As local color writing developed in American literature after the Civil War, it served as a bridge between the earlier period of Romanticism and the Realism of the twentieth century. The elements of Romanticism are clearly evident in the novel, especially in Twain’s descriptions of nature and the novel’s themes of personal freedom; the influence of Realism in fiction writing is evident in the many specific details throughout the novel that convey with accuracy and precision the society and culture that existed along the Southern banks of the Mississippi River at a particular time in American history. Despite its realistic depiction of people, places, and daily life, however, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is essentially a work of Romanticism that develops the theme found most consistently in romantic works: the goodness and nobility of the human spirit when it is free of the corruption of society.
The early writers of Romanticism, especially the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, celebrated man’s essential goodness and condemned society as a force that suppresses individual freedom and spiritual enlightenment. The essential tenet of Romanticism is that only in nature, not in society, can an individual discover spiritual truth and live an authentic life consistent with his inherent goodness—and this is the essential theme woven throughout Twain’s novel.
Huck’s experiences take place on the Mississippi or in towns along the river. On the raft, he and Jim experience solitude and peace, surrounded by the natural beauty, mystery, and awesome power of the river. Only when they think of life on shore are they troubled, and only when society encroaches is the quality of their lives diminished. On the river, Huck and Jim are free. On the river—living in nature—Huck questions for the first time the moral and religious beliefs imposed on him by society and struggles to reconcile them with what he knows in his heart to be good or evil. When he cannot reconcile them with his own spirit, he rejects society’s teachings, choosing instead to “go to hell” before turning Jim over as a runaway slave. On the river with Jim, Huck is separated from the corruption of society and its influence, leaving him free to discover the goodness within himself.
The contrast between goodness found in nature and the corruption of society is developed throughout the novel as life on the river is continually contrasted with life beyond the Mississippi. All that is violent and vile occurs on land or is temporarily exported to Huck and Jim’s raft by dangerous, unwelcome emissaries from society along the river. The bloody Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, the greed and scheming of the phony Duke and King, Huck’s vicious father, and the cruelty of slavery are symptomatic of society’s corruption and the ways it corrupts those who live in it. A great irony in the novel, critics often point out, is that Huck Finn has to escape society in order to become “civilized.” As a work of Romanticism, however, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t ironic at all. It’s in refusing to be “civilized” that Huck finds the goodness inherent in man’s nature.