Did Mark Twain's preface to Huckleberry Finn indicate his personal anathema toward the pretensions of his own era?
Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens with a highly memorable statement:
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
Does this statement imply any personal hostility by Twain toward the age in which he lived? Possibly. Twain often satirized his own times, and, the older he grew, the darker his attitude toward his own era became. One might argue that this statement is satirical in the following ways and for the following reasons:
- It can be seen as mockery of a growing artistic self-consciousness and seriousness in many American writers and readers. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend in writing was Henry James, an author quite different in style, manner, tone, and self-attitude from Twain. By the time Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, James had written such “serious” works as
A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, 1875; Transatlantic Sketches, 1875; Roderick Hudson, 1876; The American, 1877; Watch and Ward, 1878; French Poets and Novelists, 1878; The Europeans, 1878; Daisy Miller, 1878; An International Episode, 1879; The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales, 1879; Hawthorne, 1879; The Diary of a Man of Fifty, and A Bundle of Letters, 1880; Confidence, 1880; Washington Square, 1881; The Portrait of a Lady, 1881; The Siege of London, The Pension Beaurepas, and The Point of View, 1883; Portraits of Places, 1883;
Tales of Three Cities, 1884; A Little Tour in France, 1885; and Stories Revived, 1885. [see link below]
James, in other words, was just one of a number of increasingly prominent American novelists who had definitely written with firm motives and who had obviously provided their works with serious morals and carefully constructed plots.
- Twain’s epigraph can thus be read as a preemptive strike against any readers who might be tempted to compare Huckleberry Finn with the “serious” fiction of its day. The epigraph is the first clear indication (aside from the title itself) that the book is meant to be funny, that the author does not take himself too seriously, and that the work is not constructed according to any conventional or traditional plan. Twain often satirized people (and nations, such as France) that, in his opinion, took themselves too seriously. To the degree that the United States was at risk of becoming such a nation, Twain’s epigraph can be read as implied mockery. It is as if he is saying, “Sit back and simply enjoy this book; it is not written for anyone who is pompous, pretentious, self-righteous, or judgmental. It is written for people who can still remember what is was like to be mischievous children.”
As it happens, of course, Huckleberry Finn quickly ran afoul of some of the kinds of readers Twain had assumed would object to the novel. This was especially true of readers looking for “a moral” – or, rather, for conventional, traditional morality. The book was considered indecent by some readers and was banned from some libraries. The people responsible for such reactions were precisely the kinds of persons for whom Twain did indeed feel a certain degree of hostility.
Something extra: Twain's novel invites attention from the perspective of historical criticism, which tries to examine works of literature within the contexts of their own times.