school, college, and graduate school; they form the focus for many dissertations and books. I have found literary history an important means by which to engage critically with these works and with the professional and intellectual structures that produce their hypercanonicity, to address the works while displacing the terms of address. For literary history, as I try to practice it, these works are not the answers but the problems. My previous chapters have related Huckleberry Finn, and...
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SOURCE: Dawson, Hugh J. “The Ethnicity of Huck Finn—and the Difference It Makes.” American Literary Realism: 1870-1910 30, no. 2 (winter 1998): 1-16.
[In the following essay, Dawson explores the Irish-American heritage of Huck and the ways it affects his relationship with Jim.]
In an article describing the source and significance of Huckleberry Finn's surname, James L. Colwell has proposed that Mark Twain chose his character's “joyously and unmistakably Celtic” family name very purposefully.” From the ancient Finn McCool to Finnegans Wake, it is a name that rings through Irish legend and literature.1 (Its cognate appears in the name of the “Fenians,” the legendary Irish warriors under Finn McCool and others in the second and third centuries a.d., that was adopted by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irish-Americans who in the years immediately following the Civil War pledged themselves to aiding the revolutionary overthrow of the English government of Ireland.) After briefly summarizing the evidence of Twain's perception of the American Irish, Colwell explains that Huck's creator intended to capitalize on the currency of many widespread “connotations of the Irish in nineteenth-century America: typically servants and laborers in a status only slightly higher than that of the Negro, they were reputed to be gregarious, pugnacious, and given to strong drink. Decidedly not...
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SOURCE: Chadwick-Joshua, Jocelyn. “Whah Is de Glory?: The (Un)Reconstructed South.” In The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, pp. 115-35. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
[In the following essay, Chadwick-Joshua discusses what the character of Jim reveals about post-Reconstruction America and the persistence of racial stereotypes.]
All the experiences of the central section have prepared Huck for the final conflict, his decision to free Jim from being made a slave “again all his life … amongst strangers … for forty dirty dollars” (269). With that resolution, Huck casts off his old cultural beliefs and embraces new ones that feel right. Having watched Huck grow, we know that this decision is not predicated on whether freeing is convenient or comfortable. But the bitter satire of the human condition in the final section of the novel impels many readers to ask if its hero is a racist. The new perspective we have on Huck and Jim leads to the answer.
When Huck meets up with Tom Sawyer, the young man who in Huck's eyes personifies intelligence and knowledge, Huck resumes his secondary, supporting role. Huck's deference to Tom in the effort to extricate Jim occurs only after he has tried, as a true friend, to warn Tom not to damn his soul as he, Huck, has done.
A scene that has caused great concern and discussion initiates us into...
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SOURCE: Link, Eric Carl. “Huck the Thief.” Midwest Quarterly 41, no. 4 (summer 2000): 432-47.
[In the following essay, Link traces Huck's moral development through his growing awareness of the seriousness of theft.]
Fortunately, Tom got shot. It may be lovely to live on a raft, but only when you can live high, hogging watermelons without having to “chaw” over a lot of Tom's “gold-leaf distinctions.” Had the grand evasion gone as planned, had Tom, Huck, and Jim made it to the raft safely, the beauty and simplicity of raft life would have been diminished by Tom's insistence that they leave off “borrowing” the occasional chicken or cantaloupe from local farms. Tom can't even purloin a few candles without leaving five cents on the table for pay. Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest may be a bittersweet ending to a bittersweet novel, but it beats having to share a raft on the southern Mississippi with Tom.
In his 1966 article “Thief and Theft in Huckleberry Finn,” Robert Vales demonstrates that thievery is a major theme in Huckleberry Finn, appearing in virtually every major episode. Vales argues that the theft motif helps unify the book, as well as justify the much-maligned “evasion” ending. Vales's observations are astute, for the predominance of thievery in the novel does serve to bind many of the episodes of the novel together around a...
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SOURCE: Wieck, Carl F. “Huck and Jim on the Mississippi: Going with the Flow?” In Refiguring Huckleberry Finn, pp. 70-81. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Wieck discusses the river motif in Huckleberry Finn.]
The majestic Mississippi River is of central importance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, over the years since the novel first appeared, an impressive amount of scholarly effort has been expended in evaluating its role. While many perceptive observations and theories have been put forward to explain various aspects of the qualities that the river displays and embodies, relatively little consideration has been given to the fact that neither Huck nor Jim wish, or originally intend, to board a raft and float down the river with the current; for neither character is life on a southward-drifting raft a first choice. Nor is it certain that Twain himself had this in mind for his characters. According to Franklin R. Rogers, “[Bernard] DeVoto assumes that Twain planned from the beginning to take Huck and Jim on a journey downstream to the Phelps's farm, but if such had been Twain's original intent, he would not have destroyed the raft in the first place. … The resurrection of the raft is understandable only if one assumes that Twain had made changes in his plans for the novel.”1 Rogers further posits that...
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SOURCE: Margolis, Stacey. “Huckleberry Finn; or, Consequences.” PMLA 116, no. 2 (March 2001): 329-43.
[In the following essay, Margolis responds to other critics who have castigated Huckleberry Finn for its approach to racism, arguing that the novel indicts post-Reconstruction racism by establishing social accountability.]
“You are very kind; but there must be some mistake. I have not killed anything.”
“Your house did, anyway,” replied the little old woman, with a laugh; “and that is the same thing.”
—L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
That two forceful polemics against the continued investment in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an American classic were recently published for two very different audiences—Jane Smiley's “Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's ‘Masterpiece’” in Harper's Magazine and Jonathan Arac's Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time as part of the Wisconsin Project on American Writers series—suggests that nothing has become as much an American classic as the continuing controversy itself. What is different and worth nothing about these two works, however, is their attempt to do something new, to shift the...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “Twain and the Garden of the World: Cultural Consolidation on the American Frontier.” Southern Quarterly 39, no. 3 (spring 2001): 82-95.
[In the following essay, Folks outlines Twain's use of certain cultural mythologies in Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, concluding that Twain both accepts and resists the ideas of cultural unity and assimilation.]
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain positions culturally dominant values of commercialism, educational training, and other forms of cultural discipline in opposition to the frontier or to the distant past of Arthurian England (identified in many respects with the recent past of the western and somewhat earlier southern frontier, but also, quite explicitly, drawn from Twain's reading of Charles Ball's history of southern slavery and his family knowledge of the South as frontier). In both texts, the attendant cultural mythologies of American freedom and opportunity enfold and coopt oppositional myths, including the frontier ethos of radical freedom in nature and the southern ethos of plantation aristocracy and genteel agrarianism, both of which are viewed as oppositional to nineteenth-century individualism and laissez-faire economics. Without minimizing the symbolic oppositions inscribed within the characters of...
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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Huckleberry Finn and the Problem of Freedom.” Virginia Quarterly Review 7, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 642-49.
[In the following essay, Pinsker argues that Huckleberry Finn is a subversive book concerning the impossibility of true freedom for either of the main characters.]
“… he ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth.”
—Tom Sawyer spilling the beans about Jim
“We're free … We're free …”
Linda Loman at Willy's graveside
Freedom is America's abiding subject, as well as its deepest problem. I realize full well that I am hardly the first person to ruminate about the yawning gap between our country's large promises and, its less-than-perfect practice, much less the first to comment on the ways in which 19th-century America struggled with the “peculiar institution” known as slavery. But I am convinced that the way these large topics find a local habitation in the pages of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is yet another instance in which George Orwell's prophetic words ring true: “It is the first duty of intelligent men to restate the obvious.” What Twain means to test out in Huck's idiosyncratic telling of how he and Jim made their way down the river is nothing less...
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SOURCE: Bollinger, Laurel. “Say It, Jim: The Morality of Connection in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” College Literature 29, no. 1 (winter 2002): 32-52.
[In the following essay, Bollinger focuses on the theme of connectivity in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]
The American literary tradition has often been defined by its moments of radical autonomy—Thoreau at his pond, Ishmael offering his apostrophe to “landlessness,” Huck “light[ing] out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (Twain 1995, 265). In fact, Twain's novel is often taught as the text that epitomizes this tradition, with Huck held up as its exemplar: a boy courageous enough to stand against the moral conventions of his society, to risk Hell itself rather than conform to the “sivilizing” process of communities he rejects.1
Yet such a focus belies an alternate strand in the tradition: moments of radical connection that call into question not just the value but even the possibility of autonomy. The passage from which my title is drawn illustrates this point. At the very moment Jim's freedom seems most in crisis, when Tom's injury puts the escape on hold while Huck goes for the doctor, the two characters speak as one through Jim's voice. Knowing Jim will say what they both think, Huck asks Jim to say it: “‘No, sah—I doan' budge a step out'n dis place, ‘dout a doctor;...
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Alberti, John. “The Nigger Huck: Race, Identity, and the Teaching of Huckleberry Finn.” College English 57, no. 8 (December 1995): 919-937.
Reviews the reception history of Huckleberry Finn, especially the reaction to the word “nigger,” and suggests guidelines for teaching the novel in the modern classroom.
Arac, Jonathan. “Putting the River on New Maps: Nation, Race, and Beyond in Reading Huckleberry Finn.” American Literary History 8 (spring 1996): 110-29.
Review of books about Twain.
———. “Why Does No One Care about the Aesthetic Value of Huckleberry Finn?” New Literary History 30, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 769-84.
Argues that Huckleberry Finn is critiqued more for its social and political values than for its aesthetic merits.
Beaver, Harold. Huckleberry Finn. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987, 214 p.
General study covering sources, characterization, and social and critical responses to the novel.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 270 p.
Study of the ways in which Huckleberry Finn can be identified as a force for better racial relations....
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