According to Mark Twain, which is more valuable—personal experience or the written word? How can I support this with quotes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The author who famously stated that he had "never let my schooling interfere with my education" could be said to have ranked knowledge and skills attained through personal experience above that which could be attained through formal education. Twain was no anti-intellectual, although he had been instructed by the more blue-collar of his acquaintances to avoid the pitfalls of formal education, which would render him less functional if taken to extremes. It was his own experiences aboard Mississippi River boats, however, that provided Twain the perspective that would stay with him throughout his life. While Twain is remembered best for his fiction, especially for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was his memoir of those years of his youth spent working on riverboats that most influenced him in this regard. In Chapter XVIII of his Life on the Mississippi, he wrote of his two-and-half-years of apprenticeship,

"I am to this day profiting somewhat by that experience; for in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, and history. The fact is daily borne in upon me, that the average shore-employment requires as much as forty years to equip a man with this sort of an education." 

It was his experiences traveling up and down the Mississippi that instilled in the young man a sense for local dialectics and for the cultural nuances that flavored his fiction. This is no where more evident in the adventures of Huck Finn. Late in his most-celebrated of novels, Huck and Tom Sawyer are discussing the ways in which prisoners dig tunnels to escape prison. Huck, the more sensible of the two by now, insists that the only way to dig through solid rock is with picks and shovels, not with mere knives, as Tom insists is possible:

“It don’t make no difference how foolish it is, it’s the right way— and it’s the regular way. And there ain’t no other way, that ever I heard of, and I’ve read all the books that gives any information about these things. They always dig out with a case-knife—and not through dirt, mind you; generly it’s through solid rock."

Huck has endured numerous near-death experiences while escaping with Jim and maneuvering their raft along the Mississippi River. He has grown as a boy, and attained knowledge through his experiences. Tom, in contrast, can reference only the books he has read for lessons on life. This exchange had followed an earlier discussion between the boys regarding ways to free Jim's leg, which is chained to a bed. Huck offers the simple, logical method of simply lifting the bed leg off the ground and slipping the chain off, prompting this rejoinder from Tom:

"Why, hain’t you ever read any books at all?—Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henri IV., nor none of them heroes? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that?"

Tom, again, has been completely influenced by his readings; Huck has attained the wisdom of one has actually lived, not just read. Twain is emphasizing this crucial distinction because it reflects his own experiences, exemplified in the above-quoted passage from Life on the Mississippi. Twain was an exceptional individual, both studied and experienced in life, with more personal heartache than any one individual should ever have to endure (although it was the norm for thousands of years before the development of antibiotics and modern medical practices). There is no question, though, from where he feels the most important, and most practical lessons of life can be found.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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