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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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Julius Lester (essay date fall 1984)

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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, albeit no paradise we (or they) ever had.

I remember that house, and I remember the white picket fence around it. Maybe it was my father who told me the story about Tom Sawyer painting the fence (if it was Tom Sawyer who did), and maybe he told me about Huckleberry Finn, too. But it occurs to me only now to wonder if my father ever read Twain's books—my father born in Mississippi when slavery still cast a cold shadow at brightest and hottest noon. And if he did not read Twain, is there any Lester who did? Probably not, and it doesn't matter. In the character of Huckleberry Finn, Twain evoked something poignant and real in the American psyche, and now, having read the novel, I see that it is something dangerously, fatally seductive.

In the summer of 1973 I drove across country from New York City, where I was living, and returned to Hannibal to visit that two-story white house for the first time since childhood. It was mid-afternoon when I drove into Hannibal, planning to stay in a motel that night and spend the next morning leisurely going through the Twain boyhood home. As I walked toward the motel desk, there was a noticeable hush among the people in the lobby, and I perceived a tightening of many razor-thin, white lips. I was not surprised, therefore, when the motel clerk said there were no vacancies. The same scenario was repeated at a second and third motel. It was the kind of situation black people know all about and white people say is merely our imaginations, our hypersensitivity, our seeing discrimination where none exists. All I know is that no motel in town could find a room for me and that as I got into the car and drove away from Hannibal, another childhood memory returned. It was my father's voice reminding me that “Hannibal is rough on Negroes.”

That's the kind of thing that can happen to a black person when the American collective memory subsumes black reality, when you remember Huck shining brightly and forget to keep an eye on what (or who) may be lurking in the shadows.

I am grateful that among the...

(This entire section contains 3559 words.)

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many indignities inflicted on me in childhood, I escapedHuckleberry Finn. As a black parent, however, I sympathize with those who want the book banned, or at least removed from required reading lists in schools. While I am opposed to book banning, I know that my children's education will be enhanced by not reading Huckleberry Finn. It is, in John Gardner's phrase, a “well-meant, noble sounding error” that “devalue[s] the world.”1

That may sound harsh and moralistic, but I cannot separate literature, no matter how well written, from morality. By morality I do not mean bourgeois mores, which seek to govern the behavior of others in order to create (or coerce) that conformity thought necessary for social cohesion. The truly moral is far broader, far more difficult, and less certain of itself than bourgeois morality, because it is not concerned with the “what” of behavior but with the spirit we bring to our living, and, by implication, to literature. Gardner put it this way: “We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest research for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies and confirms. … [M]oral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”2

It is in this sense, then, that morality can and should be one of the criteria for assessing literature. It must be if a book is to “serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us,” as Kafka wrote. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not the axe; it is the frozen sea, immoral in its major premises, one of which demeans blacks and insults history.

Twain makes an odious parallel between Huck's being “enslaved” by a drunken father who keeps him locked in a cabin and Jim's legal enslavement. Regardless of how awful and wrong it is for a boy to be held physically captive by his father, there is a profound difference between that and slavery. By making them into a parallelism, Twain applies a veneer to slavery which obscures the fact that, by definition, slavery was a horror. Such a parallelism also allowed Twain's contemporaries to comfortably evade responsibility and remorse for the horror they had made.

A boy held captive by a drunken father is not in the same category of human experience as a man enslaved. Twain willfully refused to understand what it meant to be legally owned by another human being and to have that legal ownership supported by the full power of local, state, and federal government enforcement. Twain did not take slavery, and therefore black people, seriously.

Even allowing for the fact that the novel is written from the limited first-person point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy (and at fourteen it is not possible to take anything seriously except oneself), the author must be held responsible for choosing to write from that particular point of view. If the novel had been written before emancipation, Huck's dilemma and conflicting feelings over Jim's escape would have been moving. But in 1884 slavery was legally over. Huck's almost Hamlet-like interior monologues on the rights and wrongs of helping Jim escape are not proof of liberalism or compassion, but evidence of an inability to relinquish whiteness as a badge of superiority. “I knowed he was white inside,” is Huck's final assessment of Jim (chap. 40).

Jim does not exist with an integrity of his own. He is a childlike person who, in attitude and character, is more like one of the boys in Tom Sawyer's gang than a grown man with a wife and children, an important fact we do not learn until much later. But to Twain, slavery was not an emotional reality to be explored extensively or with love.

The novel plays with black reality from the moment Jim runs away and does not immediately seek his freedom. It defies logic that Jim did not know Illinois was a free state. Yet Twain wants us not only to believe he didn't, but to accept as credible that a runaway slave would drift south down the Mississippi River, the only route to freedom he knew being at Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi. If Jim knew that the Ohio met the Mississippi at Cairo, how could he not have known of the closer proximity of freedom to the east in Illinois or north in Iowa? If the reader must suspend intelligence to accept this, intelligence has to be dispensed with altogether to believe that Jim, having unknowingly passed the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, would continue down the river and go deeper and deeper into the heart of slave country. A century of white readers have accepted this as credible, a grim reminder of the abysmal feelings of superiority with which whites are burdened.

The least we expect of a novel is that it be credible—if not wholly in fact, then in emotion; for it is emotions that are the true subject matter of fiction. As Jim floats down the river farther and farther into slave country, without anxiety about his fate and without making the least effort to reverse matters, we leave the realm of factual and emotional credibility and enter the all-too-familiar one of white fantasy in which blacks have all the humanity of Cabbage Patch dolls.

The novel's climax comes when Jim is sold and Tom and Huck concoct a ridiculous scheme to free him. During the course of the rescue, Tom Sawyer is shot. Huck sends the doctor, who cannot administer to Tom alone. Jim comes out of hiding and aids the doctor, knowing he will be recaptured. The doctor recounts the story this way:

so I says, I got to have help, somehow; and the minute I says it, out crawls this nigger from somewheres, and says he'll help, and he done it, too, and done it very well. Of course I judged he must be a runaway nigger, and there I was! and there I had to stick, right straight along, all the rest of the day, and all night. … I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller [emphasis added], and yet he was resking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he'd been worked main hard, lately. I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars—and kind treatment, too. … there I was, … and there I had to stick, till about dawn this morning; then some men in a skiff come by, and as good luck would have it, the nigger was setting by the pallet with his head propped on his knees, sound asleep; so I motioned them in, quiet, and they slipped up on him and grabbed him and tied him before he knowed what he was about, and we never had no trouble. … the nigger never made the least row nor said a word, from the start. He ain't no bad nigger, gentlemen; that's what I think about him.

(Chap. 42)

This depiction of a black “hero” is familiar by now since it has been repeated in countless novels and films. It is a picture of the only kind of black that whites have ever truly liked—faithful, tending sick whites, not speaking, not causing trouble, and totally passive. He is the archetypal “good nigger,” who lacks self-respect, dignity, and a sense of self separate from the one whites want him to have. A century of white readers have accepted this characterization because it permits their own “humanity” to shine with more luster.

The depth of Twain's contempt for blacks is not revealed fully until Tom Sawyer clears up something that has confused Huck. When Huck first proposed freeing Jim, he was surprised that Tom agreed so readily. The reason Tom did so is because he knew all the while that Miss Watson had freed Jim when she died two months before.

Once again credibility is slain. Early in the novel Jim's disappearance from the town coincided with Huck's. Huck, having manufactured “evidence” of his “murder” to cover his escape, learned that the townspeople believed that Jim had killed him. Yet we are now to believe that an old white lady would free a black slave suspected of murdering a white child. White people may want to believe such fairy tales about themselves, but blacks know better.

But this is not the nadir of Twain's contempt, because when Aunt Sally asks Tom why he wanted to free Jim, knowing he was already free, Tom replies: “Well that is a question, I must say; and just like women! Why, I wanted the adventure of it” (chap. 42). Now Huck understands why Tom was so eager to help Jim “escape.”

Tom goes on to explain that his plan was “for us to run him down the river, on the raft, and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river.” Then he and Huck would tell Jim he was free and take him “back up home on a steamboat, in style, and pay him for his lost time.” They would tell everyone they were coming and “get out all the niggers around, and have them waltz him into town with a torchlight procession and a brass band, and then he would be a hero, and so would we” (“Chapter the Last”).

There is no honor here; there is no feeling for or sense of what Gardner calls that which “is necessary to humanness.” Jim is a plaything, an excuse for “the adventure of it,” to be used as it suits the fancies of the white folk, whether that fancy be a journey on a raft down the river or a torchlight parade. What Jim clearly is not is a human being, and this is emphasized by the fact that Miss Watson's will frees Jim but makes no mention of his wife and children.

Twain doesn't care about the lives the slaves actually lived. Because he doesn't care, he devalues the world.

Every hero's proper function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired by and guided by in their own actions; that is, the hero's business is to reveal what the gods require and love. … [T]he hero's function … is to set the standard in action … the business of the poet (or “memory” …) is to celebrate the work of the hero, pass the image on, keep the heroic model of behavior fresh, generation on generation.3

Criticizing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of Twain's portrayal of blacks is almost too easy, and, some would add sotto voce, to be expected from a black writer. But a black writer accepts such arrogant dismissals before he or she sits down to write. We could not write otherwise.

But let me not be cynical. Let me allow for the possibility that what I have written may be accepted as having more than a measure of truth. Yet doesn't Huckleberry Finn still deserve to be acknowledged as an American classic, eminently deserving of being read?

The Council on Interracial Books for Children, while highly critical of the book, maintains “that much can be learned from this book—not only about the craft of writing and other issues commonly raised when the work is taught, but also about racism. … Unless Huck Finn's racist and anti-racist messages are considered, the book can have racist results.”4 While it is flattering that the council goes on to recommend one of my books, To Be a Slave, as supplementary reading to correct Twain's portrayal of slavery, racism is not the most insidious and damaging of the book's flaws. In its very essence the book offends that morality which would give “a noble image … to be inspired and guided by.” If it is the hero's task “to reveal what the gods require and love,” what do we learn from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

The novel's major premise is established in the first chapter: “The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; so when I couldn't stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my old rags, and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied” (chap. 1). Civilization is equated with education, regularity, decency, and being “cramped up,” and the representatives of civilization are women. Freedom is old clothes and doing what one wants to do. “All I wanted was a change, I warn't particular” (chap. 1).

The fact that the novel is regarded as a classic tells us much about the psyche of the white American male, because the novel is a powerful evocation of the puer, the eternal boy for whom growth, maturity, and responsibility are enemies. There is no more powerful evocation in American literature of the eternal adolescent than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a fantasy adolescence, however. Not only is it free of the usual adolescent problems caused by awakening sexuality, but also Huck has a verbal adroitness and cleverness beyond the capability of an actual fourteen-year-old. In the person of Huck, the novel exalts verbal cleverness, lying, and miseducation. The novel presents, with admiration, a model we (men) would and could be if not for the pernicious influence of civilization and women.

In its lyrical descriptions of the river and life on the raft, the novel creates an almost primordial yearning for a life of freedom from responsibility:

It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed, only a little kind of low chuckle. We had mighty good weather, as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all.

(Chap. 12)

Sometimes we'd have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window—and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

(Chap. 19)

It is in passages such as these that the book is most seductive in its quiet singing of the “natural” life over the life of “sivilization,” which is another form of slavery for Huck. It is here also that the novel fails most profoundly as moral literature.

Twain's notion of freedom is the simplistic one of freedom from restraint and responsibility. It is an adolescent vision of life, an exercise in nostalgia for the paradise that never was. Nowhere is this adolescent vision more clearly expressed than in the often-quoted and much-admired closing sentences of the book: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.”

That's just the problem, Huck. You haven't “been there before.” Then again, neither have too many other white American males, and that's the problem, too. They persist in clinging to the teat of adolescence long after only blood oozes from the nipples. They persist in believing that freedom from restraint and responsibility represents paradise. The eternal paradox is that this is a mockery of freedom, a void. We express the deepest caring for this world and ourselves only by taking responsibility for ourselves and whatever portion of this world we make ours.

Twain's failure is that he does not care until it hurts, and because he doesn't, his contempt for humanity is disguised as satire, as humor. No matter how charming and appealing Huck is, Twain holds him in contempt. And here we come to the other paradox, the critical one that white Americans have so assiduously resisted: it is not possible to regard blacks with contempt without having first so regarded themselves.

To be moral. It takes an enormous effort of will to be moral, and that's another paradox. Only to the extent that we make the effort to be moral do we grow away from adolescent notions of freedom and begin to see that the true nature of freedom does not lie in “striking out for the territory ahead” but resides where it always has—in the territory within.

Only there does one begin to live with oneself with that seriousness from which genuine humor and satire are born. Twain could not explore the shadowy realms of slavery and freedom with integrity because he did not risk becoming a person. Only by doing so could he have achieved real compassion. Then Jim would have been a man and Huck would have been a boy, and we, the readers, would have learned a little more about the territory ahead which is always within.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a dismal portrait of the white male psyche. Can I really expect white males to recognize that? Yet they must. All of us suffer the consequences as long as they do not.


  1. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1978) 8.

  2. Gardner 19.

  3. Gardner 29.

  4. Anon., “On Huck, Criticism, and Censorship” (editorial), Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 15.1-2 (1984): 3.


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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.”

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

David E. E. Sloane (essay date 1988)

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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, causes him to rush off to town for a drinking spree while Huck formulates and executes a brilliant plan to evade discovery; he loots the cabin, makes a false trail, and kills a wild pig and uses its blood to suggest that he was murdered and dumped in the river. The detailing here presents Twain at his best as an arresting realist. Dialect is primarily found in verbs, otherwise the short sentences and clear actions are straightforward. Huck remains detailed in his description, giving readers their second real taste of the Mississippi as he glides down it in his canoe, toward Jackson's Island, “dark and solid, like a steamboat without any lights.”

Critics, like [Robert] Bridges of Life in 1885 [26 February], found the murder of a pig and the false murder unprepossessing. For Huck, however, it is his most dynamic act, fathered by the need for preservation; the sequence is inventive, well adapted to its milieu, and full of suspense. But it also has a special importance to the final outcome of the novel. As Huck proceeds, act by act, to create the perfect murder, he establishes his capacity for successful innovation, for carrying out complex lifesaving projects. In short, he proves his abilities in contriving everything he might need to contrive at the end of the novel to secure Jim's escape from the Phelps Farm. This fact is the chief source of the tension we as readers feel at the end of the novel when Huck makes himself subservient to Tom's lesser travesty. So significantly less pointed are Huck's actions at the end of the book than here in chapter 8 that it has caused even the most sophisticated critics to assume that Twain merely fell into his ending. In fact, again in reversal, the ending is foreshadowed here; Twain establishes the basis for our frustration with and rejection of Tom's romantic shenanigans with Huck's coolly deliberate step-by-step execution.

If further evidence were needed to suggest how much the contrast between chapter 8 and the last twelve chapters of the book is designed to frustrate us as readers and heighten our disapproval of Tom's actions, Twain has provided the first evidence of a crucial motif following this plan. At the climax of his scheme, Huck declares: “I did wish Tom Sawyer was there, I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches.” He adds a further line—“Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that”—to lead the reader away from a possible demurral; it was Tom who talked Huck back into town, and into his troubles with Pap and the widow. The second comment causes the reader to focus attention elsewhere. Huck's faked murder has a deeper undertone than Tom's apparent death by drowning in Tom Sawyer. Each time Huck refers to Tom's style in the future it will cause him trouble, and it will reemphasize the divergence of the two boys in their relation to reality.

The concluding paragraphs of the chapter treat us to Huck's first compelling descriptions of the starry night over the river, its sounds, and its beauty. The reader's real voyage of discovery is thus set to begin. Huck's ability to act decisively has been clearly demonstrated; it will be contrasted only later by his subservience and passivity in the face of Tom's more elaborate “style.”

Huck's escape from Pap and “sivilization” initiates his meeting and joining with Jim on Jackson's Island. The Jackson Island interlude establishes trust between the two fugitives in an almost legalistic form. They begin to create a world and an ethic which will distinguish their raft on the Mississippi as one of the great American images of freedom and brotherhood. Tom Sawyer had also gone to Jackson's Island, in fact, and left the people on shore as sure of his death as they now are of Huck's. In the sentence-by-sentence texture of Huck's observations and objectives, however, tremendous differences can be discovered between his persona and Tom's. As the reader is initiated into the raft journey, he is also almost immediately initiated into Huck and Jim's more caring relationship, and sees Huck as a deeper mentality than Tom with simpler and more immediate concerns of food, safety, and survival. Because of Huck's dry humor and because of the more compelling results of his actions in regard to Jim, Huck is both detached from others and involved with them. His detachment is far more adult and Twainian than was Tom Sawyer's. Huck's closeness in mutual simplicity and sympathy with Jim provides him with his personal basis for abandoning the restrictions of the authorities of the village, their laws, and their public opinion.

Jackson's Island is first seen in the night, “big and dark and solid, like a steamboat without any lights.” A big lumber raft is also seen coming, and Huck hears the voices of the men, one of Twain's many suggestions of heightened powers of perception on the river. After Huck naps, he wakes “in the grass and cool shade, thinking about things and feeling rested and rather comfortable”: this is only the second time in the novel that he has registered “comfort.” With “friendly” squirrels overhead, and feeling “powerful lazy and comfortable,” Huck has attained the real boy's ideal state as identified in the literature of the realistic bad boys of the post-Civil War era.

In Tom Sawyer's Jackson's Island adventures (chapter 16 in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) the natural observation is drawn out into an extended study of an inchworm that then gives way to boys swimming, and, finally, to a distant steamboat firing a cannon to raise the presumably drowned boys. In the following chapter, Tom visits his bereaved family, but does not take pity on them by revealing his survival, leaving that—with obvious cruelty—for a later grand entrance.

With Huck, events are much more tightly directed. Here, too, a steamboat floats on the river firing blasts to raise the presumably dead boy. But here, the people of the town form a unit on the steamboat. Huck “bosses” his own world, and ironically receives a “gift” by finding his daily bread. In the second paragraph, the cannon is already firing, as Huck explains with deadpan humor, “You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top.” Huck gets baker's bread, “what the quality eat,” by fishing out a loaf in search of his “remainders.” He comments that prayers that the bread find him must indeed work but “I reckon it don't work for only just the right kind,” couching his disclaimer in countrified vernacular-sounding speech. Huck maintains the motif of concern over “the quality” and the right kind versus himself. His view of the steamboat is substantially closer than in Tom Sawyer; on the decks of “the ferry-boat full of people” he sees “Most everybody … Pap, and Judge Thatcher, and Bessie Thatcher, and Jo Harper, and Tom Sawyer, and his old Aunt Polly, and Sid, and Mary, and plenty more. Everybody was talking about the murder.” Simultaneously, he is almost murdered in a comic moment when the Captain “hopes” Huck's body is washed ashore and Huck responds, “I didn't hope so,” and a cannon blast then deafens Huck, “If they'd a had some bullets in, I reckon they'd got the corpse they was after.” For Huck, the townspeople are a matter of closer but more detached detail than for Tom—and as he enumerates them name by name, the reader derives a sense of St. Petersburg's caste and class. For Huck, the ongoing deadliness is continuous and always surprising, although, as in the violence of a Buster Keaton film, not deadly. It will become deadly to Huck only through friends like Buck (rhymes with Huck) who is indeed found dead in the river. The action, for now, is wrapped in the deadpan voice of the comedian, dry detachment in keeping with his social detachment. But his humorous involvement has the implications of deadliness; on one side stand the townspeople on the steamboat, on the other the self-isolated practical boy, seeking merely his own comfort, safety, and survival—goals that the cast of characters on the boat would deny him.

Setting up housekeeping on the island, Huck occupies himself first with a businesslike examination of his island. Becoming “boss” of the island in a rather professional way, discovering both snakes, which will soon figure in the action, and the still-smoking ashes of a campfire, he is driven up a tree, out in a canoe, and finally into stealthy woodcraft and sophisticated detective work. Jim and Huck are quickly united at this point, for the ashes turn out to be Jim's fire, at which he is discovered sleeping the next night. Huck is, once again, taken for a dead person. But finally recognized as a live one, he enters into partnership with Jim. Huck and Jim establish at once the motif of mutual trust. Huck feels certain that he can count on him (Twain putting the pronoun for Jim in italics) not to tell. The sense of security in flight first goes Huck's way in this novel, since both Huck and Jim came to the island three days previously, shortly after Huck was killed, as Twain has Huck say it, using their easy literality to create verbal humor. They share a meal and comfort before Jim offers his confidence, in turn, to Huck.

Jim almost immediately, but with some caution, relies on Huck as deeply as Huck has relied on him. When Jim says that he run off (Twain again using italics, now for Jim's secret), it is couched amidst promises extracted from Huck not to tell. Huck even adds the proper ambivalence to his not telling by saying that people would call him a “low down Ablitionist and despise me,” but he isn't going back there anyway—an early but clear statement that leaving a social setting frees the frontiersman from its flawed social beliefs and hatred of nonconformists. Yet Huck has been shown to have at first blush the continuing conscience of his community—as expressed earlier in Miss Watson's holding slaves and Pap's attitude toward “free niggers.” For Huck and Jim, reciprocity is established in this initial interchange. Both are involved in life and death flights. Huck's defining battle later will be to retain his focus directly on the personalized ethic—his heart—which overcomes abstract ideas such as those which govern his antagonists.

Jackson's Island is still a place of nature as it was in Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but its quality is now joined to the problem of Huck's survival, Jim's freedom, and social ostracism. Tom observed an inchworm and went on playing; when Jim observes the birds flying low and predicts rain, he and Huck superstitiously move to higher ground, are saved from the rising river, and end up enjoying hot cornbread in their cave, secure above the flood. Huck's description of the thunderstorm includes metaphors of hell in references to “dark as sin” and “the underside of the world.” For Huck and Jim, their folk superstition has saved them where religiosity would have been useless. This position contrary to Miss Watson's is developed through Twain's use of natural images and occurrences.

When Huck and Jim discuss bees not stinging idiots, Huck delivers his minstrel tag-line: “Jim said bees wouldn't sting idiots; but I didn't believe that, because I had tried them lots of times myself, and they wouldn't sting me.” Nature in Huck Finn is part of the comic growth of the action—here Huck is the false-naif pretending to be a real naif. The effect of the minstrel format is to level both characters, uniting them in repartee, but allowing them the freedom of open discussion. In later minstrel sequences their open arguments reveal their presuppositions about mankind while pointing up their innocent virtue. The conversation here turns to livestock, a minstrel version of a bank swindle and, finally, for Jim's last ten cents, to Balum's Ass, who lost Jim's money, in a low-comedy repetition of Miss Watson's doctrine of gifts, by giving it to the poor at church. Burlesque nonsense though this seems, Twain the comic writer is still developing central issues. The ongoing considerations of how good is achieved, whether through religious or personal acts, is reviewed in caricature. These events lead Jim to reflect on slavery and the expropriation of a human being's value: “I owns myself, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn't want no mo'.” Jim's reference to his value as a slave foreshadows his urge to buy his wife and children out of slavery. Thus, even silliness on Jackson's Island leads inevitably back into Huck and Jim's personalities, their safety, and the crucial social issues surrounding their lives. Snakes and practical jokes add further dimensions. The island would have to be “big and solid” to support this heavy a freight of the novel's developing themes.

Most of the island chapters are occupied with a rise in the river, punctuated with the “stock” minstrel routine. Huck and Jim also investigate a derelict house floating downstream, where Jim discovers a dead man but does not tell either Huck or the reader that it is Huck's father. Huck and Jim acquire a number of comic items, like a wooden leg (“we couldn't find the other one”), but the action is sinister, carried out in a devastated house with the “ignorantist” kind of words scrawled on the walls, and a dead body, shot in the back. They talk of riches and death and superstition. Knowledge of nature helps them to find comfort.

Huck's forgetfulness of natural rules causes him to nearly kill Jim when he attempts to play his first joke on Jim by curling a snakeskin in Jim's blankets. Huck's “ever so natural” joke is almost deadly as the snake's mate strikes Jim. The snake skin is a Tom Sawyer practical joke, but is significantly milder than the later stories of Bricksville loafers who like to set stray dogs on fire or tie tin pans to their tails to see them run themselves to death. In part, harsh-seeming practical jokes are part of Twain's realism, for country-style practical jokes are sometimes cruel beyond what contemporary urban-dwellers could imagine; earlier regional humorists—not only those of the Southwest—recorded many in their writings. However, hiding a snakeskin in Jim's blankets to frighten him is also, at the literary level, an example of the pattern of Tom going from play and more personal action to “effects” on other people, such as his aunt or the schoolmaster. When Huck attempts the same pattern, Jim is reduced to pulling on Pap's jug and declines into near-convulsions and death. His recovery takes four days and nights. Notably, Jim gets out of his head like Pap, and Pap is named and included in the resultant events, thus recalling as a consequence the novel's ugliest and most degraded scene. Since this action was Huck's, “all my fault,” his embarrassment is an appropriate outcome—one which Twain will build on as Huck and Jim progress on the raft after the storm. After this first practical joke, Huck will make one more before abandoning such effects. Reasonably enough, the joke episodes are taken by most critics as crucial stages in Huck's maturation, and their use to show Huck's changing respect for Jim is clear evidence of how events are packed in the narrative, giving it a far more dramatic emotional development than occurs in Tom Sawyer.

Twain in this area of the book is establishing the character of his hero and the innocence with which he responds to the world. Huck on Jackson's Island shows special values. One close parallel example is J. T. Trowbridge's “Young Joe,” the lead story in Young Joe and Other Boys (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1879). It describes the adventures of an uneducated boy who takes a wealthy, somewhat vain, city baker on a duck hunt. The boy laughs at the errors of the poor-shooting greenhorn, and, when the greenhorn allows their dory to drift away, he must preserve them both on a storm-harried island by his ability to fish, hunt, and cook. In country dialect, the boy at first berates and goads the merchant, but soon laughingly accepts the situation, although still treating the merchant wryly and almost disdainfully. After Joe recovers the dory on the far side of the island, he allows the merchant to start unbuttoning his clothing to make flags to bring help, but stops him before the Nor'easter freezes him. He explains his prank by noting that the merchant went to sleep not thirty minutes after their first dinner, when work needed to be done to secure their survival. The merchant rewards the rough lad with his fine fowling gun, causing tears of gratitude in the lad's eyes, and achieving a sentimental completion. Without the melodrama of the murderous Pap, the story, even with its survival element, is less compelling. Jim's freedom also elevates the quest of Huck's story to a higher level as an American epic using American types. After all, Young Joe, as a country boy, is as American as Huck. But Twain has used the fictional medium with greater dexterity, making his hero more reticent, enlarging the nature and meaning of the action by reference to a great national issue. In comparing the voices of the two boy speakers, we see that Huck's is the more sympathetic, adult, humorous—both as naif and as dead-pan narrator. Twain's “softenings” of Huck make him the more potent narrator. “Young Joe” would repay further study by anyone seeking to determine the full extent of Huck Finn's uniqueness.

The minstrel routines also give evidence of how Twain builds motifs of importance using contemporary American materials and modes. Even in bits of narrative, the comedy of the naif is dominant. As Jim recovers from snakebite, Huck describes other examples of bad luck, including Old Hank Bunker, who looked at the moon over his left shoulder, got drunk, fell off the shot tower, and “spread himself out so that he was just a kind of layer, as you may say; and they slid him edgeways between two barn doors for a coffin …, but I didn't see it. Pap told me.” The comic set-piece was a Twain favorite, appearing in his lectures and in Roughing It, after he converted it from stories heard elsewhere—one paradigm appearing in the Yankee Blade around 1847.1 Here, it belongs to Huck not as a true story, but rather as a literalism borrowed from Pap, identified as an unreliable source. Huck is thus further matured as he borrows freely from a well-honed comic tradition of Yankee humor as converted by Mark Twain to western tall tales—a truly national blending. Huck's persona blends here with Twain's as lecturer, and he becomes the American literary comedian. Add to this persona the quest for freedom and safety on one of America's great arteries, and we do indeed have the stuff of a national epic.

Huck and Jim's next escape from trouble occurs when Huck, in girl's disguise, visits Mrs. Judith Loftus. Mrs. Loftus provides the second endorsement of Huck, following the widow's cautious approval early on. Again, the similarity to Tom Sawyer is notable, for Tom also left the island and went to shore to overhear the grief-stricken conversation of Aunt Polly, Sid, Mary, and Mrs. Harper, only to return with childish drama to reclaim a treasured chalk, rubber ball, and marble from his friends back at the hidden camp. Twain's invigorated and visionary sense of the melodrama of survival causes a heightened parallel by making the stakes of Huck's secret trip to shore the danger of discovery and capture by armed adults.

Mrs. Loftus is a gossipy newcomer whom Huck pumps for information. She speaks in another variant of Pike dialect about how much better off her relatives “used to was.” She also reasons shrewdly about Jim, Pap, and the reward to be gotten by searching Jackson's Island. Huck, already at risk, becomes uncomfortable at the news of a greater threat. When Huck, uncharacteristically fidgeting, picks up a needle and threads it by poking the needle eye at the thread, Mrs. Loftus suspects and soon proves by several tests that he is a boy in disguise. A note on Twain's “realism” is in order here, since the needle-threading is sometimes pointed out as evidence of close attention to detail: in The Prince and the Pauper (chapter 13) Twain identifies the man's and woman's ways of threading needles as exactly opposite those ways described here; Twain was interested in realistic-seeming rather than accurate details—his is the art of comic plausibility, with the sex differentiation a symbolic point rather than a fact. It is at once as meaningful as all the other seemingly realistic details in the book, including the calling of Jim a “nigger.” Incidentally, Mrs. Loftus calls Huck in disguise an “innocent” for not recognizing the importance of the three-hundred-dollar reward for Jim. She is thus attached to the world of money that Huck has fled. The money motif will be ongoing in relation to Jim's story, even to Jim himself.

Huck's fidgeting is hardly typical of his coolness in more difficult situations. When Mrs. Loftus discovers him to be a boy, she leaps to the assumption that he has been “treated bad”—which is true—and is a “runaway prentice”—which is not true. The business of discovery is elaborate, and at the point of confrontation, Mrs. Loftus looks at Huck “very pleasant. … I ain't going to hurt you, and I ain't going to tell on you, nuther.” She uses the same currency of not telling as do Huck and Jim, and she concludes to protect “George Peters” and his “secret” … “treated bad. … Bless you child, I wouldn't tell on you.” Her blessing foreshadows the more expansive offer to pray for him by Mary Jane Wilks later in the novel. The episode has three functions. First, it is part of a chain leading from the kindly Providence of the widow to the endorsement of Huck in the Wilks episode. Second, it advances the melodramatic action of disguise and escape that bears directly on the safety of Huck and Jim. Both are now clearly in flight from the slavery and repression attendant to their respective social levels. Behind them and behind this scene as motivation lies banishment down the river for Jim and loneliness and a possibly murderous imprisonment in an isolated cabin for Huck. Last, even the obviously kindly Judith Loftus is motivated by greed to recapture the runaway slave—but not the runaway apprentice—showing the corrupting influence of race even on this good person.

Biblically, Huck claims to be seeking Goshen rather than St. Petersburg as he develops a new lie to fit Mrs. Loftus's apprenticeship proposal. She gives him food and this time lets him escape. His departure occurs only after she questions him on his farm knowledge—more “stock” questions consistent with the Jackson Island discussion. She accepts the answers, but coaches him on how to disguise himself further and stands pat on her own decision to befriend the runaway white apprentice even while hoping to reap the reward from capturing the runaway black slave. Her skepticism shows in her naming of him: “Now trot along to your uncle, Sarah Mary Williams George Elexander Peters, and if you get into trouble you send word to Mrs. Judith Loftus, which is me, and I'll do what I can to get you out of it.” She continues with words that would make a perfectly logical slave song if set to music: “Keep the river road, all the way, and next time you tramp, take shoes and socks with you. The river road's a rocky one, and your feet'll be in a condition when you get to Goshen, I reckon.”

Huck's visit with Mrs. Loftus establishes a world distinct from the awful towns and plantations which Huck will visit. In this world, simplistic and folksy, kindliness and knowledge are distinct from social standing and from established social connections. Mrs. Loftus is both a newcomer to the community and an insightful humanitarian—the sort who might see “youth” in a full-grown humorist, for example, as did Livy with Clemens. Economics governs attitudes toward Jim, and knowledge of who murdered Huck—Jim or Pap—is hidden in ignorance and supposition, but greed dominates. The episode embodies Twain's mentality as a comic spokesman for the new American frontier, with the ethical ambiguity of changing social relationships and the powerful humanity of free men let loose to make their own way in the world. The episode is yet another appropriate entryway for an American epic, reflecting American experience as personalized in Twain's own life and now converted into the imagery and language of his comic fiction.

Huck, of course, has his own set of hidden allegiances, developed in the previous episodes, to Jim, and so uses all his skills to secure Jim's escape, carefully noting times, doubling back, and lighting a decoy campfire to throw off pursuit. Huck quickly arouses Jim: “Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain't a minute to lose. They're after us!” This use of the word “us” represents the full joining of the fates of the two refugees: “Jim never asked no questions, he never said a word; but the way he worked for the next half an hour showed about how he was scared. By that time everything we had in the world was on our raft. …” Without lights, “dead still, without saying a word,” Huck and Jim on the raft slip below the tip of Jackson's Island—and—in silence and darkness, without any fanfare of false “style”—begin the greatest literary voyage in later nineteenth-century fiction.


  1. Richard Dorsan, Jonathan Draws the Longbow (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946), 70-71.

Principal Works

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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

Ernest D. Mason (essay date September 1989)

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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 unless we understand that Huck's relationship to Jim represents an interesting combination of revulsion and fascination, intimacy and remoteness, attraction and repulsion.

When we think of such moral ambivalence, of such antinomies of moral experience, we stand, as it were, between intellectual incoherence and passionate feeling. As a moral attitude it is enormously puzzling and difficult either to condemn or condone. It is, accordingly, not easy to decide what one must make of Huck Finn; he is hard to decipher. Twain himself complicates matters by making us care far more about Huck's regeneration and altruism than about his treachery. Nevertheless, today, when black Americans speak in their own literary and political voice, we are better placed to appreciate everything which is offensive and caricatural about Twain's representation of both Huck and Jim. Huck's feeling, for instance, that Jim is essentially “white inside” can hardly be distinguished from the racist refusal to associate anyone “black” with human decency. Whatever the ambiguities of this perspective, it is inconceivable that a serious black American novelist could without deliberately mimicking the likes of Mark Twain focus his vision in this way, even if the facts of the plot remained the same.

The main problem in Huckleberry Finn, as I see it, centers on understanding little Huck's outstretched hand to Jim. Why is Huck's hand, even in the form of a fist sometimes, ever stretched out in the first place? One answer is that Huck is in many ways stuck with Jim; at least he is half-stuck with him. He is mighty happy to have Jim as “his slave” because it gives him respectability and an opportunity to practice deception on his own white society, which may interrogate him. As Jim's master, Huck is quite benevolent and regards Jim as fun-loving, good humored, and happy-go-lucky; in short, as inferior but lovable as long as he stays in his place. Although Huck may be “trash,” as Jim often calls him, Huck's privilege is certainly there, thanks to the social structure. Huck himself fully understands the great degree of social distance that separates him from Jim and, accordingly, finds it quite easy to accept their distant intimacy.

Another response to our query is that Huck stretches his hands out to Jim because Huck is lonely, bored, and afraid. When not trying to play the role of Jim's master, Huck sees Jim as an adult teacher, guide, nurse, and father. The reductive implication here, however, is that blacks are directly fitted for acting as nurses, teachers, and fathers (or mammies) of children simply because blacks themselves are childish, frivolous, and, in a very primitive sense, wise. In short, Huck has internalized the racist and paternalistic view that blacks are children all their lives long. They exist eternally in a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the fully developed adult.

Perhaps this mysterious mode of existence explains much of Huck's moral ambivalence toward Jim: his desire to worship Jim the child and dominate Jim the man. One senses throughout their journey Huck's determination to maintain control of his situation, to make the behavior of adults predictable and safe for himself. Since none of this can be accomplished with his own cruel father or with his “deadly dull” existence with Christians Widow Douglass and Miss Watson, Huck escapes them all and turns to nature (the river and wilderness) and Jim. Although at times both prove problematic, it is clear that it is Jim, and not the river or forest, who creates the greatest frustration for Huck. As long as Huck can give Jim “old slick counterfeit” quarters and keep him in his proper place, things are fine. Things are not so fine, however, when Jim stands firm, asserts his selfhood, and exhibits equal or superior intelligence. It is at such points that readers get some sense of the many negative images forced upon blacks in America and elsewhere, images which tell us what a “nigger” is supposed to be and do and what he is not supposed to be and do.

Let us first turn to the conversation which Huck and Jim have concerning the French language: “Spose,” says Huck, “a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?”

“I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head. Dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat.”

“Shucks, it ain't calling you anthing. It's only saying do you know how to talk French.”

“Well, den, why couldn't he say it?”

“Why, he is a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's way of saying it.”

“Well, it's a blame' ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Day ain' no sense in it.”1

Huck should have at this point simply stopped while he was ahead, as Jim is obviously revealing his ignorance. However, determined to play out his role as Jim's master, Huck goes on to try to make Jim see things his way:

“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”

“No, a cat don't.”

“Well, does a cow?”

“No, a cow don't, nuther.”

“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”

“No, dey don't.”

“It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?”


“And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”

“Why, mos' sholy it is.”

“Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that.”

“Is a cat a man, Huck?”


“Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?—er is a cow a cat?”

“No, she ain't either of them.”

“Well, den, she ain' got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?”


Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he talk like a man? You answer me dat!”

I see it warn't no use wasting words—you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.

(pp. 113-14)

This conversation contains one of the main ironies of the novel. By negating in reality what it postulates in theory, the dialogue serves as a comment upon itself. While Huck accepts in theory the notion that it is “natural and right” for people of different cultures to speak and behave in different ways, he ignores this in practice by refusing to realize that it is natural for Jim to think differently from him, seeing that Jim has not yet been taught to think in terms of the white “civilized” world. Instead, Huck finds it only too natural to believe that his way—which in this case is simultaneously the way of the Christians Widow Douglass and Miss Watson—is the only true and essential way, and that whatever is inaccessible to him is false. We have in consequence at least one good statement by which to judge black people: not only are they unable to argue and reason, but they cannot even learn to do so. Yet on another occasion, Huck insists that Jim “was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger” (p. 109). Whatever fault Jim has surely must be attributed to the fact that he is a “nigger”—not an acquired fault, but as Joel Kovel points out, “something hidden deep in the essence of things, and revealed as it seeped outward through [his] skin.”2

Huck's racist attitude toward Jim is continued in chapter sixteen. Here we see Huck doubting for the first time the wisdom of helping Jim to escape. Jim exacerbates things by overtly expressing his joy and future plans: “Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free state he would buy his wife, … and then they would work to buy two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an ab'litionist to go and steal them” (pp. 123-24). That Jim should think about such things is to Huck revolting: “It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, ‘give a nigger an inch and he'll tak an ell’” (p. 124). In addition to all of their other defects, this familiar “old saying” makes clear Huck's agreement with his white culture that “niggers” are unspeakably thankless, almost morally perverse, and totally undeserving of freedom. Huck thus no longer sees Jim at this point as a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky companion, but as an aggressive, insolent, and “uppity” nigger. It is the exact view of free blacks expressed by his drunken father during his charade against the American government:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there, from Ohio; a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat. … And what do you think? they said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? … And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the state six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now—that's a specimen. They call that govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the state six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take ahold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and—”

(pp. 49-50)

It is indeed hard to escape the feeling that like his father, Huck, who already has what Jim lacks most, namely, freedom, is nonetheless intent on robbing the latter of even that; hard to escape the feeling that what is at work here is some primal envy at the heart of Huck's attitude toward Jim's desire for his family's freedom, a longing to appropriate that familial solidarity from which Huck himself must eternally remain excluded. Huck's confused “friendship” with Jim may thus be read at this point as a rather grim commentary on the unconscious meaning of Huck's altruism and outstretched hand, a virtually Alain Lockean unmasking of the gesture of self-interest and even hostility concealed within the charitable liberal impulse.

Huck's ambivalence toward Jim continues several chapters later as Huck overhears Jim mourning and seriously considers the possibility that Jim may be human with genuine feelings after all. He remains, however, forever skeptical: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so” (p. 201). Huck soon discovers that Jim is mourning over his cruel behavior toward his little four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who has become deaf and dumb after contracting scarlet fever, fails to obey Jim's command to close the door:

“She never done it; jis' stood dah, kiner smilin' up at me. It make me mad; en I says agin, mighty loud, I says:

“‘Doan’ you hear me?—shet de do'!”

“She jis' stood de same way, kiner smilin' up. I was a-bilin'! I says:

“‘I lay I make you mine!’”

“En wid dat I fetch' her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin'. Den I went into de yuther room, en 'uz gone 'bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do' a stannin' open yit, en dat chile stannin' mos' right in it, a-looking down and mourin', en de tears runin' down. My, but I wuz mad, I was agwyne for de chile, but jis' den … 'long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!—en my lan', de chile never—move'! … I doan' know how I feel … all ov a sudden, I says pow! jis' as loud as I could yell. She never budge! Oh, Huck I bust out a-cryin' en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po' little thing! de Lord God Almighty forgive po' ole Jim, Kaze he never gwyne to forgive hisself as long's as he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I'd ben a-treat'n her so!”

(pp. 201-02)

This is by no means our first encounter with Jim's rather hostile temper. In addition to calling Huck “trash,” Jim sometimes reveals himself in conversations to be quite aggressive, self-righteous, self-centered, and deceptive. In this respect he is no different from the majority of adults when they confront children. The simple truth is that Jim could have and perhaps should have closed the door himself; he had no right to “fetch her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin'” across the room. It is of little help, moreover, to interpret this scene as Jim's attempt to demand respect for his adulthood. On the contrary, what Jim does is enough to make Elizabeth lose respect for him altogether. Jim himself admits that he had treated Elizabeth “ornery,” a term Huck uses to describe the behavior of his own father and others. Accordingly, Jim himself realizes that in his actions toward Elizabeth he is no better than Pap, who beats Huck. For Huck to therefore sympathize with Jim at this point is not readily understandable; for if Huck can explain away Jim's cruelty by simply saying that he was not aware of his daughter's condition, then he should likewise explain away his own father's cruelty by saying that he was an alcoholic. But then again, perhaps we should sympathize with Jim. After all, he is a “nigger.”

And what, precisely, is a “nigger” to Huck? In chapter thirty-two, we find that Huck certainly does not speak of “it” as a human being at all. Pretending to be Tom, Huck tells Aunt Sally that his boat blew out a cylinder head:

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

“No'm. killed a nigger.”

“Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. …”

(p. 280)

Here, we immediately recognize Mrs. Phelps' refusal to consider a “nigger” as “somebody,” but unless we are careful we are likely to overlook the fact that Huck is of the same opinion. When asked “anybody hurt?” it is none other then Huck who replies, “No'm. killed a nigger.” In speaking as if a “nigger” is not a human being, both Huck and Aunt Sally are not merely missing something about their slaves but something about themselves as well, or rather something about their internal connection with them. When Aunt Sally wants to be served at table by a black hand or entertained by a black voice, she would not be satisfied to be served by a black paw or entertained by a black crow. And when she wants to spread the gospel, she does not go to great lengths to convert her horses or chickens to Christianity. When Huck is tired and wants to sleep, he does not look to a bird or rabbit. When he is afraid or in trouble, he does not call on Widow Douglass, Miss Watson, or Pap. Everything in their relation to slaves, to Jim in Huck's case, shows that they treat them as more or less human—their humiliation of them, their jealousies, their fears, their punishments, their attachments, and so forth. Indeed, part of the ambiguity and anxiety in the image of American racism is that it really is a way in which certain human beings can treat others whom they know to be human beings. Rather then admit this, we say that some people do not count as human beings at all. To understand the institution of American slavery, American racism, Nat Turner, or Bigger Thomas is to understand them all as human actualities and possibilities: monstrous, unforgivable, but not therefore the conduct of monsters or animals. Monsters and animals are not forgivable, and not unforgivable, as we do not bear the right internal relations to them for forgiveness to apply.

Neither Huck nor Aunt Sally thus really meant to maintain that blacks are not human. Although Huck does not speak of “niggers” as humans, he at least thinks of Jim as one. His decision to “go to hell” for Jim is but an indication that racial prejudice was slowly becoming psychically insupportable. After writing the letter to turn Jim in, Huck starts to thinking,

thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time. … But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

(p. 271)

Huck's feelings at this point make him very vulnerable to Kovel's charge that the abolitionist's attacks were directed

not simply at an external source of evil, but also at the appeasement of an inner sense of guilt. We do not question the real need to attack the evil of slavery. However, a complex phenomenon such as abolitionism must have been more than a simple attack on a gross evil. People are never so singular in their motivation. … Nothing suits the resolution of an inner conflict so much as the presence of an outer facsimile of it, distant enough to spare the self direct guilt, yet close enough to allow a symbolic correspondence.

(Kovel, p. 203)

Kovel goes so far as to maintain that the very act of saving a black man from slavery is simply another expression of restoration of the ideology of white supremacy: “[I]nsofar as the white's superego directs him to the aid of the oppressed black, it allows him to bring back into the self a portion of what has been lost; it has restored the self and ‘saved’ the object, in all the sense of that word. And so blacks have periodically been ‘saved’ by the ministrations of white reformism except that the saving has all too often been motivated by the desire for the restoration of white integrity” (Kovel, p. 201). While there is much to be said in favor of Kovel's observation, it needs to be noted that this kind of argument—which traces all moral action to egotistic causes, i.e., to the desire to pacify one's conscience—can be used to deny the existence of morality altogether. As Kovel himself argues, “people are never so singular in their motivation.” Huck, viewed as a “little abolitionist,” is impelled to action for more than one reason. One is that Huck has acquired genuine affections for Jim; another is that Huck's attraction to Jim is also his love of and attraction to himself, as Kovel suggests, and as the above passage detailing Jim's devotion to Huck indicates. Still a third reason is that since Huck thinks he is “bad,” he must perform a wicked deed. It is very tempting to attend to one of these aspects to the exclusion of the others, tempting to suppose, for example, that a choice impelled by a feeling of superiority is bad whatever the object aimed at. To speak, however, as if any one motive caused Huck's decision to free Jim without the others playing any part is an abstraction which has led to numerous false readings of Huckleberry Finn and misunderstandings of Huck's relation to Jim.

But here again, readers are not entirely responsible, as Twain is known for his strong proclivity for creating confusion. At every point, one must be aware of his ventriloquist's voice, parodic themes, and ironic author commentary. Twain's use of irony has in particular often been singled out as the source of his treatment of black-white relations. Twain is not a racist, it is said, and his use of “nigger” and similar stereotypes must be understood as attempts to satirize centuries-old assumptions of white superiority. I believe, however, that it is less the total ironic effect itself than the underlying psychological tensions, existential ambiguities, and oppositional structures which reveal the major thrust of Twain's racial consciousness in Huckleberry Finn. The value of Kovel's psychological treatment of the abolitionist's motives is precisely that it underscores what writers like Twain and others knew all along: the pulls, tensions, and ambiguities inherent in race relations and moral choices generally.3

If Huckleberry Finn appears to most readers to be a triumphant, positive moral statement, it is because much of Huckleberry Finn is the promise of happiness in confronting such moral and racial problems, a promise that is constantly being broken. As long as America keeps being ravished by utilitarian pseudo-progress, it will be virtually impossible to convince most desegregation advocates that, before the matter is all over, the pre-desegregation world of race relations may well prove to have been better, even though less free and humane, than what we have today, notwithstanding its racism, violence, and backwardness. Granted, Huck is not always for Jim; but he somehow manages to stay with him. And in contrast to the forced and phony togetherness characteristic of much of today's race relations, what we see as a result is, at moments, a rare, genuine coexistence without aloofness. Viewed, then, from this perspective, the traces of an old immediacy and intimacy in race relations, no matter how outdated and questionable they may be, acquire a certain rightfulness. Why else, despite our sympathy with Jim (and other real victims of American slavery), do we still manage to laugh at their togetherness, at the clownlike behavior and racist statements throughout Huckleberry Finn?

Perhaps we laugh not so much because we prefer the pre-desegregation style of racism but because we feel utterly helpless in its presence. Indeed, part of the appeal of Huckleberry Finn lies in Twain's refusal to cover stillness, cruelty, and absurdity in racial affairs with a coat of seriousness. The stillness, cruelty, and absurdity of racism are all laughable precisely because we can't cope with them. Their various subtleties and numerous forms are literally infinite. The dominant tendency is to simply put up with racism, not take it seriously, and leave it to itself. To this extent, “funny” refers to something one can't get hold of and can't set to rights. It is for this reason that stupidity inclines us to laughter much more than intelligence; and despite the nature and extent of their education, most racists and their racist remarks bear the mark of stupidity. This obviously makes significant dialogue virtually impossible, since the poorer the possibilities of understanding, the quicker we reach the boundary of senselessness and ambivalence. We are not sure if we should laugh or cry. The works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, Jessie Fauset, and numerous other black writers reveal a clear understanding of this. In his 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, James Weldon Johnson, speaking of black laughter as the fear of taking racism too seriously, wrote: “I have since learned that this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.”4

It makes sense to suppose, then, that readers who continue to admire Huckleberry Finn do so not because they fail to see its racist implications, but because they find the racism in it laughable and refuse to take it too seriously. But this sounds both insensitive and disrespectful not only to the millions of men and women who died during “nigger” Jim's generation, but also to the millions of victims presently suffering from racism today in America and throughout the Third World. The problem here, however, is not merely one of insensitivity to oppression, but also of an overinflated reverence for “history,” the infamous model attitude being the assertion that “what is done is done.” It suffices to experience oppression out of context and from a distance, i.e., in a milieu that is foreign to one's own. It is here, too, in the context or name of history, that “great” literary and other cultural products are shielded from the troublesome query of what they are for, how they came to be, and what they are up to. And just as it is history that has endowed Huckleberry Finn with the mark of authenticity, it is history that continues to keep at a distance the embarrassing question of why little white Huck reaches out to a “nigger.” People are likely to get grumpy when they sense the intelligibility of one of their most cherished cultural products crumbling or suddenly under scrutiny. But sometimes the authority of history, tradition, and public opinion must be ignored.


  1. S. L. Clemens, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Scranton, Pennsylvania: Chandler, 1962), p. 113. Subsequent references are to this edition, and page numbers are provided in the text.

  2. Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 62.

  3. Oddly enough, in their article “Huckleberry Finn: A Psychoanalytic Study,” Kovel and Barchilon completely ignore the phenomenon of racism. They explain Huck's ambiguous attitude toward Jim in terms of two “intrapsychic forces.” In addition to Huck's need for a “primitive and symbiotic bond,” there is also the need for “aggression against the symbiotic object. We might expect to find specific instances where this conflict is actualized in terms of whether to stay with Jim or abandon him, and lined to emergent impulses actually to destroy the slave” (J. Barchilon and J. S. Kovel, “Huckleberry Finn: A Psychoanalytic Study,” Bulletin of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22 [1966], 794).

  4. James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Co., 1912), p. 56.

Further Reading

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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.

Fowler, Gregory. “‘If I warn't too drunk to get there—’: On Race.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 24, nos. 1/2 (spring/summer 2001): 49-58.

Analysis of controversies surrounding the teaching of the novel, with the suggestion that expurgating “offensive” language is counter-productive.

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, eds. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995, 551 p.

Overview of critical controversies surrounding the novel, with extensive introductory material.

Hoffman, Andrew Jay. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997, 572 p.

Examines Samuel Clemens's persona of “Mark Twain.”

Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self. Columbia, Mo.: U. of Missouri Press, 1996, 189 p.

Study of the connections between Twain and philosopher James as evidenced in Huckleberry Finn, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger.

Jackson, Robert. “The Emergence of Mark Twain's Missouri: Regional Theory and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.Southern Literary Journal 35, no. 1 (fall 2002): 47-69.

Argues for a regional reading of the novel which highlights Twain's affinity for the culture of his native Missouri.

LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, edited by J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, 840 p.

Extensive guide to Twain's works.

Mensch, Elaine and Harry Mensch. Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-imagining the American Dream, Tuscaloosa, Ala.: U. of Alabama Press, 2000, 167 p.

Questions the elevated position of Huckleberry Finn in the American canon.

Mitchell, Arlene Harris. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Review of Historical Challenges.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas Karolides, Lee Buress, and John M. Kean, pp. 498. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.

Examines historical attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn.

Quirk, Tom. Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1993, 167 p.

Collection of essays discussing structure, issues of autobiography, the novel's heirs, and political correctness in Huckleberry Finn

Schmidt, Peter. “Seven Recent Commentaries on Mark Twain.” Studies in the Novel 34, no. 4 (winter 2002): 448-64.

Review of books about Twain, as well as an evaluation of a 2002 television documentary about the author.

Shaw, Peter. Recovering American Literature. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, 203 p.

Argues for more “free discussion” of American literature.

Skandera-Trombley, Laura E., and Michael J. Kiskis, eds. Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship, edited with an introduction by Laura E. Skandera-Trombley and Michael J. Kiskis. Columbia, Mo.: U. of Missouri Press, 2001, 252 p.

Collection of essays exploring new aesthetic and intellectual approaches to Twain's work.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1994, 204 p.

Collected critical essays with introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Sources, Criticism, edited by Thomas Cooley. New York: Norton, 1999, 402 p.

Critical edition, including the original text and critical essays.

———. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Susan Harris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, 392 p.

Riverside edition of the text, with introduction, historical contexts, critical essays, and bibliography.

———. The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. New York: Mark Twain Foundation (in conjunction with W. W. Norton), 2001, 480 p.

Extensively annotated edition of the novel, with book-length introduction and bibliography..

Additional coverage of Twain's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 11, 14; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 58, 60, 66; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 135; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 12, 23, 64, 74, 186, 189; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most Studied Authors Module, Novelists Module,; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2;Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 4; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 6; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 26, 34; Something About the Author, Vol. 100; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers,Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 12, 19, 36, 48, 59; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; Writers for Young Adults; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

Gregg Camfield (essay date June 1991)

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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.

At least this film treatment has the integrity to maintain much of the political content; other film adaptations of Twain's works partake of the same sentimental spirit while ignoring or dismissing his serious themes, as does, for instance, the well-known Bing Crosby 1949 musical rendition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), which chastises Twain for the pessimism of The Mysterious Stranger by frequent sentimental references to the good humor of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The great popularity of such films and of the Disneyland creation of Tom Sawyer's Island in California indicates that America buys a sentimental Twain. But the academy uses him differently. Following the lead of George Santayana and H. L. Mencken among others, academic critics have often praised Twain for helping to destroy literary gentility. The usual line is that Twain, especially in developing a new kind of realism in Huckleberry Finn, unequivocally attacked sentimental literature and the philosophy that supported it.2

Indeed, Twain often attacked sentimentalism on utilitarian grounds, but he often endorsed sentimental conventions by using them straight, especially when his generally liberal politics required him to garner sympathy for his pet causes. In some of his later works, such as the anti-vivisectionist pieces “A Dog's Tale” (1903) and “A Horse's Tale” (1906), the overt sentimentality has been an embarrassment to critics who have considered Twain a “masculine,” which in their terms is to say an anti-sentimental, writer. They either pass over such pieces in uncomfortable silence or dismiss them as occasional accidents or use them to damn Twain altogether for capitulating to a “feminized” culture.3

As this history suggests, Twain's stance to sentimentalism is complicated. The meanings of this complexity have been almost entirely obscured by the modernist response to sentimentality, a response that dismissed the entire intellectual tradition behind American sentimental literature so effectively that only in the last ten or fifteen years have scholars seriously begun to unearth the nineteenth-century intellectual context in which sentimentalism flourished. Derived from a model of mind and morality first postulated by Locke; developed by, among others, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith; and popularized in America by the Scots Hugh Blair and Archibald Alison and by Americans such as Catherine Beecher, American literary sentimentalism was sophisticated and powerful.4 Only by reclaiming a sense of the intentions and ideals of sentimentalists can we understand the dynamic in Twain's uses of sentimentalism and, perhaps more importantly, the continued impact of that dynamic on the controversies over Twain's most famous novel.

And it has always sparked controversy. From the earliest reviews attacking it for promoting vulgar morality, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has found readers who impugn and defend its moral vision. The first battle it provoked was waged in explicitly sentimental terms. Clearly, many of the genteel moralists of Twain's day were up in arms about Twain's worldview. Equally clearly, his promotion of what Henry Nash Smith has called a “vernacular perspective” led to Twain's “canonization.”5 But while Twain's very use of vernacular has been considered a liberating, democratizing artistic innovation, at least one aspect of that vernacular, the way it describes Jim, has fueled the most important and long-lived debate about the book, namely whether or not it is racist.

The public battle over the racial attitudes the book conveys began in 1957 when the NAACP condemned the book for its diction, for the gross affront to the dignity of an entire race of human beings implicit in the use of the vernacular term “nigger.” Since then a whole literature has sprung up trying to deal with the characterization of Jim and the conclusions we can draw about the book's racial attitudes contingent on that characterization. Naturally, African-American readers have been no more immune to controversy over the book than have been members of any other group. While the NAACP and many black critics have vigorously condemned the book's depiction of blacks—Chicago educator Dr. John Wallace, for instance, calls the book “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written”—some of the most spirited and interesting defenses of the book's characterization of Jim have come from black authors.6

In particular, many of these critics suggest that Huck is often manipulated by Jim precisely because Jim can always hide behind the mask of stereotype created by whites for their own psychological protection.7 Such responses seek to demonstrate the richness and complexity of Jim's character throughout the book in order to suggest that Jim is not a weak role model who will necessarily undermine black readers' perceptions of themselves or reinforce white stereotypes about blacks. The trade-off here is that Huck's character is diminished in contrast. Clearly Huck, with no sense of humor or irony whatsoever, is susceptible to Jim's manipulation, as we can see in Huck's treatment of one of Jim's superstitions: “Jim said bees wouldn't sting idiots; but I didn't believe that, because I had tried them lots of times myself, and they wouldn't sting me” (p. 55). Such a boy is often duped and even controlled by Jim.

Thus, in trying to make Jim a dignified character capable of controlling circumstances as well as he possibly can, such critics implicitly argue for an uneasy equality between Huck and Jim, what Robinson calls “an equality in suspicion and fear” that creates a “tenuous bond of mutual protection.”8 Still, such readings, while allowing for racial equality and a vital community of interest between Huck and Jim, diverge from the traditional liberal view of Huck and Jim as embodying interracial harmony. Many readers wish to see the community of Huck and Jim in these larger symbolic terms, and consequently many of them complain that the so-called evasion chapters betray the book's humane potential.

While few supporters of the book like to admit it, such a vision of racial harmony stems ultimately from a sentimental view of the world, a view that Twain, though he also disliked to admit it, to a large degree shared. The sentimentality of this vision should come as no surprise if one considers that anti-racist thought originated in the antislavery movement of the eighteenth century. As David Brion Davis points out, the very movement to abolish slavery coincided with and was significantly shaped by the rise of sentimental moral philosophy.9 In fact, antislavery was part of a dramatic paradigm shift in Western thought: “The emergence of an international antislavery opinion represented a momentous turning point in the evolution of man's moral perception, and thus in man's image of himself.” Davis notes that Locke, whose psychology of the sensations undergirded the development of sentimental moral philosophy by the likes of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, “was the last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery.”10 The generation he taught “to take an irreverent view of past authority” and to see the “importance of personal liberty” began the attack on race slavery by appealing sentimentally to universal human longings for freedom, self-determination, and familial affection. The same movement that began the attack on slavery provided, as Gary Wills has shown, the liberal strain of thought that sanctioned the American Revolution.11 Canonized in many of the texts of the Revolution, these ideas have become the subtext of almost every democratizing and egalitarian movement in the history of the United States.

Furthermore, it could be argued that most events that have moved the nation toward a democratic ideal have been catalyzed by the problem of race as articulated in sentimental terms. The Civil War stands as an obvious example, with the sentimental rhetoric of the antislavery movement significantly influencing the advent of the war that ultimately led to the Constitutional embodiment of equal protection under the law. Less obviously, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s also drew on this sentimental tradition. Exploiting the news media's hunger for sensation, Civil Rights leaders publicized and often even provoked confrontations that generated scenes of grotesque violence. But the key to the movement's success was not merely in finding the sensational (the so-called drug wars of today do that constantly without generating any sympathy for the American underclass); rather the movement succeeded by interpreting striking images through the sentimental rhetoric of universal brotherhood.

Sentimentalism, then, which is latent in American political and social ideology and has been since the inception of the nation, comes strikingly to life around questions of race. It therefore stands to reason that readers' reactions to the question of racism in Huckleberry Finn are complicated by, in fact may even be governed by, conflicting responses to the sentimentality in that novel. The book's advocacy of racial equality, though buried in irony, is almost completely sentimental, and that fact may well account for both the spirited attacks on and equally spirited defenses of Twain's attitudes toward race as manifested in his depiction of Jim.

That Twain's advocacy of racial equality is sentimental is not self-evident, especially given Twain's own ambivalent attitudes toward sentimentalism. In the late 1870s and early 1880s Twain preferred utilitarian ethics; his marginalia in his copies of W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals (1869) and of Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871) show quite clearly that he consciously rejected many of the fundamental ideas—epistemological, aesthetic, and psychological—of sentimental moral philosophy.12

As Twain knew from his reading and from his discussions with his neighbors and fellow writers—including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Bushnell, and Charles Dudley Warner—sentimental literature was professedly realistic even as it was didactically reformist. According to sentimental aesthetic and moral theory, for sentimental literature to promote moral change it must re-create in the reader's mind a sense of psychic reality. Such responses depend on shared associations and sympathy. Perhaps the most famous passage in American literature that exemplifies this aesthetic is in Uncle Tom's Cabin, when the narrator tells us that the “intolerable” squeaking of Rachel Halliday's rocking chair delights the members of her family because they associate the emotional reality of her “motherly loving kindness” with the physical realities of her chair and its noises.13

Still, such sentimental reactions are easily upset by conflicting associations and by anything that might impede sympathy. Thus a writer must, by these standards, purify representations of external reality in order to evoke pure, ideal, morally uplifting responses. As Charles Dudley Warner put it in his 1883 Atlantic essay “Modern Fiction”:

Art requires an idealization of nature. … When we praise our recent fiction for its photographic fidelity to nature we condemn it, for we deny to it the art which would give it value. We forget that the creation of the novel should be … a synthetic process, and impart to human actions that ideal quality which we demand in painting.14

The “synthesis” Warner demands here combines physical realities with depictions of spiritual states that coexist with physical reality. He firmly advocates what Daniel Walker Howe describes as the “dualism” of the Common Sense school of philosophy.15

In the early 1870s Twain had supported this aesthetic, following Warner's lead in co-writing with him The Gilded Age (1873). Yet he rather quickly changed his mind, as we can see in an 1879 letter to Howells praising The Lady of Aroostook: “It is all such truth—truth to life; everywhere your pen falls it leaves a photograph.”16 At about the time he began writing Huckleberry Finn, Twain was agreeing with Howells that artistic idealization sacrifices truth. In part the physical distortions of idealized art annoyed Twain, as any reader of “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses” knows. In larger part he felt that an aesthetic that called itself a synthesis of realism and idealism enabled sentimentalists to lie to themselves about their own motivations, particularly those based on sympathy. Twain usually rejected the idea that human beings ever act altruistically. He deliberately crafted many episodes in Huckleberry Finn in order to try to demonstrate the absurdity of a moral system predicated purely on the power of sympathy. Persons, he suggests, who act out of sentimental motives act for the pleasure they will get from experiencing vicariously someone else's emotions. Further, since they are more interested in apparent intention than in consequences, they often cause more ultimate harm than good.

To take an episode from chapter 5 for example, the new judge causes such harm when he tries to reform pap. He shows his concern more for a sentimental model of family as the ideal institution than for the real good of either pap or Huck. In other words, perceiving reality through the medium of ideal stereotypes, he ignores particulars to the detriment of all concerned. Pinning the blame for the breakdown of pap's family on alcohol alone, the new judge sets up a theater of reform. Pap signs the pledge, bringing him, in the two strokes of the pen needed to make his mark, from the depths of degradation to the apex of social respectability. Add new clothes and the sentimental scenario is complete. Here are ideal emotions, purified of their mundane, accidental characteristics, and everyone weeps with joy over the result.

With minimal investment of time and no conception of the real difficulty of changing a person's life, the new judge and his wife wallow in pap's tearful confession for their own pleasure. But Twain forces a practical reality back into the scene. Pap stays reformed for all of an evening before returning to his habits; no reformation can really ever change the future without hard, grinding, mundane work. In seeking another man's change of heart the new judge finds momentary sentimental bliss for himself, but when faced by the ruins of his spare room the next day he concludes that “a body could reform the ole man with a shotgun, maybe, but he didn't know no other way” (p. 28). His anger, of course, stems not only from his sense of failure, but also from his awareness that he had been pap's gull in a small but humiliating con game. Later in the book, Twain ups the ante with the various sentimental con games the King and Duke perpetrate, most notably their effort to defraud the Wilks girls out of a sizable fortune. They almost succeed because they are so good at manipulating others with their sentimental “tears and flapdoodle” and “soul-butter and hogwash” (p. 213). Twain clearly feared that sentimentality could be the key not to truth and virtue but to deceit and vice.

This was how Twain had, at this point in his career, consciously developed his reaction to sentimentalism. But what about his treatment of Jim? One of the central episodes that ironizes Huck's educated bigotry by showing Jim's humanity comes when Jim gets homesick. Huck overhears Jim often lamenting the loss of his family, but he is most struck by, and relates to us in minute detail, the story of Jim's treatment of his daughter:

“What make me feel so bad dis time, ‘uz bekase I hear sumpn over yonder on de bank like a whack, er a slam, while ago, en it mine me er de time I treat my little ‘Lizabeth so ornery. She warn't on'y 'bout fo' year ole, en she tuck de sk'yarlet fever, en had a powful rough spell; but she got well, en one day she was a-stannin' aroun', en I says to her, I says:

“‘Shet de do'.’

“She never done it; jis' stood dah, kiner smilin' up at me. It make me mad; en I says agin, mighty loud, I says:

“‘Doan you hear me?—shet de do'!’

“She jis' stood de same way, kiner smilin' up. I was a-bilin'! I says:

“‘I lay I make you mine!’

“En wid dat I fetch' her a slap side de head dat sont her asprawlin'. Den I went into de yuther room, en ‘uz gone ‘bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do' a-stannin' open yit, en dat chile stannin' mos' right in it, a-lookin' down en mournin', en de tears runnin' down. My, but I wuz mad. I was agwyne for de chile, but jis' den—it was a do' dat open' innerds—jis' den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!—en my lan', de chile never move’! My breff mos' hop outer me; en I feel so—so—I doan know how I feel. I crope out, all a-tremblin', en crope aroun' en open de do' easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof' en still, en all uv a sudden I says pow! jis' as loud as I could yell. She never budge! O, Huck, I bust out a-cryin', en grab her up in my arms en say, ‘O de po' little thing! de Lord God Amighty forgive po' ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisseff as long's he live!’ O, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I'd ben a treat'n her so!”

(pp. 201-2)

I quote here at length in order to call attention to many conventionally sentimental aspects of this scene. Notice that the tale is a recollection sparked by association between a sound and a remembered sound. According to sentimental aesthetics, as promoted in this country, among others, by Archibald Alison in his Essays on Taste (1790), the emotional power and moral value of sentiment come from this associational characteristic. Particular experiences, claimed Alison, become the motives for our emotional and moral lives even though we must, by the constitution of our minds, categorize those experiences to make them universal. In Twain's continuation of Huck's moral reformation at the hands of Jim, Huck's particular experience of Jim's altruism finally convinces Huck to “go to hell” in an effort to free his companion. And in the reader's experience of Jim, this particularity becomes a profound source of the sentimental conception of Jim's reality as a human being.

Note also that the agent of moral reformation is an innocent girl. Jim demonstrates his “full humanity” in sentimental terms by the tenderness of his heart when confronted by the sufferings of a girl who has been ill. While it may be the only case in sentimental literature of a sick girl not dying (preferably of tuberculosis), she nonetheless succeeds in performing her sentimental task. As a girl she is, by cultural commonplace, supposed to be closer to the ideal in two ways. By the tenets of sentimental dualism, while all life is compounded of both matter and spirit, some people have naturally more spiritual tastes than do others. Furthermore, innate tastes notwithstanding, some people experience life so as to encourage spiritual tastes while others develop their more earthy sensations. The ideology of the sexual spheres arose in part from these sentimental distinctions, assigning to women the attributes of spiritual affinity. Thus Jim's daughter, by virtue of her gender, is supposed to be spiritual by nature. Secondly, the culture exalted children as closer to spirit because they had not yet had time for mundane pursuits to color their moral sensibilities. Thus, by virtue of her age, Jim's daughter again is supposed to emblematize spiritual purity. Here, then, is sentimental idealization at work in the language of cultural symbols.

Finally, note the tears, this time not presented derisively, but rather to guide our responses. And as Jim's tears guide us, so does the way he tells the story; he purifies his tale of any accidental characteristics—we have no idea of his circumstances or of his history with his daughter, so we cannot know if his ill use of her stemmed from a more complex reality than he gives us. So his abuse of her, especially as he reveals it to us, evokes a simple, clean emotional response of pity. Since Jim berates himself for his behavior, the reader has no need to do it, too; Jim's mea culpa in fact yields, by a sort of transitive property of emotion that is central to sentimental liberalism as a whole, a reader's pity for Jim and a sense of his nobility in his capacity to, as Stowe would put it, “feel right.”

The very next episode after Jim's recollection provides an interesting counterpoint to this sentimentality. When the King and Duke masquerade as dead Peter Wilks's English brothers, the Duke must play the part of someone “deef and dumb” (p. 208) in a kind of perverse mutation of Jim's daughter. And in fact the “goo-gooing for sympathy” (p. 248) of these imposters is precisely the “soul-butter and hogwash” that so disgusts Huck. On first glance it seems as though what Twain giveth in one chapter, he taketh away in the next, but the episode is not exclusively antisentimental, and again the tensions revolve around issues of race and gender.

The King and the Duke, while able to impose on the townspeople by crying, are successful partly because the people as a whole cannot distinguish the truth, and especially because the Wilks girls, as innocent as they are supposed to be, put their faith in the frauds. The townspeople, when challenged by the skeptical Dr. Robinson, follow the lead of innocence.17 But when the “Rapscallions” sell off the Wilks's slaves to a trader, they lose some of the reputation their tears had gained them. Huck “thought them poor girls and them niggers would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it.” And as Huck was made sick, so were the townspeople: “The thing made a big stir in the town, too, and a good many come out flatfooted and said it was scandalous to separate the mother and the children that way. It injured the frauds some” (p. 234).

The frauds are injured in Twain's reprise, apparently without irony, of the classic antislavery argument made in exclusively sentimental terms. Even slaveholders, it seems in this version of Twain's Southern town, are able to form attachments to the slaves as people and to recognize the slaves' familial attachments to one another, and the abrupt sacrifice of those attachments paves the way for the people to reject the sentimental claims of the King and the Duke. When the new pretenders to the fortune arrive, the people are quickly willing to turn their allegiance from the King and the Duke, suggesting that in scandalizing the town's sensibilities about the role of black families, they loosen their hold on the town's sympathies.

In the narrative economy of the story, it is easy to forget that the townspeople abandon their faith in the King and Duke before they hear from Mary Jane Wilks that Huck has exposed them as frauds. On the contrary, the reader's reaction to Huck's doing the right thing gives a narrative sense of ethical resolution, so that the sudden shift in the town's faith in the frauds comes as no surprise. Huck's decision to help Mary Jane and her sisters is a further sign of Twain's ambivalence about sentimentalism. Even though Mary Jane's innocence exposes her to the designs of the King and the Duke in the first place, it operates successfully on Huck's sympathy for that innocence. Huck decides to risk his own wellbeing for the wellbeing of the Wilks girls precisely because he cannot bear to see innocence imposed upon. The implication of a dawning sexuality as part of Huck's motive is clearly there, but again according to sentimental convention (and Twain was almost always sentimental when writing about sex) sexual feelings themselves are among the strongest spurs of the moral behavior of good men. Huck surrenders his self-interest under the double goad of sympathy and sentimental sexuality.

This treatment of sexuality is not unrelated to the episode of Jim talking about his daughter. Jim teaches Huck about the value of family in emotional terms that Huck's own life has been unable to give him. Many commentators have talked about the maternal aspects of Jim's relationship to Huck, what with his self-sacrificing behavior and his terms of endearment. What many forget is that by sentimental convention, men, too, were supposed to act with great gentleness toward their children and wives and to sacrifice their personal interests to the interests of their families. Again, it is the black man who serves as the catalyst for these ideas in Huckleberry Finn. This shows that not only does Twain use sentimentalism to elevate the character of Jim, he reciprocally uses Jim to elevate the value of sentimentalism in the face of his own skepticism about the worth of sentiment.

Even though much of the book militates against sentimentalism as a morally legitimate ideology, we see that its sentimental portrait of Jim and the narrative consequences of that portrait give us a different sense of Twain's attitudes. In particular, we see Twain using sentimentality to tell the reader to sympathize with the black man's humanity. At this point in his career Twain was, I believe, already rebelling at some unconscious level against the pessimistic conclusions of his consciously chosen utilitarian materialism. By the end of his career he would, much as did William James at about the same time, selfconsciously reject his earlier monism in favor of a pluralistic vision founded on sentimental epistemology. But the development of Twain's moral philosophy is not my concern here; what interests me is that, in spite of the ironic context in which it is embedded, the plea for sympathy works for so many readers yet creates such controversy.

The academic argument over Jim often hinges on accusations of naïveté made from a standpoint of professional sophistication. On the one hand, those who defend the book accuse its detractors of naively failing to see the book's irony, that Twain realistically depicts a bigoted world in order to satirize that bigotry by comparison to the emotional bond between Huck and Jim. On the other hand, those who condemn the book as racist accuse its defenders of naively defending the depiction of Jim as realistic. They say that Jim is merely a version of the stereotypical “Uncle Tom,” and that any investment in Jim's reality is a projection of the reader's expectations and desires onto the reality of race relations in the United States.18

The central term in the debate, then, is that slippery term “realism,” and it might help us to understand our reactions to keep in mind how sentimentalists wished to define it. At best, they sought a psychological mimesis; they tried to represent not the simple physical reality of the world, but the psychological reality of how we perceive it. That reality begins, they said, with natural senses providing the mind with complex categories of perception, and these categories in turn provide categories of understanding based on the associations we accumulate through life. The epistemological difficulties of sorting objectivity and subjectivity according to this model were not lost on those who developed it; the radical intuitionists like Hume and Smith—who had the greatest impact on sentimental literature—described the conception of reality that arose from their model of mind as one that cannot be rationally explained.19 It can be no more than felt through the power of sympathetic imagination, a human power superior to logos, superior to the terms by which we try to articulate it.

Still, in literature, sentimentalists did try to articulate it, and insofar as sentimental literature strives for psychological mimesis, it walks a thin line between describing particular experiences and reducing those experiences to general categories, between describing reality or an idealized preconception of reality. When such literature describes people, that representational dilemma becomes a moral dilemma. Sentimental characterizations balance precariously between oppressively stereotyping the “other” and recognizing his or her particular humanity.

As a result, sentimentalism blurs the distinction between stereotypical and particular representations. For the sake of securing the connection between the particular and the universal, that is precisely what sentimentalists hoped to do: to confuse the particular and the categorical, the real and the ideal. That confusion has, in part, led to much of the recent criticism of what Twain's book does in depicting Jim. As readers, we do not know how we are supposed to respond to Jim. Are we to see him as a realistic portrait of a black man? If so, we cannot help noting all the things wrong with this depiction. Are we to see him as the image of a black man that a kindhearted but bigoted boy might have as he struggles to realize an ideal of love? If so, we shift our gaze from Jim as he is, to Jim as Huck feels about him.

The text itself, then, accounts for our conflicting responses to the book in two ways. For one, it entails the representational ambiguities of sentimental realism itself; for another, it reflects Twain's own ambivalent attitudes toward sentimentalism. Earlier I said that the intellectual journey that moved Twain from utilitarianism back to sentimentalism is not my focus here, but as I am trying to explain our reactions to an instance of his ambivalence, the emotional impulse behind that change may very well be important. While Twain prided himself on his tough-minded logic in advocating a cynical naturalism, he found the reduction of all human behavior to the basest motives to be emotionally intolerable. Under the goad of this emotional experience, he began to notice some of the logical flaws in his absolutism and slowly and tentatively changed his mind. Extrapolating from my own experiences as a reader and from my reading of many critics who have written about whether or not Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, it seems possible that modern readers share the same tension between a cynical worldview and a sentimental one and respond to the characterization of Jim at least in part depending on which ideology they embrace.

Speaking of my own experience as a reader, my fear of sentimentalism stems from my reactions to the facts I stated at the very beginning of this essay: through sentiment the manufacturers of kitsch have turned Twain's works and life story into a crude commodity, and, in the process, they have reduced the complex satirist to a toothless funny fellow. The political implications of such manipulation are frightening. In particular, I fear that in embracing sentimentalism fully I open myself to both psychological and political manipulation. I often turn to my professional training to protect myself from this fear, and I do not think I am alone in doing this: certainly the modernists who installed Twain in the canon for his services in attacking sentimentality shared this fear, and I do not think recent critical theories have allayed it.

Trained in post-structuralist analysis, many contemporary critics, when reading nineteenth-century literature, want to describe the psychological mimesis of sentimentalism as a power strategy, to see the emotional coercion as oppressive, and to deny the capacity of writers and readers to see the full humanity of the “other” as long as they tend to see that “other” only through universalizing categories. In this vision of sentimentality, our job as critics is to purge ourselves of our own emotional responses in order to free ourselves from and expose the oppressive language that has ordered those responses.

Still we have no choice but to describe people through the necessarily limited categories our language gives us; the question is whether such categories are necessarily oppressive or whether the intention behind language has some impact on what it does. The controversy surrounding Twain's book suggests some interesting answers. Those readers who do not see Twain's depiction of Jim as oppressively stereotypical may at some level reject the idea that language is necessarily oppressive. In insisting that the book attacks racism, many still insist that Jim is a noble character with whom it is easy to sympathize as a “real” person even as they acknowledge the limits and political dangers of that realism.

In other words, all other biases notwithstanding, some of us react according to a continued emotional affinity with sentimentalism. Perhaps this affinity lies in the hope that human beings do have shared interests that are prior to the language we use to try to describe them, that with good intentions we can communicate meaningfully with each other in terms other than of domination and submission; that, as Ralph Ellison says in his 1982 introduction to Invisible Man:

If the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality—as it continues to do—there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the Northerner and the Southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft.20

In this I think Ellison may have discovered much about the power of sentimentalism in addressing the American problem of race, that in blurring the distinctions between reality and ideality, it engages our sympathy and allows us to imagine human connections that we cannot fully articulate.


  1. See Walter Blair, Mark Twain & “Huck Finn” (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1960), p. 374.

  2. It is as if Twain serves readers as a source of “two Providences,” and as Huck put it about the differences he discovered between the sentimentalist's and the Calvinist's providences, “a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow's Providence, but if Miss Watson's got him there warn't no help for him any more” (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer, vol. 8 of The Works of Mark Twain [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988], p. 14; all following references are to this edition and are cited by page number in the text). The public's Mark Twain, as little more than a funny fellow, gives a considerable show. The critics' Mark Twain, on the other hand, is often an American Jeremiah, showing the impossibilities of happiness, dignity, or decency for corrupt human beings.

  3. The terms of this debate were defined by Van Wyck Brooks's The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920; rev. ed., New York: E. P. Dutton, 1933), and by Bernard DeVoto's reply, Mark Twain's America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932).

  4. For a more complete treatment of this history, see my “The Moral Aesthetics of Sentimentality: A Missing Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin,Nineteenth-Century Literature, 43 (1988), 319-45.

  5. Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. vii and passim.

  6. Wallace's remarks appeared in numerous journals; see E. R. Shipp, “A Century Later, Huck's Still Stirring Up Trouble,” New York Times, 4 February 1985. It seems odd that I should need to point out that the novel has black readers who defend it, but the fact that some published criticism still considers white and black readers as monolithic, completely opposed interest groups makes it seem necessary. Consider that James M. Cox, who is well-versed in Twain criticism, implies that black critics as a “group” have denounced the book's racism (see “A Hard Book to Take,” in Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley, eds., One Hundred Years of “Huckleberry Finn”: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture: Centennial Essays [Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1985], p. 387). By arguing that racial groups contain varieties of opinions within them, I am not completely disagreeing with Cox's conclusion that the complaints of black critics have disrupted white “complacency” about the book. But since the book has always been controversial, I suspect that, rather than causing the controversy about the book's place as an American classic, such attacks have encouraged white readers to articulate their discomfort with the book, especially with the book's ending, in racial terms. In the years since the Civil Rights movement, many of the most vigorous published attacks on the book's depiction of Jim have come from white critics. For an excellent recent treatment of this critical history, see Forrest G. Robinson, “The Characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn,Nineteenth-Century Literature, 43 (1988), 361-91.

  7. See, in particular, Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Partisan Review, 25 (1958), 212-22, which slightly modifies his extraordinary praise of Huckleberry Finn in “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Confluence: An International Forum, 2, no. 4 (1953), 5-21. For a fully developed account devoted to Huckleberry Finn, see Harold Beaver, “Run, Nigger, Run: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a Fugitive Slave Narrative,” Journal of American Studies, 8 (1974), 339-61. I do not mean to imply in any way that these are representative or typical responses of black readers. Presuming that there is a typical response, it seems possible that these accounts are atypical insofar as the institutionalization of academic criticism has until recently militated against negative criticism of “canonical” works in many obvious ways, not least of which is that most scholars do not spend time writing about books they loathe.

  8. Robinson, p. 369. Twain himself, in his platform readings of sections of Huckleberry Finn in 1895-96, said that “Huck is the child of neglect & acquainted with cold, hunger, privation, humiliation, & with the unearned aversion of the upper crust of the community.” Consequently, he and Jim are “close friends, bosom friends, drawn together by community of misfortune” (Huckleberry Finn, p. 806). Thus Robinson echoes Twain's own interpretation of their bond, but we should note that Robinson emphasizes the suspicion inherent in the bond whereas Twain emphasizes the heartfelt community of interest.

  9. See “Religious Sources of Antislavery Thought: The ‘Man of Feeling’ in the Best of Worlds,” chapter 11 in his The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 333-64.

  10. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 42, 45.

  11. See Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978).

  12. Regarding Lecky, see Blair, pp. 131-51, and Howard G. Baetzhold, Mark Twain and John Bull: The British Connection (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970). Regarding Darwin, see Alan Gribben, Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980) and Mark Twain's annotated copy of The Descent of Man in the Mark Twain Papers, Berkeley, California. Twain's marginalia attack those passages that support sentimentalism, especially those passages in which Darwin argues that the moral sense is altruistic and lifts us above the level of animal competition.

  13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852), rpt. in Three Novels (New York: The Library of America, 1982), p. 163.

  14. Atlantic Monthly, 51 (April 1883), 464.

  15. See The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 40-44.

  16. Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson, eds., Mark Twain—Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William Dean Howells, 1872-1910, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), I, 245.

  17. Given the importance of definitions of gender to definitions of sentimentality in Twain's times, it is worth noting that he has mainly women crying over the fraudulent heirs: “Everybody, most, leastways women, cried for joy to see them meet at last and have such good times” (p. 211).

  18. For examples of these positions, see the collection of essays in the special issue of the Mark Twain Journal, 22 (1984), about the problem of race in Huckleberry Finn. In speaking primarily of Jim as described by the term “Uncle Tom,” I limit my discussion to the sentimental stereotypes by which Twain characterizes Jim. The literature Robinson draws on in his essay describes Twain's uses of the minstrel-show character in portraying Jim, but to consider the emotional ramifications of this more pernicious set of stereotypes would complicate this paper beyond what I could address in so limited a scope. Let it suffice to say that both stereotypes exist simultaneously in Twain's novel, as Ellison tangentially notes in “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” and that readers' varying reactions to one or the other of these stereotypes may well be another reason for the varied responses readers have to the book's moral value as a whole.

  19. Twain, incidentally, had read Hume's histories of England and the essay “Of Miracles,” as well as Thomas Huxley's Hume (1879) in the English Men of Letters Series. See Gribben's entries under Hume and Huxley.

  20. See the author's new introduction to Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1982), p. xix.

Sherwood Cummings (essay date September 1991)

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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, Arkansas.”2 The following year Louis Budd located the plantation “no further north than Natchez or possibly Baton Rouge.”3 In 1967 Leo Marx put it in “northern Louisiana,” and appended a map.4 Two years later Allison Ensor concluded “that Pikesville and the Phelps farm are located in the extreme southeastern part of Arkansas,”5 and four years later David M. Wells uneasily agreed with him.6 In 1980 Michael G. Miller made the most detailed study to date, complete with map, and with close reference to a navigational guide used by Mississippi River pilots. He concluded that “Pikesville is either in Mississippi or Louisiana, not in Arkansas, as Twain himself suggests.”7 In the 1985 Mark Twain Library edition of Huckleberry Finn and in the 1988 Iowa-California edition, again with maps for our reference, Walter Blair and Victor Fischer moved the farm back to Arkansas.8 And in 1989 Gerald Hoag suggested that since the raft seems to have floated “well into Louisiana,” the humorist's locating the farm in Arkansas was a playful stretching of state boundaries.9

Those who opt for Arkansas are understandably persuaded by the author's own explicit statements. In dictating his autobiography Mark Twain recollected that “In Huck Finn and in Tom Sawyer, Detective, I moved it [the Quarles farm] down to Arkansas,”10 and a glance at the opening sentence of the latter work bears him out. It refers to the time that Jim “was chained up for a runaway slave down there on Tom's uncle Silas's farm in Arkansaw.”11Tom Sawyer, Detective was published in 1896, but “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians,” written possibly as early as 1884, also refers to Huck's having been “way down in Arkansaw at Tom's aunt Sally's and uncle Silas's.”12 It should be noted, however, that these statements were made after Huckleberry Finn was written. In the novel itself, neither Pikesville nor the Phelps farm is given as being in Arkansas. Indeed, scholars who opt for Mississippi or Louisiana as the farm's location are persuaded by evidence within the novel that the raft traveled considerably south of the Arkansas border.

This conflict of evidences has made some of the later scholars uneasy in their choices, whether for Arkansas or a state downriver. Miller in designating Mississippi or Louisiana reduces Twain's looming statements that the Phelps place is in Arkansas to a suggestion (“as Twain himself suggests”). Ensor admits that locating the farm in Arkansas “may be inconsistent with Aunt Polly's figure of eleven hundred miles” of river travel from St. Petersburg to Pikesville but finds her statement “insufficient” as counter-evidence.”13 Wells admits that the distance between the Wilkses' town and the Pikesville which he feels obliged to place in Arkansas “is improbably short for all that occurred in it,” and that ex-pilot Mark Twain was “surprisingly careless about distances on the real river.”14 Blair and Fischer in opting for Arkansas apparently decided not to trouble the reader of their Explanatory Notes with references to alternate theories of the farm's location, but have succeeded only in raising troublesome questions: Why do they inform us that Spanish moss “commenced … about thirty miles above the Louisiana border” but fail to point out that the raft travels several times thirty miles after Huck first sights Spanish moss (pp. 417, 265)? Why is there no explanatory note for Aunt Polly's “eleven hundred mile” (p. 358) statement? And why do they identify “the road to Lafayette” from Pikesville as to “Lafayette County, Arkansas, in the southwestern part of the state, 135 miles away” (p. 418) when, as it turns out, there was no such road?15

It was my curiosity about such questions that led me to search out old maps and records and to learn something about lumber rafting. My inquiry has satisfied me that Mark Twain located Pikesville on the site of the now vanished village of Point Coupee, Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi, thirty-seven river miles north of Baton Rouge, across and somewhat upstream from St. Francisville.


Huck and Jim's “little section of a lumber raft—nice pine planks … twelve foot wide and about fifteen or sixteen foot long” (p. 60) is a “crib.” Beginning in the 1840s cribs were assembled at sawmills on the banks of Wisconsin's forested rivers by layering boards, each layer at right angles to the previous one, three feet high. “Binding planks” on top were fastened to “foundation planks” at the bottom with “grub pins,” and the crib was set afloat. Once such narrows and rapids as might occur in the upper rivers were negotiated, cribs were fastened together in “strings” of six or more, and on the Mississippi before 1860 in rafts of as many as forty or fifty cribs.16

The floating of rafts downriver was an economical means of transporting lumber toward markets generated by the construction of farms and communities on the prairies and plains from Illinois and Missouri west and south to Colorado and Texas. Efficiency required that the raft be kept in the channel, where the current was swiftest, and that it be safely handled otherwise, and to this end crews, who lived aboard, manned steering oars, showed lights at night, and kept watches.17 In all these details Huck and Jim are orthodox raftsmen. There is nothing to suggest that they resist the raftsman's instinct to make the best use of the river's current. I make that point to forestall the argument that the raft might not go beyond Arkansas if there were a reduction of its optimal speed.

That speed, Michael Miller has shown by carefully matching times and distances of the raft's progress during the first half of the voyage, is four and a half miles an hour. Miller finds that the lack of precise times and the paucity of recognizable place names during the second half of the voyage make “further attempts to chart the voyage fruitless.”18 In their later-published reasoning and research, however, Blair and Fischer make convincing cases for their location of three of the last four towns in which Huckleberry has adventures: Pokeville at Walnut Bend, Arkansas; Bricksville at Napoleon, Arkansas; and the Wilkses' town at Greenville, Mississippi (pp. 410, 411-12, 415). In locating Pikesville at Grand Lake Landing in the southeast corner of Arkansas and fifty river miles below Greenville (p. 417), however, Blair and Fischer apparently felt obliged to honor Mark Twain's recollection rather than to acknowledge the “itinerary” in the first two paragraphs of chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn.

If we are believers in Mark Twain's statement that the Phelps farm is in Arkansas, that itinerary becomes an embarrassment either for ourselves or for an author who has lost his sense of narrative management. If, on the other hand, we blot out that statement, it becomes clear that our author is making an efficient (and amusing) segue from Wilks-town to Pikesville and the Phelps farm, where Huck will have his final adventure, and which the author has determined will be some hundreds of miles downstream. To begin with, after leaving Wilks-town the raft floats “for days and days … right along down the river.” Logically, “days and days” is a minimum of four days, a calculation that is supported by the originally written and then crossed out “four or five days” in the holograph.19 During this period the king and duke “dasn't stop again at any town,” since they are fleeing news of their felonious impersonations in Wilks-town, but I think we need not infer day-and-night travel. If, as has been their habit lately, they travel daytimes, and their day is ten to twelve hours, they will have gone about two hundred miles.

They have, the author wants us to know, entered a new region: “We was down south in the warm weather now, and a mighty long ways from home. We begun to come to trees with Spanish moss on them, hanging down from the limbs like long gray beards.” These two travelog sentences echo parts of two similar passages in Life on the Mississippi, written some months earlier—the first to describe the “shade-trees hung with venerable gray-beards of Spanish moss” at Lake Providence, Louisiana, “the first distinctly Southern-looking town you come to,” and the second, the region around Baton Rouge where “We were certainly in the South at last … and there was a tropical sun overhead and a tropical swelter in the air.”20

After Huck's sighting of Spanish moss the raft continues its downstream progress, stopping at no fewer than seven villages, where the king and the duke practice their con-games. Eventually discouraged at their lack of success, the two frauds “laid around the raft, as they floated along … by the half a day at a time” before reaching Pikesville. To make room for all this feckless enterprise and listless drifting we must add a considerable distance—let us conservatively say another one hundred and fifty miles. The raft is now three hundred and fifty river miles below Wilks-town, which was fifty miles above the Arkansas-Louisiana border. It must therefore be well into Louisiana, a conjecture supported by references to being “down South” (pp. 274, 285), to “southern hospitality” (p. 286), and to Silas Phelps's knowing a family in Baton Rouge (p. 279).

Thus far I have depended generally on the same evidence that has persuaded others to locate the Phelps farm to the south of Arkansas. Point Coupee emerged tentatively as the location of Pikesville when I explored the implications in the duke's telling Huck, when they meet in Pikesville, that Jim has been bought by a man named Foster who “lives forty mile back here in the country, on the road to Lafayette” (p. 274). Blair and Fischer's explanation that the reference is to Lafayette County, Arkansas, seems unlikely. J. H. Colton's 1861 Map of the Southern States, which traces “mail stage roads” and “other roads,” shows no east-west road across the lowest tier of Arkansas' counties, of which Lafayette (later divided into Lafayette and Miller counties) is the westernmost. Colton's 1854 map of Louisiana, on the other hand, does show a road leading from Point Coupee to Lafayette Parish. Because of the road's importance and because of the crossroads it led to, it could well have been known in Point Coupee as “the road to Lafayette.” Beginning on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite New Orleans, it traveled west and north along the river to Point Coupee, where it was connected by ferry with St. Francisville, turned abruptly to the west and south, first to Opelousas and thence down to Lafayette Parish, sixty miles from Point Coupee, and to Vermillionville, the parish seat. Vermillionville (renamed Lafayette in 1884) provided a hub from which the traveler might go west to Texas, south to Houma, north and west to Shreveport, or north and east to the Vicksburg ferry.21

Point Coupee, then, seemed a likely Pikesville, but was there corroborative evidence? Speculating that Mark Twain might have used the government map that he had previously acquired for his Mississippi River trip as a present aid in developing the locale of Pikesville and the Phelps farm, I sent for a copy.22 Drawn to a scale of one inch to one mile and consisting of thirty-two panels, each twelve by twenty-two inches, Major Charles R. Suter's 1878 Map of the Reconnaissance of the Mississippi River shows considerable detail. From evidence in Huckleberry Finn we know that the Phelps farm is four miles below Pikesville on the river road, that on the side away from the river there are cotton fields and beyond them woods, that in the opposite direction there is a narrow strip of “bush,” then the river, and out in the river a “woody island.” Four miles below Point Coupee on the Suter map is the cleared land of the riverside Preston plantation, woods a mile to the southwest, and to the northeast, in midriver, a wooded island. In the river-mileage figures plentifully printed midstream on the Suter map there is further corroboration. Suter's river mileage from Greenville to Point Coupee, in comparison to our estimate of 350 miles of raft travel from Wilks-town to Pikesville, is 349 miles. From the confluence of the Ohio River to Point Coupee, Suter's mileage is 850. Add to that the slightly more than 300 miles from Hannibal to the mouth of the Ohio, and Aunt Polly's traipsing “all the way down the river, eleven hundred mile” (p. 358) makes sense.

The particular copy of the Suter map I studied provided an unexpected bonus: the original, which is part of the Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries, Oxford, Ohio, was once owned by Samuel Fulton Covington (1837-1889), an incorporator and later president of the Globe Insurance Company of Cincinnati. Covington's special interest in river-traffic safety prompted him to pinpoint on his map the locations of steamboat accidents. At Point Coupee he wrote, “GEN. PIKE, BURNED.”23 Further search on my part identified the General Pike as a 308-ton sidewheeler destroyed by fire at Point Coupee on 18 April 1849 with the loss of one life,24 facts that Mark Twain may well have been aware of and which may have given him the name for Pikesville or “Pikeville” as its first appearance in the holograph would have it.25


If, as is clear to me, Mark Twain located the Phelps farm in Louisiana and later said he placed it in Arkansas, the functional question is not, What is the location of the farm? but Why did he change his mind? The latter question, while relieving us of a pointless debate, leads us into a realm of memory, emotion, and imagination where we are privileged to make only modest and respectful inquiries, but the answers to which may improve our understanding of the creative and inhibitive forces at work on the Phelps farm chapters of Huckleberry Finn.

The question, Why did Mark Twain change his mind? is itself not quite right, for it perhaps implies deliberation, and my guess is that the impulse to revise the location of the Phelps farm was unconscious. Moreover, changing one's mind means dismissing one idea in favor of another, and evidence suggests that Mark Twain's impulse to keep the farm to the north accompanied and compromised his act of locating it in Louisiana. There is something evasive about the sociology of the Phelps plantation. Except that it has become sadder and seedier than the Quarles farm, it might as well not have left Missouri. The move south was obviously not made for the purpose of dramatizing the cruelties of cotton-plantation slavery. There is no intention, as in Pudd'nhead Wilson, of highlighting the field-labor and beatings that cotton-belt slaves suffered and which made Missouri slaves dread being sold down the river. We see very little of the Phelps slaves, we know nothing of their working conditions and are, indeed, evasively informed that it is Silas Phelps's “hands” (p. 276) who work his cottonfields.

The picture becomes complicated: in Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain moved his uncle's farm “eleven hundred mile” downriver from Missouri to southern Louisiana, declined to adapt it to its new environment, and in his autobiographical reminiscences diverted our attention from both those facts by claiming that he had moved the farm “all of six hundred miles” to Arkansas. It “was no trouble,” he continued; “it was not a very large farm—five hundred acres, perhaps,—but I could have done it if it had been twice as large. And as for the morality of it, I cared nothing for that; I would move a state if the exigencies of literature required it.”26 The jokey uneasiness that colors this statement (certain exigencies had in fact required him to move a state) is, I believe, a sign of the anxiety he felt when in memory he approached his uncle's farm. “I knowed for certain I wished I was dead,” Huck declared when, nearing the apparently deserted Phelps farmhouse, he heard “the dim hum of a spinning wheel wailing along up and sinking along down again” (p. 277); and some twenty years later his author wrote that the “rising and falling wail” of the spinning wheel “heard from a distance” outside his uncle's farmhouse “was the mournfulest of all sounds to me and made me homesick and low-spirited and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead.”27 In his pioneering analysis of these passages Henry Nash Smith concluded that Huck's “depression is caused by a sense of guilt whose sources were buried in the writer's childhood” and that it surfaced in the author when he “was obliged to admit finally to himself that Huck's and Jim's journey down the river could not be imagined as leading to freedom for either of them.”28

In total agreement with that analysis, I would like to take a further step: we can better understand not only that sense of guilt but Mark Twain's evasions within and concerning the last twelve chapters of Huckleberry Finn if we focus on a latent conflict in Twain's life of thought and feeling and on the crisis that resulted when the conflict surfaced. The conflict was his being indoctrinated in Yankee post-abolitionism after having been nurtured in a slaveholding community, and the crisis occurred when, after an absence of twenty-one years, he visited the post-Reconstruction South in 1882, traveling along the Mississippi where, a year or so later, he would guide Huck and Jim's raft.


Until he was in his late twenties, Mark Twain's attitude toward race was, by his own admission, ruled by “ignorance, intolerance … opaque perception … and a pathetic unconsciousness of it all.”29 Raised by parents who took slavery—and the inferiority of the enslaved—for granted, his own acceptance of slavery was a matter of course. His father's cuffing “our harmless slave boy, Lewis, for trifling little blunders and awkwardnesses” seemed, he said, “right and natural to me in those days, I being born to it,” nor did he, half a century later, blame his father: John Marshall Clemens was “a refined and kindly gentleman” who “had passed his life among slaves from his cradle up, and his cuffings proceeded from the custom of the time, not from nature.”30 His mother, though “kind-hearted and compassionate,” was convinced “that slavery was right, righteous, sacred … and a condition which the slave himself ought to be daily and nightly thankful for,”31 and on one occasion she stood by approvingly while her husband flogged Jenny, her saucy house slave.32 Along with matter-of-course acceptance of slavery young Sam participated in what he later defined as “the slaveholder's blunted feeling” resulting from his “inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.”33 At seventeen he wrote his mother from New York City, “I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people”; and children of various colors who impeded his progress on the sidewalks were “human vermin.”34 It was for his aristocratic demeanor that cub-pilot Clemens once earned pilot Brown's wrath: “My, what a fine bird we are! … Our father was a gentleman—owned slaves.”35

It was Mark Twain's working as journalist in San Francisco in 1864, where he expressed sympathy for exploited Chinese and poked fun at Copperheads, that seems to have begun his transformation, and his relocation to New York City early in 1867 and his continuing residences in Hartford and Elmira that completed it. The Northeastern culture that he moved into, economically invigorated and morally endorsed by the recent Union victory, was an ineluctable presence he was not inclined to resist. He was, moreover, drawn into association with members of what might be called the liberal wing of Northeastern post-abolitionism. There was, to begin with, Jervis Langdon, who had been a link in the underground railroad and had helped establish Elmira's Park Congregational Church where abolitionism could be preached. There was the Reverend Joseph Twichell, recently a chaplain in the Union Army, who would officiate at the Clemens-Langdon wedding. In the early seventies there would be William Dean Howells, whose father was an abolitionist newspaperman and who was himself the author of Abraham Lincoln's campaign biography; and by this same time Twain had become (more meaningfully, perhaps, in terms of symbol than of influence) Harriet Beecher Stowe's next-door neighbor. Moreover, a recent study has shown beyond question that the modest Olivia Langdon herself shared in her family's political liberalism and was early influenced by such abolitionists and suffragists as Julia Beecher, Anna Dickinson, and Isabella Beecher Hooker.36

Mark Twain's willingness to adapt to a liberal Yankee point of view is suggested in his early association with the New York Tribune, which campaigned for the moral reconstruction of the South vis-à-vis racial attitudes: “The baffled Servitors of Slavery still cling to the wreck of their fallen Dagon and hope to set it again on its pedestal [one editorial began in 1867]. If they can no longer buy and sell men, women and children, they can still degrade and oppress the image of God.”37 And early in 1868, as another example, the Tribune ran “Nasby on the Results of the Emancipation,” a wrenching story of Elder Gavitt, former slave who returned to his native Kentucky after serving with the Union forces, bought a farm with his soldier's pay, and was hounded to death by a gang of white neighbors who in the process burned his buildings, killed his stock, and raped his wife.38 Mark Twain “enrolled [his] name on the regular Tribune staff”39 in November 1867, and amid the humorous items he contributed during the next year his serious “The Treaty with China” of 4 August indicates that a sea-change in his racial attitudes was well under way. He explained that he was ready to endorse citizenship for Chinese-Americans because although until recently the “idea of making negroes citizens of the United States was startling and disagreeable to me … I have become reconciled to it, and the ice being broken and the principle established, I am ready now for all comers.”40 The process of his being “desouthernized,” as Howells put it,41 reached a climax in the fall of 1879 when, attending the Grand Re-Union of General Grant's Army of the Tennessee, he responded ecstatically to Robert Ingersoll's proclaiming that Grant's soldiers had “fought that a mother might own her child,” saw Ingersoll as “the most beautiful creature that ever lived,” and thrilled to the voices of a thousand veterans exultantly singing “While We Were Marching through Georgia.”42 Thus he wrote to Howells, and the absence of Howells' response suggests that the apparent thoroughness of Clemens' conversion, threatening to make him more Catholic than the pope, was something of an embarrassment.


By the time he was forty Mark Twain had undergone successive indoctrinations in attitudes so antagonistic and so deeply felt as to have torn a nation asunder. Until 1882 (when he would be forty-six) he managed, at a deep level, an ongoing assessment of the two positions that led him, by way of resolving them, to see slavery as part of a larger problem: when people lord it over others or otherwise separate themselves on the basis of rank, race, law, or custom, they lose sympathy. His answer to the problem was simply that dehumanizing barriers could be breached by sympathetic understanding.

When we search the record of Mark Twain's thought and feeling for stepping-stones to this philosophy, three experiences offer themselves. First, within both his Southern and Northern indoctrinations there were anomalies that discouraged the stereotyped attitudes of which each side accused the other. Although as a boy he took slavery for granted, the “unresented cuffings” that Lewis received from John Clemens made him feel “sorry for the victim,”43 and the dozen men and women he saw chained together for shipment to the slave market had “the saddest faces I have ever seen.”44 Such sympathetic moments were apparently unshared. There was also the circumstance (though not unique in the antebellum South) of young Sam Clemens' receiving during his formative years the warmest affection and best counsel from a slave rather than from his parents. The emotional gulf between child and parent in the non-kissing Clemens family is everywhere reflected in Tom Sawyer and is epitomized where Aunt Polly—patterned after Jane Clemens45—finds herself unable to apologize for mistakenly punishing Tom, and Tom's consequent fantasy wherein “He pictured himself lying sick unto death and his aunt bending over him beseeching one little forgiving word.”46 For affection and advice young Sam turned to a middle-aged slave on his uncle's farm, Uncle Dan'l, “whose sympathies were wide and warm,” who became Huck's Jim, and who “spiritually” provided Twain with “his welcome company” for the rest of his life.47

Nor was his Northern experience all of a piece, especially as he observed the status there of African Americans, like Quarry Farms servants Mary Ann Cord and John T. Lewis, after a war fought to free them. Limited almost entirely to menial occupations, many of them found their political equality offset by social and economic inferiority. Moreover, while he had been rehearsing Northern views regarding slavery and the War, the writers in his circle were not only abandoning the subject but also declining to engage themselves with consequent events. In the post-war writing of Howells, Stowe, and Charles Dudley Warner, for example, neglect of the continuing problems of race and rights was nearly perfect. The War had been won; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were in place; Reconstruction was doing or had done its work. A grievous chapter in history was finished and the matter put to rest. Of current writers in New England only Mark Twain, in Huckleberry Finn, significantly explored the subject of slavery, and since the subject was passé the book was offered and accepted as a boy's adventure story.

Mark Twain's second experience, nested within the first, was the way his own life had been transformed through the gift of sympathetic understanding. His Western exile during the war he had run away from—his being “chained to this accursed homeless desert”—had been a period of feverish but futile speculation, of patching together an unreliable income from journalism, of making more enemies than friends and consequently of trying to learn the trick of “smothering my feelings & choking them down,” of yearning to marry but having to settle for sex with servant girls, of drinking bouts and an episode of suicidal depression, and, in sum, of five years of “drifting about the outskirts of the world, battling for bread.”48 By the time he began courting Olivia Langdon in 1868 he had passed his nadir and was beginning to build a reputation in the East as journalist and platform entertainer, but he was not qualified to expect the spectacularly rising career of his next few years wherein he would marry Olivia, move into the finest house in Hartford, and develop literary powers which, while broadly appealing, would come to be appreciated by discriminating readers. He understood that his great good fortune was due in large part to the abundant love of Olivia, the largesse of Jervis Langdon, and the generous personal and professional friendship of William Dean Howells, and in the trenchant reminiscence of old age—expressed, for example, in the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts—he celebrated those crucial generosities.

Such experiences of sympathetic understanding as Mark Twain underwent by 1876 are wholly compatible with the luminous moment in Huckleberry Finn where Huck worked himself up to humble himself to Jim and “warn't ever sorry for it afterwards” (p. 105), but it took a third experience to start Twain on a program of showing how such understanding could effect social and political reform. That experience was his reading Hippolyte Taine's The Ancient Regime in 1876 or 1877.49 Taine's book was, as I have attempted to show elsewhere, monumentally influential in Twain's subsequent thinking,50 and Taine's particular idea of the “sympathetic imagination” offered Twain as novel writer a double-barreled philosophy: it is the “sympathetic imagination by which a writer enters into the mind of another, and reproduces in himself a system of habits and feelings opposed to his own”; and in social terms it is a people's lack of sympathetic imagination which can lead to intolerable injustice. The French Revolution came about because among the privileged class of the ancien régime the “sympathetic imagination did not exist: people were incapable of going out of themselves, of betaking themselves to distant points of view.”51 Mark Twain's Tainean vision of the social value of the sympathetic imagination informed two works that he began in the fall of 1877. In the unfinished “Simon Wheeler, Detective,” a feud is ended when “the hidden great deeps” of Judge Griswold's obdurate nature are “touched at last”; and the Prince and the Pauper is a thorough and thoroughly self-conscious demonstration of Edward's being afforded “a realizing sense of the exceeding severity of the laws of that day” through suffering and sympathetically witnessing their application—“all of which is to account for certain mildnesses” that distinguished his reign.52


The idea of the sympathetic imagination as a socially constructive force is not to be found in Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain's experimental faith in that idea was devastated by what he saw and felt on his river trip the year before he returned to the writing of the last two-thirds of the novel. On re-entering the South after an absence of twenty-one years, he found that in having attended to the business of becoming northernized he had quite lost touch with his homeland. He returned to the South as an “inexperienced stranger,”53 and in the process of reacquainting himself suffered an unmanageable mixture of sympathy and indignation. Seeing the “signs and scars … of Vicksburg's tremendous war experiences” (p. 277) and listening to accounts of the War, which were still “the great chief topic of conversation” among Southerners, led him to understand “what a vast and comprehensive calamity” was visited upon the South by the Yankee “invasion” (pp. 336, 337). He would not again express a Northern chauvinism; indeed, having balanced the bitterness of defeat against the joy of victory, he seems to have looked back on the Civil War as making no more sense than Buck Grangerford's explanation of feuding. His indignation with aspects of Southern culture is clearly reflected in the Grangerfords' homicidal code of honor and the sadism of Bricksville's loafers and perhaps less clearly but no less pungently in his fulminations on Walter Scottism in Life on the Mississippi. Southern fascination with the novels of Walter Scott, he insisted, had caused the South to slip backward toward a medieval “sham civilization.” Hence he censured the South for its unwholesome preoccupation with a past literature, its “sham-castle” architecture, its industrial backwardness, and its “reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them” (p. 347).

He was careful, however, to limit the range of his diatribe. Although he muttered about “decayed and swinish forms of religion” and “decayed and degraded systems of government,” he sidestepped the problems of slavery and race. In so doing, he declined to follow the lead of George Washington Cable, New Orleans novelist and, in Twain's words, “masterly delineator of [the South's] interior life and its history” (p. 329), who had been Twain's guide in his renewed understanding of the South and whose social views Twain had otherwise echoed. Cable, a native Southerner and Confederate Army veteran, had become an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and wrote that under slavery “race was rank” and remained so after emancipation.54 On this point Twain appeared actively to debate Cable: “Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter” (p. 348). It can be argued that Mark Twain was tactfully avoiding a delicate subject, and it is true that Cable paid for his plain speaking by finding it prudent to move with his family to Massachusetts in 1885 after having become “the most hated man in the city” of New Orleans.55 On the other hand, Twain's Walter Scottism did not need the fillip of race and slavery to be sufficiently irritating to many Southerners. Something deeper is the matter, and we begin to explore it by suggesting that Twain's Walter Scottism, his moveable farm, and the evasion all result from a subjective conflict and a historical impasse which he could not master.

If we return now to the reminiscent Twain who, on approaching his uncle's farmhouse, heard the mournful wail of the spinning wheel, we may realize that he stood, so to speak, between two men whom he had loved and respected and whose memories he cherished. One was his uncle—“I have not come across a better man than he was”—who kept slaves. The other was Uncle Dan'l, who lived in the nearby slave cabin. Twain also stood between two eras—the rich and innocent time when his uncle's farm was “a heavenly place for a boy,” and the time of his mature recognition of slavery as a “bald, grotesque and unwarrantable usurpation.”56

As man of principle Cable was careless of past loyalties and current controversy. As man of feeling (we speak in relative terms) Mark Twain could not forget his affection for and loyalty to the generation that raised him, albeit slaveholders, nor could he as writer afford to close the lid on his treasure chest of boyhood memories—a futile reluctance, since the trip South had complicated them beyond their former use. He had not the abolitionist facility for calling good people who kept slaves wicked because slavery was wicked; in Huckleberry Finn the slaveholding Wilks girls are the gentlest and most sympathetic of creatures, and Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally are “as kind as they could be” to the captive Jim. The paradox of benevolence and slavery plagued him until, in A Connecticut Yankee, he grotesquely magnified it to achieve a limited resolution. A coffle of slaves, manacled, and chained together, were forced to march until one of them, a young wife carrying a child, dropped with fatigue. Stripped, she was beaten until her back was flayed. Freemen looking on—“kind hearted people”—commented “on the expert way in which the whip was handled. They were too much hardened by life-long every day familiarity with slavery to notice that there was anything else in the exhibition that invited comment.” It was in the Boss's power not only to stop the beating but to abolish slavery, but he did neither; England would not be ready for abolition until people's hearts were changed: “I would try to fix it so that when I became [slavery's] executioner it should be by command of the nation.”57

Applied to Mark Twain's own moment in history, the Boss's gradualism was a wistful, might-have-been scenario. While visiting with Cable during his nine-day river-trip stay in New Orleans, Twain surely listened to such ideas as Cable would soon deliver in his commencement address at the University of Mississippi: that post-Reconstruction Southerners were bent on preserving “the old South with merely the substitution of a negro tenantry for negro slaves” and that they persisted in “the stupid wickedness of exalting and abusing our fellow humans class by class and race by race instead of man by man.”58 Undoubtedly Twain was moved by the courage of this man of “moral honesty, limpid innocence, and utterly blemishless piety,”59 but he shrank from joining Cable in his frontal attack. Having lived within Southern attitudes, he knew that he would not be understood any better than Jim's stone-deaf daughter understood her father's command. Nor was he likely to fare better with Northern readers. Northerners were tired of the race question. They were ready to acquiesce in “the South's demand that the whole problem be left to the disposition of the dominant Southern white people,” ready to accept a “final settlement” based on their own “complacency, … the propaganda of reconciliation, and the resigned compliance of the Negro.”60

Consequently, he evaded and vacillated in the latter part of Huckleberry Finn. After locating the Phelps farm in the Deep South, he declined to make the setting signify, and later moved it to Arkansas. After Huck gloriously decided to go to hell for Jim, he heard the sound of the spinning wheel, wished he was dead, and let Tom Sawyer take over. But in spite of that evasion he signaled his alliance with Cable, perhaps without intention, in the phantom allegory that hovers above the last chapters. Guarded by the “Notice” which warns the reader, on pain of death, against taking the novel seriously, guarded doubly by the apparent descent of those last chapters to the level of trivial entertainment, that allegory has only recently been perceived. It says that Tom Sawyer is the Walter Scottist, post-Reconstruction Southerner who, on the grounds of “principle” and tradition, is determined to continue the subjugation of the freed slave; Huck is the once-concerned liberal whose protests dwindle and die out, and Jim is the necessarily compliant victim.61


  1. The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper, 1959), pp. 3-4.

  2. Smith, ed., Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), p. vi.

  3. “The Southward Currents Under Huck's Raft,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 46 (1959), 235.

  4. Marx, ed., Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. xli, 324n.

  5. “The Location of the Phelps Farm in ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” South Atlantic Bulletin, 34 (May 1969), 7.

  6. “More on the Geography of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” South Atlantic Bulletin, 38 (Nov. 1973), 82-86.

  7. “Geography and Structure in Huckleberry Finn,Studies in the Novel, 12 (1980), 192-209.

  8. Blair and Fischer, eds., Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 367, 417-18, Vol. VIII of the Works of Mark Twain. Pertinent maps and notes in the 1985 and 1988 editions are identical. Further references to this work appear in the text.

  9. “The Delicate Art of Geography: The Whereabouts of the Phelps Plantation in Huckleberry Finn,English Language Notes, 104 (1989), 63-66.

  10. Autobiography, p. 4.

  11. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer Abroad; Tom Sawyer, Detective, ed. John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 357, Vol. IV of the Works of Mark Twain.

  12. Mark Twain and Hannibal, Huck & Tom, ed. Walter Blair (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 92. Blair offers the 1884 date of composition as “a plausible guess”; it could be as late as 1889 (pp. 372-74).

  13. Ensor, p. 7.

  14. Wells, p. 85.

  15. Hoag notes the absence of such a road, p. 65.

  16. Robert F. Fries, Empire in Pine: The Story of Lumbering in Wisconsin, 1830-1900 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1951), pp. 66-67.

  17. Fries, pp. 67-69.

  18. Miller, pp. 195, 202.

  19. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: A Facsimile of the Manuscript (Detroit: Gale, 1983), II, 345.

  20. Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper, 1907-18), pp. 274, 308, Vol. IX of Author's National Edition: The Writings of Mark Twain.

  21. I am indebted to Jane Olsen in the Library's Special Collections at California State University, Fullerton, for searching out the maps.

  22. Edgar Marquess Branch and Robert Hirst, The Grangerford-Shepherdson Feud by Mark Twain (Berkeley: Friends of the Bancroft Library, 1985), pp. 37-38.

  23. I am indebted to Frances D. McClure, Assistant to the Curator of the Walter Havighurst Special Collections, for sending me a copy of the map and for her minibiography of Covington.

  24. C. Bradford Mitchell, Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790-1868 (Staten Island: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1975), pp. 81, 263.

  25. Facsimile, II, 349.

  26. Autobiography, p. 4.

  27. Autobiography, p. 7.

  28. Mark Twain: the Development of a Writer (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 132.

  29. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper, 1917), I, 289.

  30. Following the Equator (New York: Harper, 1907-18), pp. 28-29, Vol. VI of Author's National Edition: The Writings of Mark Twain.

  31. Autobiography, p. 30.

  32. Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, 3 vols. (New York: Harper, 1912), I, 17.

  33. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, ed. Bernard L. Stein and Henry Nash Smith (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 285.

  34. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Edgar Branch, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth B. Sanderson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), I, 4, 10.

  35. Life on the Mississippi, p. 161.

  36. Laura Skandera, “Little Mothers: Mark Twain and Literary Women,” Diss. Univ. of Southern California 1989, pp. 108-23.

  37. “Freemen of New York,” New York Daily Tribune, 4 Nov. 1867, p. 4.

  38. New York Daily Tribune, 31 Jan. 1868, pp. 2-3.

  39. Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975), I, 455.

  40. Philip S. Foner, Mark Twain: Social Critic (New York: International Publishers, 1958), p. 192.

  41. To William Dean Howells, Clemens “was the most de-southernized Southerner I ever knew. No man more perfectly abhorred slavery.” My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms, ed. Mary Austin Baldwin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1967), p. 30.

  42. Mark Twain-Howells Letters, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), I, 279-80.

  43. Following the Equator, p. 28.

  44. Autobiography, p. 30.

  45. Autobiography, p. 7.

  46. Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer Abroad; Tom Sawyer, Detective, p. 54.

  47. Autobiography, p. 6.

  48. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Branch et al., I, 326, 357, 359, 315, 145, 304, 324, 325, 342, and passim.

  49. Alan Gribben, Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), II, 683.

  50. Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 68-83.

  51. The Ancient Regime, trans. John Durand (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), pp. 199, 212.

  52. Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques, ed. Franklin R. Rogers (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 387, 436-37; Mark Twain-Howells Letters, I, 291-92.

  53. Life on the Mississippi, p. 337.

  54. Arlin Turner, “George W. Cable's Revolt Against Literary Sectionalism,” Tulane Studies in English, 5 (1955), 14.

  55. Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959), p. 234.

  56. Autobiography, pp. 3, 4, 30.

  57. A Connecticut Yankee, pp. 245-46.

  58. “Cable's Revolt Against Literary Sectionalism,” p. 22.

  59. Mark Twain-Howells Letters, I, 419.

  60. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 6-8.

  61. For emerging awareness of the evasion's encoded message see Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 95-106; Neil Schmitz, “Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and the Reconstruction,” American Studies, 12 (Spring 1971), 59-67; Richard Gollin and Rita Gollin, “Huckleberry Finn and the Time of the Evasion,” Modern Language Studies, 9 (Spring 1979), 5-15; Charles H. Nilon, “The Ending of Huckleberry Finn: Freeing the Free Negro,” Mark Twain Journal, 22 (Fall 1984), 21-27; Cummings, Mark Twain and Science, pp. 151-56.

James Hirsh (essay date fall 1992)

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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 inconsistent. Those comments included facetious acknowledgements, frank admissions, exculpations, and denials. At one extreme, Clemens suggested that his works owed nothing to other writers: “as the most valuable capital or culture or education usable in the building of novels is personal experience I ought to be well equipped for that trade. I surely have the equipment, … all of it real, none of it artificial, for I don't know anything about books.”2 This assertion of his literary originality contrasts sharply with his comment in an 1875 letter to William Dean Howells: “I would not wonder if I am the worst literary thief in the world, without knowing it.”3 In a marginal note in his copy of a book by Henry H. Breen, Clemens specifically cited Shakespeare to justify the use of materials from other writers: “Shakespeare took other people's quartz and extracted the gold from it—it was a nearly valueless commodity before.”4 The obvious catch in this formulation is that a later writer could not mine Shakespeare's works in the same way that Shakespeare mined the works of lesser writers—one would only tarnish what was already gold.

Such paeans to the genius of Shakespeare were common in nineteenth-century America. “If Americans lost much by their distance from [Shakespeare's England], they compensated by the enthusiasm of their idolatry,” noted Robert Falk, who cited Walt Whitman's remark, “If I had not stood before [Shakespeare's] poems with uncover'd head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written Leaves of Grass.5 James Fenimore Cooper paid homage by using “1,089 quotations from Shakespeare as mottoes for entire books or as chapter headings.”6 The Familiar Quotations compiled by the American John Bartlett contained more than twice as many passages from Shakespeare as from the entire Bible.7 Shakespeare was ubiquitous in popular culture of the time. “Performances of Shakespeare were … a common occurrence along the Mississippi in the mid-nineteenth century.”8 Like Clemens himself, “famous Shakespearean actors came to California, to cash in on the free-flowing gold” in the 1860s9—this conjunction perhaps inspired the particular metaphor Clemens employed in his expression of bardolatry quoted above.

When the Paige typesetter was temporarily in operation, Clemens recorded in his notebook that at precisely 4:45 p.m. on January 7, 1889, he himself had typed “William Shakspeare [sic]” as the “first proper name ever set by the new keyboard.”10 In an article “About Play-Acting” (1898), Clemens complained that New York lacked a theater devoted to “the most effective of all the … disseminators of high literary taste and lofty emotion—the tragic stage.” And he asked, “Nowadays, when a mood comes which only Shakespeare can set to music, what must we do?” In the same essay, he implicitly accepted a lower status for his own most successful literary mode: “Comedy keeps the heart sweet; but we all know that there is wholesome refreshment for both mind and heart in an occasional climb among the pomps of the intellectual snow-summits built by Shakespeare.”11

The bardolatry to which Clemens contributed could become oppressive and a source of anxious envy for ambitious writers. According to Falk, Whitman “considered himself Shakespeare's rival in the New World and was even jealous of his fame,”12 a fame which Whitman himself promoted with worshipful remarks. Clemens's attitude to Shakespeare was similarly ambivalent, as ambivalent as his comments on literary indebtedness. Alongside his admiration for Shakespeare and arising from it was an intense, anxious, sometimes bitter rivalry, often masked by facetiousness.

In an 1876 sketch entitled “1601,” Clemens presented a fictional conversation among Queen Elizabeth, “Shaxpur,” and others, as reported by the Queen's cupbearer, who also comments on the proceedings. At one point, Shaxpur pompously denies that he farted, and when he reads aloud from his works, the cupbearer is unimpressed:

Master Shaxpur did rede a part of his King Henry IV, ye which, it seemeth unto me, is not of the value of an arseful of ashes, yet they praised it bravely, one and all.

Ye same did rede a portion of his “Venus and Adonis” to their prodigious admiration, whereas I, being sleepy and fatigued withal, did deme it but paltrie stuff.13

While covertly ridiculing the supposedly obtuse narrator, the passage overtly ridicules Shakespeare.

When the dramatist John Lyly becomes the topic of conversation, the cupbearer reports that “Shaxpur did fidget to discharge some venom of sarcasm.” The cupbearer comments that some people “having a specialtie, and admiring it in themselves, be jealous when a neighbor doth essaye it, nor can abide it in them long.”14 This observation anticipates Harold Bloom's account of literary anxiety: “The strong poet's love of his poetry … must exclude the reality of all other poetry.”15 The cupbearer himself repeatedly discharges his own venom of sarcasm against Shakespeare, and the cupbearer's resentment, incongruously, seems at least partly due to the favorable response of others to Shakespeare's works (“yet they praised it bravely one and all,” “to their prodigious admiration”). The cupbearer seems to have projected his own anxiety in regard to Shakespeare onto Shakespeare in the form of Shakespeare's anxiety in regard to Lyly. Why should the cupbearer, fictional author of only this brief diary entry, resent the favorable reception of Shakespeare's works? It is difficult not to see both depictions of literary anxiety in this sketch as projections of Clemens's own anxiety. As Walter Jackson Bate has pointed out, evidence for literary anxiety will usually be, as in this instance, implicit rather than explicit “because of the natural pride and embarrassed silence of the writer himself”: “when his anxiety has to do with the all-important matter of his craft, and his achievement or fear of impotence there, he naturally prefers to wrestle with it privately or to express it only indirectly … We begin to sense its importance only when we look between the lines.”16

Parodies of Shakespearean works were common in the nineteenth century, and Clemens produced several. One impulse behind such parodies was presumably a desire to deflate the oppressive bardolatry of the period. But in the case of Clemens, “if we look between the lines,” traces of literary rivalry also become apparent. “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized’” (1864) is an account of the assassination of Caesar as it might have been reported in a contemporary American newspaper. The fictional narrator is an intensely competitive writer. He imagines, if he were in ancient Rome, that he would get an exclusive interview with the dying Caesar “And be envied by the morning paper hounds!”17 The sketch is actually in competition, however, not with other newspaper accounts but with Shakespeare's account of the event. If the narrator had interviewed the dying Caesar, he would also have gotten the scoop on Shakespeare, who “saw the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray.”18 The sketch consists in large part of a paraphrase of 3.1.1-73 of Julius Caesar. Clemens translated Shakespeare's dramatic dialogue into narrative prose:

I could be well mov'd, if I were as you; …
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.

(3.1.58, 60-62)19

[Caesar] said he could not be moved; that he was as fixed as the North Star, and proceeded to speak in the most complimentary terms of the firmness of that star, and its steady character.20

The sketch is not an event from Roman history localized, but a passage from Shakespeare localized.

In an account of his trip to Hawaii in 1866, Clemens included a sketch entitled “I Endeavor to Entertain the Seasick Man.” Clemens's persona Mark Twain reports that he “had been writing a poem—or rather, been paraphrasing a passage from Shakespeare,” and he decides to read this composition, “Polonius' Advice to His Son—Paraphrased from Hamlet,” to his afflicted fellow passenger.21 The composition does get a rise out of the seasick man: “As I finished, Brown's stomach cast up its contents.”22 Although the joke is supposedly at Twain's expense, a sketch in which a Shakespearean monologue, even in paraphrase, induces a listener to vomit, it also pokes fun at Shakespeare.

The sketch provides an early example of a key feature of many of Clemens's works: beneath an explicit Shakespearean borrowing occurs an implicit but no less important form of Shakespearean influence. In this case Clemens's persona not only paraphrases Polonius but resembles Polonius. His verbose endorsement of brevity recalls Polonius's famous remarks at 2.2.86-104. Twain's fatuous self-congratulation for his imitation of Polonius recalls Polonius's foolish pride in his performance as Julius Caesar in his university days.

In 1881 Clemens worked on a burlesque version of Hamlet.23 He attempted to insert into the play a contemporary book salesman, Basil Stockmar, without actually changing any of Shakespeare's dialogue. Again, beneath the explicit borrowing occurs a no less important form of influence. The character Clemens inserted into Shakespeare's play is based on a Shakespeare character: Clemens's version of Hamlet could be entitled Autolycus in Denmark.24 Stockmar's opening soliloquy is indebted to the soliloquy by Autolycus that opens 4.3 of The Winter's Tale, as well as to Autolycus's monologues in 4.4. Just as Autolycus describes techniques he uses to induce the peasants of Bohemia to buy his wares, Stockmar describes techniques he plans to use on the “clod-hoppers” of Denmark.25 Like Autolycus, Stockmar meddles in the affairs of others, and when he expresses his satisfaction with his intervention, he paraphrases Autolycus:

I am courted now with … a means to do the Prince my master good … I will bring these two moles, these blind ones, aboard.


Meantime my little benevolent game glides along first-rate … I've secured a lower berth amidships for Laertes and he'll sail today.26

Stockmar's assertions of off-stage chumminess with the royal family parallel Autolycus's assertions that he is an influential courtier (4.4.729-99), and Stockmar's satisfaction with the success of his conundrum at Claudius's drinking party parallels Autolycus's satisfaction with the success of his thievery at the sheep-shearing festival (4.4.595-618).27

Another notable feature of the burlesque is that Stockmar, like the cupbearer in “1601,” displays anxieties that seem to reflect the author's anxieties. Stockmar wonders whether endorsements from the royal family of Denmark will help him unload his inferior books, just as Clemens explicitly worried whether his revision of Shakespeare's play about the Danish royal family would please readers: “the sacrilegious scribbler who ventured to put words into Shakespeare's mouth would probably be hanged.”28 Like his creation Stockmar, Clemens borrowed from Autolycus to express his anxiety. After delivering a soliloquy in which he celebrates his thievery, Autolycus notices other characters in the vicinity and, in an anxious aside, fears that, if they have overheard his soliloquy, he will be hanged (4.4.626-27). Clemens repeatedly took up this project, repeatedly abandoned it, and left it incomplete. It does not seem coincidental that, within the burlesque itself, Stockmar is repeatedly frightened off the stage by the Ghost of Hamlet's father; at one point he returns to the stage and boldly declares, “I ain't afraid of any ghost,” but the Ghost re-appears, whereupon Stockmar “Kneels, quaking, before Ghost, and holds out his book.”29

At another point, Stockmar practices his dishonest sales pitch: “the book which I have the honor to offer … is a work which has been commended by the highest authorities as an achievement of transcendent and hitherto unparalleled merit.”30 He acknowledges to himself that no book in his stock actually deserves such fulsome praise, but such praise was commonly lavished on Hamlet, the work into which Stockmar has intruded, and an author concurrently at work on Huckleberry Finn might hope that that book would eventually elicit similar praise.

The overt target of these burlesques is the coarseness and obtuseness of Americans compared with the eloquence and profundity of Shakespeare. But the comparison cuts two ways. Next to the simplicity and directness of the Americans, Shakespeare is made to seem grandiloquent and unintelligible. Stockmar explicitly complains about the way people in the palace speak, that is, about the way characters in Hamlet speak: “they … talk the grandest kind of book-talk … It's the most unnatural stuff! why, it ain't human talk; nobody that ever lived, ever talked the way they do. Even the flunkies can't say the simplest thing the way a human being would say it … Lord, I get mighty tired of this everlasting speechifying.”31 The main target of this passage is Shakespeare not Stockmar. Like Duchamp's depiction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache, Twain's burlesque is iconoclastic.

A writer might also use literary travesties as practice for more serious adaptations of an earlier writer's work. And Clemens did attempt to build “snow-summits” of his own with the help of Shakespeare. For example, as Robert L. Gale has pointed out, there are numerous resemblances between The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and King Lear. Gale argued, however, that these resemblances are “not sufficiently in the open to have been the result of any sustained intention on Twain's part.”32 But Clemens used a Shakespearean quotation, from The Merchant of Venice, as an epigraph to the novel, and Gale himself pointed out a paraphrase of a famous line in Henry IV, Part 2 at a key moment of the novel: when Tom Canty, in his new princely surroundings, repudiates his own mother by saying, “I do not know you, woman” (Ch. 31), he echoes the repudiation of Falstaff by the newly crowned Henry—“I know thee not, old man” (5.5.47).33 Even if Clemens's adaptation of Shakespearean materials is not “in the open,” openness is not a necessary hallmark of “sustained intention.” An author's intention in regard to a reader's awareness of the author's source materials can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum. At one extreme, an author may explicitly identify a source, and at the other extreme a plagiarist may hope his source is never recognized. In between is a range of implicit reference, from easily recognized allusions to deeply buried ones. An author might, for example, intentionally obscure a source because of his or her anxiety about literary indebtedness or in order to allow a parallel with the source to work subliminally on a reader.

The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, on which Clemens worked intermittently between 1897 and 1908, include significant adaptations of specific Shakespearean situations and dialogue. Several critics have cited parallels between these manuscripts and The Tempest. Baetzhold, for example, pointed out that the second paragraphs of both “The Chronicle of Young Satan” and “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger” paraphrase Prospero's “insubstantial pageant” speech (4.1.146-63).34 In Chapter 2 of “The Chronicle” Satan creates for the amusement of the children a group of miniature people and then abruptly destroys his creatures. William M. Gibson noted that this episode illustrates Gloucester's view of the human condition: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, / They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, 4.1.36-37).35 Indeed, Gibson might have pointed out a specific verbal echo: Satan kills his creatures “just as if they had been flies.”36 In a later passage in the same chapter of “The Chronicle,” Satan picks up a wood-louse and philosophizes: “What is the difference between Homer and this? between Caesar and this? … Man is made of dirt … He comes today and is gone to-morrow, he begins as dirt and departs as a stench.”37 These remarks paraphrase Hamlet's comments in the graveyard on Yorick, Alexander, and Caesar (5.1.195-216). In an earlier draft, this source would have been more readily recognized by a reader: instead of “Homer,” Clemens originally wrote “Shakspeare.”38

John S. Tuckey pointed out that when Clemens wrote in a 1905 letter to his daughter Clara that he had broken his bow and burned his arrows, “His expression recalls Prospero's—and supposedly Shakespeare's—valedictory speech in The Tempest” (5.1.54-57).39 For Clemens, Shakespeare was not merely a figure to idolize or to parody but someone to emulate.

Clemens's most impassioned discussion of literary influence and his most overt comparison of himself and Shakespeare both occur in a single passage in What is Man? Clemens produced preliminary studies for this work around 1880 but did not publish it until 1906.40 It consists of a dialogue between a young man and an old man (each of whom seems to be an alter ego of Clemens himself). The following passage presents striking evidence not merely of literary anxiety but of literary anxiety specifically in regard to Shakespeare:

O. M.
A man's brain is so constructed that it can originate nothing whatever. It can only use material obtained outside. It is merely a machine.
Y. M.
… but certainly Shakspeare's creations—
O. M.
No, you mean Shakspeare's imitations. Shakspeare created nothing … He was a machine, and machines do not create … He was not a sewing-machine, like you and me, he was a Gobelin loom. The threads and the colors came into him from the outside; outside influences … framed the patterns in his mind … and it automatically turned out that pictured and gorgeous fabric which still compels the astonishment of the world. If Shakspeare had been born and bred on a barren and unvisited rock in the ocean his mighty intellect would have had … no outside influences … and so, Shakspeare would have produced nothing … In England he rose to the highest limit attainable through the outside helps afforded by that land's ideals, influences and training. You and I are but sewing-machines. We must turn out what we can; we must do our endeavor, and care nothing at all when the unthinking reproach us for not turning out Gobelins.(41)

(Clemens's emphases)

Who reproached Clemens for not producing works as great as Shakespeare's? The answer seems to be Clemens himself, who here sought relief both from the anxiety of influence (even Shakespeare depended on outside influences) and from the responsibility for the relative inferiority of his work (if Shakespeare had been raised on a barren island, he would have produced nothing—and, presumably, if he had been raised in Missouri, he would have produced nothing better than what Clemens had managed to produce). Despite the supposedly leveling fatalism that reduces all men to machines, however, Clemens still could not erase his sense of inferiority to Shakespeare, a Gobelin loom in comparison to himself, a mere sewing-machine. Adding to the poignancy of Clemens's machine imagery is the reminder of his disastrous investment in the Paige typesetting machine.

It is appropriate that Shakespeare figures so prominently in Clemens's most anxious debate with himself about literary influence because, as the examples that have already been noted and those that will be noted later in this essay suggest, Clemens was profoundly influenced by Shakespeare throughout his career. Even some of the commentary in What Is Man? itself paraphrases Hamlet, as does the title (“What a piece of work is a man,” 2.2.303-04).

In his 1909 essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?,” Clemens entered the controversy over the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare. As Marjorie Garber has pointed out, “by far the greatest number of contributions, on both sides of the question, have come from Americans.”42 A major reason for this, in Garber's view, is “an impulse to reverse colonization, a desire to recapture ‘Shakespeare’ and make him new (and in some odd way ‘American’) by discovering his true identity, something at which the British had failed.”43 A similar attempt at reverse colonization could explain the intensity of American bardolatry—by being more bardolatrous than the Bard's own countrymen, American could lay claim to him (whoever he was).

Whatever part nationalism may have played in Clemens's decision to enter the controversy, he also seems to have had something personal at stake. Clemens makes the following presumably facetious but cryptic comment about his rejection of Shakespeare's authorship: “in it I find comfort, solace, peace, and never-failing joy.”44 Why would anyone find “comfort, solace, peace, and neverfailing joy” in the notion that the most highly praised literary works had been falsely attributed to Shakespeare? Perhaps beneath the puzzling overt joke lies a covert truth: daunted by a precursor (to use Harold Bloom's terminology), a later writer might find solace in depriving the precursor of the glory of achievement, or (to paraphrase the cupbearer) someone who has a specialty himself is apt to be jealous when another is praised for it—and therefore may find comfort in the denial of that praise. In the course of the essay, Clemens falsifies his own past. He reports that ever since the 1850s, “that ancient day,” he has been convinced that Shakespeare's plays were ghostwritten.45 This is contradicted by the reverence with which Clemens typed the name “William Shakspeare” on the Paige typesetter in 1889, by his other expressions of high praise for “Shakespeare,” and even by the disparagement of the works attributed to “Shaxpur” in “1601.”

Like the spate of Shakespearean parodies in the nineteenth century, the authorship controversy was a reaction against the bardolatry of the period. Although she does not specifically apply her argument to Clemens, Garber argues that “For some combatants [in the controversy], Shakespeare represents a juggernaut, a monument to be toppled.”46 This impulse in response to the oppressive cultural authority granted to Shakespeare would be most intense for writers who felt in competition with Shakespeare.

What Clemens took from Shakespeare he hesitated to give to Bacon: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn't.”47 Such uncertainty about the issue would avoid the replacement of one identifiable, daunting precursor by another. And Clemens's literary expropriation throughout his career of material from formerly Shakespearean but now anonymous works would not qualify as theft, according to the advice Clemens once gave authors: “never let a false modesty deter you from ‘cabbaging’ anything you find drifting about without an owner.”48

Even if established, Bacon's authorship would be easier to accept than Shakespeare's. If Bacon wrote the plays, Clemens would have an excuse to soothe his sense of inferiority: “It is the atmosphere we are reared in that determines how our inclinations and aspirations shall tend. The atmosphere furnished by the parents [of Bacon] was … saturated with learning; with thinkings and ponderings upon deep subjects; and with polite culture.” If, on the other hand, Shakespeare wrote the plays, Clemens would have no such excuse because, as Clemens points out in a direct comparison, Shakespeare's upbringing was at least as deprived as his own:

It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the clerk of a Stratford court; just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Bering Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercises of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a “trot-line” Sundays.49

(Clemens's emphasis)

This seems to be another example of anxiety masked as a joke. If Shakespeare, reared in an out-of-the-way village, could have learned enough to produce masterpieces of high culture, then Clemens, also reared in an out-of-the-way village, was not thereby incapacitated from producing works of similar quality and sophistication. The passage simultaneously may reveal Clemens's anxiety about Melville; indeed, the two anxieties are interconnected because Moby-Dick is openly and pervasively influenced by Shakespeare.

In yet another comparison between himself and Shakespeare, Clemens even used his own celebrity as an argument against Shakespeare's authorship: if Shakespeare had written the plays, “his notoriety would have lasted as long as mine has lasted in my native village … For he was never famous during his lifetime, he was utterly obscure in Stratford,” unlike Clemens, who at the time he wrote the essay was the subject of a glowing article in the Hannibal Courier-Post, quoted at length by Clemens.50

At one point in the essay, Clemens also tried to suggest that a specific early experience prevented Shakespeare's works from having any influence at all on his own work. George Ealer, the riverboat pilot under whom Clemens trained, used to read aloud from Shakespeare's plays while Clemens was steering the boat: “He read well, but not profitably for me, because he constantly injected commands [regarding the operation of the boat] into the text. That broke it all up, mixed it all up, tangled it all up … it was a damage to me, because I have never since been able to read Shakespeare in a calm and sane way. I cannot rid it of his explosive interlardings, they break in everywhere.”51 If Ealer damaged Clemens's ability even to read Shakespeare, it would follow that Shakespeare could not possibly have influenced Clemens.

This autobiographical anecdote—which resembles the incident in which Huck Finn, also on a vessel on the Mississippi, also listens to an older man garble Shakespeare (Ch. 21)—presents an image of young Clemens doubly under instruction: he is the apprentice steamboat pilot listening to the voice of his master, and simultaneously he is the would-be writer listening to the creations of a literary genius. The anecdote also gave Clemens another opportunity for a Shakespearean parody. He quotes a passage from Macbeth interspersed with Ealer's supposed commands about the operation of the boat. It does not seem a matter of mere chance that, in an essay entitled “Is Shakespeare Dead?” which attributes Shakespeare's works to someone else, Clemens chose to travesty the speech in which Macbeth addresses the ghost of Banquo and exclaims, “Take any shape but that … Hence, horrible shadow!” (3.4.101, 105).

The cryptic title of the essay becomes less so if one recalls two episodes in literary works, one by Shakespeare and one by Clemens. In Richard III, when informed that Richmond is headed for England “to claim the crown” (4.4.468), Richard responds sarcastically but proleptically, “Is the King dead?” (470), whereas in “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Clemens tries to remove Shakespeare from his position at the top of the literary realm. In Chapter 27 of The Innocents Abroad, an American doctor standing before the bust of a person as famous as Shakespeare, pulls the leg of his Genoese guide: “Christopher Columbo—pleasant name—is—is he dead?”52 During the course of the episode the doctor also facetiously denies that Columbus could have discovered America. Clemens's persona Twain comments, “That joke was lost on the foreigner—guides can not master the subtleties of the American joke.”53 When later in his career Clemens, in an essay entitled “Is Shakespeare Dead?,” denies that Shakespeare could have written the works attributed to him, he may be playing a more elaborate joke of the sort played by the doctor. The cryptic allusion in the title of the essay to the episode in The Innocents Abroad, as well as the occasional facetiousness of the essay, could also be defensive ploys—anyone who pointed out the weaknesses in Clemens's arguments could, like the Genoese guide, be accused of missing the joke. Clemens was thus able to deny Shakespeare's authorship and simultaneously to be in a position to evade responsibility for this denial.

Finally, it does not seem merely fortuitous that Clemens, who throughout his career implicitly and explicitly compared himself to Shakespeare and who announced his own retirement by paraphrasing Shakespeare's supposed announcement of his retirement, should, at the age of seventy-four and in ill health (and, as it turned out, in the year before his own death), entitle an essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?”

Although his struggle with Shakespeare was sometimes bitter, the most profound work Clemens produced was also the one most profoundly influenced by Shakespeare. Huckleberry Finn contains several explicit references to Shakespeare. In Chapter 20 the duke proposes a performance of Shakespearean selections for the local rubes. When he assigns the part of Juliet to the king, the latter objects, “my peeled head and my white whiskers is goin' to look oncommon odd on her, maybe.”54 But the duke reassures him: “these country jakes won't ever think of that.” In the following chapter, the two rehearse. Using swords “that the duke made out of oak laths,” they also practice a battle scene from Richard III, until the king falls overboard. For an encore, the duke suggests that the king recite Hamlet's “most celebrated” soliloquy. With much exertion, the duke calls up this “sublime” monologue “from recollection's vaults”:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane

This jumble of phrases from various parts of Hamlet, as well as from Macbeth and Richard III, continues for 22 more lines.55 When the show goes on, “only about twelve people” attend, “And they laughed all the time” (Ch. 22). Angered, “the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn't come up to Shakespeare.” Another explicit reference to Shakespeare occurs in Chapter 24 when the duke “dressed Jim up in King Lear's outfit.” Michael Patrick Hearn has noted two allusions in the novel to Richard III and one to Othello.56 Many critics have pointed out the implicit but obvious Shakespearean source for the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud: Harney Shepherdson and Sophia Grangerford more closely resemble Romeo and Juliet than do the duke and the king.

But Huckleberry Finn contains a surprising number of other adaptations of Shakespearean material. The trip down the Mississippi is also a trip through Shakespeare country. The Cave Hollow robbery in Chapter 3 is a children's version of the Gadshill robbery in Henry IV, Part 1. Like Falstaff, Tom tells outrageous lies about what happened, lies which Huck, like Hal, tries to expose. The episode includes at least one paraphrase of the play. Tom reports to his playmates “that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow.” Poins reports to his confederates that “tomorrow morning … at Gadshill, there are pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings, and traders riding to London with fat purses” (1.2.124-27). Colonel Sherburn's contemptuous dismissal of the mob in Chapter 22 (“droop your tails and go home”) re-enacts Coriolanus's defiance of the Roman populace (“You common cry of ours … I banish you!” [3.3.120, 123]). The appearance of two sets of Wilks brothers in the same town (Ch. 28-29) creates a Comedy of Errors. A brief description of a slave in Chapter 34 is Macbeth localized: “the witches was pestering him awful, these nights, and making him see all kinds of strange things, and hear all kinds of strange words and noises.” Jim angrily lashes out at his daughter for her disobedience in not responding to his command and later suffers intense remorse (Ch. 23); in each of these specifics, Jim resembles King Lear, whose clothes he is subsequently made to wear.

Even the explicit references to Shakespeare include buried Shakespearean adaptations. The attempt by the duke and the king to practice a sword-fight in Richard III by using “laths” recalls an episode during the ill-fated and at times farcical Cade rebellion in Henry VI, Part 2 in which one commoner opens a scene by telling another: “Come and get thee a sword, though made of a lath” (4.2.1-2). The king's description of himself as Juliet with “white whiskers” mirrors the image created by Lear, another old king down on his luck, when he describes Gloucester as “Goneril with a white beard” (4.6.96). When the duke responds to the king's concern about this example of casting against type by saying “these country jakes won't ever think of that,” his words describe with greater plausibility the unlikelihood that readers would recognize the Shakespearean source of the image. And while the king and the duke may not much resemble the Shakespearean characters they explicitly try to impersonate, they do, like Stockmar, greatly resemble the Shakespearean entertainer-thief-con man Autolycus.

Autolycus even supplies elements of Huck's characterization. Huck expresses his decision not to inform Miss Watson about the location of her runaway slave in terms strikingly similar to those in which Autolycus expresses his decision not to inform Polixeness about the whereabouts of his runaway son:

The Prince himself is about a piece of iniquity: stealing away from his father … If I thought it were a piece of honesty to acquaint the King withal, I would not do't. I hold it the more knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my profession.


I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line … And as for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse I would do that, too.

(Ch. 31)

The Shakespearean play that influenced Huckleberry Finn most deeply was Hamlet. In the opening chapter of the novel, Huck hears “twelve licks” of the clock, determines “something was a stirring,” and then hears Tom's identifying signal. In the opening scene of Hamlet, after Barnardo says the clock has “strook twelf” (7), Fransisco reports “Not a mouse stirring” (10), but at that point Horatio and Marcellus arrive and give the identifying passwords. And something very similar to what is eventually encountered in the first scene of Hamlet makes its presence felt in the first chapter of Huckleberry Finn: “I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving.”57

The duke plays the part of Hamlet on the raft then relinquishes it to the king. But these are not the only Hamlets in the novel. Clemens distributed some of Hamlet's notable actions and characteristics to other characters. Tom resembles Hamlet in a remarkable number of ways. In Chapter 2 Tom's companions follow him in the night, and he eventually and melodramatically makes them “swear to keep the secret,” just as Hamlet swears his companions to secrecy at the end of 1.5. After his first meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet is initially unresponsive to the questions of his friend Horatio, and he often resists the interrogations of other characters. Tom also often refuses to answer questions: “That was just his way. If it didn't suit him to explain a thing to you, he wouldn't do it. You might pump him a week, it wouldn't make no difference” (Ch. 38). Hamlet compares himself to the player of Aeneas: “What would he do / Had he the motive … for passion / That I have?” (2.2.560-62). Tom holds himself (and Jim) up to the standards of literary characters, such as the Count of Monte Cristo. Hamlet is the most notoriously intellectual character in world literature, and Tom's schemes give him “intellectural” (Ch. 36) satisfaction. Huck's description of Tom “thinking” echoes Ophelia's description of Hamlet:

And thrice his head thus waving up and down, / He rais'd a sigh.


Pretty soon, he sighs, and shakes his head; then sighs again.

(Ch. 35)

Tom also shares Hamlet's fondness for machinations and his disturbing tendency to treat other people as objects of manipulation. Tom's callous treatment of Jim is held against him by many critics, as is Hamlet's callous treatment of Ophelia and other characters.

The explicit literary sources, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, from which Tom derives his plans for the rescue of Jim provide examples of characters confronting unavoidable difficulties. But no such difficulties actually exist in this case—the hut in which Jim is held is no Chateau d'If, and Tom knows all along that Jim has been granted his freedom—so Tom has to imagine or create impediments. The literary character with whom Tom is in competition on the score of needless delay is not the Count of Monte Cristo, but Hamlet. Hamlet's supposedly needless delay in exacting his revenge was perhaps the single most famous literary issue of the nineteenth century. Goethe, Schlegel, Coleridge, and many others devised theories to explain the delay. If Clemens had intentionally included this episode in the novel to create a similar controversy, he could not have been more successful. The controversy that eventually arose among critics—including De Voto, Eliot, Trilling, Leo Marx, and many others—over Tom's delay of Jim's release resembles the earlier critical controversy over Hamlet's delay. Each set of critics debated the artistic justifications for the delay and its thematic implications. Just as Tom is a boyish parody of Hamlet, the entire long final episode of Huckleberry Finn is a parody of Hamlet or, more precisely, a parody of the prevalent view of the play in the nineteenth century.

In the later part of the novel Tom becomes the main character; Huck is his admiring friend and the eventual teller of his story and thus resembles Horatio. But Huck himself also plays Hamlet at times. In the first chapter, Huck's description of his feelings when alone—“I most wished I was dead”—is a summary of the opening lines of the soliloquy Hamlet delivers in the scene in which he makes his first appearance in the play (1.2.129-34). In the middle of the novel, Huck again meditates on the attractiveness of death—a mere sound “makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all” (Ch. 32). Huck here summarizes the same speech in the middle of Hamlet that the duke had earlier garbled and in which Hamlet says that death is “a consummation / Devoutly to be wish'd” (3.1.62-63). Three paragraphs after his summary of that speech, Huck paraphrases another famous speech by Hamlet:

Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.


I went right along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting to Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time come; for I'd noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone.

The words in Huck's mouth, rough-hew them how he will, come from Shakespeare.

Even Pap echoes Hamlet. Long before the duke garbles Hamlet's “celebrated” soliloquy, Pap unintentionally parodies the passage in which Hamlet mentions the “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (3.1.78-79): “for two cents I'd leave the blamed country and never come anear it agin” (Ch. 6). But Pap more closely resembles two other Hamlet characters. The first appearance of this father figure, who is presumed to have died and thus returns from the dead, as it were, and whose face is “a white to make a body's flesh crawl” (Ch. 5), is a not entirely comic version of the “hideous” (1.4.54) apparition of Hamlet's dead father, whose countenance is “very pale” (1.2.233). The Ghost's account of its nightly suffering—“I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night” (1.5.9-10)—is parodied by Pap's complaint: “your own father got to sleep with the hogs in the tanyard” (Ch. 5). The Ghost's stern injunction to Hamlet to revenge his murder is parodied by Pap's stern injunction to Huck to get him money. Like Hamlet, Huck at first is startled but then shows courage in confronting the disturbing apparition of his father. At times, Pap also resembles Hamlet's step-father. Pap refuses to let Huck leave the cabin, just as Claudius at first refuses to let Hamlet leave the “prison” of Denmark (2.2.243). In the so-called Prayer Scene, Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius, his mortal enemy, but does not do so. In Chapter 6, Huck, who is in mortal danger from Pap, has a gun pointed at him but does not kill him.

The strangest and most profound Shakespearean influence on Huckleberry Finn also involves the Prayer Scene, but in this instance Clemens gave the part of Claudius to Huck. The passage generally regarded as Clemens's greatest accomplishment, Huck's meditation in Chapter 31, consists in large part of paraphrases of Claudius's soliloquy:

Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.


I about made up my mind to pray; …
But words wouldn't come.
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin.


I knowed very well why they wouldn't come …
it was because I was playing double.
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash [this hand] white as snow?
… Then I'll look up.

(45-46, 50)

I felt good and all washed clean of sin …
and I knowed I could pray now.
I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murther.


I was letting on to give up sin, but …
I was holding on to the biggest one of all.
but 'tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.


my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven … there's One that's always on the lookout … It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him.
Bow, stubborn knees.


So I kneeled down.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.


I was trying to make my mouths the right thing …
but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie. You can't pray a lie.

The final words of Claudius's soliloquy (line 98) carry the obvious implication that, unable to repent, he, too, will “never to heaven go,” and thus his final words are echoed in the final words of Huck's meditation: “All right, then, I'll go to hell.” The final words of Huck's meditation are even spoken aloud, like a soliloquy by a Shakespearean character.

One of the features that makes Huck's meditation more than a pale imitation of Claudius's is that Clemens has turned the situation upside down. Claudius's assessment of his moral state is sophisticated, and his failure to follow the dictates of his conscience is his personal tragedy; Huck's assessment of his moral state is naive, and his refusal to follow the dictates of his conscience is a victory of innate compassion over social conditioning. Clemens's technique of paraphrasing Shakespeare, which was used early in his career for such simple and obvious parodies as “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” is here put to profound purposes.58

Although Clemens's pervasive adaptation of Shakespearean materials in Huckleberry Finn produced a masterpiece, the novel itself contains suggestions that the influence of Shakespeare was a source of anxiety for Clemens. Four chapters after the Shepherdson-Grangerford episode, Clemens's version of Romeo and Juliet, the duke and the king present a version of Romeo and Juliet that is not well received. Like Stockmar, the con men in Huckleberry Finn seem to be self-portraits created in anxiety. Clemens intended Huck's paraphrase of Claudius's soliloquy to be moving; the duke, however, intended his ludicrous version of a soliloquy from the same play to be impressive. As a collection of adaptations from various Shakespearean plays, the duke's version of Hamlet's speech is Huckleberry Finn writ small. Although Clemens's own adaptation of Shakespearean materials in Huckleberry Finn is a remarkable success, he incorporated in the novel a portrait of an adapter of Shakespeare who is a failure. Huck, too, at times seems an alter ego for an anxious author. Underlying Huck's struggle with his conscience in Chapter 31 is Clemens's struggle with Shakespeare. Both author and character do something magnificent—Huck decides to free Jim from slavery, and Clemens constructs a crucial moment in a great novel—but both deeds entail theft (of a slave from his owner and of a passage from Shakespeare) and anxiety.

The novel contains other features that raise the issue of literary influence. In Chapter 2 Tom's friends are impressed by the oath he asks them to swear, and they ask him “if he got it out of his own head.” Tom acknowledges his literary indebtedness: “some of it, but the rest was out of pirate books, and robber books.” His acknowledgment, however, does not mention that the episode, as noted above, is a parody of the swearing episode in Hamlet (although pirates do enter the plot of Hamlet). Throughout the novel, Tom is obsessed with imitating books, whereas Pap is violently opposed to book learning and its influence. Huck veers between these extremes. On the one hand, he allows himself to be dominated by Tom's bookishness, especially in the final chapters of the novel. On the other hand, when Miss Watson tries to force book learning on him in Chapter 1, he says he would rather be in “the bad place.” This preference anticipates his later willingness to go to hell—when he decides to free Jim—and thus associates the influence of books with slavery. Each is worse than hell. Each entails a loss of personal freedom and identity. At the very end of the novel Huck expresses a desire to escape from Aunt Sally's efforts to “sivilize” him. This desire to escape the civilization of book learning parallels Jim's desire to escape from slavery. As noted earlier in this essay, Clemens himself shifted among diverse positions in regard to literary influence. Sometimes he tried to give the impression he was not influenced at all by other writers. Sometimes he displayed as much boyish bravado in imagining himself “the worst literary thief in the world” as Tom does in pretending to be a robber in Chapter 2. Sometimes he revealed a deep anxiety about literary influence.

According to Ernest Hemingway, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn … All American writing comes from that.”59 But all American writing also comes from a struggle with the heritage of European culture, the civilization that Huck seeks to escape at the end of Huckleberry Finn.Huckleberry Finn itself, the most American of American novels, comes in no small part from Shakespeare, the most imposing figure of European culture. In Huckleberry Finn Clemens localized or Americanized Shakespeare by transferring Shakespearean plot situations to the American frontier and by translating speeches by Shakespearean characters into American frontier dialects. He simultaneously Shakespeareanized America by giving American experiences Shakespearean patterns. Huckleberry Finn was in large part the product of the creative interaction, or the struggle, in Clemens's imagination between his American experience and Shakespeare's works.

Some of the elements of Clemens's complex attitude toward Shakespeare occur in his attitudes toward other writers. He parodied Cooper, praised Cervantes, and showed signs of rivalry in regard to Bret Harte and Melville.60 But no other writer inspired more intensely ambivalent emotion in Clemens than did Shakespeare, and with no other influence did he struggle so profoundly or so creatively. And no other influence was the cause of such long-term and intense anxiety. To set oneself in competition with Shakespeare and to suffer the resulting anxiety seems irrational, but the evidence suggests that Clemens did feel such anxiety, however irrational it may be.

By focusing on poetic influence, Harold Bloom has implied that literary influence flows within generic bounds. But the novelist Clemens was profoundly influenced by the poet-dramatist Shakespeare. Bloom himself argued that one of the tactics a later writer may employ to establish his independence from a precursor is to swerve in some way from a direct imitation of the precursor's work. Thus, as indicated above, although Clemens incorporated paraphrases of Claudius's meditation in Huck's, Clemens turned the moral implications of the situation upside down. Another way a writer might swerve, however, would be to take material from a precursor's work in one genre and to incorporate it in a work in a different genre. Genres change, sometimes in unpredictable ways, precisely because authors combine in new works elements from earlier works of diverse genres.

In most accounts, the history of literature presents an orderly sequence of period styles—Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical, Romantic, modernist, post-modernist—in which each style is a reaction against the immediately preceding style or a reflection of the social context of its own time. Bloom has implied, in particular, that post-Cartesian writers are insulated from the influence of pre-Cartesian writers. But on the evidence presented here, it seems that, for Clemens, Shakespeare was an active inspiration, a live influence, and therefore a source of present rivalry and anxiety. For Clemens, Shakespeare was not dead. Nor does he seem to have been dead for Whitman or for Melville or for many other artists of various sorts who have worked in various times and places. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, Shakespeare is an “old mole” “in the cellarage” (1.5.162, 151); he is a disruptive old mole in the cellarage of culture. That an artist could significantly influence other artists who live in much later time periods or in distant places or who work in different genres or media may defy common sense, but such influence at a distance is a demonstrable element in the process of artistic creation and therefore a source of complexity and unpredictability in cultural history.


  1. See Howard G. Baetzhold, Mark Twain and John Bull: The British Connection (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970); and Alan Gribben, Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction, 2 vols. (Boston: Hall, 1980).

  2. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine, 2 vols. (New York: Harper, 1917), 2:543. Gribben explained such comments as follows: “In casting his persona as a common man, Twain was obliged to lower the admitted level of his sophistication about literature. It also gratified him that his public thought of his artistry as spontaneous and nonderivative” (p. xxv).

  3. Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William Dean Howells, 1872-1910, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960), 1:112. In the following year in another letter to Howells, Clemens described his general procedure in using source material:

    That is a good story of your sister's, but I don't think I could make it go except in one fashion—by taking the idea & applying it in some other way, as I … do with pretty much everything … the idea … is always bettered by transplanting.


    One effect of such transplantation would be to obscure the original source.

  4. Quoted by Walter Blair, Mark Twain and Huck Finn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960), p. 60. Clemens may have borrowed his description of Shakespeare's transformation of borrowed material from Goethe's description of the transformation of material borrowed from Shakespeare: “Shakespeare ‘gives us golden apples in silver dishes.’ By careful study we may acquire the silver dishes while discovering that we have ‘only potatoes to put in them’” (as translated and paraphrased by Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet [Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1970], p. 5).

  5. Robert Falk, “Shakespeare in America: A Survey to 1900,” Shakespeare Survey 18 (1965): 103, 115.

  6. Louis Marder, His Exits and His Entrances: The Story of Shakespeare's Reputation (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963), p. 297.

  7. Ibid., p. 27.

  8. Ibid., p. 303.

  9. Ibid., p. 306.

  10. Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson, et al., 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975-), 3:443.

  11. “About Play-Acting,” in The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), p. 207.

  12. Falk, p. 115.

  13. “1601,” in The Outrageous Mark Twain: Some Lesser Known But Extraordinary Works, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Doubleday, 1987), p. 56.

  14. Ibid., p. 57.

  15. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 147.

  16. Bate, p. 8.

  17. Clemens, “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” in Early Tales and Sketches, ed. Edgar Marquess Branch and Robert H. Hirst, 2 vols. (1979-81), vol. 15 of The Works and Papers of Mark Twain, ed. John C. Garber, et al., 24 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972-), 2:111.

  18. Ibid., p. 112.

  19. The text of Shakespeare's works cited throughout this essay is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  20. Clemens, “Julius Caesar,” 2:113.

  21. Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii, ed. A. Grove Day (New York: Appleton-Century, 1966), pp. 199-200.

  22. Ibid., p. 201.

  23. Clemens himself never published the piece. It is included in Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques, ed. Franklin R. Rogers (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), pp. 55-87.

  24. Clemens had once given an essay the title “Dogberry in Washington” (The essay is included in Clemens's Contributions to “The Galaxy,” 1868-1871, ed. Bruce R. McElderry, Jr. [Gainsville: Scholar's Facsimiles, 1961], pp. 105-06).

  25. Burlesque Hamlet, in Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques, pp. 55-57.

  26. Ibid., p. 70.

  27. Ibid., pp. 70, 79. Stockmar owes something to Bottom as well as to Autolycus. Stockmar's expression of bewilderment after encountering the Ghost closely resembles Bottom's recollection of his dream:

    Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—.


    To think that I, a full grown lout—but at the same time I wish I may die if I didn't think I saw—.

    (p. 59)

    Stockmar's name, along with its connotations, resembles that of Martext, the vicar in As You Like It.

  28. Mark Twain-Howells Letters, 1: 369.

  29. Clemens, Burlesque Hamlet, p. 61.

  30. Ibid., p. 56.

  31. Ibid., pp. 69-70.

  32. Robert L. Gale, “The Prince and the Pauper and King Lear,The Mark Twain Journal 12 (1963): 16.

  33. Ibid., p. 17.

  34. Baetzhold, pp. 231-33. Baetzhold also noticed an echo of Macbeth in a description of a dead page in Chapter 18 of A Connecticut Yankee in Arthur's Court and a series of resemblances between the two Parts of Henry IV and Clemens's Joan of Arc (pp. 373, 259-61).

  35. William M. Gibson, “Introduction,” in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. Gibson (Berkeley; Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 22.

  36. “The Chronicle of Young Satan,” in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, p. 50.

  37. Ibid., p. 55.

  38. “Alterations in the Manuscripts,” in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, p. 524.

  39. John S. Tuckey, Mark Twain and Little Satan: The Writing of “The Mysterious Stranger” (West Lafayette: Purdue Univ. Press, 1963), p. 69.

  40. Clemens, What Is Man? in What Is Man? and Other Philosophical Writings, ed. Paul Bender (1973), Vol. 19 of Works, p. 124.

  41. Ibid., pp. 130-31.

  42. Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 7.

  43. Ibid., p. 8.

  44. Clemens, “Is Shakespeare Dead?” in Complete Essays, p. 411.

  45. Ibid., pp. 408-11.

  46. Garber, p. 7.

  47. Clemens, “Is Shakespeare Dead?” p. 410.

  48. Clemens, “Literary Connoisseur” in Early Tales and Sketches, 2: 196.

  49. Clemens, “Is Shakespeare Dead?” pp. 441, 421.

  50. Ibid., pp. 453-54.

  51. Ibid., pp. 408-09.

  52. Clemens, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim's Progress (Hartford: American, 1869), p. 292.

  53. Ibid., p. 293.

  54. Clemens, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer (1988), Vol. 8 of Works. All further quotations from the novel are from this edition. For the convenience of readers with other editions, quotations will be located by chapter number (supplied in the body of the essay) rather than by page number.

  55. In a brief essay on the duke's “sublime” speech, E. Bruce Kirkham located the Shakespearean source for each of the duke's phrases, some of which are paraphrases rather than exact quotations, and argued that “the theme of action/inaction found in Twain's three sources” is reflected in the duke's “ability to shift ground on a moment's notice” and in Huck's inner debate over “the morality of helping a slave to escape.” (“Huck and Hamlet: An Examination of Twain's Use of Shakespeare,” The Mark Twain Journal 14 [1969]: 17-19).

  56. Michael Patrick Hearn, ed. The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (New York: Potter, 1981), pp. 199, 227, 230.

  57. See Anthony J. Berret's ground-breaking essay, “The Influence of Hamlet on Huckleberry Finn,American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 18 (1985): 200-01.

  58. Berret noted an echo of Claudius's soliloquy in Huck's meditation, but in an effort merely to show that Clemens “liked Hamlet” (p. 205), Berret ignored those ways in which Chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn turns 3.3 of Hamlet upside down and commented only on incidental similarities between the two episodes: “Both of these scenes occur in spots where key practical decisions are made. Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius and Huck decides not to report Jim. Both scenes also end with decisions about going to hell—Hamlet's to send Claudius there and Huck's to go there himself. Finally, both scenes express the disharmony between words and feelings, custom and nature, that Hamlet and Huck, and in this instance Claudius, experience” (p. 204).

  59. Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Scribner's, 1935), p. 22.

  60. For an account of Clemens's explicit literary judgments, see Sydney J. Krause, Mark Twain as Critic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1967).

Laura E. Skandera-Trombley (essay date 1994)

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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 travails of “Rachel” Cord, and it provided Clemens with an entrée into the November 1874 issue of the Atlantic. William Dean Howells praised the story: “I think it extremely good and touching with the best and reallest kind of black talk in it” (Mark Twain-Howells Letters 24).

The crossover from “A True Story” and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is readily apparent: in “A True Story,” Rachel scolds a young man (who, unbeknownest to her, is her long-lost son) and says, “I wa'nt bawn in de mash to be fool' by trash!” (The Unabridged Mark Twain 408); in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim utters a similar line when he rebukes Huckleberry for playing a cruel trick on him: “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed” (72)1. “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” is of particular importance not only because it marked the beginning of Clemens's contributions to the Atlantic, but also because this oral history of an African-American woman's road to freedom may have served as a prototype for one of Clemens's greatest works.

Quarry Farm's inhabitants varied in terms of temperament, education, experience, culture, race, and age; this meant that in order for Clemens to maintain his disparate audience's attention, he had to produce fiction that was multi-generational, multicultural, and multiracial. Clemens also needed to provide characters and themes that would appeal particularly to this disparate female audience. Viewed within the context of Clemens's family, the absence of overtly masculine themes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not come as a complete surprise. Leland Krauth isolates the various elements that traditionally comprise Southwestern humor and remarks that Huckleberry Finn is striking for what it is not:

[Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] ignores, first of all, those subjects, like courtings, frolics, dances, weddings, and honeymoons, that naturally involve adult sexuality. And secondly, it omits entirely or else skims over those activities, like hunting, fighting, gambling, gaming, horse racing, heavy drinking, and military maneuvering, that are the traditional pastimes of manly backwoods living. (Whenever such activities do appear briefly they are targets of ridicule.) In short, Twain purges from the Southwestern tradition its exuberant celebration of rough-and-tumble masculinity.


While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may lack traditional Southwestern masculine themes, what it is striking for is its similarity to the themes and plot structures that comprised female-authored fiction of the mid-nineteenth century. Nina Baym comments in Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 that many of the novels written by prominent women writers (such as Louisa May Alcott, Susan Warner, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Fanny Fern, Mary Jane Holmes) told with some modification a single story: “It is the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world” (11). Baym claims that although men could have also authored such stories, “only women did so” (13). That men did not, Baym views as no mere coincidence: “[Male authors] assumed an audience of men as a matter of course, and reacted with distress and dismay as they discovered that to make a living by writing they would have to please female readers” (13).

Baym may be a bit too sweeping in her indictment against male authors. Baym argues that once male writers realized that in order to be published they would have to start writing for a female audience, one of the strategies they used to attract readers was “insulting or shocking them. Mark Twain is the most obvious example” (13-14). But, arguably, Clemens had always written to please a female audience, beginning with his mother and continuing with Mary Fairbanks in the late 1860s and most successfully with Olivia and his three daughters during the 1870s and 1880s.

Glenn Hendler's article, “The Limits of Sympathy: Louisa May Alcott and the Sentimental Novel,” asserts that sentimental narratives played an essential role in perpetuating the Victorian belief in the sexes' “separate spheres,” and that the “exigencies of sentimental fiction and the ideological imperatives of domesticity exist in tension with one another” (685). That Clemens utilized what was an exclusively female format to write his realistic novel may well suggest that Clemens was challenging the doctrine of the spheres and encouraging an epistemological shift. The plot of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appears to fit neatly within Hendler's paradigm of the relationship between sentimental fiction and the “ideological imperatives of domesticity”:

The sentimental narrative has a surprising tendency to disarticulate domestic spaces. Rather than insistently fixing heroines in their families, many sentimental plots begin with young girls leaving their homes, either by being orphaned or by their own choice. And instead of concluding … by restoring their heroines to normatively defined families—in which case the initial departure from the family could be read as ultimately supportive of domestic values—the novels often place their heroines in situations that are notable for their deviations from that norm. While the new stasis that resolves the novels' narrative tensions is still described, at least metaphorically, as a “family,” it always represents a transformation—sometimes a radical one—of the group initially designated by the term. Sentimental plots repeatedly transgress both the internal and the external limits of the family structure which domestic ideology held up as its overt ideal.


Louisa May Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience (1873) begins with the orphaned heroine leaving her home in search of greater autonomy.2 The orphan was a staple of Clemens's novels, and a parallel can be drawn between Alcott's heroine and Huckleberry Finn. Huck, too, leaves home in search of an autonomous self, although at the time of his departure he is not yet aware of this. After Pap kidnaps Huck, Huck thinks he cannot return because in doing so he, and possibly the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, would suffer Pap's wrath. Pap falls within the group of characters Baym identifies as “abusers of power” in sentimental women's novels: “Abusers … run a gamut from fathers and mothers to step-parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, guardians, and matrons of orphanages. They are the administrators or owners of the space within which the child is legally constrained” (Woman's Fiction 37).

What Pap has is legal control over Huck, and despite Judge Thatcher's and the Widow Douglas's protests to the contrary, he will retain that right. Baym comments that men in sentimental fiction “are less important to the heroine's emotional life than women. Chiefly, they are the controllers and dispensers of money” (39). Interestingly, Clemens has Pap attempt to claim Huck's money, yet Huck manages to outsmart his father. Pap's chief role in the novel is to remove Huck from his “home” (a home that deviates from the Victorian norm, as both heads of the family are female), and he is able to do so because, however unfit, he is recognized as Huck's legal guardian. Once Huck has been removed from the Widow's house and Huck has removed himself from Pap's sorry dwelling, Pap's usefulness as a character has come to an end and he is killed off.

In Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) (one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century, with sales surpassing one-hundred thousand copies), the orphan Ellen Montgomery rejects blood relatives and instead elects to form her family ties with her neighbors, the Humphreys. Glenn Hendler notes that throughout the genre of the sentimental novel, “the voluntary affinities of sympathy prove stronger than the ties of kinship” (687). On the raft, Huck forges his family with Jim. When Jim exclaims: “‘good lan'! is dat you, honey? Doan' make no noise,’” Huck comments, “It was Jim's voice—nothing ever sounded so good before” (Adventures 95). Huck and Jim form a bond that proves stronger than any other relationship in the novel, including Huck's friendship with Tom.

By the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry has no viable option of returning to society in the manner of the sentimental heroines. He cannot return to the Widow Douglas because he has already learned how powerless she is within the constraints of patriarchal society. He cannot remain at Aunt Sally's farm because, “Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me” (229). After concluding such a long journey, Huck cannot allow this to happen because, however benign, Aunt Sally is representative of the slaveholding South he has rejected. As for allying himself with any of the male characters in the novel, Huck has witnessed Judge Thatcher's impotence in protecting him; the majority of the males in the Shepherdson and Grangeford families are murderous idiots; the Duke and the Dauphin are revealed to be frauds; and by the end of the novel, Huck painfully recognizes Tom's continued alliance to the South when Tom helps to free Jim only because Jim already has been freed. The only possibility that Huck has to rejoin a family structure, which Clemens does not offer the reader in the text, is if he and Jim were to remain together and find and rejoin Jim's biological family—in the antebellum South, an impossibility.

Huck's plight resembles that of the sentimental heroines, but his choices are even more limited than theirs. Clemens's solution to the problem (of the self in opposition to society) may well have been having Huck choose as the subject for his story what he cannot rejoin in the usual sense—society. In his telling, therefore, Huck does effect a kind of return.

Leland Krauth's discussion is particularly cogent in view of Clemens's immediate female audience. According to Krauth, what Clemens does with the character of Huck is unprecedented within the genre of Southwestern humor: Clemens departs from the archetype of the “Man of Feeling” to make Huck “a comic Man of Feeling. Huck never feels good about his goodness; his altruistic emotions—with the possible exception of his aid to Mary Jane—never give him egoistic satisfaction” (381). Krauth asserts that this altruism is one of the reasons Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still so intriguing today, because the portrayal of the “Man of Feeling” still challenges conventional stereotypes of manhood. Krauth also points out, quite rightly, that while Huck is a lost boy afraid in a man's world, he is never frightened by the world of women. Clearly both Huck's and Clemens's angst was reduced when they were in the company of females. During Huck's trip down the river, he evolves into the student he was never allowed to become in St. Petersburg, and he learns about natural humanity from Jim and about the falsity of gender roles from Judith Loftus. These lessons result in a radically changed conception of the traditional Southwestern character.

Krauth ends his article with this intriguing statement: “[Huck's] kind of manliness seems to elude our language for it, even today” (384). This elusiveness may be attributed to Clemens's female collaborators who helped create Huck's “sense of manliness” combined with “delicate sensitivity,” and to the influence of contemporary women's sentimental novels. Clemens was pragmatic enough to incorporate his audience's experience as females and the themes of female-authored sentimental fiction into his writing. This female audience, indeed, also helped him gain financial success. Clemens met with spectacular failure in most of his earlier business dealings; however, with the help of his “charmed circle,” he realized that if he incorporated themes and characters that a female audience would find appealing, his market might increase. It is important to note, however, that while Clemens's reliance on women was unquestionably productive for Clemens, it was also a positive experience for his wife and daughters who, during the Hartford and Quarry Farm years, were able to take part in his composing process and reap the benefits of his success. At this time, Clemens was at his creative apex, and his family was integral in bringing about this achievement. Clemens realized the impact his family had upon his writing and they became a willing part of his composing process.3


  1. Parenthetical page references to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Sculley Bradley (New York: W. W. Norton), 1977.

  2. In Gribben's Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction, two works by Alcott are listed as belonging to Clemens: Little Women (1869) and Little Men (1871) (14). Olivia quoted Fanny Fern in her commonplace book (MTP).

  3. After the onset of financial difficulties in 1891 and the subsequent deaths of Susy and Olivia, Clemens adversely affected the lives of the remaining women in his life. He also became very aware that he could write extended narratives only under certain circumstances: “one can't write a book unless he can banish perplexities and put his whole mind on it” (Gerber 45). Clemens's awareness, though, did not lessen his bitterness when he realized that his days of sustained writing were finished.

Jane Smiley (essay date January 1996)

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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 worked out early in the Propaganda Era, between 1948 and 1955, by Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and some lesser lights, in the introductions to American and British editions of the novel and in such journals as Partisan Review and The New York Times Book Review. The requirements of Huck's installation rapidly revealed themselves: the failure of the last twelve chapters (in which Huck finds Jim imprisoned on the Phelps plantation and Tom Sawyer is reintroduced and elaborates a cruel and unnecessary scheme for Jim's liberation) had to be diminished, accounted for, or forgiven; after that, the novel's special qualities had to be placed in the context first of other American novels (to their detriment) and then of world literature. The best bets here seemed to be Twain's style and the river setting, and the critics invested accordingly: Eliot, who had never read the novel as a boy, traded on his own childhood beside the big river, elevating Huck to the Boy, and the Mississippi to the River God, therein finding the sort of mythic resonance that he admired. Trilling liked the river god idea, too, though he didn't bother to capitalize it. He also thought that Twain, through Huck's lying, told truths, one of them being (I kid you not) that “something … had gone out of American life after the [Civil War], some simplicity, some innocence, some peace.” What Twain himself was proudest of in the novel—his style—Trilling was glad to dub “not less than definitive in American literature. The prose of Huckleberry Finn established for written prose the virtues of American colloquial speech. … He is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.” The last requirement was some quality that would link Huck to other, though “lesser,” American novels such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, that would possess some profound insight into the American character. Leslie Fiedler obligingly provided it when he read homoerotic attraction into the relationship between Huck and Jim, pointing out the similarity of this to such other white man-dark man friendships as those between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick and Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans.

The canonization proceeded apace: great novel (Trilling, 1950), greatest novel (Eliot, 1950), world-class novel (Lauriat Lane Jr., 1955). Sensible naysayers, such as Leo Marx, were lost in the shuffle of propaganda. But, in fact, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has little to offer in the way of greatness. There is more to be learned about the American character from its canonization than through its canonization.

Let me hasten to point out that, like most others, I don't hold any grudges against Huck himself. He's just a boy trying to survive. The villain here is Mark Twain, who knew how to give Huck a voice but didn't know how to give him a novel. Twain was clearly aware of the story's difficulties. Not finished with having revisited his boyhood in Tom Sawyer, Twain conceived of a sequel and began composition while still working on Tom Sawyer's page proofs. Four hundred pages into it, having just passed Cairo and exhausted most of his memories of Hannibal and the upper Mississippi, Twain put the manuscript aside for three years. He was facing a problem every novelist is familiar with: his original conception was beginning to conflict with the implications of the actual story. It is at this point in the story that Huck and Jim realize two things: they have become close friends, and they have missed the Ohio River and drifted into what for Jim must be the most frightening territory of all—down the river, the very place Miss Watson was going to sell him to begin with. Jim's putative savior, Huck, has led him as far astray as a slave can go, and the farther they go, the worse it is going to be for him. Because the Ohio was not Twain's territory, the fulfillment of Jim's wish would necessarily lead the novel away from the artistic integrity that Twain certainly sensed his first four hundred pages possessed. He found himself writing not a boy's novel, like Tom Sawyer, but a man's novel, about real moral dilemmas and growth. The patina of nostalgia for a time and place, Missouri in the 1840s (not unlike former President Ronald Reagan's nostalgia for his own boyhood, when “Americans got along”), had been transformed into actual longing for a timeless place of friendship and freedom, safe and hidden, on the big river. But the raft had floated Huck and Jim, and their author with them, into the truly dark heart of the American soul and of American history: slave country.

Twain came back to the novel and worked on it twice again, once to rewrite the chapters containing the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, and later to introduce the Duke and the Dauphin. It is with the feud that the novel begins to fail, because from here on the episodes are mere distractions from the true subject of the work: Huck's affection for and responsibility to Jim. The signs of this failure are everywhere, as Jim is pushed to the side of the narrative, hiding on the raft and confined to it, while Huck follows the Duke and the Dauphin onshore to the scenes of much simpler and much less philosophically taxing moral dilemmas, such as fraud. Twain was by nature an improviser, and he was pleased enough with these improvisations to continue. When the Duke and the Dauphin finally betray Jim by selling him for forty dollars, Huck is shocked, but the fact is neither he nor Twain has come up with a plan that would have saved Jim in the end. Tom Sawyer does that.

Considerable critical ink has flowed over the years in an attempt to integrate the Tom Sawyer chapters with the rest of the book, but it has flowed in vain. As Leo Marx points out, and as most readers sense intuitively, once Tom reappears, “[m]ost of those traits which made [Huck] so appealing a hero now disappear. … It should be added at once that Jim doesn't mind too much. The fact is that he has undergone a similar transformation. On the raft he was an individual, man enough to denounce Huck when Huck made him the victim of a practical joke. In the closing episode, however, we lose sight of Jim in the maze of farcical invention.” And the last twelve chapters are boring, a sure sign that an author has lost the battle between plot and theme and is just filling in the blanks.

As with all bad endings, the problem really lies at the beginning, and at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn neither Huck nor Twain takes Jim's desire for freedom at all seriously; that is, they do not accord it the respect that a man's passion deserves. The sign of this is that not only do the two never cross the Mississippi to Illinois, a free state, but they hardly even consider it. In both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the Jackson's Island scenes show that such a crossing, even in secret, is both possible and routine, and even though it would present legal difficulties for an escaped slave, these would certainly pose no more hardship than locating the mouth of the Ohio and then finding passage up it. It is true that there could have been slave catchers in pursuit (though the novel ostensibly takes place in the 1840s and the Fugitive Slave Act was not passed until 1850), but Twain's moral failure, once Huck and Jim link up, is never even to account for their choice to go down the river rather than across it. What this reveals is that for all his lip service to real attachment between white boy and black man, Twain really saw Jim as no more than Huck's sidekick, homoerotic or otherwise. All the claims that are routinely made for the book's humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd. Jim is never autonomous, never has a vote, always finds his purposes subordinate to Huck's, and, like every good sidekick, he never minds. He grows ever more passive and also more affectionate as Huck and the Duke and the Dauphin and Tom (and Twain) make ever more use of him for their own purposes. But this use they make of him is not supplementary; it is integral to Twain's whole conception of the novel. Twain thinks that Huck's affection is a good enough reward for Jim.

The sort of meretricious critical reasoning that has raised Huck's paltry good intentions to a “strategy of subversion” (David L. Smith) and a “convincing indictment of slavery” (Eliot) precisely mirrors the same sort of meretricious reasoning that white people use to convince themselves that they are not “racist.” If Huck feels positive toward Jim, and loves him, and thinks of him as a man, then that's enough. He doesn't actually have to act in accordance with his feelings. White Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans, it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture, American politics, and the American economy. To invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with “greatness” is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is and to promulgate it, philosophically, in schools and the media as well as in academic journals. Surely the discomfort of many readers, black and white, and the censorship battles that have dogged Huck Finn in the last twenty years are understandable in this context. No matter how often the critics “place in context” Huck's use of the word “nigger,” they can never excuse or fully hide the deeper racism of the novel—the way Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don't care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans. And to give credit to Huck suggests that the only racial insight Americans of the nineteenth or twentieth century are capable of is a recognition of the obvious—that blacks, slave and free, are human.

Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which for its portrayal of an array of thoughtful, autonomous, and passionate black characters leaves Huck Finn far behind. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, when Twain was seventeen, still living in Hannibal and contributing to his brother's newspapers, still sympathizing with the South, nine years before his abortive career in the Confederate Army. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most popular novel of its era, universally controversial. In 1863, when Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House, Abraham Lincoln condescended to remark to her, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.”

The story, familiar to most nineteenth-century Americans, either through the novel or through the many stage adaptations that sentimentalized Stowe's work, may be sketched briefly: A Kentucky slave, Tom, is sold to pay off a debt to a slave trader, who takes him to New Orleans. On the boat trip downriver, Tom is purchased by the wealthy Augustine St. Clare at the behest of his daughter, Eva. After Eva's death, and then St. Clare's, Tom is sold again, this time to Simon Legree, whose remote plantation is the site of every form of cruelty and degradation. The novel was immediately read and acclaimed by any number of excellent judges: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, George Sand—the whole roster of nineteenth-century liberals whose work we read today and try to persuade ourselves that Huck Finn is equal to. English novelist and critic Charles Kingsley thought Uncle Tom's Cabin the best novel ever written. These writers honored Stowe's book for all its myriad virtues. One of these was her adept characterization of a whole world of whites and blacks who find themselves gripped by slavery, many of whose names have entered the American language as expressions—not only Uncle Tom himself but Simon Legree and, to a lesser extent, little Eva and the black child Topsy. The characters appear, one after another, vivified by their attitudes, desires, and opinions as much as by their histories and their fates. Surely Augustine St. Clare, Tom's owner in New Orleans, is an exquisite portrayal of a humane but indecisive man, who knows what he is doing but not how to stop it. Surely Cassy, a fellow slave whom Tom meets on the Legree plantation, is one of the great angry women in all of literature—not only bitter, murderous, and nihilistic but also intelligent and enterprising. Surely the midlife spiritual journey of Ophelia St. Clare, Augustine's Yankee cousin, from self-confident ignorance to affectionate understanding is most convincing, as is Topsy's parallel journey from ignorance and self-hatred to humanity. The ineffectual Mr. Shelby and his submissive, and subversive, wife; the slave trader Haley; Tom's wife, Chloe; Augustine's wife, Marie; Legree's overseers, Sambo and Quimbo—good or evil, they all live.

As for Tom himself, we all know what an “Uncle Tom” is, except we don't. The popular Uncle Tom sucks up to the master and exhibits bovine patience. The real Uncle Tom is both a realist and a man of deep principle. When he is sold by Mr. Shelby in Kentucky, he knows enough of Shelby's affairs to know that what his master asserts is true: it's Tom who must go or the whole estate will be sold off for debt, including Tom's wife and three children. Later, on the Legree estate, his religious faith tells him that the greatest danger he finds there is not to his life but to his soul. His logic is impeccable. He holds fast to his soul, in the face of suffering, in a way that even nonbelievers like myself must respect. In fact, Tom's story eerily prefigures stories of spiritual solace through deep religious belief that have come out of both the Soviet Gulag and the Nazi concentration camp in the same way that the structure of power on Legree's plantation, and the suffering endured there, forecasts and duplicates many stories of recent genocides.

The power of Uncle Tom's Cabin is the power of brilliant analysis married to great wisdom of feeling. Stowe never forgets the logical end of any relationship in which one person is the subject and the other is the object. No matter how the two people feel, or what their intentions are, the logic of the relationship is inherently tragic and traps both parties until the false subject/object relationship is ended. Stowe's most oft-repeated and potent representation of this inexorable logic is the forcible separation of family members, especially of mothers from children. Eliza, faced with the sale of her child, Harry, escapes across the breaking ice of the Ohio River. Lucy, whose ten-month-old is sold behind her back, kills herself. Prue, who has been used for breeding, must listen to her last child cry itself to death because her mistress won't let her save it; she falls into alcoholism and thievery and is finally whipped to death. Cassy, prefiguring a choice made by one of the characters in Toni Morrison's Beloved, kills her last child so that it won't grow up in slavery. All of these women have been promised something by their owners—love, education, the privilege and joy of raising their children—but, owing to slavery, all of these promises have been broken. The grief and despair these women display is no doubt what T. S. Eliot was thinking of when he superciliously labeled Uncle Tom's Cabin “sensationalist propaganda,” but, in fact, few critics in the nineteenth century ever accused Stowe of making up or even exaggerating such stories. One group of former slaves who were asked to comment on Stowe's depiction of slave life said that she had failed to portray the very worst, and Stowe herself was afraid that if she told some of what she had heard from escaped slaves and other informants during her eighteen years in Cincinnati, the book would be too dark to find any readership at all.

Stowe's analysis does not stop with the slave owners and traders, or with the slaves themselves. She understands perfectly that slavery is an economic system embedded in America as a whole, and she comments ironically on Christian bankers in New York whose financial dealings result in the sale of slaves, on Northern politicians who promote the capture of escaped slaves for the sake of the public good, on ministers of churches who give the system a Christian stamp of approval. One of Stowe's most skillful techniques is her method of weaving a discussion of slavery into the dialogue of her characters. Especially interesting is a conversation Mark Twain could have paid attention to. Augustine St. Clare and his abolitionist cousin, Ophelia, are discussing his failure to act in accordance with his feelings of revulsion against slavery. After entertaining Ophelia's criticisms for a period, Augustine points out that Ophelia herself is personally disgusted by black people and doesn't like to come into contact with them. He says, “You would think no harm in a child's caressing a large dog, even if he was black … custom with us does what Christianity ought to do,—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice.” When Ophelia takes over the education of Topsy, a child who has suffered a most brutal previous upbringing, she discovers that she can do nothing with her until she takes her, literally, to her bosom. But personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery; Ophelia makes sure to give Topsy her freedom.

Stowe also understands that the real root of slavery is that it is profitable as well as customary. Augustine and his brother live with slavery because it is the system they know and because they haven't the imagination to live without it. Simon Legree embraces slavery because he can make money from it and because it gives him even more absolute power over his workers than he could find in the North or in England.

The very heart of nineteenth-century American experience and literature, the nature and meaning of slavery, is finally what Twain cannot face in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As Jim and Huck drift down Twain's beloved river, the author finds himself nearing what must have been a crucial personal nexus: how to reconcile the felt memory of boyhood with the cruel implications of the social system within which that boyhood was lived. He had avoided this problem for the most part in Tom Sawyer: slaves hardly impinge on the lives of Tom and the other boys. But once Twain allows Jim a voice, this voice must speak in counterpoint to Huck's voice and must raise issues that cannot easily be resolved, either personally or culturally. Harriet Beecher Stowe, New Englander, daughter of Puritans and thinkers, active in the abolitionist movement and in the effort to aid and educate escaped slaves, had no such personal conflict when she sat down to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nothing about slavery was attractive to her either as a New Englander or as a resident of Cincinnati for almost twenty years. Her lack of conflict is apparent in the clarity of both the style and substance of the novel.

Why, then, we may ask, did Uncle Tom's Cabin, for all its power and popularity, fail to spawn American literature? Fail, even, to work as a model for how to draw passionate, autonomous, and interesting black literary characters? Fail to keep the focus of the American literary imagination on the central dilemma of the American experience: race? Part of the reason is certainly that the public conversation about race and slavery that had been a feature of antebellum American life fell silent after the Civil War. Perhaps the answer is to be found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: everyone opted for the ultimate distraction, lighting out for the territory. And the reason is to be found in Uncle Tom's Cabin: that's where the money was.

But so what? These are only authors, after all, and once a book is published the author can't be held accountable for its role in the culture. For that we have to blame the citizens themselves, or their teachers, or their teachers, the arbiters of critical taste. In “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” the scholar Nina Baym has already detailed how the canonization of a very narrow range of white, Protestant, middle-class male authors (Twain, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, etc.) has misrepresented our literary life—first by defining the only worthy American literary subject as “the struggle of the individual against society [in which] the essential quality of America comes to reside in its unsettled wilderness and the opportunities that such a wilderness offers to the individual as the medium on which he may inscribe, unhindered, his own destiny and his own nature,” and then by casting women, and especially women writers (specialists in the “flagrantly bad best-seller,” according to Leslie Fiedler), as the enemy. In such critical readings, all other themes and modes of literary expression fall out of consideration as “un-American.” There goes Uncle Tom's Cabin, there goes Edith Wharton, there goes domestic life as a subject, there go almost all the best-selling novelists of the nineteenth century and their readers, who were mostly women. The real loss, though, is not to our literature but to our culture and ourselves, because we have lost the subject of how the various social groups who may not escape to the wilderness are to get along in society; and, in the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the hard-nosed, unsentimental dialogue about race that we should have been having since before the Civil War. Obviously, Uncle Tom's Cabin is no more the last word on race relations than The Brothers Karamazov or David Copperfield is on any number of characteristically Russian or English themes and social questions. Some of Stowe's ideas about inherent racial characteristics (whites: cold, heartless; blacks: naturally religious and warm) are bad and have been exploded. One of her solutions to the American racial conflicts that she foresaw, a colony in Africa, she later repudiated. Nevertheless, her views about many issues were brilliant, and her heart was wise. She gained the respect and friendship of many men and women of goodwill, black and white, such as Frederick Douglass, the civil-rights activist Mary Church Terrill, the writer and social activist James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. What she did was find a way to talk about slavery and family, power and law, life and death, good and evil, North and South. She truly believed that all Americans together had to find a solution to the problem of slavery in which all were implicated. When her voice, a courageously public voice—as demonstrated by the public arguments about slavery that rage throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin—fell silent in our culture and was replaced by the secretive voice of Huck Finn, who acknowledges Jim only when they are alone on the raft together out in the middle of the big river, racism fell out of the public world and into the private one, where whites think it really is but blacks know it really isn't.

Should Huckleberry Finn be taught in the schools? The critics of the Propaganda Era laid the groundwork for the universal inclusion of the book in school curriculums by declaring it great. Although they predated the current generation of politicized English professors, this was clearly a political act, because the entry of Huck Finn into classrooms sets the terms of the discussion of racism and American history, and sets them very low: all you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don't actually have to act in the interests of his humanity. Arguments about censorship have been regularly turned into nonsense by appeals to Huck's “greatness.” Moreover, so much critical thinking has gone into defending Huck so that he can be great, so that American literature can be found different from and maybe better than Russian or English or French literature, that the very integrity of the critical enterprise has been called into question. That most readers intuitively reject the last twelve chapters of the novel on the grounds of tedium or triviality is clear from the fact that so many critics have turned themselves inside out to defend them. Is it so mysterious that criticism has failed in our time after being so robust only a generation ago? Those who cannot be persuaded that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel have to draw some conclusion.

I would rather my children read Uncle Tom's Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe's novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption—just like life. Like little Eva, who eagerly but fearfully listens to the stories of the slaves that her family tries to keep from her, our children want to know what is going on, what has gone on, and what we intend to do about it. If “great” literature has any purpose, it is to help us face up to our responsibilities instead of enabling us to avoid them once again by lighting out for the territory.

Clara Claiborne Park (essay date winter 1997)

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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 boy's adventure story. No wonder that Christopher Clausen, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, remarks that “a persuasive case can be made for studying” the two novels “together, rather than as the products of two presumably discrete traditions.”

Yet far from being studied together, the novels have only rarely and fleetingly been associated. Eliot, though he wrote important essays on both books, did not link them. Huckleberry Finn had been around for forty-eight years, Kim for over thirty, before anyone noticed in print that the novels might have something in common. An occasional critic, in an isolated phrase, might suggest a connection between their authors. William Lyon Phelps in 1910 had seen in Kipling a debt to Twain's “deliberate, enormous hyperbole”; in 1926 Brander Matthews recalled Tom Sawyer as he wrote of a book in which “Kipling recovers the days of his youth.” But Phelps was thinking of Kipling's farcical “Brugglesmith,” Matthews of the schoolboys of Stalky and Co. Kim and Huck remained unmentioned. It was not until 1932 that Bernard De Voto dropped into his polemic with Van Wyck Brooks a first notice of Huck's affinity with Kim. He accorded it a full sentence. Huckleberry Finn “is the story of a wandering—so provocative a symbol that it moved Rudyard Kipling to discover another sagacious boy beneath a cannon and conduct him down an endless road”—“an enterprise,” he added, “that fell enormously short of its model.”

Seventeen years later the English critic J. M. F. Tompkins devoted three searching pages of a book on Kipling's art to these two “picaresque narratives, with boys as travellers, sweeping in the characteristic scenes and figures, opinions and superstitions of a particular society at a particular time.” I know of no more extensive treatment. Though comparisons have recently begun to proliferate as interest in the literature of colonialism mounts, they are confined to partial sentences and glancing suggestions. Kim and Huck are alike in “trying to evade the clamp of civilization,” notes Irving Howe. To Daniel Bivona the lama's river suggests a Heraclitean Mississippi. S. P. Mohanty finds Kim's relationship with the lama “culturally vacuous” compared with Huck's with Jim, though both boys learn “to value the hardships of an unsheltered life over the privileges of ‘sivilization.’” In his extensive discussion of Kim, Edward Said, tracing the genealogy of novels that celebrate “the friendship of two men in a difficult, and sometimes hostile, environment,” remarks parenthetically that “Huckleberry Finn,Moby Dick, and The Deerslayer come quickly to mind” but leaves it at that. All of these are in contexts where Kipling, not Twain, is the focus of attention. Although in the astonishing volume of critical writing on Huckleberry Finn there must somewhere be a reference after De Voto's, I have not found it.

Today, with Huck Finn present, or controversially absent, in every American high school, and scarcely a book in the exploding number of studies of imperialism, colonial literatures, and “orientalism” that leaves Kim undiscussed, it seems not only time to make the connection but extraordinary that anyone could have overlooked it. Clausen explains this by “the continuing power of cultural nationalism,” the rigid division of English-department curricula between American and British literature that “tend[s] to define the specialties of literary scholars.” He is certainly right, as my meager American harvest shows. But there are other reasons, less parochial—or parochial in a different way.

The thing is, Kipling simply isn't as important as Twain. In academic language, Kim isn't in anybody's canon. Comparability here is not a function of theme, of treatment, of authorly preoccupations, of imaginative power, of readerly pleasure or admiration; it is a function of status.

Though academics confer status, the status of Huckleberry Finn is more than academic. The very day that Twain began it is “momentous in the history of American literature.” It is not only “the great American novel,” wrote Phelps, “it is America.” Mencken went further: it is “perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English.” And there's Hemingway's judgment, endlessly quoted: “All modern American literature comes from one book called Huckleberry Finn. … There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” In the words of a popular literary pundit of the forties, Clifton Fadiman, Mark Twain is “our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Vergil.” In forty more years, a Washington Post editorialist would call Huck Finn “the Sistine Chapel of our civilization.”

American or English, academic or common reader, no one talks like that about Kim. Something deeper than academic compartmentalization underlies such torrid pronouncements. The rhetoric of cultural nationalism is the rhetoric of national need. As once they needed epics, national literatures now need great originary novels. American literature needs Huck Finn as British literature does not and cannot need Kim. “The great British novel”—the absurdity of the phrase bespeaks the disparity of the cultural need between a young nation and an old one that takes its status for granted.

Yet even if the British had yearned for the coming of a great novel, one that should profoundly tell them who they imagined themselves to be, it could not have been Kim. An adolescent America might recognize its mythical self-image in a book for boys, telling the story of a boy's escape from “sivilization.” England could not. Huckleberry Finn could be felt as central to American experience, psychologically, thematically, even geographically. To English experience, Kim could only be peripheral; part of its charm was that in each of these ways it was as far from England as could be imagined. It was not even, as A Passage to India would be, about the English in India. Its few British characters, though they have their importance to the plot, are as alien to the book's emotional center as the Widow and Aunt Sally are to Huck's relationship with Jim. Kim is overwhelmingly a novel about India—“The Finest Story about India,” N. C. Chaudhuri called it in 1957, ten years after independence, and when he added “—in English” to the title of his essay, it was a statement, not a qualification. But there was a greater obstacle than genre or locale to according Kim a status that could invite, or even admit, comparison with Twain's novel. By mid-century, what Trilling called Kipling's “mindless imperialism” had become notorious. Kipling had won the Nobel Prize in 1907, but in the years in which Huckleberry Finn was becoming America's Sistine Chapel—and India was struggling toward independence—his reputation steadily sank. Auden might write in 1938 that Time that “worships language” had pardoned “Kipling and his views”—pardoned him “for writing well.” But Time was in no such hurry to absolve. Through the thirties, the forties, the fifties, the sixties, Kipling's reputation resisted rehabilitation with extraordinary tenacity. And not only rehabilitation; it resisted any attempt to take his work seriously. Auden tried. Edmund Wilson tried. T. S. Eliot tried. Lionel Trilling tried. Randall Jarrell tried. To no avail. Kipling had written well enough to burn “the White Man's Burden” into the English-speaking memory, and for three generations that phrase was beyond pardon. However deeply—or finely—Kim might be about India, it was wholly at home with empire. Certainly the imperial voice was less strident in this novel, conceived in Vermont and completed in England, than in earlier stories by Kipling. Yet it was still audible, and that was enough. A book wholly at home with empire could not be a great novel.

Time passes, however. Trilling might write in 1943 that “Indians naturally have no patience with Kipling,” but it is Indians, former Indians, and others whose anti-imperialist credentials are impeccable who now take Kipling very seriously indeed. Not only Chaudhuri, but Sara Suleri, S. P. Mohanty, Zohreh T. Sullivan, K. R. S. Iyengar, V. A. Shahane, Salman Rushdie, and Edward Said are ready to examine, to challenge, to praise, even, in varying degrees, to pardon. Kim, like Huckleberry Finn, has never been out of print. But in the last ten years it has become available in paperback in Twentieth Century Classics (Penguin), The World Classics (Oxford), and Bantam publications; a Norton Critical Edition inches toward publication. An irresistible comparison need no longer be resisted.

Kipling and Twain, after all, were not merely contemporaries. They were profoundly aware of each other—acquaintances and mutual admirers long before 1907, when Lord Curzon conferred on each of them Oxford's honorary degree. Kipling was a schoolboy in England when he read Tom Sawyer's adventures. In 1888, at twenty-two, he was quoting Huckleberry Finn from memory, though he'd been six years in India and the book had been published only three years before. In 1889 he would return to England—via San Francisco, whence he would make his way to Elmira, New York, to seek out “this man I had learned to love and admire fourteen thousand miles away.” Naturally Twain had never heard of the young unknown; Kipling's stories had not yet appeared outside India. Yet the meeting was memorable for both. Kipling sent a reverential account of it to his Indian newspaper; years later, Twain would record his memory of it in his autobiography.

Inside a year Kipling was unknown no longer. Already in 1890 Twain was reading “my splendid Kipling,” and writing a friend that his stories, “plenty good enough on a first reading,” were even better on a second. By 1895 the two most famous—and most popular—authors in the world were on familiar enough terms for Twain, with typical brio, to alert Kipling to his upcoming India trip; he would arrive “riding my ayah with his tusks adorned with silver bells and ribbons and escorted by a troop of native howdahs richly clad and mounted upon a herd of wild bungalows.” Letters and occasional visits kept up the friendship. In 1903, when F. N. Doubleday told Twain that Kipling had called him “the great and godlike Clemens,” his response was that he “would rather see [Kipling] than any other man.”

It's no wonder they found each other congenial. I cannot think of two writers in English who had more reasons to understand each other. Both had begun as ink-stained working journalists. Both became popular almost as soon as they began to publish—immensely, internationally, and (it now seems) permanently. Both were geographical and cultural outsiders: Kipling formed by India, where he was born, to which he returned for his most formative years; Twain a raucous voice from far beyond the Hudson. They were academic outsiders as well. Twain was out of school and earning his living at thirteen, Kipling at sixteen, and both kept from that experience a lifelong commitment to “the day's work” and the kind of people that performed it. Both had an extraordinary ear for hearing and a talent for rendering their various voices, “not,” as Twain proudly explained in his introductory note to Huckleberry Finn, “in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.” Out of their working experience, too, came their respect for machines. “Engines and screws,” Henry James regretfully called it—speaking of Kipling. Speaking of Twain, Van Wyck Brooks remarked that “his enthusiasm for literature was as nothing beside his enthusiasm for machines,” and deplored his “ingrained contempt for the creative life as against the life of sagacious action,” “for the word as against the deed.”

One could make something of an anthology of such unrelated, but virtually reversible critical dicta. “The vernacular style … has been peculiarly useful in expressing a preoccupation with process, with the way things are done,” noted Leo Marx. He was talking about Twain; he could have said the same of Kipling. Reversible, too, is his acute comment on “the chief defect of the vernacular mode—its unremitting anti-intellectualism.” When intellect counterattacks, it is on similar grounds. Thus Brooks complains that about philosophy or history “one would say that Mark Twain had never thought at all,” while Noel Annan must defend Kipling from the often-made “charge that he has no mind.” Kipling, too, is called, as Brooks called Twain, “a victim of arrested development.” When the same things are said less pejoratively, they are equally reversible. For De Voto, Twain was an artist who preferred “experience to metaphysical abstractions and the thing to its symbol.” For T. S. Eliot, Kipling was “an intuitive rather than an intellectual,” his mind not “gifted for abstract thought.”

Out of such affinities grew two extraordinary novels, each described by successive critics as the only successful novel its author achieved—his masterpiece, his one great book. Like their authors, the books generate reversible judgments, arising from one, equally applicable to the other. When Trilling speaks of a novel, part of whose greatness “is that it succeeds as a boys' book,” which read at ten “and then annually thereafter” is each year “as fresh as the year before, … changed only in growing somewhat larger,” he is of course talking about Huck Finn. But when he tells us that “to a middle-class boy he gave a literary sanction for the admiration of the illiterate and shiftless part of humanity,” he is talking about Kipling, about Kim. It hardly seems to matter which book is called “idyllic” or “pastoral,” the adjectives are so frequent, or which is praised for its command of vernacular voices. So, too, with “episodic” and “picaresque.” And these are only the most obvious of the parallels.

Such similarities might seem to suggest direct influence. Twain himself saw none, though he read Kim every year and admired it as much as he admired Kipling, whose “name and … words stir me more than any other living man's.” He thought it “worth the journey to India to qualify myself to read Kim understandingly and to realize how great a book it is.” Yet this tribute, written five years after Kim's publication and four years before Twain's death, contains no suggestion that Kim brought Huck to mind. And Kipling, so much younger, so much aware of himself as a writer? Did he recognize between river and road, between Huck and Kim, between Jim and Teshoo Lama, a kinship he might gracefully have acknowledged? I doubt it. For among the similarities are entwined such differences as might well overwhelm conscious or unconscious recognition of affinity, differences that ensure that each book remains triumphantly itself.

That both Twain and Kipling wrote children's books that adults continue to explore is a similarity at once obvious and deep. The ability—and the need—to access the far shore of childhood, to reenter and to actualize a remembered Eden, is central to the creation of these novels as to no others I can name, and it is not children but adults to whom this return has meaning. Huck and Kim take their imaginative intensity from a boyhood to which their creators could return only in dreams. Prisoners of success—including successful marriages—and perhaps for that very reason, they kept intact their vision of a paradise both past and real. Twain did not take his wife or children back to Missouri; they lived grandly and expensively in New York and Connecticut, and later, less expensively but still grandly, in the grander cities of Europe. Kipling did not take his family to India, though the Kiplings traveled widely and for years wintered in South Africa. Nor did he go back himself. Yet in the autobiography he wrote in his seventieth year, forty-four years after he had seen India for the last time, the idyll returns in a rush of remembrance: “daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder,” visits to “little Hindu temples where, being below the age of caste,” he “looked at the dimly-seen, friendly Gods” as he held a beloved Indian hand.

Huck's idyll is very different from Kim's, not least in its duration. “It's lovely to live on a raft,” with “everybody … satisfied” and “feel[ing] right and kind toward the others,” but all told the loveliness lasts less than three weeks. As Huck and Jim drift naked down the river, their paradise is as temporary, and as isolated, as Eden itself. The incursions of a violent and unjust society shatter the dream of human fellowship, as the steamboat literally wrecks the raft. The raft will be recovered and repaired, but after that there will be only “two or three days” more to slide along “so quiet and smooth and lovely.” Once the Duke and the King come aboard, idyll gives place to boisterous farce, and paradise is lost for good.

Its perfection is dependent on its isolation, as Huck's state of innocence is dependent on his status as a moral and social outsider. To keep his integrity he must remain one; he does not and cannot. Twain advertised him on the title page as “Tom Sawyer's Comrade.” Once back on shore, Tom's world and Tom's values claim him, and the moral idyll is forgotten. Huck may speak up, amusingly if feebly, for common sense against Tom's romantic tricks, but he doesn't speak up for Jim. To reclaim the innocence Twain has insouciantly forfeited, we must steadfastly misread Huck's famous lighting out for the territory. We must, and, out of the intensity of our need, most of us do, ignoring not only the hint that Huck will be only a little “ahead of the others,” but the explicit witness of such sequels as Tom Sawyer Abroad, where Huck, returned to St. Petersburg, continues as Tom Sawyer's loyal subordinate and Jim is in blackface forever.

The idyll of Kim and Teshoo Lama, however, is hardy enough to last out the book. Their journeyings, though interrupted by Kim's “sivilizing” stints in school (where, like Huck, he wears uncomfortable clothes but learns some useful things), cover three full years, in which Kim has time to grow as Huck cannot. And unlike Huck's and Jim's idyll, secure in an isolation in which “nothing ever happened,” Kim's paradise is one of human bustle and noise and continuing event. Unlike the river, or the barely mentioned “territory,” India is peopled, various and rich with human beings, their languages, religions, their social rules and assumptions. The Grand Trunk Road is “as a river,” on which move “all castes and kinds of men … Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters—all the world coming and going,” as social as Huck's actual river is solitary. Kim swims in society. He, like Huck, is fatherless and motherless, socially marginal, even Irish. Yet he is the ultimate insider, at home everywhere and with everyone, the “Little Friend of All the World.” Far from depending on isolation, his relationship with Teshoo Lama is social from the outset, beginning in a boy's social curiosity (“He is new”) and continuing in a boy's expertise, the street smarts that mediate between the Holy One's spirituality and the rich practicalities of the world.

And the world in Kim is not violent but benign. In that respect Kipling's is far more a boy's book than Twain's, though in other ways it is far less so. To reread Huckleberry Finn as an adult is to experience a society so murderous that only selective memory—and the return of Tom Sawyer—can haze it into the eternal summer of Norman Rockwell boyhood. Huck's father nearly succeeds in killing him. Jim is in continual danger of death. We could list corpses, beginning with Pap's, but with the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, we'd lose count, and Colonel Sherburn's point-blank shooting of the town drunk still to come. “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” says Huck, oddly enough when the deaths are behind him and it's only a matter of tar and feathers. Yet even in the farcical ending, the lynch mob and the bullets are real.

Whereas in all of Kim there is not a single fatality. In Kipling's Eden as in Milton's, death, though alluded to, is suspended. Danger and risk are asserted rather than experienced, and the single act of violence, in which a brutal Russian knocks down the lama and tears his marvelous drawing of the Wheel of Life, would in Huck's harsh world hardly merit the telling. Kipling's earlier stories had been full of the murder and graphic mayhem that come easy to a young reporter—too full, protested Indian critics, to pretend to a realistic rendition of Indian life. Here he makes another choice. We may recognize reasons of genre—Victorian boys' books minimized or excluded outright violence—unless, of course, they were written by Mark Twain. But in Kim the exclusion has deeper roots. This was the beloved country of his childhood, the secure paradise of sensory awareness and human affection from which he'd been exiled when, at five, his parents had left him without explanation in the chill English hell that he to the end of his life would call The House of Desolation. Not English but Hindustani was the vernacular of paradise, the language of songs and stories, of love. In paradise children had to be reminded to “speak English now to Papa and Mama.” Writing Kim in the “gloomy, windy English autumn,” Kipling “had my Eastern sunlight.” Here he could regain all he'd lost and more, dreaming a world “below the age of caste” in which a boy, white and yet not white, Indian and yet British, could recognize what Zohreh T. Sullivan calls “the underground Indian child who is always unavoidably within him.” Kipling would find a plot that would allow that child to grow out of boyhood, able, by his mastery of language and disguise, to do what, if it had ever been possible, was possible no longer. Though Kim is now sixteen and a sahib, he can enter the temple as the child Ruddy could and find his lama there, and “forgetting his white blood,” gladly make the Indian gesture of reverence, stooping to touch his Holy One's feet. “That night he dreamed in Hindustani, with never an English word.” Even in imagination, Twain could secure no such fullness of return.

Kim is, as Edward Said points out, “an overwhelmingly male novel”—another doubly applicable critical perception. Idylls written, if not only for boys still with boys in mind, are likely to be. De Voto invites another double application, noting that Twain “could create women of only a certain age and class.” Yet crucial differences must qualify both judgments. Both Twain and Kipling are at home with older women, good cooks who can at need nurse back to health the sick or injured male. But the aunts and widows of Huckleberry Finn represent a sivilization not only misspelled but sentimentalized, a civilization (as De Voto notes) that excludes sex. It's a familiar picture. In age, the female is nurturing and prone to tears; in youth, if worthy of male attention, she is prone to tears, beautiful, and in need of male protection. Mary Jane Wilks is “sweet and lovely” and makes Huck's heart swell up like to bust, but at nineteen she is no more to be apprehended sexually than Tom Sawyer's Becky Thatcher.

But as there's more violence in Huck than fits an idyll, there's more sex in Kim than fits a boys' book—certainly one published in 1901. Though the old woman from Kulu nurses Kim as Aunt Sally nurses the wounded Tom, her inventive curses and cheerful sexual innuendos are more likely to recall the Wife of Bath than any female in Huckleberry Finn. Huck's puppyish attachment to Mary Jane would touch Victorian readers and perhaps convince them; Kim's expertise with helpful prostitutes made one contemporary reviewer wish for a “cleaner” hero. And there is his encounter with the Woman of Shamlegh,1 up in the polyandrous hills. “No common bearer of babes,” as she proudly tells Kim, this masterful woman who gives the orders in her village and holds it directly from the Rajah makes Kim an offer inconceivable for Mary Jane. If he refuses, it is not because he does not understand its nature, though few of Kipling's child readers would have done so. Kim has known about sex “since he could speak”; Huck, so familiar with violence, seems never to have heard of it.

The confident, self-defined women of Kim are in need of no man's protection—or boy's. On the contrary, they control the episodes that contain them, and those episodes are crucial to the novel. Huckleberry Finn could do without Mary Jane, and one Aunt Sally is much like another. In contrast, the unsentimental realism with which Kipling treats his female characters allows us to take them seriously. (I know a traveler in the Himalayan foothills who not long ago received—and like Kim refused—just such an invitation in just such a place from just such a woman.) Because we can take them seriously, Kipling can use them for serious purposes. Women not only provide a protective setting for the novel's concluding episodes but contribute significantly to the defining of its major themes. The Woman of Shamlegh marks a significant stage on Kim's journey to maturity. Mary Jane can only cement Huck's eternal boyhood. She is merely another installment in a novel Hemingway famously advised us not to finish, a novel whose author just as famously warned its readers that “persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Kipling too called Kim “picaresque and plotless”; he told his mother that “what was good enough for Cervantes was good enough for him.” This looks at first like another reversible judgment, but the similarity dissolves on inspection. Huckleberry Finn is indeed a series of “adventures,” as its title indicates. Sometimes they include Jim; more often he is absent or disastrously peripheral. Teshoo Lama appears in thirteen of Kim's fifteen chapters; he is never long out of Kim's consciousness or ours. Structurally, there is no doubt about what is the novel's center: spatially, the Road (as Huck's River is not, however much we wish it to be); intellectually, psychologically, and humanly, the relationship of Kim and the lama, a relationship that guides the novel from its beginning to its tender and ambiguous end.

As Said has pointed out, Kim is both bildungsroman and quest story. For the lama, it is a quest for release from the Wheel of Being; for Kim a discovery—and creation—of his true identity. Who, what is Kim? By the novel's end, the road will have brought a resourceful boy to the threshold of effective manhood—in his own terms. The lama will—in his own terms—have found his own River, the River of Lord Buddha's Arrow; he will have achieved salvation “for himself and his beloved.” Kipling, having centered his novel on two antithetical figures, young and old, white and colored, worldly and spiritual, can now use the two concluding episodes, each made possible by a woman, to bring their separate quests to a single close. At Shamlegh, the two seemingly irreconcilable plotlines coalesce. At Kulu they are brought to conclusion, a conclusion that at once ensures the novel's artistic coherence and challenges us with questions neither Kipling nor we can answer.

At Shamlegh, the Woman, though a bitter skeptic in matters of religion (readers who remember “Lispeth” will know why), will provide the necessary litter for the weakened lama and order her husbands to carry him to what will prove to be the end point of his quest. At Shamlegh, too, Kim's defense of the lama will enable his full entry into the Great Game as he takes possession of the maps of the Russian spies and throws their surveying instruments into bottomless space. In this climactic episode, he justifies the years of education that have converted a clever street urchin into an effective agent of British intelligence.

Though this is exactly the outcome we have found so difficult to pardon, in the novel's own terms—Said is unquestionably right on this—it is a triumph. Sivilization could promise Huck and Jim no such protective order as Kipling saw in his idealized British Raj, the Raj of bridges and railroads, engines and screws, the benign and active guarantor of an enlightened justice that should understand and respect the multiform beliefs and differences of the governed, their civilization, properly spelled—everything but their ability to govern themselves.

And yet, are the novel's terms so simple? In one of the verses Kipling liked to affix to his chapters, he—or is it Kim?—gives ecumenical thanks to God (for he knew quite well the meaning of “Allah”) “who gave me two / Separate sides to my head.” Two sides. English and Indian. Game and quest, and a quest is not a game. In this bildungsroman in which (Said again) “he has graduated from one brilliant success to another,” there is another kind of education for Kim, not complementary to, but radically at odds with, the first, a kind of education that puts the very concept of success in question. At Shamlegh, Kipling brings to its sharpest concentration the conflict that defines the novel.

Brilliantly double, the episode that is a triumph for Kim is for the lama a Dark Night of the Soul. The detour that has taken him back from the plains to his beloved hills—and Kim more deeply into the Game—has tempted him from his quest, back into the illusory world of desire and anger. At Shamlegh, the lama articulates most fully the Way he has tried to teach Kim and confronts its most difficult challenge. “All the long night,” “torn and wrenched beyond a thousand blows,” he traces “the running grass-roots of evil.” Fifty years past, monk or no monk, the lama was a fighter. He still bears the scar. Now, though the Russian's blow “was but a shadow on a shadow,” it struck with all the power of illusion. “Evil in itself … it met evil in me, anger, rage, and lust to return evil.” More: returned to the hills, the old man had exulted, gloried in his endurance, “desired strong slopes to climb.” The attack, the tearing of the sacred Wheel of Life, “was a sign to me, who am no better than a strayed yak, that my place is not here. … ‘Back to the path,’ says the Blow. ‘The Hills are not for thee. Thou canst not choose Freedom and go in bondage to the delight of life.’” “Just is the Wheel. … Learn the lesson, chela.” It is not the lesson of Kim's Western education.

Kim mutters what we may take as a Western response—or perhaps it is merely a natural one. It is certainly truthful. The lesson “is too high for me. … I am glad I hurt the man.” Reject force? Kim is a boy, and boys are likely to return blow for blow. He is an agent of government—of imperial government—and governments do, perhaps must, use force. Reject the world? The whole novel has celebrated the delight of life.

The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. … This was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye.

Edmund Wilson's political reading of the East-West conflict in terms of the Indian independence movement seems transitory and shallow compared with the conflict between the lama's Way and Kim's.

We may see it as a conflict between Eastern quietism and Western activism, but that is too easy. Though Kipling invites such a reading, he pushes us beyond such ready dichotomies. The West has its contemplatives, and not all of them are saints; there is nothing quieter than Huck's and Jim's Mississippi idyll, where every incursion of the active world threatens danger or injustice, and usually both. And Kim's India is full of men of action (we need only consider Kim's alternative father figure, Mahbub Ali), all of them, in the lama's terms, deeply engrossed in the world, cheerfully and energetically bound on the Wheel.

Men of action, and women too. Like the lama, the Sahiba of Kulu is old. Kipling brought her in near the Road's beginning; here, at its end, he needs her again, and not only for his plot. Certainly she provides a haven for Kim, now ill and exhausted, and the failing lama. But more than any single character except Kim himself, she provides the thematic counterweight to the lama's rejection of the delight of life and the needs of the “stupid body.” Her practicality, her vigorous enjoyment, her good food, her healing potions and massage techniques of which, Kipling tells us, Europeans know nothing, carry a heavier weight than Aunt Sally's good grub and tearful care for the wounded Tom. Affirming in age what Kim's alert delight affirms in youth, they define the central conflict that pervades the novel and organizes it.

As Kim teasingly reminds his Holy One, those for whom the world is illusion must depend on the day's work of those for whom it is real. The lama's detachment requires “a chela to prepare tea for him, and to fold a blanket for his head, and to chase out calving cows.” The Sahiba, with her raunchy jokes and her talkative preoccupation with grandchildren, is a persuasive voice for the tasks and pleasures of the ongoing, fertile world. Like the Rissaldar, the old soldier who jokes with the lama, “the despiser of this world,” he who calls children “stumbling blocks upon the Way” yet sings a nursery ditty to comfort a crying baby, she speaks for another kind of river than Lord Buddha's, what the narrator calls “the broad smiling river of life.” That the lama finds his own river in her fields, that the novel ends in her compound, confirms and reaffirms its double pull.

But the strongest voice for the delight of life has been implicit throughout—not only the delight in the Road and its color and variety, but the delight in another human being, the one attachment the lama cannot relinquish, his love for his chela. It is in this relationship that Kipling's Road differs most from Twain's River. Both, indeed, assert the Edenic possibility of affection in difference. And in both unlikely pairings, that love is a powerful educative instrument, as white boy learns from man of color lessons their creators direct not only to the children for whom the books were ostensibly written but also to the adult world. “Learn the lesson, chela.” In Huckleberry Finn, this is overwhelmingly a lesson of the heart. The “good heart” Twain gave Huck allows him to discover what clever, heedless Tom will never know. He learns from Jim that blacks love their families just as white folks do. He learns, though he will all too soon forget it, that folks who play humiliating tricks on friends who love them are trash. He learns that he'd go to hell to save Jim, although he doesn't learn why. And since Twain's irony calls upon adult readers to think things through, we learn from the paradisal raft more than Huck can understand, or at least conceptualize, about the dehumanizing of human beings.

Kim, too, has a good heart, but he swims in deeper waters. In Huckleberry Finn we know what is right and what is wrong, all the more clearly because a slave-owning society has reversed those terms in the name of Christianity. But it is part of Kim's force that it poses questions to which there can be no answers. We cannot imagine Huck questioning his own identity, as Kim does in his frightened isolation, or choosing to travel as a disciple with a despiser of this world. What Kim absorbs from the lama cannot be what Huck absorbs from Jim. What Huck—and we with him—must learn over and over is that Jim is like us and we like him, all human together; what he does not learn, and we must, is that any system that denies that is simply, unequivocally wrong. What Kim—and we—learn from the lama is the possibility of an alternative, valid, and wholly other way of being.

That a resourceful and sociable boy who is, as the lama notes, “something of a small imp” should be attracted to, of all things, an exemplar of holiness is for the novelist an extraordinary creative choice, a choice, literally and figuratively, halfway round the world from Huckleberry Finn. Kipling built that choice into the story from its opening in front of the great Museum of which Kipling's own father was curator, whose astonishing collection of Buddhist sculptures Kipling uses to introduce a novel that, as finely as any in our language, sets out the counter-statement to the values of the imperial West. Who is Kim? What is Kim? What is real and what is illusion? How should life be lived? Huck would not be Huck if he asked such questions.

The waters are deep, and Twain would have found them about as congenial as a bath in the Ganges. When he writes about Benares in Following the Equator, it is the river's filth that strikes him, not its holiness, and though he tries to be respectful, he sprays Hinduism with the same corrosive sarcasm—no more, perhaps, but certainly no less—that he accords Christianity. But Kipling has made metaphysical and religious questions integral to the relationship between Kim and Teshoo Lama, and he treats these questions with full seriousness. The relationship between boy and man is of the rare kind that is founded on respect for what the other is, and the lama is Kim's Holy One. Edward Said types with Western fingers when he writes that “of course,” “there is some mumbo-jumbo” in the lama's final vision of the soul's escape “beyond the illusion of Time and Space and of Things.” It is a vision that Kipling, having two sides to his head, both understands and honors; his presentation of its dimensions is in turn respected by such Indian critics as Iyengar, Shahane, Chaudhuri, and Bhaskar Rao. Kim will not choose that Way—he will recognize that for him, as for the Widow and the Rissaldar, the world is real, roads are “meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to.” Yet the lama's voice will be unforgotten. Kipling never discounts his vision, nor can India be experienced—or respected—by discounting it. There must be a sense in which the Holy One's search is fulfilled, his cleansing River more than a mere brook.

Here, at least, Kipling's respect is untainted by the racial condescension that manages, apparently without Twain's noticing it, to transform Jim from a moral teacher to whom Huck can willingly humble himself to the superstitious butt of an elaborate practical joke. Both Jim and the lama have been called childlike by critics, but the lama's innocence is very different from what William Lyon Phelps, secure in the white stereotypes of 1910, could praise as Jim's “peculiar harmlessness.” That the lama is unaware that the Western education he paid for prepared his chela for a secret-service career, that he knows nothing of the Great Game, is naïve, but it is not foolish. It is no undeveloped intellect that holds that “to help the ignorant to wisdom is always a merit.” If the lama is a child in the ways of the world and the Raj, it is because he has spent fifty years in a monastery, not because he is what Kipling calls an “Oriental.”

The novel's Orientals—Hurree Babu, Mahbub Ali, and a host of others—are neither childlike nor naïve. And it is no reverent native but Kipling's own narrative voice that offers us the lama “as a scholar removed from vanity, as a Seeker walking in humility, as an old man, wise and temperate, illuminating knowledge with brilliant insight, … till Kim, who had loved him without reason, now loved him for fifty good reasons.” That we must ask what use, in the Game, Kim can make of a wisdom that defines the whole life of action as illusion is central to the tender irony that pervades the novel. But it is a challenge to the lama's Way, not a dismissal of it.

Teshoo Lama is a spiritual presence so compelling that it keeps the love and allegiance even of this savvy street kid turned sahib. On such dignity one does not play jokes. “He had dreamed dreams at school of returning to the lama as a Sahib—of chaffing the old man before he revealed himself—boy's dreams all.” One of the more problematic affinities between Twain and Kipling was their love, in life and in fiction, of the practical joke. Even De Voto, espousing Twain's frontier robustness against Brooks's Eastern genteelism, could not ignore the “inharmonious burlesque” that defaces the last chapters of his novel, and critics from Henry James to Edmund Wilson complained of Stalky and Co. But Kipling could control the tilt toward farce that Twain allowed to mar even his finest work. No contrast is more telling than his decision to make the maturing Kim consider, and reject, exactly the kind of prank most reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn.

Of all the reversible judgments, the least avoidable is the issue that has already insisted on making its way into this exposition, however I tried to hold it back. Of Kim, Said wrote that it is “a rich and absolutely fascinating but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel.” Huckleberry Finn, too, continues to fascinate and embarrass, in unequal measure. E. L. Doctorow puts it categorically: “Something terrible happens—terrible for Huck, terrible for American literature,” and Twain “blows his greatest work.” Doctorow makes no excuses. “It is Huck Finn who struggles against the mores of his time to help the black man, Jim, escape from slavery, but it is Huck's progenitor” who brings back Tom, converts Jim's liberation into a protracted, cruel joke, and expects us to enjoy it. “Tom's book and Huck's book,” writes Doctorow, “are conflicting visions of the same past, and at the end one vision prevails, and it is the wrong one.” Huck and Tom. Sahib and Indian. Frederick Crews, writing of Twain, has spoken of “a conflicted authorial will.” A critic such as D. L. Smith, brilliant, generous, and black, may try to save the appearances by reading Huck Finn as an allegory of Reconstruction. But the common reader must read with Hemingway and Doctorow a profoundly embarrassing novel, structurally fissured, ethically riven.

Today's common reader—or critic—is not, however, yesterday's. Time may, as Auden thought, forgive the trespasses of those who write well enough, but more than half a century went by before it was generally noticed that Twain had anything to be forgiven for. “What was principally wrong” with Tom's well-named “Evasion,” thought De Voto, was that “Mark's innocent pleasure thrust it into a great novel.” As late as 1948 Trilling could write of “this almost perfect work” that “only one mistake has ever been charged against it,” and that mistake was an aesthetic, not an ethical lapse. The Evasion was “a falling off,” “too long,” “too elaborate,” though, like Eliot, he defended its “formal aptness.” Neither suggested that there were other grounds for criticism or for defense. It was not until 1953 that Leo Marx, in The American Scholar, called attention to “the glaring lapse of moral imagination in Huckleberry Finn” and set the terms for the debate that still continues.

Against current apologetics we may usefully set the reading experience of the Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale. William Lyon Phelps, too, was defending Twain, whose genius he thought insufficiently recognized in accounts of American literature that gave him less space than Josh Billings and Artemus Ward. He knew Twain, and, closer to him in time and in assumptions about American society, he is arguably a more realistic reader of what is upon the page. Contrasting Huck with Uncle Tom's Cabin, Phelps praises Twain for “giv[ing] us both points of view,” for including, along with “the horror,” “the beautiful side of slavery,” “its wonderfully beautiful, patriarchal side.” As Huck rose to the status of cultural icon, the raft's brief idyll was remembered; the beautiful side of slavery, the side that is encoded in Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas and the good food they send the captive Jim, was ignored. Twain, after all, was anti-slavery; was not that enough? Jim was really free all along, and though the Evasion might be an artistic lapse, who would grudge Tom his little joke or Twain his innocent pleasure?

Kipling and his views have been less fortunate. A more conscious thinker than Twain, as well as a more conscious artist, he knew exactly where he stood and why. He could yearn for India, respect its religious thought, love in imagination its multivarious people as far as he knew them, think he knew them better than he did. He could not respect their ability to govern themselves. Today, perhaps, we may be ready to find it astonishing that for so long this has been harder to forgive than an appreciation of slavery's beautiful side.

Auden might pardon such views; Wilson could not. In mid-century, he knew “what the reader tends to expect”: that “Kim will come eventually to realize that he is delivering into bondage to the British invaders those whom he has always considered his own people, and that a struggle between allegiances will result. … It never seems to occur to his creator that this constitutes a betrayal of the lama.” A betrayal of the lama. A betrayal of Jim. “Kipling has committed one of the most serious sins … which are possible for an imaginative writer. He has resisted his own sense of life and discarded his own moral intelligence.” Five years later Leo Marx would write of Twain's lapse of moral imagination. The need for pardon may be where the two books most profoundly connect.

Yet we may pardon differently, and for different things. Kim ends, tenderly and beautifully, with the lama; Huck Finn ends with Jim only in a way that, if we cannot forget it, we cannot endure. Kipling was able to imagine a plot to bring the sides of his head together, to resolve his conflicted authorial will into a dream of love so fully imagined it seems real—love subsisting not only for a few weeks in isolation, but in society and over time. It was, of course, impossible—perhaps the word is inconceivable—in the imperial India he had known to bring Indian and English adults together as equal friends, in actuality or in fiction. Twenty years later Forster would try it, only to conclude that it couldn't yet be done. It is hardly surprising that Mark Twain couldn't keep going a true black-white friendship in America in 1885.

But it is more than personal affection that provides Kipling's resolution, and this is where, as Said has argued, Wilson's anti-imperialism leads him to misjudge the artistic integrity of a novel that, embarrassing as it may be, we are, in Said's words, “entitled to read as belonging to the world's great literature.” (Among Said's few revisions in incorporating the 1986 introduction to Kim into his 1993 Culture and Imperialism was to change “great” to “greatest.”) However flawed the politics, the novel contains no such imaginative fissure as Twain's, since for Kipling it is exactly the British Empire, whose servant Kim has become, that guarantees the continuance of the multiple India he has loved, that protects and holds safe against change the paradise of his youth. In the sacramental moment when Kim lies down in the healing Indian dust—no English grass, “no new herbage that, living, is half-way to death already, but the hopeful dust that holds the seeds of all life”—Kipling has regained his Indian sunlight the only way he can regain it, in memory and art. It shines on British India in full ideality, maintained by the English hierarchy of class and race atop the Indian hierarchy of caste. Hierarchies will seem natural, even necessary, when you are born to them. Benign English power must tame and order that marvelous multiplicity (no immolated widows, no Hindu-Muslim bloodshed), and guarantee it against the aggressor from the North. “Oh, India, Oh, my country!” wrote Kipling when leaving it. Trilling called Huckleberry Finn “a hymn to an older America forever gone.” For Kim, he would have had to change only one word.

After almost a century, we may need to remind ourselves of the power of that imperial ideal. It could, after all, make an imperialist even out of Mark Twain—whose anti-imperialism, based on his opposition to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines, has been greatly exaggerated. Inspired by Kipling to visit India, he returned to rehearse for eager Americans the most sensational British accounts of “the Satanic brotherhood of the thugs,” along with horror stories of suttee, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the “Great Mutiny.” The Mutiny in Kim is accorded an understated page and a half, just enough to make the imperial point. In Following the Equator, Twain milks it for fourteen pages. It was not Twain but Kipling who wrote of Warren Hastings that “he saved to England the Indian Empire, and that was the best service that was ever done to the Indians themselves, those wretched heirs of a hundred centuries of pitiless oppression and abuse.” It is in that context that we may hear and pardon Kipling's hymn to the India he could neither transfix nor possess.

Such a hymn will raise, of course, the specter of “essentialism.” There's not much to be done about that, in Twain, in Kipling, in a lot of other writers we are lucky to be able to read. Trilling's phrase, which deliberately echoes Twain's own words about Tom Sawyer, may remind us that hymning the past is something that artists do—sometimes, as Proust did, in its passingness, more often in what the passing, temporal consciousness strives to fix as a timeless essence. That is what an idyll is. Taken in that sense, it is not a minor form, but one of the continuing shapes art gives to our desire.

Nor need Kim and Huckleberry Finn seem as irrevocably past as all that. Huck has still enough to show us about race, and time has brought round even some of Kipling's views that seemed most obsolete. The imperial Russian outrages the lama's map of the moral universe in an act all too prophetic of what other lamas have suffered and are suffering at the hands of another empire, and today there is no Kim and no nation, imperial or otherwise, to come to their defense. And the Russian menace to India, mention of which seemed so retrograde in mid-century, takes on unexpected resonance when, recalling Afghanistan, we read the language of a Zhirinovsky who dreams of Russian soldiers who will “wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.” Indeed the world changes. But some things do not change.

The past will always need our forgiveness, as will the passing present. If time indeed worships language, it is not for language alone, but because it preserves the past, in its blindness and its beauty, set down in what Grace Paley calls “the beautiful letters of the alphabet, invented by smart foreigners long ago to fool time and distance.” Huckleberry Finn hymns a peculiarly American past, complete with the moral fissure that is integral to it. Kipling's multicultural idyll, begun in America, finished in England, suffused with India, though it too hymns a vanished past, reaches forward toward the future. Both novels hold up, however imperfectly, the possibility of an intercultural respect and admiration that society would not yet support, that neither Twain nor Kipling could in full consciousness espouse. Twain could take these emotions only so far. If Tom and Huck were the two sides of his head, they were both white. In Kipling's more complexly divided imagination, West and East met and mingled. He was the first to imagine what writers like Salman Rushdie and Homi Bhabha now call for and embody—“culture's hybridity,” in Bhabha's words, the “Third Space” in which, as we explore it, we may “elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves,” as we “transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and places, both human and historical.” That hybridity is irreversible, to the immense enrichment of our literature and our language. Twain, perhaps, had dimly seen his way toward it. Kipling took it further. Henry James, Kipling's admirer and antithesis (and witness at his wedding) in 1891 wrote of how he could convey “the sum of the feeling of life as reproduced by innumerable natures; natures that feel through all their differences, testify through their diversities.”

Encouraged by this oddly prescient vocabulary of difference, we may play our own post-modern game as we imagine James singing with Bhabha in anachronistic harmony. If literature needs originary texts, or if we do, Kim may stand in full irony as the great originary post-colonial novel. With Huckleberry Finn, it can help persuade us to pardon the past its pastness, to recognize both what it could not see that is so clear to us and what is invisible to our own blinded eyes. The flaws and insights of our great books challenge us in many ways, not least, today, to free ourselves from the reductive expectation that what the mirror of art should reflect back to us is our own transient face.


  1. Those who pick up Kipling's carefully planted clues will recognize her as the touching “Lispeth,” abandoned by her English lover in the story that opens Plain Tales from the Hills, and reflect that Kipling was capable at least once of representing the encounter of native and Englishman as devastating rather than benign.

Jonathan Arac (essay date 1997)

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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.]


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 discussions by scholars and journalists about Huckleberry Finn, to a wide range of social and political contexts—from Huck's time in the 1840s, through Twain's time of writing around 1880, and through the twentieth century (especially since 1948). This chapter is more closely literary in focus, although not exclusively so, since its major concern is the connection Americanists have made between literature and national identity.

In a recently published portion of the new Cambridge History of American Literature (volume 2, 1995), I was asked to write on “mid-nineteenth-century American prose narrative.” I set myself this problem: How do I account for the emergence, around 1850, of works that count as what readers nowadays recognize as “literature”? I mean here The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick. In contrast to them, other valuable written productions of the time, however much they prove of interest in other ways, do not now widely count as literature. This is not simply an abstract issue of terminology. The designation “literature” is heavy with value. It affects what is studied, taught, and read; and it also greatly determines the terms in which new writing is reviewed in the public press. Books published in the 1990s are praised for resembling Huckleberry Finn but not, I believe, any other single work of the later nineteenth century. My historical exploration of this issue involved two areas: the changing definition of “literature,” and its relation to differing kinds of writing, that is, a problem of genre. My solution involved reconceptualizing the emerging literary narrative type as one among several different competing generic types. The major narrative form that preceded literary narrative in the United States, and also succeeded it, was what I call “national” narrative, in which the origins, attributes, and future of the United States were made overt themes. At about the time of Andrew Jackson's presidency (1829-37), the historical fiction of James Fenimore Cooper and the History of the United States by George Bancroft defined national narrative. Cooper died in 1851, but Bancroft's History was written, in ten volumes, from 1834 into the 1880s.

In relation to national narrative, two important smaller types emerged, which differed from it but would have been impossible without it. First in the 1830s what I call “local” narrative, the line from Washington Irving that includes the so-called southwestern humorists of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee as well as the northeastern moralist Hawthorne in his shorter works; and second, in the 1840s, “personal narrative,” which, contrary to Puritan tradition and twentieth-century expectation, proved to be rather extroverted, first-person reports from the margins of the dominant culture. Important examples of personal narrative include Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1840), Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail (1849), Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845), and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

In response to the political crisis of 1850, which produced a compromise intended to subdue controversy, Melville and Hawthorne consolidated elements from their own earlier work and that of Poe and set their works apart from the political optimism and straightforward patriotic address of national narrative. “The Custom-House” introduction to The Scarlet Letter illustrates the point. Through literary narrative, they developed a freely imaginative space of psychological interiority, on the model of what transatlantic romantic theory and practice had set forth in the previous two generations. Both local and personal narrative elements could be incorporated under this new principle of integration, by which a self gives order and meaning to elements drawn from other narrative modes. The contrast of Moby-Dick with another great novel of 1851-52 makes this clear. Uncle Tom's Cabin is no less comprehensive than Moby-Dick, but it integrates local and personal narrative materials under the dominance of a narrative concerning the salvation of America, and in Augustine St. Clare it incorporates the figure of the sensitive spectator associated with literary narrative. St. Clare is presented sympathetically but very critically and occupies only the middle third of the novel. In contrast, the literary figure of Ishmael engrosses attention from the opening and survives Ahab's quest as witness.

I find that Americans in the twentieth century have—paradoxically—adopted as national exemplars precisely those works that were written in the literary mode so as to differ from national narrative, while great national writers such as Bancroft, Cooper, and (until recently) Stowe have been comparatively neglected. This critical distaste for the explicitly national in American writing recalls the problem of “protest” fiction, which I have discussed in the previous two chapters. If we fail to question the assumptions embedded in the idolatry of the literary, if we ignore the wide spectrum of writings of which the literary icons form only a restricted part, we damage our understanding of the present. For many of the productions now associated with multiculturalism are precisely personal, local, and revisionist national narratives—no less than was so in the past.

In Europe as well as in the United States, the nineteenth century was marked by two great cultural transformations that still powerfully shape our lives: the emergence of nationality and the emergence of literature (in the specialized sense of imaginative belles lettres, rather than the earlier idea of “letters,” which included all culturally valued writing). In our contemporary world of nations in the last years of the twentieth century, the renewed power of nationalisms throughout what was contained as the “second world,” no less than the intensified American patriotism spurred by Desert Stormers requires rethinking this relation. As I understand the last hundred and fifty years of American history, literary culture and national culture may be seriously at odds, and they harmonize only when the nation is given a meaning more psychological than religious or political. (A good example of this tendency was Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? [1967], the title of which seems to promise a national narrative, but which in fact is literary narrative alluding to Huckleberry Finn.) This psychological understanding of the nation, in turn, has granted America the spiritual legitimacy of literature, while subordinating literature to an America so conceived as to disarm political criticism.

A line of thought reaches from the middle nineteenth century as interpreted by my chapters from the Cambridge History into the later nineteenth century. After the reawakening of widespread political controversy over Kansas in 1854, the hope of avoiding secession and/or war by stepping back from politics, which had permitted literary narrative to emerge, dried up. As we have noted earlier, this controversy was what brought Lincoln back to politics and provoked his movement toward the positions that made him a great national leader. The most ambitious writings of the immediate post-Civil War years were the volumes of Francis Parkman's national narrative of the struggle for the American forest. The most captivating writings of the same period were the first books of Mark Twain. Twain came directly from the newspaper milieu of local narrative. In Innocents Abroad and Roughing It he strung together bits any one of which might have been a newspaper sketch, integrating them through the resources of “personal narrative” (as he characterized Roughing It [527]). Meanwhile, a steady trickle of posthumous materials from Hawthorne's estate kept alive the idea of literary narrative until Henry James's study of Hawthorne (1879) marked the moment when James chose to reproduce and occupy that aesthetic, nonpolitical space with The Portrait of a Lady.

Van Wyck Brooks in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) and The Pilgrimage of Henry James (1925) set James and Twain as polar contrasting cases of the artist's relation to America. For Brooks, Twain compromised his power as a satirist by yielding too much to the culture of the East, which was both too genteel and too commercial; while James preserved his art but lost his subject matter by his transatlantic expatriation. More striking than the contrast is the way Brooks made of each a mighty example. As lamented extremes, both Twain and James differ from the devalued middle ground occupied by William Dean Howells, who played a key role in the lives of both of them as friend, editor, and supporter. A moment of American literary history that has still not been adequately thought through is the period of early 1885 when the Century magazine published excerpts from Huckleberry Finn, while also serializing Howells's Rise of Silas Lapham and James's Bostonians.

Many causes have made it difficult to grasp how limited an event nineteenth-century literary narrative was. These causes include the establishment of college teaching as the main livelihood of literary scholars and the restriction of college instruction, for much of the twentieth century, to a limited canon of texts extravagantly praised as timeless and studied primarily through close reading. But the causes are not only institutional. They are also political, involving how American intellectuals imagine the place in the world occupied by the culture of their country. For Brooks after the First World War, Twain had sold out literature for America and James had given up America for literature; after the Second World War Trilling, as we saw in the previous chapter, made Twain and James the center of his understanding of the great achievement of American literature. These same causes contributed to the peculiar twentieth-century status of Huckleberry Finn. In order to achieve hypercanonization, it had first to be understood as literary, and then its literary value had to be nationalized.

Just like Ishmael's narrative in Moby-Dick,Huckleberry Finn is filled with the materials of local humor writing, and it draws for its fundamental mode of presentation on the conventions of personal narrative. Like Moby-Dick, too, Huckleberry Finn offers the freely aesthetically shaped world of literary narrative, through its technique of representing subject matter that plays an important part in American history (the economics of whaling, the morality of slavery) while cutting off the address to any audience of patriotic citizens who might be engaged to enact the author's vision of nationhood. It is possible to link Huckleberry Finn to fundamental national historical experiences, but the link can be made only allegorically, that is, only through an aggressively active process of reader's interpretation, about which readers in fact differ very widely. My name for this allegoric interpretive process is the nationalizing of literary narrative, and it seems to me the means by which hypercanonical idolatry takes place. The hypercanonized literary work is thought to offer an imaginative world cut free from the bounds of specific grievances or goals, so that themes at once eternal and ideally national can be projected onto it. I have tried to identify specific historical pressures in relation to which writers produced the works that have been seen as free of historical pressures, times when writers, and to some degree their readers, wished to sidestep threatening controversies—moments such as the Compromise of 1850, the end of Reconstruction, and the aftermath of World War II.

By recovering limiting contexts for the emergence of literary icons, I want to make trouble for the hypercanonical construction of Huckleberry Finn. I hope to say things about Huckleberry Finn that can be accepted as true and that, if accepted, make it harder for the book to be treated so readily as an idol, rather than as one very good book among other books, in American culture. The nationalizing of literary narrative, and concomitant psychologizing of politics, produce and reinforce the belief that there is a true America made up by those who take their distance from actually existing America. In this respect, one of the most provocative features of Huckleberry Finn is only a heightened instance of what is also true of the other hypercanonized works: its very canonical prestige is connected to the sense that it is “counter”-cultural, or, as Trilling put it, subversive.

For example, let me cite what many scholars still consider the definitive chapter-length treatment of Huckleberry Finn, from Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer by Henry Nash Smith, one of the founders of the academic discipline of American studies and for a long time in charge of the Mark Twain Papers. Like many academic readers, at least since V. L. Parrington, Smith gave special attention to chapter 31. Here Huck contemplates writing to Miss Watson so that she can recover her runaway slave, but even though this seems to him what religion teaches, he can't do it and decides instead, “All right, then, I'll go to hell.” Although Smith never referred, here or anywhere else that I know of, to Trilling's 1948 essay, he explicitly credited Trilling's 1955 book The Opposing Self for his crucial argument at this point, when he first set it out in his 1958 introduction to the Riverside college edition of Huckleberry Finn. Smith quoted Trilling on the “new recognition,” in the nineteenth century, of “society as coercion,” against which Trilling posed, as Smith noted, “the modern imagination of autonomy,” which is based on “selves conceived in opposition to the general culture” (xiii).

Taking from Trilling these terms of the autonomous self opposing social coercion, Smith built the framework for his authoritative interpretation. Smith argued on the basis of chapter 31 that the crux of meaning in the book is Huck's choice between “fidelity to the uncoerced self” and the negative results, the “blurring of attitudes,” that are “caused by social conformity” (Development 122-23). This “fidelity to the uncoerced self” was the psychological hinge by which Smith connected the literary work Huckleberry Finn to a national meaning, as token of an America beyond conformity, an America that, as if it were the star of the world's show, would lead the nations of the world, or perhaps bring history to its destined end. This is the position that led Big River to include the song “I, Huckleberry, Me,” characterized by David Richards in the Washington Post as Huck's “sprightly proclamation of independence.”


Smith's critical position helps define the intellectual and institutional context for what I consider an extraordinary anomaly in the major new scholarly edition of Huckleberry Finn. For decades now the Mark Twain Project has been conducted from the repository of the Mark Twain Papers, the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley campus, and its editions and scholarship have been invaluable. Yet the California editors have decided that Twain's intentions require the text of Huckleberry Finn to include a sixteen-page section that never appeared in the book during Twain's lifetime. (The discovery in February 1991 of the missing portion of the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn confirmed the facts but did not affect the logic of the editorial argument, which again surfaces in the new 1996 edition incorporating the new manuscript materials.) This so-called “Raftmen Episode” Twain published in Life on the Mississippi (chapter 3), describing it as excerpted from a work-in-progress about Huckleberry Finn, but he then omitted it from Huckleberry Finn itself.

The documents concerning Twain's intentions are three letters. The first one is from Twain, insisting that no part of this section be used in publicity materials, since it had already been published and might lead readers to fear that the whole new book would be largely familiar (Huckleberry [1988] 442). Next is a letter from his publisher wondering if the section might not be omitted entirely: “I think it would improve” the book (446). In the third letter, Twain replied, “Yes, I think the raft chapter can be left wholly out” (446). The California editors argue that Twain omitted the episode only to “accommodate his young publisher on a practical matter,” and that in editorial theory such a decision is equivalent to “accepting the publisher's censorship” (Hirst 450). (Hirst is the general editor of the Mark Twain Project, here explaining in the inexpensive paperback edition the logic of Fischer's textual decision, which Fischer himself explains in the massive, costly scholarly edition to which I otherwise refer.) It is a nagging embarrassment to the editors' scholarly scruple that even where he might have tried to bring the passage back, no evidence exists that Twain ever tried to (Huckleberry [1988] 476-77).

I have three points to make about this matter. First, I emphasize that this editorial interpretive attempt to define and magnify the individuality of Twain the author, as a self that should be uncoerced, possessor of intentions and victim of censorship, is perfectly coherent with Smith's critical position taken in interpreting Huckleberry Finn. In combating what they consider the publisher's censorship, the editors take upon themselves the spiritual authority of Huck's decision to produce an America by rejecting “social conformity”: “All right, then, I'll go to hell.” Yet the editors take a more complex and accommodating stance in the acknowledgments, the first words of the volume after its dedication and table of contents. They begin, “Our first thanks go to the American taxpayer” (Huckleberry [1988] xvii). (This kind of rhetoric led Jonathan Raban, reviewing another product of the Mark Twain Project in the Times Literary Supplement, to remark on the “alliance, unprecedented so far as I know, between tax dollars and literary history.”) Next the California editors thank “the scholars who recommended federal funding,” and the climax comes in thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the “independent federal agency” that granted the funds to make the edition possible (xvii). (That phrase “independent federal agency” is almost a perfect verbal formula for what I have described as the psychological hinge used to connect the literary to the national.)

The rhetoric of acknowledgment is highly interesting. Note the mediating role of the scholarly community. It stands in the unemphasized second position between the strong opening invocation of the citizenry and the climactic summoning of the state. Yet only by means of the scholarly community can citizens receive the benefits of their federated agency, and only the initiative of the scholarly editors opened this possibility. The independence of the NEH is clearly meant to set it apart from the dangers of conformity, and the taxpayers whose “support” (xvii) made the work possible are vicariously co-agents in fighting censorship. So the logic of America as the nation defined by its opposition to itself underwrites this sequence. From economic individual to federal agency, all are free and fight for freedom. I do not think Mark Twain believed anything like this.

My second point is that in insisting on the unfettered individuality of Twain, the editors nonetheless effectively split him in two. If the editors draw glory from being like Twain, he must be protected from being like them. For their scholarly narration of Huckleberry Finn's process of publication constructs quite a different image of Twain from the one they invoke to justify their editorial decision, but more like the selves they acknowledge in giving thanks. Recall that the very name by which Samuel Clemens is known to history as an author, Mark Twain, is itself not just a pen name but a registered trade mark. This economic fact has weighty consequences for the logic of editorial argument. The editors base their decision on a split between “Mark Twain's intentions for his text” and “his publisher's needs.” They find “no documentary evidence” that these intentions and needs “coincide” (Hirst 450-51). I read their evidence to different effect, however, as showing that Twain's intentions concerning Huckleberry Finn were inseparable from its status as an economic object. The California edition shows that Clemens himself was deeply involved in the whole process by which the book moved from his manuscript to its readers.

The publisher who is supposed to have censored Twain was Charles L. Webster. Webster was a young nephew of Samuel Clemens's, and the publishing concern of Charles L. Webster & Co. was set up by Clemens, according to the very evidence gathered by the California editors, so that the author “could have complete charge of issuing and selling the book” (Huckleberry [1988] xlvii). As Webster wrote early in the process, “The Co. … is S. L. C. [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]” (xlvii). The correspondence between the two shows, according to the California editors, that “Clemens was indefatigable in directing every step” (xlvii). There is a contradiction, then: on the one side, the scholarly characterization of the actual working relation between Clemens and Webster, in which Clemens was not only active, but the senior, dominant figure, for whom Webster was basically an agent; on the other side, the claim that there was no authorial intention in the omission of the passage. The myth of Frankenstein, the theory of alienation were invented to deal with such situations, but the editors do not invoke them; they simply make of Webster the representation of coercively conformist commercial culture, set against the freedom of the author's creative intentions. As a result of this defense of Twain's autonomy, the standard MLA certified text of Huckleberry Finn is now nearly five percent longer than any edition published during Twain's lifetime, by virtue of including a passage of some five thousand words that is identically available in another of his major works.

Here I briefly note the third point. The “Raftmen Episode” involves Huck's witnessing a series of boasts and stories that brilliantly encapsulate Twain's mastery of the local narrative materials from which his art began. The logic of hypercanonization dictates that Twain's single greatest book must include as much as possible of his greatest writing. If some of the most wonderful pages from Life on the Mississippi are now also to be found in Huckleberry Finn, there will be that much less reason for anyone to read Life on the Mississippi, and the dominance of literary narrative over local and personal narratives will be further confirmed.

In principle, one might expect so substantial a change in the canonical text of Huckleberry Finn to have drastic consequences for our critical understanding; in fact it seems that critical argument has at least a five percent margin of error. I know of no major interpretive argument about Huckleberry Finn which depends on the presence, or the absence, of this episode. However excellent in itself, it seems in no way essential to the whole—as Mark Twain originally judged in agreeing to omit it.


Despite Huckleberry Finn's hypercanonicity, there is continuing variance in the fundamental terms by which its place in American literary history is to be understood, that is, in the question that I consider the essential inquiry of literary history, what kind of work it is. It is now usual to read Huckleberry Finn in relation to our contemporary concerns with problems of race and the history of slavery in the United States, and it is hard to doubt that these issues are at least intensely relevant to any apt response to the work. Yet among the documents relating to the distribution of Huckleberry Finn is one that I find astonishing precisely because it opens a world of historical difference, which thwarts our expectations.

Clemens, you recall, had set up Webster's company to issue and sell Huckleberry Finn. The means of sale was subscription. Agents around the country were set up with territorial rights, and they went door-to-door selling subscriptions. Clemens insisted that the book would not come out until forty thousand subscriptions were sold. To assist in sales, agents were equipped with a prospectus for the book, which included an “abstract” of the book's “story,” which I quote in full:

the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and a negro named Jim, who in their travels fall in with two tramps engaged in taking in the different country towns through which they pass, by means of the missionary dodge, the temperance crusade, or under any pretext that offers to easily raise a dishonest dollar. The writer follows these characters through their various adventures, until finally, we find the tramps properly and warmly clothed,—with a coat of tar and feathers,—and the boys and Jim escape their persecutions and return safely to their friends.

(Huckleberry [1988], 846, emphasis in original)

Huckleberry Finn is described as a (belated) local narrative of southwestern humor. The King and Duke appear as the central selling point of the book; only the middle third of it in which they appear plays any role in the publicity. Although this description focuses on two rogues, it presents a far less countercultural book than the one that has been read for most of the last fifty years. Huck is never alone with Jim, and the inclusion of Tom suggests that they are not fleeing but frolicking. The issue of slavery is so far buried that Jim's unfree status is not even mentioned, let alone that it might provide any motive for the travels.

I'm not accusing Clemens of misleading advertising; rather, I'm suggesting that these documents point to problems in our historical understanding of how Huckleberry Finn came into the world. This abstract was still used in the 1889 Publishers' Trade List Annual advertisement (Huckleberry [1988] 850), long after it could be likely that the question of Jim's enslavement was being masked because of fear that the subject would not be attractive to potential buyers. (It was by no means uncommon for popular writings of the 1880s to address life under slavery. See, for an overview, the chapters “The South Begins to Write” and “The North Feels the Power of the Pen” in Buck, who, however, does not mention Huckleberry Finn, tacitly acknowledging its generic difference.) This critical interpretation of the book's shape and substance, this abstract, was put out by the young publisher whose every arrangement enjoyed, according to the California editors, “the accompaniment of an unremitting barrage of advice, assistance, and interference from his employer” (xlviii), the author, Mark Twain. Even where evidence is not available, the editors are certain that all advertising material had “at least the author's tacit approval” (843).

Literary history exposes radically different understandings of what, in the most basic sense, Huckleberry Finn is about, and the efforts of literary historians to place the book expose the argumentative structure of literary history. The dialectic terms most basic to literary history are tradition and innovation, and Huckleberry Finn has been placed solidly with both. As tradition, it has been understood as part of American romance, notably by Richard Chase (The American Novel and Its Tradition [1957]) and Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel [1960]), or as American pastoral by Leo Marx (The Machine in the Garden [1964]). As innovation, it has been seen as inaugurating the triumph of the vernacular in American prose, notably by Henry Nash Smith, and, again, Leo Marx, who will be discussed in the next chapter. The sense of Twain as innovative was, in the period before hypercanonization, especially fostered by those who wished themselves to be innovative. I think particularly of the early American prose modernists such as Sherwood Anderson (in his correspondence with Van Wyck Brooks [see Edmund Wilson, The Shock of Recognition]) and Ernest Hemingway (in The Green Hills of Africa: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” [22]). The issue of linguistic innovation helps elucidate Twain's status as iconoclastic idol.


I shall come finally to Twain's divergences from national narrative as exemplified by Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers, but my starting point will be Mark Twain's major work of literary criticism, one of the most successful, best-known critical essays in English, “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.” As its title suggests, Twain's essay is a bill of indictment, an act of offense in the guise of judgment. The essay's force springs from the double cross of its opening. Twain begins parodically with three epigraphs, in which the revered Cooper is extravagantly praised by Professors Lounsbury and Matthews and by the famous English novelist Wilkie Collins, but Twain's critique of Cooper makes his readers eventually find in the language of these authorities the same complacent wooliness he has found in Cooper. So Twain offers all the pleasure of a violent assault on the establishment.

But in this essay Twain himself appears not as a wild man, a western rule breaker, but precisely in the role of a pseudoneo-Aristotelian, enunciator of eighteen inflexible rules that Cooper can be shown to have violated. Twain's rational-technical authority stands against the traditional authority of Cooper, and the English, and the professors. Twain does not himself historicize his argument with Cooper, except for one moment when he speculates that perhaps Cooper's procedures would make sense if it were possible to believe that there ever “was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say” (“Fenimore” 592). The very terms of Twain's concession point to its incredibility; time has been money in America at least since Ben Franklin, a century before Cooper. A time in which time had no value would be, by the very words, a worthless time. Twain treats Cooper as a contemporary, that is, as a fellow author confronting a timeless realm of practical rules. Twain attempts to persuade us that Cooper's work is no longer writable and is readable only for those in a state of distraction, their levels of attention set at near zero.

Twain represents Cooper's failings as sensory, failures of eye and ear. Cooper's “ear was satisfied with the approximate word” (“Fenimore” 593, emphasis in original), not the “right word,” but only its “second cousin” (584). Because of his “poor ear for words,” Cooper was guilty of “literary flatting and sharping”: “you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn't say it” (593, emphasis in original). Sensorily handicapped as he was, Cooper “failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on the seventh, and can't help himself” (592). Mark Twain does not believe in linguistic Sunday best, the flexible usage that scholars know as “code-switching.” Cooper was not just half deaf; he was half blind too. Twain ignores the fact that the French novelist Balzac adapted the tense alertness of Cooper's woodsmen to highlight the perceptual intensity required for life in Paris; for Twain Cooper was not “an observer” (586). Cooper could not “see the commonest little every-day matters accurately” (587). If he had, “his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly” (586). In one episode that Twain mockingly analyzes at length, Cooper's imprecision concerning speed and distance means that “the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability” over the whole business (589).

Twain's vocabulary of judgment echoes the etymological history of its terms: plausible and probable both originated as terms of social approbation but have come to be used as if they were absolutes, and so Twain versus Cooper. Nowadays when to read Cooper at all requires, as Yvor Winters already argued over fifty years ago, “an act of sympathetic historical imagination” (182), it is clear that Twain's terms were those that most effectively served to emphasize the differences between the emerging standards of taste of his time, standards that he was actively fostering in this essay, and the standards of Cooper's time, still residual in Twain's. By downplaying his own innovation, by emphasizing not tradition but rather the eye and ear, the plausible and probable, terms that are conventionally understood as unchanging “nature,” Twain sets his critique as little as possible in the realm of the overtly ideological. He might, for instance, have attacked Cooper on the grounds that Cooper was the “American Scott,” a liability both on nationalist cultural grounds and, more particularly for Twain, because Twain believed that Scott had exercised a disastrous influence on Southern culture (Mississippi 500-502).

But Twain does not address the ethical-national issues raised by the comparison of Cooper to Scott; he shifts the ground to linguistic and aesthetic issues. Yet Twain's technically rational standards of observation and consistency, based on the regularities of the natural world and human nature, rule out of court the possibility that people may speak in several distinct registers for different purposes, at different times, with different interlocutors. Twain insists on linguistic consistency as the index of a psychologically and socially unified identity. In Huckleberry Finn the only characters who manifest the variable linguistic usages of which he accuses Cooper are the King and the Duke, and they are frauds. Twain would explain that their variation occurs because they are bad people, not because they are badly written. Cooper, however, offers a different view of linguistic instability. In The Pioneers, Cooper notes that Judge Temple, raised as a Quaker, tends to fall into Quaker idiom at moments of passion, as does his daughter to a lesser degree. Neither the Judge nor his daughter is a fraud, but neither has the kind of stability Twain requires. In the United States of the later nineteenth century, as is emphatically the case now, questions of educating immigrants and members of culturally distinct but long settled groups necessarily involved thinking through questions of what it might mean to use situationally variable languages, but this is no concern of Huckleberry Finn. Jim speaks for the book when he answers Huck's question, “Spose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?” Jim answers, “I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head” (97). And yet roughly within what would have been Jim's lifetime, Missouri had been part of the Louisiana territory controlled by France.

The whole book of Huckleberry Finn, of course, does not confine itself to a single form of English. Twain's initial note on the language of his book proposes an agenda of dialect accuracy that has been studied and warranted by generations of scholars:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.


For Twain, it is important that characters sound not like each other but each like her or himself.

Yet Cooper, too, in The Pioneers made a work to serve as the repository for a great range of voices, as a registry for American idiosyncrasies of speech. Despite all that Twain says against his offenses, Cooper represents in The Pioneers a wide range of American immigrant, regional, professional, and ethnic linguistic varieties: representations of English spoken by American blacks and Indians; the socially pretentious Essex County New England talk of Tabitha the housekeeper and the Jacksonian-Democratic New Englandism of Billy Kirby the Vermonter; the jargons of doctors and lawyers; English as spoken by New York Dutch, a French emigré, and a Cornishman, as well as the cultivated transatlantic English of young Effingham, not to mention again the Temples and Natty.

I want to develop further this comparison of Huckleberry Finn and The Pioneers, because Twain's stylistic innovation in presenting an extended vernacular narrative of comprehensive scope and great emotional power has effectively rendered invisible a series of extraordinary similarities between these two works. Once these similarities are recognized, it is then possible to define more precisely the divergences of Twain's literary narrative from Cooper's national narrative. Cooper's national narrative is grounded from its words on up in claims that were no longer representable aesthetically or politically to Twain and many of his contemporaries. National narratives held a positive understanding of the course of American history, and their writers believed it was a responsibility of culturally ambitious and important narrative not only to show but also to make explicit this understanding. Literary narratives denied any such responsibility, challenged any such understanding, and developed techniques to supersede such explicitness. American studies has most often struggled to reincorporate literary narrative into a renewed national allegory, undertaking to explicate what was programmatically, even polemically, left silent. William Dean Howells, during Twain's lifetime, humorously predicted and warned against a future of “forming Mark Twain societies to read philanthropic meanings into his jokes, or studying the ‘Jumping Frog’ as the allegory of an imperializing republic” (Cady 351). Howells memorialized Twain as “the Lincoln of our literature” (My 741), but he knew the difference between literature and politics.

The ground of resemblance between Huckleberry Finn and The Pioneers that I find most primary is the setting in place and time. Each book locates its action a full generation back in the setting that was its author's childhood home. Living in New York City around 1820, Cooper wrote back to the frontier days of Cooperstown, set in 1793. Living in Hartford around 1880, Twain set his action in “the Mississippi valley forty to fifty years ago.” Both books are sharply divided between satire and idyll. They satirically portray the small-town social interactions that make up much of the work's fictional substance, but they ecstatically evoke the beauties of the natural world that are set in contrast with town life. Both books locate important values in a smaller social group particularly linked to the natural setting. Moreover, in both books this smaller, marginal group is single-sex and biracial. Leslie Fiedler has made the resemblances in the relations between Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo and Huck and Jim unforgettable points of reference for thinking about the history of American culture. In each case a single individual is made to carry the burden of typifying a whole group. This technique has not been confined to novelists: until the last few years historians almost inevitably wrote of “the Negro,” “the Indian,” as if there were indeed only one such person.

Both The Pioneers and Huckleberry Finn establish a crucial scene of conflict between the white outsider and the law, setting up an opposition between human nature and the state which reinforces the contrast between landscape and town. Both works rely on a mystery plot to bring about their conclusions, and in both the white outsider resists remaining within the bounds of the civilized scope that the book has delimited. Natty ends as “foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (465). Huck aims to “light out for the Territory” (362). The differences that appear on the ground of these resemblances help to define the historical shift from Cooper's time to Twain's, from a time when national narrative was still emergent to a moment when its authority was again, more effectively than in 1850, challenged by literary narrative. Not that literary narrative wholly superseded national narrative in the 1880s: The Grandissimes (1880), by George W. Cable, a writer closely associated with Twain during the later phases of the writing of Huckleberry Finn, is much more like Cooper than Twain in the respects I discuss.

In the context of my argument, and developing further the analysis of chapter 2, the outstanding difference between Twain and Cooper is that Twain isolates the historical setting of his book. Cooper through his plot and his narrative voice brings the settlement of 1793 into conjunction with at least three historical epochs: with the period of colonial exploration and initial relations between whites and Indians; with the Revolutionary War that brought the United States into existence as the sovereign authority replacing the British and that also significantly altered property relations within the white world and between whites and Indians; and finally, the narrator acknowledges the changes that have further transformed American life since the time of the novel's action.

In contrast, Twain's aesthetic choice requires that Huck have almost no historical perspective on the land he lives in, either in its local or national dimensions, and there is no narrative presence beyond Huck to open up a deeper past or to link his time and concerns to those of the time Twain was writing in. So rigorously dramatic is Twain's technique, by which any voice that appears must belong to a character, that he requires stage directions to place the novel's events. The title page is inscribed “Scene: The Mississippi Valley; Time: Forty to Fifty Years Ago” (liii).

The Revolution is not part of Cooper's novel, but it is part of what makes the world of that novel intelligible, and it is therefore included by reference. The Civil War is not part of Twain's novel, and it is not in any way textually present, although without its having occurred the meaning we read in Huckleberry Finn would be, we think, wholly different. When excerpts from Huckleberry Finn ran in the Century magazine (December 1884-February 1885), they appeared in issues crammed with Civil War memoirs. In November 1884, the Century had begun a massive feature on the Civil War that was so popular it ran for three years; Twain's “Private History of a Campaign That Failed” (1885) was contributed to it. Yet there is no published evidence I know of—whether in the papers of the Century editor, Richard Watson Gilder, in Twain's correspondence, or in any reviews or notices—that registered the conjunction of these materials with Huckleberry Finn. It is certainly appropriate, even imperative, for historical criticism now to take such juxtapositions into account. My claim, however, is that we have as yet failed to take account of the formal absences and historical silences that are primary data to be interpreted before assimilating the work into a larger context. We must explain the blanks before filling them in.

The difference I have been establishing between Huckleberry Finn and The Pioneers bears also on the way the mystery plot works in the two books. In Huckleberry Finn the mystery—or double mystery, the death of Huck's pap and the freeing of Jim—both take place within the time frame of the main narrative, while in The Pioneers, the mysteries have to do with events before the action of the book opens. In Cooper, the revelation of these events gives meaning to what was obscure during the book's narration, but in Huckleberry Finn, as many readers and critics have observed, the revelation of the hidden events diminishes the meaning of what seemed the book's action: Huck's flight from his pap, Jim's flight from slavery. In keeping with the tendency of literary narrative to focus on the “sensitive spectator,” and in the spirit that Trilling ascribed to Dewey, where the “gesture” of moral style becomes more crucial than what is actually done, these motives are erased as fully as they are in the advertising prospectus. By the same token, the reference in Huck's first sentence to the book Tom Sawyer, which initially suggests that an older Huck is narrating from the present time of publication, is nullified by Huck's explanation on the last page that he has composed his narrative almost immediately after the conclusion of its events.

The conflicts between laws of the state and values taken as nature's, that is, as grounded in the American land, are also handled very differently by Twain and Cooper. I find that The Pioneers succeeds in making readers feel pulled both ways between the claims of the law as represented by Judge Temple and the claims of custom and nature in Natty Bumppo; in contrast, I do not know of any reader who has believed that Huck should have turned in Jim. Moreover, as argued in chapter 2 of this book, the crisis of judgment in chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn is treated purely internally; Huck is by himself. He describes his decision in terms that evoke the sharp senses Twain valued but denied to Cooper. Huck repeats that he could “see” Jim (270), but this is only in memory; Jim is not there. Moreover, it is a crucial feature of Twain's scene that legal penalties never occur to Huck as he thinks over the situation, only religious retribution. All this is very different from The Pioneers. A full courtroom scene is mounted, in which the force and value of the law are presented, even as the actual legal agents are mocked and criticized.

A comparable difference may be defined in the treatment of what I have called the registry of American voices. In Huckleberry Finn readers have found no other voice with the authority of Huck's. In The Pioneers, however, many readers have found Natty's voice to exceed in authority Judge Temple's or even the authorial narrator's. More broadly, in the terms that Bakhtin has made familiar to recent literary study, we may understand the different voices of The Pioneers as indices for the struggles among different social groups, while in Huckleberry Finn this is much less frequently and forcibly the case. Indeed, as early as the narratives of the anti-Jacksonian, Whig congressman Davy Crockett in the 1830s, a written folk voice was put to use for elite politics, while in the 1840s the abolitionist escaped slave Frederick Douglass wrote to a highly formal standard rather than using vernacular. The powerful voices of pap in his tirade against the “govment” (33-34) and Colonel Sherburn against the lynch mob are isolated grotesques rather than integral parts of an action, while the kindly Gospel teachings of Widow Douglas are simply forgotten at the moment Huck's mind turns in crisis to religious terror.

Huckleberry Finn emerges from these comparisons as a much more powerfully centered work than The Pioneers in the conjunction it effects between its hero and its narrative language. Huckleberry Finn is famous in critical tradition for displacing narrative and linguistic authority from the traditional centers to a character marginal in any number of defined ways, yet it is not certain that The Pioneers may not be a much more fundamentally multifocal, and in that sense uncentered, work. Cooper's concern is the process of civilization, which requires many human agents in a variety of roles. For instance, Cooper sets the values of property and mobility into historical tension through contrasting Natty and Effingham. Through the course of the book they live and hunt together with Chingachgook, but after the Indian's death Natty goes out west, while Effingham enjoys marriage and his rightful inheritance after the death of his long-missing and hidden father. Huck, in contrast, both plans to light out for the territory and also finds six thousand dollars rightly restored to him after Pap's death. Twain consolidates the values of Natty's mobility and Effingham's wealth into his single idealized figure of Huck.

Again, Huckleberry Finn is famous for bringing crucial moral issues to bear on and in the psyche of its protagonist, yet this too is a further centering; the form and fable of Huckleberry Finn reject the very possibility of clashing voices in public debate. After the political failures that led to the Civil War, after the political failures that brought Reconstruction to an end, Twain's literary narrative takes the obliquity of radical ellipsis. In Cooper's national narrative, the light of American nature insures that Natty will feel right about what he did; in the national narrative of Uncle Tom's Cabin the light of grace insures that readers who respond properly to the horrors of slavery will “feel right.” Huck Finn lives so as to feel right with no sanction beyond his own psyche, the imaginative construction of an autonomous self that is the cultural work of literary narrative, and that Lionel Trilling made the keynote of his anti-Stalinism.

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Hugh J. Dawson (essay date winter 1998)

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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 a part of the older American tradition of frugality, temperance, and Protestant morality, they seemed to those who were to be excellent material for comedy.”2 Although Colwell's insights are pertinent and often very informative, he gives his principal attention to revealing the implications of Huck's given name. His analysis of the significance of the family name breaks off at the point where it might have proven most informative. A more extended study shows that—as though to bring all into accord with the Finn surname—Twain's account of the Finns' past, Huck's experience of his parents, his physiognomy, anti-social ideas, behavior, style of dress and moral instincts perfectly exemplify the traits and conduct that the dominant social class had for decades regarded as the distinguishing marks of Irish-Americans. That correspondence reveals a new dimension of what Twain and many of his readers would have seen in Huck's personality and his relationship with Jim. The surnames of the novel's characters provide a revealing initial index of their social world. For example, the fact of Jim's being without a family name conforms to the prevalent practice whereby enslaved blacks bore no surnames of their own. He is no more than “Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim” or “Miss Watson's Jim,” the possessive case announcing that he lacks any identity beyond that of being his owner's chattel.3 That Jim is deprived of a family name epitomizes the deprivations of slavery. He is without the minimal insignia of personhood. In his family life, he and his wife are without the shared surname that white American society of the late nineteenth century recognized as the customary designation of their conjugal bond, nor might they pass on to their children this most commonplace emblem of their relationship ([The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] HF 124). A deeper irony and still further cruelty—and one that is yet another measure of the psychological destructiveness of “the peculiar institution”—is the fact that Jim and the other members of his family would not have shared even a single owner's name; since American slave law followed the Egyptian practice described in Exodus 21:24 whereby the children of slaves were treated as the property of their mother's master, the wife and two children from whom Jim has been separated by her sale, which is alluded to in Chapter Sixteen, would by the time of the novel's events be identified by her own subsequent owner's family name.4

The simple fact that Huck possesses a surname marks his condition as a free white off from Jim's as a black slave, but that he bears the family name he does indicates that he shares what the dominant American classes had come to see as his ethnic group's special kinship with American blacks. The most significant associations attaching to his surname are overlooked by Colwell, but these begin to become evident when one notes the striking contrast of the Finns' name with very nearly all the sixty other family names of those Huck lives amidst, meets with, or hears mention of in the course of his southward flight on the great river. Among the many whites who figure in that adventure, he and his father are all but unique in being without what would have been a recognizably Anglo-Saxon surname.5 Their singularity becomes conspicuous when one considers the following census of the family names of the characters met with and those persons of whom even passing mention is made in the course of the novel, a list which is extended to include the surnames Huck and Tom adopt for their plausibility in providing disguises that promise to be successful as they seek to pass themselves off among the white populace of the localities they pass through:

  • Allbright
  • Apthorp
  • Barnes
  • Bartley
  • Bell
  • Blodgett
  • Boggs
  • Bots
  • Bradish
  • Buckner
  • Bunker
  • Collins
  • Damrell
  • Douglas
  • Dunlap
  • Finn
  • Foster
  • Grangerford
  • Hagan
  • Harkness
  • Harper
  • Hatfield
  • Hightower
  • Hines
  • Hobson
  • Hooker
  • Hopkins
  • Hornback
  • Hotchkiss
  • Hovey
  • Jackson
  • Loftus
  • Lothrop
  • Marples
  • Moore
  • Nichols
  • Packard
  • Parker
  • Penrod
  • Peters
  • Phelps
  • Proctor
  • Ridgeway
  • Robinson
  • Rogers
  • Rucker
  • Sawyer
  • Shackleford
  • Sherburn
  • Shepherdson
  • Thatcher
  • Thompson
  • Turner
  • Utterback
  • Watson
  • Whipple
  • Whistler
  • Wilks
  • Williams
  • Winn

The Finns' surname—like that of the single other exception to the pattern, the notorious Sowberry Hagan, the memory of whose infamous profanity Pap invokes as the measure of his own foul-mouthed extravagance (HF 34)—marks off the scapegrace father and son as being unmistakably Irish.

Harold Beaver has fixed upon the point from which any approach to understanding the Finns' character must begin: “Huck is a chip off the old block. To understand Huck one must begin with Pap. Pap is his one sure model.” Different as the two in many ways are, “Huck is every inch Pap's son.”6 Heredity would have been the key to contemporary readers' appreciation of the Finns. In fact, as the many nineteenth-century Americans who shared Twain's sense of ethnicity and the transmission of racial traits would have recognized, Huck's personality and inclinations are best explained by searching still further into his family's past. When Pap accuses his son of disloyalty in ambitiously trying to distance himself from his parents and the others of his line who could not read—“None of the family couldn't” (HF 24)—his charge smacks of white society's sense of the genealogical determinism that both fed and fed on its racism. Lately, on the argument of Shelley Fisher Fishkin, it has been contended that Twain derived Huck's voice from his memories of a chance meeting with a young African-American.7 However, this contention runs counter to the findings of dialectologists, who have long identified his own and his father's speech patterns as being representatively those of backwoods Missouri whites. Their vocabulary and linguistic structures correspond with the idiom of the Missouri country folk living just down-river from Hannibal that the “Explanatory” note Twain included by way of a preface to Huck's story refers to as “the ordinary ‘Pike-County’ dialect.” In the most sophisticated study of Huckleberry Finn's speech characteristics, David Carkeet has argued that the assignment of dialects in the novel is both faithful to that of the region and character-specific; the Finns' speech patterns are those of a locale and social stratum that in the second quarter of the nineteenth century were largely peopled by Irish-Americans.8

It is often remarked that the Anglo-Saxon British have never been able to understand their Celtic neighbors. For centuries the Welsh, Scots, and Irish have been seen by them as a breed—or breeds—apart. As early as the first English contacts with them, the Irish proved an especially vexing case, an unsettled and strange, even wild people. Their more emotional, spontaneous and sentimental temperament argued to their somehow being constitutionally different from the reserved Anglo-Saxons. Even more than the Celts of Britain, the Irish seemed recalcitrant to adopting English ways. Their ancient customs of tanistry and gavelkind, and the native preference for what was known as Brehon Law over the Common Law were the despair of the plantation owners who endeavored to improve them. Elizabethan writers like Edmund Spenser, Edmund Campion, and Sir John Davies were among the first to complain of the Irish stubborn resistance to the elevated English efforts at improving them. They attribute to the Irish the same predilections for dirt, superstition, and play that are Huck's proclivities. Together with drunkenness, violence, and lewdness—which mark the environment of debauchery in which Pap Finn meets his death—these were vices that Elizabethans associated with the Irish.9

It is not surprising that, as several historians and cultural anthropologists have remarked, when English colonists first encountered Native Americans in the seventeenth century, they appreciated the indigenous people of the New World by reference to their experience establishing plantations among the wild Irish in the preceding century. Here they met with another “uncivilized” people that lived in tribes (as the Irish did in clans and septs) rather than the defined socio-political units established among Western European peoples, followed a nomadic life of transhumance rather than residing in fixed settlements, talked a barbarous language, and practiced what the first English explorers and Protestant settlers looked upon as a not dissimilar superstition-filled, devil-dominated religion.10

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, large numbers of what would later be called Scotch-Irish immigrants—most of them Presbyterians from the Ulster North of Ireland—came to the New World to escape the unrelenting harsh economic conditions of their birth. Ironically, these staunchly evangelical Protestants continued to be termed “America's Irish” until the massive immigration of “green Irish” in flight from the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century caused these earlier Celtic-Americans to adopt the double-term to distance themselves from the largely Catholic newcomers.11

A great many of the earlier arrivals had settled in the backcountry South, especially in the Piedmont and Appalachians, and it was among these that one would have discovered the first New World Clemens forebears. Here as well were the beginnings of the social distinctions that were to prove important to the young Sam Clemens, who imbibed his severe frontier-lawyer father's pride that he might trace the family's descent to properly English origins. In previous generations the Clemens ancestors had lived in backcountry Virginia. Sam's father—whose “stern, unsmiling” demeanor evinced a personality that insisted upon maintaining traditional virtue—had been born in Campbell County in the Piedmont, and his son would retain the Anglo-Saxon families' feeling of superiority to their Celtic fellow-settlers of the inland and mountain regions.12 The early frontier folk who followed Daniel Boone in pouring westward in the half-century after the Revolution and successively settled Tennessee, Kentucky, downstate Indiana, southern Illinois, and ultimately Missouri were for the most part drawn from these Appalachian mountain-folk. Although John Marshall Clemens—whose given names may be read as containing the proud promise of civic rectitude founded in the Common Law of England—was among these Celtic migrants in transplanting his family to the banks of the Mississippi, neither he nor his son ever mistook himself for being of them.

Almost from the beginning, the American South's traditional social hierarchy has long made a sharp distinction between the two lowest classes of whites. Over against the adherents of the Protestant ethic familiarly known as “poor whites”—those who, however economically hard pressed, were to be credited with observing and inculcating the virtues of industry, truth-telling, cleanliness, church-going, lawfulness, and honesty—have been those called “white trash,” the no-account sort perceived as having given themselves over to slovenliness, deceit, disregard of family obligations, marital infidelity, violence, willful ignorance, and other vices.13 Throughout the society that extended from the Atlantic seaboard to such frontier communities as Hannibal and St. Petersburg, these cousins of Faulkner's Snopses were disdained. Censorious whites, who recognized the impositions that prevented slaves and emancipated blacks from structuring their lives as they would have wished, did not excuse any of their own who did not live by the ethic of principled Protestantism, meeting their expenses, seizing every advantage, disciplining their children, and improving their lot in life.

The researches of Walter Blair, Dixon Wecter, and others have established that Huck's character was largely drawn on that of Samuel Clemens' boyhood friend Tom Blankenship, whose alcoholic father appears to have in many ways served as a model for Pap. However, the fictional family's name and much of the father's personality derive from another figure of debauchery, Jimmy Finn, who reigned as the resident town drunk and public care of Hannibal during young Sam's earliest years.14 Decades later Twain would remember that Judge Clemens himself had been drawn into the circle of earnest and devout villagers who endeavored to reclaim the incorrigible drunkard from his self-destructive ways, but the relapses that unfailingly followed the real-life Finn's half-hearted attempts at sobriety earned him an enduring place of disgrace among Hannibal's legends:

Jimmy Finn, the town drunkard, reformed, and that broke up the only saloon in the village. But the temperance people liked it; they were willing enough to sacrifice public prosperity to public morality. And so they made much of Jimmy Finn—dressed him up in new clothes, and had him out to breakfast and dinner, and so forth, and showed him off as a great living curiosity—a shining example of the power of temperance doctrines when earnestly and eloquently set forth. … Jimmy Finn couldn't stand it. He got remorseful about the loss of his liberty; and then he got melancholy from thinking about it so much; and after that, he got drunk. He got awfully drunk in the chief citizen's house, and the next morning that house was as if the swine had tarried in it. That outraged the temperance people and delighted the opposite faction. The former rallied and reformed Jim once more, but in an evil hour temptation came upon him, and he sold his body to a doctor for a quart of whiskey, and that ended all his earthly troubles. He drank it all at one sitting, and his soul went to its long account, and his body went to Doctor Grant. This was another blow to Hannibal. Jimmy Finn had always kept the town in a sweat about something or other, and now it nearly died from utter inanition.15

Although the village cynosure died shortly before young Sam's tenth birthday—“Jimmy Finn … died a natural death in a tan vat, of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion”—his legend had become so deeply and firmly lodged in the boy's memory that decades later the aging derelict remained for the adult author “a monument of rags and dirt; he was the profanest man in town; he had bleary eyes, and a nose like a mildewed cauliflower; he slept with the hogs in an abandoned tanyard.”16 Clemens found it easy work to reincarnate the village reprobate in Huck's no-good father. The boys of St. Petersburg are familiar with Pap Finn as one who also “used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard” (HF 10), and his father tells Huck of his having again gravitated there when he first returned to town (HF 25). But his life was to end in even worse circumstances than did that of his real-life original: his naked body is found amidst the traces of debauchery with loose women and gambling with masked men—probably gangsters—who have shot him (HF 60-62, 361-62).

Twain's play upon Huck's Irishness is evident as early as his writing in 1875. In the preliminary scenario of the play he at that time intended to copyright as Tom Sawyer: A Drama, he planned a concluding tableau vivant that would show the novel's two principal characters in another fifty years; Tom would appear as an army general and Huck Finn as—of all things!—a bishop.17 Although by the later decades of the century Catholicism had come to be seen as the principal feature of the Irish-American personality, religion is no more than a peripheral, perhaps even irrelevant factor in assessing the Celtic strain in the Finns.18 The title page of the 1885 first edition of Huckleberry Finn situates its events having taken place “Forty to Fifty Years Ago,” that is, between 1835 and 1845, the decade preceding the great influx of Catholic Irish immigrants during the years immediately preceding and following mid-century. That Huck and his father are so insistently unchurched establishes that it is ethnic rather than religious prejudice that debars them from the society of their social “betters.”19

Between the date of the action in Twain's novel and its publication, a similar categorization had developed among the families of the mid-century Celtic immigrants. The responsible, industrious, ambitious and upwardly mobile “lace curtain Irish” had long been at pains to distance themselves from the indolent, resolutely ignorant sort among them. The “shanty Irish” that became the Northern variety of “white trash” found literary enshrinement in the families of the Fitchburg Railroad squatter John Field and the farmer James Collins who are the targets of Thoreau's scorn in Walden.20

The high degree to which the Finns conform to the stereotype of the disdained Irish directs attention to Twain's absorption of the nativist tradition of bigotry in his boyhood years. His admirers have cited such evidence as his support of an early black student attending Yale in proclaiming his possessing an enlightened attitude toward blacks, and he has been praised for the fair-mindedness shown in his 1870 newspaper piece indicting San Francisco's virulent persecution of Chinese-Americans, “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy.”21 But it must be admitted that Twain's attitude toward immigrants from Ireland was not nearly so generous-spirited. Edgar Marquess Branch has noted that anti-Catholicism—which at mid-century was synonymous with anti-Irishness—permeated Hannibal's social climate throughout the years in which Sam Clemens was growing up.22 Although the Catholic presence along the Mississippi of those early years was chiefly shaped by the predominantly French archepiscopates of New Orleans and St. Louis, reports of the swelling numbers of Catholic Irish immigrants in the cities of the Eastern seaboard were already exciting nativist fears along the River. The editor of Twain's correspondence finds evidence of this specifically anti-Celtic prejudice being displayed from a very early age by both Sam and his older brother Orion: “Since both Clemens brothers had strong nativist views at this time, either of them might have regarded the conjunction of ‘American’ with ‘Irish’ as a sort of blasphemy.” Louis J. Budd has identified other early signs of Twain's antipathy toward the Irish in newspaper articles he wrote as a young man; in these he was not above joining in the widespread cheap humor that found fun in the discriminatory employment announcements that were commonly accompanied by the warning that prospective workers who were “Irish need not apply.”23

For those raised in Samuel Clemens' Missouri, dirt and drink were the expected environment of the Irish. It is not surprising that, when Twain decided to include a no-account character similar to Jimmy and Pap Finn in the abortive Autobiography of a Damned Fool, a book he began writing in 1877 during a break from his work on Huckleberry Finn, Twain thought it appropriate to give its alcoholic drifter Si Higgens another unmistakably Irish surname.24 The recurrent failure he assigned Irish characters was epitomized in a truism in Life on the Mississippi, another work contemporaneous with his portrayal of the stereotypically Irish Pap Finn. There, Twain writes, “Give an Irishman lager for a month, and he's a dead man. An Irishman is lined with copper and the beer corrodes it; but whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him.”25

The anti-Celtic prejudices of Clemens' boyhood resurfaced in The Gilded Age, published in 1873, three years before he began Huckleberry Finn. The same chapter also tells of the rise of such nouveaux-riche Irish-American types as Oliver Higgins, who owed his prosperity to his having been a saloon-keeper in the Indian Territory, and “Patrick O' Riley (as his name then stood),” whose family came to style themselves with what Bernard De Voto termed a “gallicized Irish” name. The parvenu O'Riley had begun in the New World as a hod-carrier. Soon after opening his first New York “whiskey-mill,” he moved to a fancy uptown saloon and went on to become a building contractor. By being the “bosom friend of the great and good Wm. M. Weed himself”—for which one is to read William Marcy Tweed, the notorious political boss of Tammany Hall—he grew rich through political chicanery and was elected to the State Legislature before being tried for graft. By the grace of a rigged jury, he was acquitted. Thereupon he and his wife betook themselves and their children to France and on their return styled themselves as “Hon. Patrique Oreille and family.”26

Since a time before the Civil War, Irish-Americans were mocked for what was said to be their most representative physical feature, a conspicuous prognathian jaw.27 In The Gilded Age, next to a sketch of a man with “an unmistakable potato mouth,” Laura Hawkins gives a description of “a dear old friend of our family named Murphy. He was a very charming man, but very eccentric. We always supposed he was an Irishman, but after he got rich he went abroad for a year or two, and when he came back you would have been amused to see how interested he was in a potato. He asked what it was! Now you know that when Providence shapes a mouth especially for the accommodation of a potato you can detect that fact at a glance when that mouth is in repose—foreign travel can never remove that sign.”28 Such mockery, which was all the more tasteless for its playing upon the tragedy of the great Potato Famine, is echoed in a letter written a few years later in which Twain rejects the first sketch that Edward Windsor Kemble, the original edition's illustrator, had submitted to serve as the cover portrait for Huckleberry Finn, giving as his grounds his finding that in its rendering of Huck “the boy's mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”29

The physical features, social habits and personality traits that were ethnic stereotypes in the America of Twain's time had served as staples of nativist political mockery for decades before the novel was conceived. By splitting many of the most distinctive of the alleged Irish characteristics between the Finns, assigning the negative traits to Pap and investing his son with features readers would secretly find endearing even as they felt they were to be scorned, Twain succeeded in favoring Huck with a personality that the book's early readership would have straightaway recognized as suspect. The traits that marked Huck and his Pap off as different from and unacceptable to the settled American culture were conspicuously those of “the wild Irish.” What is manifest in the mature condition of his father is latent in Huck, whose personality is heavy with the latent pathology of his people. No matter how engaging his manner, the boy bears within him what the dominant American society saw as his inherited shadow-self. His unruliness, his small deceits, his pipe-smoking and preference for lazing about—these were clues to what he would someday become; the boy would prove father to the man.

In Huckleberry Finn Twain exploits the currency of the nativist stereotype by playing upon just those traits that set the lower-class Irish Finns apart from the Anglo-Saxon “better families” of St. Petersburg and the Lower Mississippi Valley. Pap Finn—lazy, dirty, brutal, swinish, superstitious, bigoted, lying, illiterate, antireligious, foul-mouthed, financially irresponsible and destructive of himself and others in his craving for alcohol—embodies all the worst features of the “squatter.” True to type, he is a constitutional malcontent, a social recluse who, after more than a year's stay “away down the river” and temporary residence in the local tanyard (HF 10, 14, 25), has retreated into isolation in the woods three miles up the Illinois side of the Mississippi (HF 29). There he makes a home for himself and his son in just the sort of old cabin that both the author and the illustrator of the novel's first edition tellingly identify as being a “shanty” (HF 38, 52). Pap denounces Huck for having taken on “considerable many frills” (HF 24, 25) during the time he has been away in his down-river wanderings; the boy has taken to wearing clean, well-starched clothes as he has been transformed by the Widow Douglas into a “sweet-scented dandy” (HF 24). His father's further charge is that Huck has willingly acquired the beginnings of an education, such as none of his illiterate forebears had known—“Your mother couldn't read, and she couldn't write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn't, before they died. I can't” (HF 24). In Pap's angry indictment may be read the double indictment that Huck seems bent upon repudiating the mores of his ethnic stock as much as leaving behind the condition of his lineal family; this arraignment rings with the larger accusation that, having imbibed the ambitions of society, he would now abandon the folkways of his people.

Huck's ragtaggle dress and unkempt appearance, which are unfailing testimony to the Finn family's reprehensible manner of living and the grounds for the son's having been taken in by the Widow Douglas, had been assigned him years prior to the publication of his own Adventures. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck had been introduced to readers in an admiring third-person realistic description, the principal elements of which would have clearly signalled his being shanty Irish. He was already “the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him.” Twain goes on to detail the “gaudy outcast condition” and unbridled freedom that had made him the envy of Tom and “the rest of the reputable boys” of St. Petersburg:

Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing; the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.

Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.30

This epitome of the feisty ragamuffin unsocialized by school or church is a cliché representation of what nineteenth-century America saw as the socially pernicious spawn of Irish households.

Whatever little Huck experienced of his natural nuclear family in his earlier years is learned from Tom Sawyer. By the time of that book's action, the mother is already dead. In Huck's single recollection of the years when he lived with both parents, they are remembered as stereotypes, painful images retained by a son raised amidst the brawling hatred commonly said to characterize an Irish household: “Look at pap and my mother. Fight? Why they used to fight all the time. I remember, mighty well.”31 To Ben Rogers and the others of Tom Sawyer's gang in Huckleberry Finn, Huck “hadn't got no family”—or rather, “he's got a father, but you can't never find him, these days” (HF 10). Given this history, it is hardly surprising that, when Huck first learns that his father may be dead, he experiences a sense of relief rather than loss: “that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more” (HF 14). When he shortly thereafter concludes that the corpse discovered floating in the Mississippi that has been reported to be his father's is that of a woman, his mood changes: “I was uncomfortable again. I judged the old man would turn up again by and by, though I wished he wouldn't” (HF 14). At the book's end, after Jim tells him of his own discovery of the father's corpse and the conditions of the old man's death become clear, Huck—who fears Pap has seized the more than six thousand dollars being held by Judge Thatcher (HF 361)—says nothing. This brutal, drunken Irish father is a person he cannot bring himself to feel sorry he is now without. He does not so much as lament the circumstances of that death. Pap Finn has died as he had lived. The room of the drifting frame house in which Jim recognizes his corpse is an environment of squalor that surpasses even the miserable condition of the Finns' shanty. The floating ruin's unspeakable graffiti, whiskey bottles and greasy playing cards together with the telltale evidence of murderous violence perpetrated by masked gunmen and the clear suggestion of sexual debauchery represent the moral milieu and physical habitat that the established social classes saw as indicating the kind of life that the wastrel Irish-Americans would substitute for the settled culture of life on the shore (HF 60-62, 361-62). Huck's familiar pipe (HF 41, 42, 47, 48; illustrations at 30 and 43), which in Kemble's sketches closely resembles the clay pipes that were the familiar insignia of the Irish-American Paddy portrayed by political cartoonists, including Twain's friend Thomas Nast, marks him as Irish and foreshadows the layabout life of destructive self-indulgence attributed to adult Celts that it might be thought sure he would grow into.

When Huck's Irish ways are read against the sociopolitical fears widespread among nineteenth-century Americans, they are seen to resonate with broader, interracial fears. Many of the features that make Huck suspect for refusing to adopt prescribed customs would have been read by the novel's early readers as proof of the innate antipathy to socialization that the Irish were said to share with Blacks. So, in its portrayal of the psychological kinship that joins Huck and Jim, Twain's novel gives literary form to a central concern of nativist social ideology, the fear of what immigration and Reconstruction together portended for the accustomed American way of life.

Following the appearance of Darwin's Origin of Species, practitioners of the popular pseudo-science of craniology had recourse to evolutionary arguments to support their claims to being able to distinguish racial traits on the basis of skull formations. Such bigotry was a standard feature of the cartoon commentary on political and social questions that Nast, Joseph Keppler, and Frederick B. Opper had for years published in such popular New York periodicals as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Harper's Weekly, and Puck. In these caricatures, males of Irish stock were regularly shown as dirty, lazy, drunken and violent; their many children were represented as the care of their drudge-like wives. Very often Irish-American men were presented as hulking brutes whose physical strength embodied their social menace. Sometimes, like the revolutionary Fenians portrayed in the contemporary English press, they were pictured carrying dynamite. Invariably they were assigned a protruding jaw and receding forehead plainly meant to suggest a close link with humanity's newly-identified simian ancestors. Craniology gave way to measurement of such features of the physiognomy as a prominent jaw and a pronounced angle of the forehead; these were indices of mental inferiority. In Cesare Lombroso's influential study L'Uomo delinquente (1876), such marks were claimed to be evidence of the peasant class and the criminal mind—assassins, political radicals and other suspect types. Extrapolations were made to derive a taxonomy of races and to argue that Slavs, gypsies, and Jews transmitted their supposed deficiencies (and their social menace) genetically. In England and America, the lowest branches of the human morphological tree had already been assigned to blacks and the Irish, the so-called “white Negroes”; they were found to resemble orangutans and suffer from severely retarded evolutionary development.32

By the time of Twain's most famous novel, the Irish-American immigrants who had fled the Potato Famine and their children had acquired a new dimension, for their multiplying numbers gave them increased political force and reenergized fears of their threat to the established way of life. In an especially offensive Harper's Weekly cartoon of December 1876, “The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy,” Nast portrayed an Irish-American type (representative of the burgeoning white vote of the Northern cities) and a barefoot black (symbolizing the emancipated slaves of the Reconstruction South) as comparable incarnations of ignorance whose easily bought ballots threatened to undermine the national interest.33

By the time he was writing Huckleberry Finn, Twain was regularly enjoying Nast's social company in New York. The nativist prejudices that Twain and Nast shared can be seen in the similarity of their derisive treatments of the Irish. It is just this supposed equivalency that Twain plays upon in the elder Finn's scurrilous diatribe against the Ohio free black whom he had encountered exercising his right to vote—”a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything” (HF 33-34). The humor of the episode in which Pap, who is almost anyone's inferior, vents his outrage at any black man's rising above the condition to which society conspired to confine him rested upon an implicit comparison—in fact, an equation—that was a commonplace among many of the book's first readers. Pap's amazement that such another could improve himself would have registered with a populace which saw blacks and Irish as closely related racial types; they were both unlikely to improve themselves, and their supposed resolute ignorance and openness to bribery was felt to pose a national political peril as election days neared.34

The Finns' family situation oddly mirrors that of Jim's. Jim has been separated from his wife and children by society's slave market; Pap absents himself from Huck for a year at a time and, upon his return, confines him in semi-slave conditions while attempting to deprive him of his money. Jim is the father who wishes money in order that he may purchase his family's freedom; Pap seeks out his son in order to gain money for his selfish, dissolute ends. Jim becomes Huck's moral tutor, taking on what becomes in many ways the role of the wished-for father that the famously “lonesome” son has never known and finding in Huck a substitute for the sons he has never had.

Besides excluding him from the dominant society and making him the fugitive slave's spiritual boon companion, Huck's racial otherness becomes an enabling life condition that, in his coming to terms with it, enables him to accept Jim. He comes to see that he and the slave share a deeper likeness in their affinities as racial outsiders, members of ostracized ethnic groups that the dominant class sees as being essentially alike. Huck's warning cry to Jim, “They're after us!” (HF 75), tells of more than the fitness of their becoming companion-runaways, for their journey down the Mississippi is a metaphor of the lot that history has assigned to both their peoples. Their flight together represents the common plight of the American underclass. It is significant that the Kemble illustrations represent Huck and Jim's sharing what is so much the same condition by showing them dressed alike: the single-strap trousers, tow-linen shirt, high-top shoes, and broad-brimmed straw hat that Huck wears in the frontispiece and most of the portrayals of him that accompany the text match the shabby attire in which the slave is regularly shown. Readers of Huck's own novel who understand his raft-journey with Jim to be his first sustained familiarity with a black overlook his prior life history. In Tom Sawyer, Huck speaks of the sense of humanity that has survived slavery that he has learned from earlier life with another St. Petersburg black. When Tom asks where he has been staying, Huck identifies his temporary quarters and tells of his having conducted himself on terms of equality with the Rogers family's household slave. However, he concludes his answer with the same temerity he will later show in granting Jim full recognition on the raft as he requests that Tom treat his behavior as a secret, for he feels the need to attempt to exculpate himself:

“In Ben Rogers's hayloft. He lets me, and so does his pap's nigger man, Uncle Jake. I tote water for Uncle Jake whenever he wants me to, and any time I ask him he gives me a little something to eat if he can spare it. That's a mighty good nigger, Tom. He likes me, becuz I don't ever act as if I was above him. Sometimes I've set right down and eat with him. But you needn't tell that. A body's got to do things when he's awful hungry he wouldn't want to do as a steady thing.”35

That it is Ben Rogers who in Huckleberry Finn says that Pap “used to lay drunk wth the hogs in the tanyard, but he hadn't been seen in these parts for a year or more”’ (HF 10) is revealing. The member of Tom Sawyer's gang who shows himself best informed concerning the elder Finn's accustomed home can be thought to have known that his own father has formerly permitted Huck to share housing with the Rogers family's “nigger man, Uncle Jake.”

Reflecting upon Huckleberry Finn for his lecture-readings a decade after its publication, Twain said the book illustrated “the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience.” Huck enacts the struggle between the innocence of the West and the prescribed values of the East; the book has at its center a conflict “where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into a collision & conscience suffers a defeat.”36 In this vindication of natural goodness, the frontier son of a no-account father is designated a social outcast by more than his youth, his lack of approved lineage and the dissolute ways of his Pap. In drawing upon widely shared “scientific” concepts of shared ethnic features and their genetic transmission that he had made his own, Twain stigmatized the Finns as Irish-Americans and made what would be perceived as Huck's racial legacy a means of identifying him with the black. Ironically, the process of moral growth that ends in his coming to appreciate his common humanity with Jim has its beginning in society's and Twain's at least subconscious belief in the two fugitives sharing negative hereditary racial similarities.


  1. It is perhaps worth noting that Joyce makes several references to Huckleberry Finn in Finnegans Wake. See Adaline Glasheen, Third Census ofFinnegans Wake” (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), p. 92.

  2. James L. Colwell, “Huckleberries and Humans: On the Naming of Huckleberry Finn,” PMLA, 86 (Jan. 1971), 70-76. The quotation is from page 72.

  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 6, 50. Subsequent citations to this edition are given parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation HF.

  4. Huckleberry Finn, p. 124. On American slave custom's following Egyptian practice, see The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981), p. 156n.

  5. Staunch Caledonian nationalists may insist that Douglas is a Scots name.

  6. Beaver, Huckleberry Finn (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), pp. 80, 81.

  7. Fishkin, Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African American Voices (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993) pp. 13-14, 16-19, 21-27, 40-49.

  8. John Lauber, The Inventions of Mark Twain (New York: Hill & Wang, 1990), p. 115. On the dialects of the novel, see David Carkeet, “The Dialects in Huckleberry Finn,American Literature, 51 (1979), 315-32; Lee A. Pederson, “Negro Speech in The Adventures Huckleberry Finn,Mark Twain Journal, 13 (1965), 1-4; and Curt M. Rulon, “Geographical Delimitation of the Dialect Areas in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,Mark Twain Journal, 14 (Winter 1967-68), 9-12.

  9. See the essays collected in Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict, 1534-1660, ed. Brendan Bradshaw et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993). Sheila T. Cavanagh's essay “‘The fatal destiny of that land’: Elizabethan Views of Ireland,” pp. 116-31, treats the views of Spenser, Camion, and Davies.

  10. Nicholas Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 30 (1973), 575-98; The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565-76 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976); Kingdom and Colony: Ireland in the Atlantic World, 1560-1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 103-33; William Christie MacLeod, “Celt and Indian: Britain's Old World Frontier in Relation to the New” in Beyond the Frontier: Social Process and Cultural Change, ed. Paul Bohannan and Fred Plog (Garden City: Natural History Press, 1967), pp. 25-41; Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World (New York: Viking, 1964), pp. 167-73.

  11. On the much-disputed name for immigrants from Ulster of Scottish stock, see Malkdwyn A. Jones, “The Scotch-Irish in British America,” in Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, ed. Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 284-85.

  12. The phrase describing the father's demeanor is Twain's own, several of which are cited by Dixon Wecter, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 67. On John Marshall Clemens' birth and the earlier history of the family, see Raymond Martin Bell, The Ancestry of Samuel Clemens, Grandfather of Mark Twain (Washington, Pa.: privately printed, 1984), pp. 7, 26-27.

  13. In a remarkable show of boldness, Jim plays upon the term's social content. When Huck lies to mock the slave's readiness to interpret dreams, Jim replies by chastizing him. In answer to Huck's challenge that he tell the symbolic meaning of rubbish heaped on the raft, Jim takes the literal form as the point of departure for applying to Huck the social-moral metaphor that white society would have used in describing the Finns: “Dat truck is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes ‘em ashamed” (HF 105).

  14. Blair, Mark Twain & Huck Finn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960), pp. 10-11, 55, 103, 107-108; Wecter, p. 150; Mark Twain's Autobiography, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper, 1924), II, 174-75.

  15. Clemens, Letter of April 16, 1867, San Francisco Alta California, May 26, 1867, p. 1, as printed in Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown, ed. Franklin Walker and G. Ezra Dane (New York: Knopf, 1940), p. 144.

  16. Clemens, Life on the Mississippi, The Writings of Mark Twain, Japan Edition (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1899), IX, 144; Wecter, p. 150; Mark Twain's Letters to Will Bowen (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1941), pp. 38-39.

  17. Mark Twain's Hannibal, Huck and Tom, ed. Walter Blair (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 245.

  18. The anti-Catholicism evident in A Connecticut Yankee is therefore beside the point here.

  19. It hardly needs to be noted that, at a time when Irish-American priests would likely have insisted that only a saint's name was appropriate at baptism, his sacramental sponsors would have had to acknowledge that there is no St. Huckleberry of record. Walter Blair thought that Huck's familiar name was no more than a nickname. It is not clear whether Twain, who did not see or taste huckleberries until he visited Hartford in 1868, knew the term's slang connotation of backward or rural (Blair 12; Colwell 71).

  20. George E. Ryan, “Shanties and Shiftlessness: Immigrant Irish of Henry Thoreau,” Eire-Ireland, 13 (1978), 54-78.

  21. Edwin McDowell, “From Twain, a Letter on Debt to the Blacks,” New York Times, 14 March 1985, I, p. 16; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Twain, in '85,” New York Times, 15 Feb. 1985, p. A 17.

  22. Edgar Marques Branch, The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1950), pp. 36, 37-38.

  23. Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 4, 15, 33; Mark Twain's Letters 1853-1866, ed. Edgar Marquess Branch (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 11. See also Branch, p. 36.

  24. Blair, p. 398n. It deserves noting that Twain's notes for his intended book refer to what seems another religious reclamation effort as “Reform Jimmy Finn (secretly).” Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques, ed. Franklin R. Rogers (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), pp. 152, 154.

  25. Life on the Mississippi, p. 188.

  26. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day, The Writings of Mark Twain, Japan Edition, (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1899), II, 20-34.

  27. The secondary literature on comic aspects of the Irish stereotype is summarized by Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, “National Stereotypes in English Literature: A Review of Research,” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 1 (1982), 101-06.

  28. The Gilded Age, II, 27-28. The sketch appears in The Gilded Age (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1874), p. 306

  29. Mark Twain's Letters to His Publishers, 1867-1894, ed. Hamlin Hill (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), p. 174.

  30. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, ed. John C. Gerber et al. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), pp. 73-74.

  31. Adventures of Tom Sawyer, p. 177.

  32. L. Perry Curtis, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1971), especially pp. 16-22, 58-64; Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 105-15, 174-77.

  33. Curtis, pp. 58-60.

  34. A list of the negative traits commonly attributed to both the Irish and blacks is given in John J. Appel, “From Shanties to Lace Curtains: The Irish Image in Puck, 1876-1910,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 13 (1971), 368-69.

  35. Tom Sawyer, p. 193.

  36. Mark Twain Papers, Univ. of California Library, Berkeley, Notebook 28a [I], typescript, p. 35, quoted in Huckleberry Finn, pp. 806-07.

Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua (essay date 1998)

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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 the closure of the novel: Huck's explaining to Aunt Sally why he was delayed in arriving at the Phelps Farm and why he arrives in the manner that he does. Aunt Sally herself supplies the format for Huck to construct his deception when she says, “What's kep' you?—boat get aground?” (279).1 Huck realizes the need for a convincing story and that he must now come up with a new idea:

“It warn't the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. 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.”


No one better represents the opposition to this section than Bernard Bell: “[T]he author and his protagonist are kindred spirits in their ambivalence about the humanity and equality of blacks. In response, for example, to the tarring and feathering of the Duke and King, the comic confidence men, Huck is moved to sympathy for them in Chapter 33. … Yet, earlier when Aunt Sally Phelps asked if anybody was hurt on the boat …, Huck's insensitivity to the humanity of blacks … is as ironically racist as hers. … Twain, like Huck, was a racist; yet both found themselves fighting nobly, though futilely, against the customs and laws of white supremacy” (135). I agree that Huck's compassion emerges when he sees the duke and king tarred and feathered, and what we subsequently hear are Huck's true feelings without the constrictive disguise that he has donned in order to effect the rescue of Jim. We are inside his mind, listening to his thoughts, thoughts no one but the reader knows. But Bell's argument of insensitivity is perverse. The ironic racism is deceptive coloring for Huck. No reasonable reader misses this. For the reader, it is an utter condemnation through satire of bigotry. Huck is manipulative, and the satire is derived from his knowledge of what would work most effectively to mislead someone who believes in slavery—now his cosmic enemies in the battle between heaven and hell. Twain's double emphasis on the line, by having Aunt Sally repeat part of it, is an obvious authorial indicator of Twain's intention of highlighting the moment.

The Aunt Sally scene is quite different, however, in that we have access to Huck's thoughts only when he is determining what he must do and say in order to disarm and persuade Aunt Sally that he is who he says he is. When he speaks, he says not what is inside his mind but what she expects him to say, and the verisimilitude of the fiction retains its continuity and cohesion. What else could we expect from a work of realism? We have been inside his mind and soul in Chapter 31. We know that he has committed his all to what he believes is the morally, spiritually, and ethically right action, and, make no mistake, Huck does consciously decide to take action. Here too his decision is costly, for with it he faces the possibility of incarceration, branding, various amputations, most certain social ostracizing, and even death. Having seen Huck answer the ultimate question of the price of freedom, it is difficult to imagine wanting a euphemism now. What we get is what we do want: a visionary joke, a larger irony than any that has gone before in this comedy.

In Chapter 16 when Jim spoke of securing “an Ab'litionist to go and steal [his wife and children out of bondage]” (124), Huck's reaction was shock and dismay. He saw such talk as lowering Jim. Compare that scene with this one in Chapter 33, and we find that Huck Finn himself is the “ab'litionist,” who will secure Jim's freedom at the price of his very soul. His solicitude for Tom might delude an unwary reader into doubting Huck's sincerity; it should not. The racial slur “nigger” again in no way diminishes what Twain is accomplishing here, for we must ask why Huck is relying once more on this term. What we find on close examination is that, like Jim, Huck is donning the appropriate mask to suit the situation, which requires using the expected language.

Twain reveals in this final section of the novel the true nature of the (un)reconstructed South as represented by Tom Sawyer. Although Huck Finn is no longer the same Huck we met at the novel's beginning, Tom is the same Tom. We know that Tom is still the same mythic, Romantic's Romantic, in love with perceived adventure rather than with the unorchestrated events of the real world. The real world is the one in which Jim has always existed and in which Huck and Jim both exist after they embark on the river. Unlike them, Tom has remained in stasis throughout the narrative, offstage except when, by proxy, his ideas bring Huck and Jim into danger. Twain attacks Tom's mental attitude early and late from the direct frontal criticism of Scott in Life on the Mississippi to covert sallies in virtually every other work in the canon. Twain's books never favor the tutors in chivalry and suspense. Twain reveals this predisposition to the reader again when Huck tells Tom his plan to free Jim. About to respond, Tom stops in midsentence, almost revealing that Jim is already free. A special perversity is represented by the fact that he lies through this blatant omission to his best friend, Huck, a friend who admires and respects Tom's mind and humanity. Could the rest of the action he controls be any less perverse?

The reading audience sometimes fails to observe that it is not Huck who initiates and plays the game of let's free the free nigger; it is Tom Sawyer. Should the reader, particularly the African American, condemn Huck for not taking the lead in this elaborate and dangerous plan and for yielding control to Tom? It is not Huck who deduces Jim's location in the hut by the ash-hopper; it is Tom. Although both see food being taken to the hut, only Tom connects the contents of the dinner to Jim. Twain the ironist is at work. The key element for Tom is the stereotypical watermelon. Huck assumes that the slave is feeding a dog, but Tom reminds him that dogs do not eat watermelon. Huck says, “So it was—I noticed it. Well, it does beat all, that I never thought about a dog not eating watermelon. It shows how a body can see and don't see at the same time” (293). Huck expresses later in Chapter 34 that he knows Tom to be extremely intelligent: “What a head for a boy to have! If I had Tom Sawyer's head, I wouldn't trade it off to be a duke, nor mate of a steamboat, nor clown in a circus, nor nothing I can think of. I went to thinking out a plan [of escape for Jim], but only just to be doing something; I knowed very well where the right plan was going to come from” (294). The dominant figure and the dominant culture dominate.

Reprising three moments in the action where Tom was absent, Huck concludes that he will rely on this seemingly masterful ally and leader. Yet it will be an uneasy alliance. Huck has always felt that because of Tom's great propensity for reading, he possesses the expertise to execute important undertakings. Logic dictates to Huck that he yield to the person with the greatest chance for success. The ultimate irony here is Huck's self-perception of intellectual weakness. Huck may not notice such minute details as the watermelon, but he can and does keenly observe human nature. What Huck has learned on the river, as well as in his life with Pap and the widow and Miss Watson, has produced in him a capacity of understanding which is far richer in insight than Tom's. His wisdom derives from his bond with Jim.

In the last chapters, Huck's and Jim's wisdom for expression will struggle against great odds, as Twain intends. Huck utters substantive social comments as his sight and insight improve because of Jim's influence over the course of their adventures. His yielding to Tom is not a capitulation or a conscious burlesquing of a serious matter at Jim's expense. Instead it is an attempt to keep to the oath he makes earlier. One of the most saddening portions of this section is rarely mentioned by critics—Huck's firm faith in Tom's sincerity:

Well, one thing was dead sure; and that was, that Tom Sawyer was in earnest and was actuly going to help steal that nigger out of slavery. That was the thing that was too many for me. Here was a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn't understand it, no way at all. … I knowed I ought to just jump up and tell him so; and so be his true friend, and let him quit the whole thing right where he was, and save himself.


In this important section Twain exposes the distorted underpinnings of a society whose implacable truths have been contradicted throughout the novel. Tom Sawyer—the (un)reconstructed South—relies on and perverts every concept on which the South presumably structured its mythic persona: pride, rightness, filial loyalty, honesty, and salvation. In comparison with Jim's defining moment with Huck on true friendship, Twain creates for the audience a stark, undeniable contrast. Huck's emphasis here recalls the essence of his and Jim's real relationship as developed in the “trash” incident, Jim's calling after Huck, and Huck's own great reprise. True friendship has been successfully redefined by Twain as lying across racial boundaries—the only real solution to the Jim dilemma. Tom's way is now a travesty, by design.

Some critics, such as Henry Nash Smith in “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience,” cite Huck's decision to accept Tom Sawyer's aid as a weakness both in Huck's character and in the novel's structure. Others complain that Huck in this passage begins to reveal signs of relenting in his efforts and sincerity. Their mistake is in hating the action without being able to see that Twain distances it from the actor. Huck must be shown dealing with the last vestige of what he deems to be sacrosanct and above reproach. He has abandoned unreflecting support of slavery because of his experiences with Jim. He has already made an overwhelming decision for himself. But Huck is a boy, not a social theorist: we could not expect him to allow his best friend to place his soul in jeopardy without any demur. Nor has he the cynicism of an adult capable of penetrating Tom's mystifying behavior, so he accepts his “help” without recognizing, as we the readers do, the element of insincerity on which it is based. Twain fully expresses this point through Huck's extended statement of surprise. This passage also shows us how Huck really views himself. Critics such as Smith have concluded that Huck, because of his low self-esteem, has very little to lose. Is that assertion accurate? Is not one's soul the ultimate loss, no matter how poor, how uneducated, how classless? It would appear that Twain is speaking directly to the audience here, as well, through the honest words and concerns of an adolescent who is trying to figure out what it all means when beliefs are turned inside out not once but, now, twice. Smith has missed the point. And so, Huck, the true and sincere friend, must at least try to save his companion, Tom, from the “sure” fate of eternal damnation. Tom, of course, knowing that no such fate awaits him, plays the intelligent hero who dares to risk all to help his friends. So begins the great travesty of freeing the free slave. Tom's role is monstrous and insincere, truly an “evasion”; Huck, now more a son of Jim than of Pap, is true to his and Jim's humanity outside the law. Such fidelity was easy as melodramatic events propelled the story; it is very complex in the burlesque framework now established.

Jim, of course, assumes a primary role in this escapade. Critics from Marx, Booth, and Bell to Peaches Henry have indicted the closing chapters as tremendously weak. Henry, for example, claims that any strides Jim may have reached by the final section of the novel, still leave him a “stereotypical, superstitious ‘darky’ that Twain's white audience would have expected and in which they would have delighted” (33). Continuing with this misperception, she describes Jim as one who “darkens the closing chapters of the novel.” She goes on to note, “Regardless of Twain's motivation or intent, Jim does deflate and climb back into the minstrel costume. His self-respect and manly pursuit of freedom bow subserviently before the childish pranks of an adolescent white boy” (38).

But previous chapters have shown us that Twain relies on parody and burlesque along with Jim's masterful language manipulation to convey mental attitudes toward freedom, equity, voice, and family. Each character must maintain the character that society has caused him to represent even though it may be different from what he has become. Tom Sawyer must metonymically represent the slave-holding South, that of the forced (un)reconstructed South. That is verisimilitude. Huck Finn must maintain the attitude of the reconstructing southerner. That is Twain's vision. Jim must maintain his mask for self-preservation and his linguistic manipulation as protection. That is verisimilitude. Anything else would have transformed Jim's dialogue and actions into those of an unrecognizable Romantic hero. While that is Jim's tragedy, it is also why blacks as well as whites can feel the novel's greatness.

Signs of Twain's intent are manifold. When Jim assesses his situation and sees that Huck is acting in concert with Tom Sawyer, he shifts his language. Terms of subserviency—”Mars Tom,” “Misto Tom,” and “sah”—are suddenly prominent. Has Jim forgotten or lost his taste for freedom and family? Is this not the same man who steadily eyed Huck and called him “trash”? Is this not the man who advised Huck that their “royalty” on the raft were nothing but rogues? Opponents constantly ask where his voice is now and assert that Jim reassumes his previous slave invisibility and silence.

When Tom's inventions exceed pragmatics, as Jim understands the situation, he refuses to engage in that part of the evasion—the severing of limbs, placing of spiders in the cabin, placing of rattlesnakes, and planting flowers and watering them with tears. Of this section Harold Beaver, in his essay “Run, Nigger, Run,” articulates most succinctly the general problem:

Jim is merely a good nigger: good humored, simple (with the king and duke), improvident (with his financial investments), kind-hearted (to Huck), displaying a contented African patience with a physical endurance that might have proved fatal to anyone except an African. The stress throughout is not on his trances or voodoo potency so much as on his ability to: preserve an equilibrium between true Negro optimism, as a Southerner would have put it, and African fatalism. So much Huck could observe. The inherent shrewdness was not so conspicuous. For Jim rarely speaks out.


Jim's “good humor” involves insisting that he “doan' skasely ever cry” (331), a comment as misleading as Huck's earlier comment that he didn't take any stock in dead people. His simplicity with the duke and king involved his testing them and rejecting them. His improvidence, in fact, with “stock” was a poignant fact of his life and of all investments, as any reader of the Wall Street Journal today can attest. To degrade Jim's character by labeling it “true negro optimism, as a Southerner would have put it,” is to take a stance which is ambivalent in itself, although probably not intended to be perversely racist or critically unaware. Jim's “African fatalism,” possibly in reference to the “luck” sentiments as expressed in passing Cairo, is totally uncharacteristic of him at any time in the novel. Finally, Jim speaks out not “rarely” but many times, in fact, both to Huck and to Tom.

While otherwise offering valuable analysis, when Beaver uses the word “merely,” it is clear that he has badly missed the heroism in Jim's behavior. Jim speaks out as the situation warrants. He is not so foolish as to have his say at the expense of compromising the situation. He never forgets, though, that he is still in the South, he has been captured as a runaway, and he is without his passport and stalwart friend, Huck. Only an inept melodramatist would have given his character a formal set-speech on racism and recapture; it seems spurious to suggest or imply such an alternative as a critical point.

Jim initially does argue with Tom as he had with Huck, one of the best of these attempts being the glory scene in Chapter 38. Tom, the orchestrator of the great escape, admonishes Jim:

“Jim, don't act so foolish. A prisoner's got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain't ever been tried, why, there's more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan' want no sich glory. Snake take 'n bite Jim's chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan' want no sich doin's. …”

“Mars Tom, I's willin' to tackle mos' anything 'at ain't onreasonable, but ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I's gwyne to leave, dat's shore.


No voice? Jim says what he must, when he must. But he also realizes that the equation has changed with Tom Sawyer in it. Tom, a representative of the (un)reconstructed South, barely sees or hears Jim as a real person. Jim can afford to say only so much in front him. This much is clear at the end of the chapter when Huck explains that Tom has heard too much of Jim's voice:

Jim said he would “jis' 's soon have tobacker in his coffee”; and found so much fault with it, and with the work and bother of raising the mullen, and jews-harping the rats, and petting and flattering up the snakes and spiders and things, on top of all the other work he had to do on pens, and inscriptions, and journals, and things, which made it more trouble and worry and responsibility to be a prisoner than anything he ever undertook, that Tom most lost all patience with him; and said he was just loadened down with more gaudier chances than a prisoner ever had in the world to make a name for himself, and yet he didn't know enough to appreciate them, and they was just about wasted on him. So Jim he was sorry, and said he wouldn't behave so no more.


Jim readjusts his mask so that it fits more closely, apologizes, and promises to behave more appropriately in the future. In comedy we must now endure the undoing of the truths Huck and Jim developed in isolation. With Tom in the picture, Huck and Jim have again become social beings.

Twain never allows the reader or Huck to forget the danger of the situation, even though the “evasion” is indeed a burlesque. Having given us a visceral sense of lynching in the Sherburn episode, Twain presents a second and third lynch mob. Because of the note Tom leaves detailing a plot to steal Jim from the Phelps farm, a lynching party is formed as a “posse.” Tom thought this response would provide ample decoy for them so that they could escape without notice. Tom's note of warning inverts Huck's moral reasoning in respect to Jim, and the outcome is grotesque. Tom writes that although he has been part of the plot to steal Jim, he has now found “religgion and wish[es] to quit it and lead a honest life again, and will betray the helish design” (338). As Tom plans, the men and dogs gather, sixteen men and twenty-two dogs. Whereas the mob that sought Colonel Sherburn fascinated and frightened Huck, here he is no mere observer. The spectacle this time makes him so ill that he has to sit. Tom, Huck, and Jim escape with the mob literally at their heels, and Tom is shot in the leg.

Many opponents of the novel have difficulty with how the characters respond. After realizing that their escape has been a resounding success and that Jim is a free man, Huck says: “Now, old Jim, you're a free man again, and I bet you won't ever be a slave no more” (344). Jim, although he has complained about the apparent trials and tribulations of this escape, also realizes that Tom has delivered on his promise. Their faith in Tom was properly placed, degrading though it was. In this respect, Tom accomplishes more than the region he represents accomplished as an integrated “new South.”

But Twain pushes us into a second reversal so rapidly that we race past this point. Tom has been injured, and Jim and Huck's rejoicing quickly ends. The pair turn their immediate attention and concern to Tom. How characteristic of these two, as we have come to know them! Opponents have asserted that it is not incumbent upon Jim to sacrifice here the very thing for which he has been questing since the narrative's beginning. Some critics, particularly African American parents, cite this scene as especially racist because Twain describes Jim as relinquishing his freedom for a white boy who really does not have his best interest at heart to begin with. After all, Tom knows the truth of Jim's manumission. To this reading audience Jim becomes an Uncle Tom, and Twain seems to show his true racist colors.

But we must believe all that has happened in the novel up to this point. We have been exhilarated with Jim's evolution in previous chapters. We believed Huck's ultimate sacrifice. These characters represent a vision with which we have begun to identify because we have seen intimately their loyalty, their faith, their honesty, their naivete, their fortitude, and their self-reliance. How could Jim have done anything but what he did? It is exactly what we expect of him as the man, the free man, the husband, and the father we know him to be. It is not Twain who empowers Jim; rather, it is Jim the fully rounded character who empowers himself to risk sacrificing his freedom for what he feels to be right. Huck and he discuss the situation:

But me and Jim was consulting—and thinking. And we'd thought a minute, I says:

“Say it, Jim.”

So he says:

“Well, den, dis is de way it look to me, Huck. Ef it wuz him dat 'uz bein' sot free, en one er de boys wuz to git shot, would he say, ‘Go on en save me, nemmine 'bout a doctor f'r to save dis one?’ Is dat like Mars Tom Sawyer? Would he say dat? You bet he wouldn't! Well, den, is Jim gwyne to say it? No sah—I doan' budge a step out'n dis place, 'dout a doctor; not if it's forty year!”


Can readers miss the number forty, recalling the forty dirty dollars that brought Jim back to captivity? Twain's choice of words like “consulting” and, recalling and reversing Tom's earlier “studying,” “thinking” remind us that Jim acts in contrast to Tom's incorrectly formed sense of humanity. As with the verbal battles in the novel's first third, Jim prepares for Huck an argument with the deduction that Huck, knowing Jim, anticipates. Note, however, that Jim does not say that he will not continue to seek his freedom. He simply says that he will not leave Tom alone without help. It might even be argued that hostile critics miss the fact that Jim, as Twain's spokesman, is so powerful because he is not a racist or an absolutist. Recognizing a heroic standard of behavior, he adheres to it, whether white or black. This important distinction is often overlooked. Jim truly comes to parity with the other characters through this last great heroic logomachy, and Tom Sawyer will respond in kind, in awakening from his delirium, to cry that Jim is as “free as any cretur that walks this earth” (360).

While Jim is called an Uncle Tom for his decision in this scene, Huck's reaction has Twain opponents calling him racist: “I knowed he was white inside, and I reckoned he'd say what he did say—so it was all right, now, and I told Tom I was a-going for a doctor. … Jim was to hide in the woods when he see the doctor coming, till he was gone again” (345-46). Twain highlights the irony of the moment by reinforcing our false assumption that whites are the setters of morals. Is Huck's racism emerging in his saying that Jim is white inside? Yes, Huck still has much to learn about race. But the travesty of moral color is a direct response to those Americans who persist even now to see one race as morally degraded.

As a point of comparison, we might explore another brand of racism. William Lloyd Garrison once advised Frederick Douglass that he needed to speak more like a southern slave and less like a white man or an educated northern colored person (Douglass). Douglass, of course, ignored the advice and continued to speak as he chose. Like many other African Americans, I have vivid memories of my family being accused by other African Americans of trying to be white or thinking we were white because of how we spoke, behaved, and thought. Was Garrison a racist? Were the African American children and adults who berated other African Americans racists? Some believe that people of color cannot be racist. I disagree with that as much as I disagree with Twain opponents who assert that Huck's calling Jim “white” shows his racism. As I mentioned earlier, a student many years ago asked me whether Huck at the novel's conclusion is a racist. I told that student then, and I reassert now, that Huck can never look at another individual of African American descent without being affected by his experience of Jim as well as the other African Americans he encounters in this novel. Is he a racist? No. Can we presume that a long course of development will have to take place before his voice no longer shows its southern origin? Sadly, yes. Twain is a realist.

Of all that happens in the novel, the scene in Chapter 42 is perhaps the most troubling because it is so very realistic. After experiencing the traumas of the “great escape,” Tom's being shot, and the recapture, Jim must yet endure southern vilification and brutality: “They cussed Jim considerable, though, and give him a cuff or two, side the head, once in a while, but Jim never said nothing, and he never let on to know me, and they took him to the same cabin, and put his own clothes on him, and chained him again … and chained his hands, too, and both legs, and said he warn't to have nothing but bread and water to eat” (356). Jim's humanity and his presence reveal themselves once again, this time through the doctor. The doctor must admit to the mob that despite the fact that Jim is a runaway slave he came out of hiding when the doctor needed help in removing the bullet from Tom's leg. It is at this point that the audience bears witness to Jim's ultimate decision. He knows that the doctor will not let him go, but he chooses to do what he feels is morally right anyway.

Although some critics have seen this scene, and others before it, as attenuating Jim's character, verbal irony in the doctor's speech to the mob diminishes not Jim as much as those around him, for it is they, including the doctor, a man who professes to live by the Hippocratic oath, who lack humanity. En masse, they represent the destructive and hypocritical Southern mindset that Jim and Huck have encountered in their symposium down the river. The mob's response after hearing from the doctor about Jim's unquestionable humanity adds that parodic satiric spice that pervades this novel. Again, it is Huck on whom nothing is lost, not even the unfairness of their treatment of Jim:

Then the others softened up a little, too, and I was mighty thankful to that old doctor for doing Jim that good turn; and I was glad it was according to my judgment of him, too; because I thought he had a good heart in him and was a good man, the first time I see him. Then they all agreed that Jim had acted very well, and was deserving to have some notice took of it, and reward. So every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn't cuss him no more.

Then they come out and locked him up. I hoped they was going to say he could have one or two of the chains took off, because they was rotten heavy, or could have meat and greens with his bread and water, but they didn't think of it, and I reckoned it warn't best for me to mix in, but I judged I'd get the doctor's yarn to Aunt Sally, somehow or other, as soon as I'd got through the breakers that was laying just ahead of me.


Is Jim supposed to be visible, voiced, and independent before these men? No. If he were, the metaphor Twain has so carefully constructed throughout this narrative would have failed. In fact, Jim's moment of heroism should be obvious to any reader. As Jim is being cussed and cuffed, he “never said nothing, and he never let on to know me.” As his loyalty to Tom is absolute, so is his loyalty to Huck. Twain emphasizes his resolutions with three negatives bunched together for impact. In the fact of the power of the posse, Jim is steadfast. By relying on unlikely heroes—an adolescent, throw-away boy and an unlettered slave—Twain weaves into this narrative a metaphor compelling the reader to revisit the pain and trauma of this period in America's history and, like Huck, to be transformed. The responses, actions, and interactions of the main characters provide important emblems for readers, regardless of age, ethnicity, class, or epoch. Jim's exceptional humanity, his sacrifice, and his influence on Huck and the reader, as well as his lack of affect on the mob and the Phelpses are the subtle points of metaphor Twain renders. That Huck remains true to his oath and determines how he can use the doctor's yarn to influence Aunt Sally on Jim's behalf completes Twain's message about the failure and yet the untapped potential of the post-Reconstruction period. This section—this allegedly failed section—painfully and carefully depicts the thorny path that African Americans had yet to tread during Twain's own day. Reconstruction had not worked as well for the southern ex-slave as many had anticipated. A slave today, a freedman tonight: what does one do? The “Jim dilemma” which Twain presents to the reader renders one scenario through the visibility and voice of Jim. As we experience Jim, with Huck, with other slaves, as well as with proponents of slavery, we see exactly what the slave as well as the freedman confronted on a daily basis. From a modern perspective Adventures of Huckleberry Finn creates the environment conducive for the reader to observe and learn these historic and contemporary truths from a comfortable distance rather than from an “in your face” point of view.

That Huck cannot understand why Tom goes to so much trouble to “set a free nigger free” has continued to confound his critics. But when we look at the purpose of the kind of satire Twain has chosen to use, could there have been an effective alternative ending? It seems necessary for Twain to have rendered Tom Sawyer's and the Phelpses' mental attitudes, and to do so through parody and satire, through verbal and situational irony, in order to reveal “the relation of the text to the compromising and conditionalizing context of its utterance” (Morson and Emerson 78). It is this parodic style that “historicizes and … exposes the conditions that engendered claims of unconditionality” (78). According to Northrop Frye, this kind of satire “[a]t its most concentrated … presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern. The intellectual structure built up from this story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of the narrative” (310). Twain is writing about a character still set within a world that has not gone beyond racism.

Frye continues that the style sometimes results in the reader's mistaken belief that the writer's style and structure are careless. The unfamiliar style and structure require that readers revise their methods of reading a narrative. They may also have to revise their expectations and preconceived notions about the characters. The relationship between the reader, particularly the African American reader, and the novel has been the focus of this discussion, and we have focused as well on the relationship between readers and the African American presences in the novel. Rather than appreciating the masterful linguistic manipulation and strategic arguments with which Twain has endowed the characters, many African American critics of the novel hear and see only “nigger.” John Wallace recommends his revised version of the novel, from which such words have been deleted, over the original: “It no longer depicts blacks as inhuman, dishonest, or unintelligent, and it contains a glossary of Twainisms. Most adolescents will enjoy laughing at Jim and Huck in this adaptation” (24). And they will also have a naive, watered-down, and delusive vision of their own and their nation's heritage.

An approach such as Wallace's brings to the front a serious problem facing African Americans today. It is one of (non)recognition and (un)acknowledgement. Today's reading audience itself assumes a mask that precludes any necessity for acknowledging slavery and Jim and the other slaves depicted in the novel. As we have seen, this mask so obscures the vision that readers overlook even the free professor from the North. Let us discard the mask. Let us instead recognize that blacks and whites together must overcome such a problematic hindrance to substantive identification and communication. Shelley Fisher Fishkin takes the position that Jim does gain his voice and never compromises it. If, as opponents assert, the sound of Jim's voice is diminished, it is not because the character fades but because the hope and promise of Reconstruction failed. If we, at the end of the novel feel frustrated with Jim's situation, our feeling is appropriate to the education we have undergone at Twain's hands as to Jim's real integrity of character and moral purpose.

For Twain's painful rendering of the South's inhumanity before and after the Civil War, he relies on parodic satire to convey ambivalence so as to not completely alienate his reader. Morrison says that for the writer “in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive” (Playing in the Dark 13; italics added). Adventures of Huckleberry Finn accomplishes such an unhobbling by refusing to allow the reader to escape the truth of a horrific period in American history. As Morrison observes, “The agency for Huck's struggle is the nigger Jim, and it is absolutely necessary … that the term nigger be inextricable from Huck's deliberations about who and what he himself is—or, more precisely, is not. The major controversies about the greatness or near greatness of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an American (or even ‘world’) novel exist as controversies because they forego a close examination of the interdependence of slavery and freedom, of Huck's growth and Jim's serviceability within it, and even Mark Twain's inability to continue to explore the journey into free territory” (55). To have avoided using “nigger,” “hell,” and “poor white trash” would have been a denial, a lie, that would have undermined the novel's power to move readers to frustration at Jim's physical situation.

Twain never meant for this novel to be painless. He uses humor as Jonathan Swift does. He never meant, as Wallace proposes, for readers to only laugh at Jim and Huck. In her essay “What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” novelist Gloria Naylor queries the meaning and impact of using “nigger.” She concludes that even if the word were erased totally from the mouths of white society, as in Wallace's adaptation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, no one can be naive enough to believe that it would disappear from white minds. And, I add, it also would not disappear from African American minds—nor should it. Without the memory of what a word once meant and what it can continue to mean, we as a society are doomed only to repeat earlier mistakes about ourselves, each other, and serious issues involving us all.

Are we beyond needing correctives, as some of the novel's opponents suggest? I think of the literature book I read in high school, which wrote of slavery, “[L]et your imagination re-create the scenes that gave rise to the spirituals: [Negro] men and women picking cotton in the fields; men loading heavy bales on barges, with one rich voice singing out the varying lines and the whole company joining in the refrain” (Fadiman 670-72).2 This picturesque image appeared in the 1958 edition of Adventures in American Literature, but it was used in my classroom in the 1970s. No mention of “nigger,” “hell,” “poor white trash,” lynch mobs, dogs, or chains here, yet it strikes me as far more racist than Twain's use of these words to render the trauma, the brutality, the yearning for freedom, and the rationalizations that upheld slavery. I was fortunate in having parents and some discerning teachers who supplemented standard texts like my literature book with other books to read and open discussions about the issues they raised. Without the gift of that, I would have a very different impression of both my people and Euro-Americans. In their wisdom and out of their own courage, they dared me to look, to question, and then finally to write. Among the books they gave me was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


  1. Parenthetical page references to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford UP), 1996.

  2. This prefatory note introduced the “only” voice of the African American, that expressed in spirituals: “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,” “Deep River,” “Let My People Go.” The study questions that followed this section focused only on religious songs that create mood and deep religious faith, not on physical situation or political and economic conditions.


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Carl F. Wieck (essay date 2000)

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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

in its early stages Huckleberry Finn was to be a burlesque detective story. Apparently its denouement was to feature Jim's trial for Huck's murder, a crime never committed; Pap's murder as well as the mock murder were to be connected with the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud in a plot-complex similar to that of “Simon Wheeler” …

However, as Note A-10, urging the resurrection of the raft, indicates, Twain found the structural plan of his second work period insufficient for some reason, possibly because it was not readily expandable. Faced with the necessity of carrying on with a story he apparently had thought was almost finished he sought a means of adding to what he had already written. The device he adopted, as the resurrection of the raft suggests, is … to drop the culmination which would coincide with the feud and to continue Huck's journey downstream in the company of two tramp printers.2

A realization of the fact that neither Jim and Huck nor their creator initially envisioned a raft journey down the Mississippi can thus contribute to our understanding of unplumbed depths in Twain's novel.

After Huck narrowly escapes being killed by his father during one of the old man's drunken binges, he decides to flee in a canoe he has found, informing us that “I judged I'd hide her good, and then, stead of taking to the woods when I run off, I'd go down the river about fifty mile and camp in one place for good, and not have such a rough time tramping on foot” (38). The words “for good” point to Huck's stopping more than temporarily, not to a continual push to put increasingly many miles between himself and his father. A little later, shortly after Huck escapes from the confinement imposed upon him by pap, we also learn that the boy's first act is to hide in his canoe, have a snack, and then “smoke a pipe and lay out a plan.” His line of reasoning is clear:

I says to myself, they'll follow the track of that sackful of rocks to the shore and then drag the river for me. And they'll follow that meal track to the lake and go browsing down the creek that leads out of it to find the robbers that killed me and took the things. They won't ever hunt the river for anything but my dead carcass. They'll soon get tired of that, and won't bother no more about me. All right; I can stop anywhere I want to. Jackson's Island is good enough for me; I know that island pretty well, and nobody ever comes there. And then I can paddle over to town, nights, and slink around and pick up things I want. Jackson's Island's the place.


It is evident that Jackson's Island is to serve as a base and that Huck will depend on the town for necessary supplies. He has absolutely no intention of setting off on a river journey.

Jim is another who does not foresee risking his future on the river. His plan calls for him to travel by land rather than water. For Jim, the river is simply an impediment that must be dealt with in a manner that will not betray him. As he explains to Huck: “I'd made up my mine 'bout what I's agwyne to do. You see ef I kep' on tryin' to git away afoot, de dogs 'ud track me; ef I stole a skift to cross over, dey'd miss dat skift, you see, en dey'd know 'bout whah I'd lan' on de yuther side en whah to pick up my track. So I says, a raff is what I's arter; it doan' make no track” (53). Jim at this point decides to swim out to the middle of the river in order to hitch a surreptitious ride on a passing raft; and when he finally manages to catch hold of one and clamber aboard, he “reck'n'd 'at by fo' in de mawnin' I'd be twenty-five mile down de river, en den I'd slip in, jis' b'fo' daylight, en swim asho' en take to de woods on de Illinoi side” (54).4 When one of the raftsmen approaches with a lantern, however, Jim's plan to completely abandon the river goes awry. He is forced to slide overboard, swim to Jackson's Island, and survive as best he can for the moment, encircled by the waters of the Mississippi.

It is by this circuitous course that Jim and Huck happen to be thrown together on an island refuge in a manner that owes much to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.5 The island itself, however, is depicted as much more than a refuge from the storms of life or from the natural storm from which Jim's knowledge of the actions of birds saves Huck. From Huck's description of the island during the spring rise of the river, we are led to see it as a combination of Paradise and Noah's Ark:

Daytimes we paddled all over the island in the canoe. It was mighty cool and shady in the deep woods even if the sun was blazing outside. We went winding in and out amongst the trees; and sometimes the vines hung so thick we had to back away and go some other way. Well, on every old broken-down tree, you could see rabbits, and snakes, and such things; and when the island had been overflowed a day or two, they got so tame, on account of being hungry, that you could paddle right up and put your hand on them if you wanted to; but not the snakes and turtles—they would slide off in the water. The ridge our cavern was in, was full of them. We could a had pets enough if we'd wanted them.


Even the catfish Jim and Huck catch while living on the island is a fisherman's dream of almost miraculous proportions. As Huck describes it, the catfish “was as big as a man, being six foot two inches long, and weighed over two hundred pounds. … It was as big a fish as was ever catched in the Mississippi, I reckon. Jim said he hadn't ever seen a bigger one” (65-66).

But Huck has also informed us that there are untamed serpents in this “Paradise,” and the boy's joke with the dead snake, whose mate bites Jim and endangers his life, harbingers the finish to the two friends' idyll. It is, in the end, Huck's desire for knowledge that leads to departure from “Paradise.” Huck, disguised as a girl, decides to “slip over the river and find out what … [is] going on” (66). And the fact that a woman, in this case Mrs. Judith Loftus, is at the source of the information about the impending threat to Jim's freedom, posed by her husband, is not surprising when we consider the many biblical features of Twain's story. Understandably, it is the knowledge obtained from Mrs. Loftus that requires Huck and Jim to flee “Paradise.”

At this stage in the novel Huck and Jim are forced to begin continually using the flow of the river to avoid capture, and only after this is the plan of abandoning the raft and the Mississippi at Cairo, with the intention of boarding a steamboat in order to go counter to the flow of the Ohio and toward freedom, adopted as a new strategy. The critical decision to leave Jackson's Island and drift down the Mississippi is taken unwillingly, is seen at best as a temporary state of affairs, and can by no means be construed as a propitious choice.

The mode of escape opted for by the two runaways must also be considered as less than ideal, since the piece of raft they utilize in making their departure has the major disadvantage of being distressingly sluggish as a means of travel. Huck tells us that “it must a been close onto one o'clock when we got below the island at last, and the raft did seem to go mighty slow” (77). At a later stage of the narrative, it is just this torpid movement that allows the king and the duke in a skiff to catch up with Jim and Huck only shortly after the raft has cast off. The lack of speed at that moment proves crucial as well as frustrating, since Huck believes he and Jim are at last rid of the two frauds and is already rejoicing in the fact that “it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river and nobody to bother us” (259). When the king and the duke manage to reach the raft, however, Huck feels crushed: “So I wilted right down onto the planks, then, and give up; and it was all I could do to keep from crying” (260).

Although we witness several idyllic scenes in the novel in connection with life on a raft, we gradually come to realize that the raft is a dangerously slow, unwieldy object. Even worse, it is subject to being torn from its moorings at critical moments, such as during the risky “adventure” on the sinking Walter Scott or in the frightening fog episode. And, as if the disadvantages already mentioned were not enough, Huck and Jim are also fully aware, in particular after having “watched the rafts and steamboats spin down the Missouri shore, and up-bound steamboats fight the big river in the middle” (77), and after unintentionally missing Cairo in the fog, that it is well nigh impossible to “take the raft up the stream of course” (129). A raft, despite certain agreeable qualities, represents a powerless conveyance always at the mercy of the weather and the current, and, what is more, continually in danger of being destroyed by a steamboat. Despite Huck's claim that there “warn't no home like a raft, after all” (155), existence on the drifting and uncertain collection of logs never quite measures up to the stable, calm contentment that Jim and Huck shared in their lost “Paradise.” For want of an energy source that would enable it to oppose the movement of the current, a raft is only capable of going with the flow.

Nor is the river itself always the most hospitable of places. Beginning with the decomposed body mistakenly identified as pap, Twain populates the river at frequent intervals with hapless victims. There is, of course, pap's own body, found in the floating house, as well as that of Huck's proxy pig. And Buck Grangerford along with his cousin Joe also quickly become lifeless corpses when they seek refuge in the nonpartisan river. Instead of providing them protection, the Mississippi helps make them easy targets for their pursuers by slowing rather than speeding their escape: once in the water they immediately become “sitting ducks” for the men on shore. The three criminals aboard the Walter Scott represent additional sacrifices to the river's relentless flow, while Mary Jane Wilks points to another potential source of victims when she indicates that the usual fate of scoundrels in her town is what she thinks ought to be done to the king and the duke: “we'll have them tarred and feathered, and flung in the river” (240).6

At times it might seem that Twain overemphasizes the connection the river has with death, unless we take into consideration the importance of the assorted myths to which he refers, myths that serve as a commentary on the ways in which human beings attempt to relate to the river and its bodies. Huck, for example, “knows” the body found in the river and taken to be pap's has been falsely identified since it was discovered floating face upward. According to the myth, in which Huck firmly believes, women's bodies always float face upward while men's float face downward.7 Then, too, there is the belief that bread containing some quicksilver will, in Huck's words, “always go right to the drownded carcass and stop there” (46).8 Firing a cannon in the general area where a corpse is suspected to be located is also shown to be a method presumed effective for causing a body to come to the surface (45). All of these beliefs are scientifically unfounded, but the fact that they existed and are mentioned by Twain points to the need that people had for them, a need that must have been based on a sufficiently regular occurrence of death by, or in some way coupled with, the river.

Rivers are not, however, seen from only one point of view in the book. As Mark Twain well understood, rivers represented major thoroughfares in the years preceding the advent of railroads and paved highways. Dirt roads could become impassable during certain seasons or in certain kinds of weather, while rivers, because of their movement, usually remained navigable even in winter, hence the frequency with which towns were built along rivers and, consequently, the importance of the river as a means of linking places and experiences during the period covered in Twain's novel. Lionel Trilling points to that importance in suggesting that

The form of the book is based on the simplest of all novel-forms, the so-called picaresque novel, or novel of the road, which strings its incidents on the line of the hero's travels. But, as Pascal says, “rivers are roads that move,” and the movement of the road in its own mysterious life transmutes the primitive simplicity of the form: the road itself is the greatest character in this novel of the road, and the hero's departures from the river and his returns to it compose a subtle and significant pattern.9

Whether or not one accepts Trilling's view concerning the comparative significance of the river as a “character,” his conception of the complexity that Twain's use of the river contributed to the form merits noting.

Careful examination of Huckleberry Finn reveals that Twain's attitude toward the river is certainly not simplistic or one-dimensional. This irresistible flow carries objects and people with it indiscriminately, shows no favoritism, and has parameters that seem much broader than any perception of the river as the embodiment of a single god might offer. It displays, among its myriad qualities, beauty, mystery, power, gentleness, generosity, constant threats, and an often deceptively benign surface, covering an interior that is not easy to fathom. Nor are its islands presented simplistically. Generally they are seen in the novel as safe havens, but Twain does not hesitate to represent them either as a sort of earthly paradise that can serve to bring humans and other creatures together in peaceful harmony, as noted earlier, or as a formidable hindrance to a fervently wished for reunion, as in the fog episode when Jim and Huck drift along opposite sides of an island.

Even crossing the river can be viewed as problematic. Jim, for example, is thwarted in his attempt to escape across the river and leave the threat of enslavement completely behind; this inexorably leads to a multiplicity of difficulties and a “loss of time” for him as he lives on the river in a sort of limbo, neither completely slave nor completely free. Harney Shepherdson and Sophia Grangerford, on the other hand, succeed in crossing the river and thereby escape becoming slaves to an ancient feud mentality.

The river also takes Jim and Huck past Cairo and safety and ever deeper into slave country, but for this it is in no way to blame, unless it is seen in an anthropomorphic light. Huck never sees the river in such a light, however, and his uncomplicated attitude toward this powerful entity seems apparent in a brief comment he makes shortly after the dissipating of the fog, along with its fears. Displaying awe and his habitual lack of prejudice, Huck remarks, “It was a monstrous big river here” (102). For anyone who has ever experienced a feeling of insecurity at being alone in a small craft far from shore, these words are probably not devoid of meaning.10

As Huck and Jim drift down the Mississippi toward adventures that would make Tom Sawyer's mouth water, were he only aware of them, we may therefore wonder if our heroes are really going to “go with the flow” of that mighty river. Is their fate to move through life and, like a raft, “make no track”? Or will they, like a steamboat or a canoe, be able to go counter to the flow when and where necessary?

The contention of this essay is that the primary thrust of Twain's novel is against “going with the flow” and that Huck's character is defined, and Jim's revealed, step by step as these two chance comrades find themselves in successive situations that require them to act or make a decision in some way running counter to major pressures being brought to bear on one or both of them.

Huck, for example, gradually finds the ways of the widow and Miss Watson, as well as Tom's imaginary “adventures,” wearing on him and feels pressure building in himself to break away, when pap suddenly steps in and momentarily resolves the dilemma by removing him from the claustrophobic environment of the town. Prior to being kidnapped by his own father, however, Huck already gives a hint of what is to come when he realizes, immediately after pap's return to town, that “I warn't scared of him worth bothering about” (23). When pap challenges him with the comment “You think you're a good deal of a big-bug, don't you?” we see the spirit of teenage revolt rise to the surface in the reply, “Maybe I am, maybe I ain't” (23-24). A few pages later Huck expresses similar defiance in explaining that “I didn't want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I'd go now to spite pap” (29). It therefore comes as no surprise that when pap becomes an actual danger to Huck's existence, the boy is willing to go against both pap and the flow of events by taking his pretended “suicide” into his own hands.

At almost exactly the same moment, back at the widow's, Jim, too, feels compelled to go against a flow of events; in his case it is one that could take him to New Orleans and a worse form of slavery than he has ever before experienced. Huck and Jim thus fortuitously break away from the grasp of a powerful current of circumstances almost simultaneously, and they continue to have this spirit of opposition in common throughout the book.

Huck again evinces his willingness to go against the flow when he makes an attempt at humor in the Raftsmen episode by claiming to be Charles William Allbright, the long-dead subject of one of the tall tales being told. In mocking his own identity, Huck not only challenges the essence of the tale but also makes a wry comment on what he thinks of all the blustery balderdash he has just heard. It is a risky maneuver for a young boy amidst men, but he dares to take the risk, just as he dared to flout pap's authority. He chooses to test his strength at this juncture and does not completely accommodate himself to the flow, unless we see his decision as one that he is certain will produce mirth in the tall-tale tellers by fitting in with the spirit of the moment. Given the situation, however, it would not seem to be a foregone conclusion that the reaction of the men will necessarily be what Huck could conceivably hope for. What does appear evident is that the fourteen-year-old Huck is constitutionally unable to accommodate himself easily to a situation that requires him to submit to an adult authority for which he obviously feels little respect.

Huck's father is also incapable of accommodating himself easily to society for more than brief moments, and his pattern of not doing things according to “reasonable” ground rules, such as not collecting and selling more driftwood at one time than is necessary to enable him to purchase enough liquor for a binge, can be seen as setting a pattern for his son. Huck has difficulty in understanding what he deems to be pap's shortsighted attitude toward the driftwood, but he comes much closer to making peace with society than pap ever does. Huck is, however, pap's son in not hesitating to go counter to the flow whenever his craw gets too full. Just as pap allows the new judge in town to go only to a certain limit in “converting” him before reverting to form, Huck also possesses definite limits as to what he is willing to tolerate.

Evidence of this may be seen in the Wilks episode when Huck sees the misery that the Wilks girls experience after a family of three of their “niggers” is split up and sold by the king and the duke. Huck is able to look on in silence only because he possesses secret knowledge:

The girls said they hadn't ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can't ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other's necks and crying; and I reckon I couldn't a stood it all but would a had to bust out and tell on our gang if I hadn't knowed the sale warn't no account and the niggers would be back home in a week or two.


The kindness that the girls had shown the boy at an earlier moment in the novel stirred him at that point to steal the six-thousand-dollar bag of gold coins from the king and the duke; and this latest display of greed infuriates him enough to cause him to take things into his own hands once again and initiate a plan to once more counter the flow of the situation. Huck's clear revolt against the members of what he calls “our gang” comes about in spite of pap, who has shown by bad example that “the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way” (165). In this instance, Huck decides not to let the king and duke “have their own way” and manages to stand firm against the twin flow of forces represented by their direct acts and by pap's indirect teaching.

In what are often considered some of the most dramatic episodes in the novel, Huck goes against the flow of society in trying to save Jim from slavery, and his decisions in this connection all run counter to the practice of the period. In taking his stand, Huck is, as we know, required to oppose received religious beliefs that could find justification in the Bible for holding slaves. He must also go counter to received political practice, which, according to the stipulations of the Constitution, required slaves to be returned to their masters. Huck's opposition to this dual flow exposes him, he believes, to being condemned at death to hell and condemned in life to being regarded as a “low-down Ablitionist” (52), but he cannot find it within himself to accept either the religious or the political precepts that might allow him to avoid such a fate.

With Huck, it is clearly his humane nature that gets in the way when it conflicts with the inhumanity he encounters. He feels that he should oppose the seemingly just hand of nemesis in order to try to save the criminals on the drifting and doomed Walter Scott “so they can be hung when their time comes” (87), and he goes to a good bit of trouble for them. It is against the flow of common sense, perhaps, but Huck cannot completely abandon either the men or his natural instinct to save life. Significantly, he goes with his own flow in an attempt to counteract what the flow of the river threatens to produce. He realizes only too well that he too could be hung one day and thus identifies with the murderers. Such an unexpected reaction reflects a tolerant ability to identify with all levels of imperfect humanity, contradicts the norm, and contributes in a major way to making Huck the universal symbol he has become. He can even find it within himself to try to counter the flow of lynch-mob justice and attempt to warn the king and the duke of their impending tarring and feathering, despite the fact that they have sold his friend Jim into slavery for a paltry “forty dirty dollars.” In both of the above cases Huck applies his own sense of a more humane level of fair play to situations that apparently have already been decided by some power greater than himself. In each set of circumstances he displays the individual strength to resist the flow of what is seemingly preordained.

Twain also indicates that Jim, no less than Huck, ceaselessly strives to counter the flow. This begins early in the book when Jim seeks to carry out his escape by hitching a ride on a raft and must first swim to the middle of the river where, in a symbolic indication of his need and willingness to go against the flow, he significantly tells Huck that he “kinder swum agin de current tell de raff come along” (54). But Jim's opposition to the flow is not displayed solely in physical resistance to the river itself. He firmly opposes the movement of the current in spirit through never abandoning his goal of becoming free all the while he and Huck are drifting south. Jim's overtly rebellious acts, such as challenging Huck's “white” authority in the “Sollermun” and “Frenchman” arguments or daring to indicate that Huck is “trash” in the follow-up events to the fog scene, also add supporting evidence of Jim's strength of character.11 Jim has the courage to oppose the flow of events as long as will be necessary for him to reach his goal of freeing not only himself but also his wife and children. At no point does he alter his stance or display the least inclination to waver on this issue, despite the mistreatment he undergoes at the hands of almost all of the whites with whom he comes in contact. In this manner, Jim is portrayed as just as stubborn as Huck in steadfastly, if quietly, going against what he feels to be the frustrating flow of events.

There are several other characters besides Huck and Jim who also display a willingness to resist the flow of events. Colonel Sherburn, for instance, coolly faces down a lynch mob that has flowed in a seemingly unstoppable mass toward his home. The doctor in the Wilks section dares to go counter to the crowd, the king and the duke, and even the Wilks girls themselves in his attempt to expose fraud. And, whether or not the gesture is seen as a deus ex machina, Miss Watson, who was originally planning to sell Jim, decides instead to oppose the practice of the day and liberate her slave, despite the fact that he ran away and thereby failed to honor the code of obedience that could have been expected to earn him his freedom. In each of these cases, individual courage claims the ultimate prize.

The final break with the flow occurs on the last page of the novel when Huck, after once again trying to find an acceptable existence in living according to Tom Sawyer's “style” and rules, realizes that Tom, with his “bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch,” will, for too long to come, always be “seeing what time it is” (362). That Huck notes and mentions Tom's vanity allows us to understand that at some level he is disturbed by the dreary implication of the new habit.12 The ramifications of that fact and the possibility of having Aunt Sally as a surrogate for the widow Douglas and Miss Watson provide the motivation for Huck to once again oppose the flow. Huck valiantly attempts to diplomatically say no to further “adventures” with Tom over in the Territory by claiming not to have the “money for to buy the outfit” (361). But when Tom counters with the fact that Huck actually has more than six thousand dollars at his disposal, the scene is set for Huck to react once more in the only way he can conceive of to the kinds of pressures he experienced once before in the early pages of the novel.

In the end, the Mississippi must finally be left behind by both Huck and Jim. Neither character wished at the outset to be on the river, and neither now expresses regret at abandoning it. During a trip that has largely been defined by the current of this “road that moves,” they more often than not have found themselves in conflict with the deceptively “comfortable” but unrelenting motion of its flow. Huck's final decision is a resolute rejection of life on and along the river in favor of the obvious risk involved in heading west onto dry land and into an un-“sivilized” world where, contrary to the flow of accepted logic, the unknown appears less threatening than the known. It seems plain that neither the raft nor the river can offer Huck or Jim an acceptable future, and this should come as no revelation after watching the two friends struggle, each in his own way, so long against the downstream flow.

It is therefore back on terra firma, but in terra incognita, that Huck's struggle promises to continue; Jim's plans for the future, which have long been apparent, also exclude both raft and river. Neither character would appear at this juncture to harbor any illusions, romantic or otherwise, about the Mississippi, but it would not seem beyond imagining that memories of their recent experiences together might not be forgotten in the years to come. For Mark Twain could never forget the Mississippi he came to understand so well as a young man, despite the fact that the flow of his life ultimately separated him physically—although never spiritually—from the movement of that restless river. As a former steamboat captain he never forgot the difficulties involved in traveling upstream against the current, all the while clearly realizing that the responsibility for facing and overcoming those difficulties belonged in the end to only one person on the boat. When Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is regarded from this vantage point, the novel would appear to bear permanent witness to its author's understanding of the continual and complex challenge involved in not going only with the flow.


  1. Parenthetical page references to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer, Vol. 8, Works of Mark Twain, Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1988.

  2. Franklin R. Rogers, Mark Twain's Burlesque Patterns, Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1960, 129.

  3. Ibid., 135-36.

  4. Twain's spelling of Illinois as Illinoi would seem to have at its root the fact that the word is seen to be spoken by Jim, and can thus be considered eye dialect. Since the s in Illinois is silent, however, there would appear to be no other justification for this misspelling.

  5. See Alan Gribben, Mark Twain's Library (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 1:180-82.

  6. In line with the theme of death by water, it is of tangential interest here that the hero of Emmeline Grangerford's poem “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd” also undergoes death by drowning; in that case, however, the culprit is a well he falls into and not the Mississippi.

  7. See explanatory notes 14.24-25 in Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer, for Twain's possible source for this belief, as well as for Dr. Alvin Tarlov's statement concerning his observation of the fact that the bodies of “men, women, boys and girls—they all float face down.”

  8. See ibid., 46.3-4. It is also worth nothing that on page C-3 of Mark Twain's working notes for Huckleberry Finn (“Appendix A,” in Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Blair and Fischer, 739, 752), there is a clear indication that Twain was fully conscious of the potential of having bread “cast upon the waters” serve a purpose in his novel: “And bread cast returns—which it don't & can't, less'n you heave it upstream—you let ^cast^ your bread downstream once, & see. It can't stem the current; so it can't come back no more. But the widow she didn't know no better man to believe it, & it warn't my business to correct my betters. There's a heap of ignorance like that, around.” The editors' comment on Twain's note points out: “This note suggests that Mark Twain considered revising or expanding the passage in chapter 8, where Huck eats the bread that has been set afloat to find his corpse and reflects on the efficacy of prayer” (45.27-47.7 [752]). It might be added that from all indications the speaker of the first-quoted passage is clearly Huck.

  9. Lionel Trilling, introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York: Rinehart and Co., 1948, xvi.

  10. Twain's working notes for his novel reveal other destructive displays he had planned for the river: in the notes for A-6 we find “An overflowed Arkansaw town. River booms up in the night,” and on page B-2 we read “(overflowed banks?)” (“Appendix A,” in Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Blair and Fischer, 728, 735).

  11. Andrew Solomon suggests in regard to the “Sollermun” debate that Jim's words here are as much an act of mutiny as running away from Miss Watson was, and the penalty could have been, in fact, just as severe. Jim has now started to break his psychological enslavement, just as he had recently broken from physical enslavement; the importance of this break must not be ignored. It could even be argued that the black man's severing of the identification with a Biblical Hebrew, an identification based on their mutual slavery, is in itself his first step toward psychological freedom. (“Jim and Huck The Magnificent Misfits.” Mark Twain Journal 16 (winter] 1972), 21)

  12. See Oehlschlaeger, “‘Gwyne to Git Hung,’” in Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley, eds. One Hundred Years of “Huckleberry Finn.” Centennial Essays. Columbia: U. of Missouri Press. p. 7-11, 124-25.

Stacey Margolis (essay date March 2001)

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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 focus of critique away from the novel to the social consequences of its canonization. Rather than ask if Huckleberry Finn is a good or bad book, they ask if it has good or bad effects. To claim, then (as a number of Smiley's respondents in Harper's did about her essay), that these two works misread the novel or refuse to attend to its historical context is to miss the point.1 Smiley and Arac have far less interest in interpreting the novel than in addressing the way it has been used and the “cultural work” it continues to perform (Arac 21); they are making claims not so much about what Huckleberry Finn means as about what it does.

Thus, despite the fact that Arac confesses early on that he believes “Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book” (16), his goal is to assess the consequences of excessive admiration, to “explore how Twain's book came to be endowed with the values of Americanness and anti-racism, and with what effects” (vii). Predictably, these effects are shown to be devastating. In Arac's view, the novel's prominent and seemingly unshakable position as a “quintessentially American book” (vii) has led to “white” complacency about racism (“[n]orthern liberal smugness” [65]), the legitimation of racial epithets, and the delegitimation of African American experience. For Arac and Smiley, the novel's pernicious influence is demonstrated most clearly in the way that a series of well-known critics have made Huck's change of heart about Jim (Huck's decision in chapter 31 to “go to hell”) serve as a model of social responsibility. What mid-twentieth-century critics admired as a form of redemption, Arac and Smiley see as a distasteful form of liberal bad faith: the problem, in Smiley's terms, is the sense that if “Huck feels positive toward Jim, and loves him, and thinks of him as a man, then that's enough. He doesn't actually have to act in accordance with his feelings” (63).2 It is this investment in good intentions (both in the novel and in celebrations of the novel) that, more than anything else, bothers Arac and Smiley. After all, what could be more politically suspect than to applaud moral courage that can never be translated into social change?

One could argue that the reading of chapter 31 to which Arac and Smiley object—the reading of Huck's decision as moral triumph—has never been as influential, at least in literary circles, as they seem to believe. Critics have been claiming since the 1960s that the futility of Huck's decision to free Jim, as well as the entire evasion sequence at the Phelps farm, must be read as a satire of white complacency and of the perils of legal freedom for blacks in late-nineteenth-century America. This reading is developed brilliantly by Laurence Holland in by far the best, if least cited, essay on the novel. In “A ‘Raft of Trouble,’” Holland argues that the novel undercuts the importance of Huck's change of heart: the necessity and the futility of his decision to free an already free Jim satirize the fact that in the post-Reconstruction era (and, Holland suggests, even “in more recent decades” [75]) black Americans were systematically denied civil and economic rights and thus, in a real sense, still needed to be freed.3 In much the same way, Russell Reising has weighed in against those critics who relegate the racial violence of Huckleberry Finn to a past that is “diffused […] with a nostalgic gloss” as a way of avoiding the presentness of Twain's nightmare America (159).

The interest of Smiley's and Arac's polemics is that they effectively invalidate all such defenses of the novel. At issue in these arguments is not what Twain intended or even what the novel really means (if these things are different) but how it has been and continues to be experienced by readers. Arac, for example, argues that to defend Huckleberry Finn's treatment of Jim or its use of racial epithets by pointing to the novel's irony is to dismiss the legitimate concerns of African Americans who experience the book not as a satire of racial injustice but as a form of racial insult. “If civil rights means anything,” he asks, “shouldn't it mean that African Americans ought to have a real voice in public definitions of what counts as a model of enlightened race relations?” (9). While Arac's and Smiley's claims about Huckleberry Finn paradoxically seem aimed at rescuing black readers from the “racist” effects of arguments by black intellectuals like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison (who have eloquently defended the novel), the more general problems Arac and Smiley have with any appeal to the novel's real meaning is that its meaning has been overshadowed by its powerful cultural effects. Indeed, Arac's project is a kind of postdeconstructive attempt to treat Huckleberry Finn not as itself a chain of uncontrollable iterations but as an object that fosters a chain of prescribed responses (that the novel is quintessentially American, that it is anti-racist, that black readers who hate it must be wrong), so that “what counts is not the attitudes that the book supposedly teaches, but rather the opportunity the book provides for the incessant reiteration, the ritual repetition, of practical behavior” (11).

To divorce Twain from the effects of his novel—indeed, to absolve him of any blame for those effects—is, for Arac and Smiley, to demonstrate a commitment to effect over intention that they claim most Americans refuse to countenance.4 The problem with liberal readers of Twain is that they insist on reducing everything—including racism—to sentiment. “White Americans,” Smiley argues, “always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture, American politics, and the American economy” (63). For Arac, it is defenders of the novel who make this mistake, acting “as if racism were only a matter of specific intention to harm, of attitude rather than habitual practice and social structure” (13).

To make this case against white Americans or the liberal reader is to advance certain claims about what it means to be responsible for racism and, more generally, about the connections among what we do, what we intend, and what happens to us or to the people around us. It is, in fact, to make the claim that we can be held responsible not only for what we mean (or what we mean to do) but also for the unintended effects of what we do. On this account, our actions can count as racist even if we “don't know it” and even if we have no “specific intention to harm” (Arac 13). It is in making this claim, I think, that Arac and Smiley are most interesting, most convincing, and, ironically enough, most indebted to Huckleberry Finn. For in their belief in responsibility for effects rather than for intentions, they are clearly the inheritors of a nineteenth-century cultural shift in notions of accountability that involved not only the rise of a new legal paradigm (the law of negligence) but also the social satire of a novel like Huckleberry Finn.

Far from being irrelevant to questions of institutionalized racism, Twain's novel is centrally concerned with the production of effects and the assignment of responsibility for them. Huckleberry Finn participates in this cultural shift in the conception of responsibility by articulating a form of moral action on which individual intention—whether good or bad—finally has no bearing. In this essay I argue that Twain's interest in exploring the ways in which a wide variety of unknowing people could be held responsible for Jim's fate and be made to compensate him for his injuries must be read as an attempt to imagine what it would mean to extend the logic of negligence to the national level. In this commitment to examining unintentional harms, Twain not only makes his strongest case against postbellum racism but also proves himself the intellectual forerunner of social critics like Arac and Smiley. For, from this perspective, Huckleberry Finn is an attempt to imagine accountability even in the absence of malice.


Whether they like it or hate it, critics of Huckleberry Finn have always seen the real drama of the novel in Huck's internal conflict, the contest (as Twain once put it) between his conscience and his heart, so that the suspense for the reader lies in the uncertainty of Huck's decision rather than in the uncertainty of his actions. This sense that Huck's decision—whether read straight or as satire—is at the center of Huckleberry Finn is the one thing that supporters and detractors of the novel have always had in common. Thus, the novel's most famous detractor, Leo Marx, claiming that Huck's “victory over his ‘yaller dog’ conscience” in chapter 31 ultimately “assumes heroic size” (301), sounds a great deal like the novel's most famous supporter, Lionel Trilling, who claims that Huck “becomes an heroic character when, on the urging of affection, [he] discards the moral code he has always taken for granted and resolves to help Jim in his escape from slavery” (111-12).

This sense that what counts in chapter 31 is Huck's conscience hardly seems surprising since it is intention rather than action that gets the final word. Announcing his decision to destroy the letter he has written Miss Watson disclosing Jim's whereabouts, Huck says, “It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming” (272). While it is clear what it would mean to let a letter stay written (by not ripping it up), it is not as easy to picture what it would mean to let words, once uttered, “stay said.” But one might make the case for the priority of intention in this novel by asserting that the permanence of these words consists in the purity of the intention that produced them, in Huck's determined refusal to change his mind. The novel dramatizes this commitment to consciousness over action most explicitly in the way that it neatly undoes the action of this key scene: Huck demonstrates his loyalty to Jim by ripping up the letter. The fact that this decision is emblematized by a letter written and then destroyed—an action done and then undone—seems even in its formal structure to privilege the coherence of intentions over the vagaries of actions.

It is the futility of Huck's commitment to Jim—a futility made visible in the destroyed letter—that has always angered the novel's detractors. The direct result of Huck's decision, after all, is not a serious attempt to free Jim but a game invented by Tom Sawyer. Yet if Miss Watson's decision to set Jim free makes the final rescue attempt a mere game, it is a game only to Tom, who knows the truth from the moment he arrives at the Phelps farm. For Huck, the stakes of freeing Jim are just as high, and the consequences just as real, when Tom takes control of the rescue as they were when Huck agonized over sending the letter to Miss Watson. Only after the rescue fails does Huck discover what he and Tom have, in fact, been doing all along: not rescuing Jim but only pretending to: “and so, sure enough, Tom Sawyer had gone and took all that trouble and bother to set a free nigger free! and I couldn't ever understand, before, until that minute and that talk how he could help a body set a nigger free, with his bringing-up” (362). That Huck describes the evasion as Tom's action rather than his own is an issue to which I return below. For now, it is important to note that what Miss Watson's will reveals is not that Huck has failed in his commitment to liberate Jim but the more surprising fact that Huck could neither have succeeded nor have failed to free him. Already free in the eyes of the law, Jim, it seems, can never be freer than he is.

What is most striking about this revision of the rescue is that it illustrates a paradigm for the novel's representation of action. Indeed, all the central actions of the novel depend on this kind of gap in knowledge: characters repeatedly come to know what they really did (or what their actions really mean) only after the fact, only retrospectively. Thus, Jim discovers that he has not been running away from enslavement but has, as Tom announces, been simply running (361). Thus, Huck discovers that he has not been escaping from his father since, as Jim informs him, by the time they leave Jackson's Island his father is dead (365-66). The novel at once highlights intention (by focusing completely on the development of Huck's consciousness) and works to make intentions irrelevant to understanding certain kinds of action. No matter how deeply Huck is invested in his good intentions toward Jim or how powerful his decision to save Jim seems to the reader, this recasting of the rescue by Miss Watson's will already moves us well beyond an intentional model of action.

From a point of view that places the reader beyond intention, Huck's role in the evasion must be understood less as a heroic individual gesture than as an act essentially defined by other people. The game Huck finds he is playing must be understood less as something he shares with Tom than as something created by Tom. In the end, Tom's revelation neither enforces Huck's decision (as pure intention) nor invalidates it (as completely futile) but insists on the conflict between what Huck thinks he is doing and what he is told he has done. In thus recasting Huck's role in the rescue, Huckleberry Finn undertakes a project much more radical than imagining a self that can inhabit a variety of roles (after all, disguises and mistaken identities have always been central to the novel). Instead, the novel imagines what it would mean for someone to perform an action that can be narrated intelligibly only from outside the self, what it would mean, in other words, for Tom to understand what Huck is doing better than Huck can understand it himself. “It shows,” as Huck puts it, “how a body can see and don't see at the same time” (293).

This retrospective account of action is so central to Huckleberry Finn that it ultimately comes to undermine the authority exercised by Huck's self-presentation. The novel thematizes this powerlessness over narration in its meticulous tracking of textual effects, in its exploration of how texts come to define and even transform what characters can do. That is, the novel is concerned less with the ways that texts represent actions than with the ways that texts can determine what counts as someone's action. Miss Watson's will casts a shadow over the entire plot, redefining what everyone has been doing to Jim, just as Tom's adventure stories prescript the fake rescue. In the evasion sequence, tales prompt adventures not so much by providing Tom and Huck with an intention as by standing in for intention, by becoming intention's substitute. Far from exercises in improvisation, Tom's games are the products of textual blueprints: “Why blame it all, we've got to do it. Don't I tell you it's in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what's in the books, and get things all muddled up?” (27).

If Tom's perfect commitment to enforcing the rules of the romance is satirized, however, the power he accords texts is never questioned. Beyond the innovative use of dialect, what seems to mark Huckleberry Finn as the first recognizably modern American novel—what might explain the kinship a modernist like Hemingway felt for Twain's project—is the way it experiments with the production of textual effects. Through steady adherence to the illusion of presentness, the novel works to enforce a kind of readerly retrospection, so that just as Tom and Jim withhold important pieces of information until the end of the “adventure,” Huck withholds their revelations from the reader. Presentness is an illusion here because Huck, who claims to be narrating his tale after the fact, tells it as if experiencing it for the first time. As Holland points out, Huckleberry Finn presents itself as a historical novel, but it is narrated as if it were happening in the “here and now” (73). What he does not remark on is that this illusion enables Huckleberry Finn to enact its retrospection formally, forcing readers into the same kind of recognition that Huck and Jim experience in the world of the novel. It is only after the fact that readers understand the descriptions they have been reading: of a game rather than a rescue, of a free man rather than a slave, of an orphan rather than a runaway. This withholding of information, finally, makes it impossible for one ever to read the same story again by making it impossible for one to be the same reader the second time around. If one reads the novel the first time as Huck, one must read it the second time as Tom.

Such shifting positions and tenses might explain how a novel that purports to focus on the South of “forty to fifty years” before the time of its publication can be understood as a novel essentially about the post-Reconstruction era. Certainly, if the novel's setting has always suggested a kind of nostalgia—for boyhood, for the antebellum South, for the small town—the fact that Twain detaches Huck and Jim from a familiar context and sets them literally afloat already begins to suggest a concern with the chaos of postwar America. There could hardly be a better image of modernization than the move from the familiarity of the village to the anonymity of the city. And this interest in the relation between strangers connects the novel most explicitly with the politics of the post-Reconstruction era not because it raises questions about individual disorientation in a rapidly industrializing America but because it raises broader questions about accountability in a changing public sphere.

If all the actors in the evasion sequence misunderstand what they have done to Jim—Huck imagines that he is freeing a slave, the Phelpses and their neighbors imagine that by catching Jim they are quelling a slave revolt, Tom imagines that Jim's freedom can be turned into a game, and even Miss Watson imagines that signing her will is enough to make Jim free—how are they answerable for the harms they cause him? What, in the end, are these willing and unwilling participants in the evasion responsible for? These questions are at the center of Huckleberry Finn, and the novel attempts to answer them by reframing actions not merely in a wider context but also in terms of their consequences. If Huckleberry Finn is a novel about intention, it might best be read as a novel about the limits of intention, even at the moments when interiority rather than action is presented as the privileged form of self-relation. It is, finally, a novel in which your effects on other people rather than your feelings about them define what you have done and, more important, what you can be held accountable for.


The problem with most critiques of Huckleberry Finn is that they assume Twain was invoking an intentional model of morality (thus the frequent allusions to Huck's decision to act, for better or worse, against the mores of the community and in accordance with his “heart”), when he was exploring a model of moral action in which any particular state of mind or change of attitude is finally irrelevant. This model did not originate with Twain or emerge full-fledged in nineteenth-century America. In fact, it resembles what Bernard Williams, examining classical texts, calls the “whole person response” to harm (61). By this Williams means an understanding that the existence of a harm requires us to trace causation and to hold someone accountable, even if the harm was caused unintentionally. The relevant question about a harm, in other words, is not “whether the agent intended the outcome” but rather “what exactly his action may be said to have caused” (63). Thus, in the Odyssey, Telemachus, having left open the door to the storeroom by accident, is nonetheless to blame—for this and for the fact that the suitors could subsequently get at the weapons. To hold persons responsible in this way, to insist that they are accountable for their accidents and mistakes, is to make certain assumptions about what constitutes individuality. It is, according to Williams, to concede that committing an action “unintentionally does not, in itself, dissociate that action from yourself” and thus to know “that in the story of one's life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.” “Telemachus can be held responsible for things he did unintentionally, and so, of course, can we” (54, 69, 54).

As Williams points out, nowhere is this model of responsibility for unintended effects more powerfully expressed than in the law of torts. Virtually nonexistent in antebellum America, torts became one of the most important elements of common law in the late nineteenth century, when industrialization, urbanization, and improved systems of transportation forced masses of people into close proximity and thus gave rise to an increasing number of accidental injuries. What made such accidents unprecedented (aside from their numbers) was that they at once demanded some form of reparation for suffering and raised serious questions about accountability, including questions about who should be held responsible for accidental harms and who should bear the cost of them. With the dramatic rise of such harms, what had been an insignificant branch of the law dealing with torts became an increasingly important remedy precisely because it did not make intention the ground of liability.5

In The Common Law (1881), which advanced one of the first and most influential theories of tort in America, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., made explicit this model of responsibility for effects. He claimed, “It may be said that, generally speaking, a man meddles with [tangible objects] at his own risk” (153)—that the owner of an object might be understood as responsible for harms caused by that object.6 Antebellum American courts were basically committed to this model of strict liability, under which actors are held responsible for the harms caused by their actions no matter how blameless their conduct. By midcentury, however, legal scholars were concerned about the economic effects of such a system; strict liability threatened American industry (which would have to pay for the damage it caused) by promising a radical redistribution of wealth. Holmes, reacting to the ever-increasing demand for compensation, dismissed calls for a system of strict liability, denying that the state's role was to “make itself a mutual insurance company against accidents, and distribute the burden of its citizens' mishaps among all its members” (96). In fact, the story that legal historians generally tell about tort in the nineteenth century is the story of its limitation, of the way that the promise of compensation was routinely undermined in the American courts.

More than anything else, the courts' growing insistence that there be a standard of negligence significantly limited liability. If under a system of strict liability persons are liable for every harm they cause, under a system of negligence they are liable for a harm they cause only if they are at fault. According to Holmes, who was instrumental in establishing negligence as the general principle of liability in tort, persons are at fault when they act carelessly, when they cause a harm that anyone could have foreseen and avoided. “Unless my act,” Holmes says, “is of a nature to threaten others, unless under the circumstances a prudent man would have foreseen the possibility of harm, it is no more justifiable to make me indemnify my neighbor against the consequences, than to make me do the same thing if I had fallen upon him in a fit, or to compel me to insure him against lightning” (96). Thus, the key distinction in a determination of guilt “is not between results which are and those which are not the consequences of the defendant's acts” but rather “between consequences which [the defendant] was bound as a reasonable man to contemplate, and those which he was not.” For example, “[h]ard spurring is just so much more likely to lead to harm than merely riding a horse in the street […] that the defendant would be bound to look out for the consequences of the one,” although he would not be held responsible “for those resulting merely from the other; because the possibility of being run away with when riding quietly, though familiar, is comparatively slight” (93-94). By proclaiming the harmful consequences of some actions to be predictable and by making agents pay only for their mistakes, American law drew formal boundaries around how much agents would have to pay for the harms they accidentally caused.

As The Gilded Age (Twain and Warner; 1873) makes clear, by the 1870s Twain was concerned about the consequences of such limitations on liability. This novel is, at least in part, a condemnation of the American courts for their failure to protect people from the damaging side effects of economic progress. Twain and his coauthor, Charles Dudley Warner, devote an entire chapter to an account of a deadly steamboat accident and its aftermath. While the painstaking depiction of this accident seems, at least initially, out of place in a novel satirizing Washington, the account of the explosion reveals a great deal about the general mechanisms of guilt and blame in the age of industry. If the captains and crews of the two ships were clearly responsible for the race that led to the accident—the head engineer of the Amaranth calls his second engineer a “murderer” for refusing to heed his warnings about stress on the engines—the “jury of inquest” on the case refuses to find anyone liable for the accident: “after due deliberation and inquiry they returned the inevitable American verdict which has been too familiar to our ears all the days of our lives—Nobody to Blame” (52).

On the one hand, then, The Gilded Age registers the way in which the courts limited liability, favoring industry over the persons it injured. On the other, this scene, in its sense of justified outrage over the verdict, also dramatizes the important ways in which common-sense expectations about liability had been transformed. While it is true that legal devices like negligence limited liability and thus eased the burden placed on industry, the logic of negligence worked out by Holmes and other scholars actually succeeded (often despite their intentions) in articulating new forms of individual and corporate obligation. Making carelessness the ground of responsibility implied that persons (even corporate persons) have at all times an obligation to act with caution. Formerly understood only as the failure to live up to a specific duty—the failure to fulfill a contract, say, or to perform a public office adequately—negligence began to be defined as the failure to meet a general standard of care. With the rise of negligence, not only were professionals like doctors bound by particular duties but everyone was imagined to be bound by an obligation to others, an obligation not to cause harm. Negligence, designed to limit liability, ended up producing a much more expansive form of obligation owed to “all the world” (Holmes's phrase, qtd. in White 19).

The system of negligence installed by theorists like Holmes created a range of impersonal obligations. If one had a duty to “all the world,” this duty had nothing to do with how one felt about one's fellows.7 The law, that is, did not require people to love their neighbors. Thus, while Holmes was adamant in his support of the fault principle's limitation of liability, arguing that “undertaking to redistribute losses” for injuries resulting from blameless action would not only hinder progress but also undermine any “sense of justice” (96), he nevertheless insisted that individuals were always acting under a general obligation to the public. If the move to a system of negligence meant that the law often failed to provide adequate compensation for the harms occasioned by industrialization, it nonetheless extended the reach of social obligation and thus transformed what it meant to act in public.

Huckleberry Finn invokes the rise of negligence in fantasizing solutions to the post-Reconstruction racial crisis. Unlike earlier and later stories by Twain involving the adventures of Tom, Huck, and Jim, however, Huckleberry Finn contains no courtroom scene, no overt intrusion of the law into the world of the novel.8 Instead, Twain derives from the system of negligence that had become central to American common law a general model of responsibility for the consequences of action. The model he invokes is impersonal and universally applicable. It is impersonal because it measures conduct not against the agent's intentions but against a general standard. As H. L. A. Hart argues, negligence “is not the name of ‘a state of mind’” but the name of an action, a failure “to comply with a standard of conduct with which any ordinary reasonable man could and would have complied” (147). In negligence cases, the courts did not ask whether actors had in fact predicted the harm that would follow from their actions; the courts measured the actions against a general standard of behavior. The model is universally applicable because it is not subject to individual consent. The law of negligence, as Holmes claimed, is grounded in “some general view of the conduct which everyone may fairly expect and demand from every other, whether that other has agreed to it or not” (77).9

In the broadest terms, what Twain recognizes in negligence as a way of judging behavior is its potential to solve the problem of postbellum civil rights, a problem he conceives as structural rather than personal. If Jim's precarious position in the text—free in name but not in fact—represents the precarious political and economic situation of African Americans after Reconstruction, this position cannot be transformed by the power of sentiment, because it is held in place by people who have the best of intentions. By the end of the novel, Huck's love for and commitment to freeing Jim become paradoxically essential to the game of humiliating him. I do not mean to claim that Huckleberry Finn simply replaces an intentional model of responsibility with one that disregards intention—it would be wrong to argue that Twain merely ironizes Huck's love for Jim. Rather, I am suggesting that the form of impersonal responsibility explored in the novel supplements an intentional model (just as negligence supplements criminal law); it is a way of imagining remedies for different kinds of harms. Twain, in other words, raises questions of sentiment in Huckleberry Finn to suggest that sentimental conversions go only so far to remedy wrongs that can be traced to no one agent.

Indeed, in Huckleberry Finn, intention is consistently overshadowed by the problem it attempts to address, the problem of racial discrimination that is embedded in (to echo Smiley) American cultural, economic, and political systems. From this perspective, it makes more sense to see each character's ignorance of the true meaning of his actions less as a moral failing than as a generalization about the unpredictable effects of individual action. Critics have been too quick to blame Tom for Jim's suffering, not acknowledging how the formal structure of the novel links Tom to much larger networks of action that include not only Huck but also Miss Watson and the widow Douglas, the Phelpses and their neighbors, the slave catchers, and the King and the Duke. The narrative's enforced retrospection reveals that we have effects in the world that go beyond our intentions but for which we are nonetheless accountable. In drawing on a model of responsibility derived from the law of negligence, Huckleberry Finn enacts a fantasy of national responsibility for the bottoming out of black civil rights in postbellum America.


The relation of the novel to the law has, in much recent criticism, been seen primarily in terms of opposition. Where the law is rigid, critics say, the novel is flexible; where the law is impersonal, the novel is committed to the human character; where the law fails in its mission to act justly, the novel provides a comforting form of “poetic justice” (see Nussbaum; Dimock, Residues). Yet this vision of literature as law's supplement has perplexing implications. To claim that novels humanize the law is to suggest that novels in and of themselves are somehow more human than the law and thus inherently better at determining what is just. Moreover, it is to suggest that the legal concept of justice must be understood as “a formal universal,” which “necessarily does violence to what it abstracts” (Dimock, Residues 9). This apparent conflict between the formal and the quotidian, the abstract and the particular, prompts Martha Nussbaum, in her analysis of actual legal cases, to attribute all judicial attention paid to “history and social context” and all judicial expressions of empathy to “the literary” rather than the legal “imagination” (115). The novel, according to Nussbaum, not only describes but also creates sympathy by addressing “an implicit reader who shares with the characters certain hopes, fears, and general human concerns, and who for that reason is able to form bonds of identification and sympathy with them” (7).

Such defenses of the novel against the deadening abstractions of the law require us to concede that the novel, as a form, is always and inevitably devoted to the sanctity of individual experience and thus committed to the production of “bonds of identification and sympathy.” But just as there is no reason to imagine that legal reasoning excludes the personal and the particular (after all, legal cases depend on individual stories of harm or damage), there is no reason to imagine that novels are limited to producing an experiential model of personhood. Huckleberry Finn attempts to move away from a model of responsibility that requires such bonds and changes of heart by disarticulating the meaning of individual and collective action from questions of sympathy or intention. This disarticulation emerges most strikingly in the novel's investment in producing actions that can only be understood retrospectively. But it also emerges in Huck's failure ever to recognize his own role in the evasion—in his sense that it was Tom alone who “had gone and took all that trouble and bother to set a free nigger free!” (362). When it comes to describing the harm done to Jim and to assigning responsibility for it, the novel implies that Huck's experience—what he recognizes or fails to recognize about himself—is irrelevant. In the end, Huckleberry Finn is concerned less with the harms that individuals do to one another than with the harms done by systems. The novel ultimately envisions a form of collective or corporate responsibility for systematic harm that has nothing to do with individual experience.

To imagine that a novel, especially a novel about race, divorces collectivity from experience goes against a great deal of recent work that sees collectivity almost exclusively in terms of its effects on individual experience and individual identity. The collective, in other words, has been understood to extend the limits of experience, making it possible for individuals to imagine that they could, as part of a collective, remember things that they never experienced. Thus American Jews are enjoined to remember the Holocaust.10 Such work often literalizes the metaphor of the social body by claiming that membership in an ethnic group gives one access to certain memories that then serve as the sign of one's ethnicity. From this point of view, collective memory and collective guilt look like two sides of the same coin: one is imagined to inherit guilt for ancestral crimes in the same way that one inherits a cultural past. But Huckleberry Finn refuses to make collective responsibility contingent on guilt or on ghostly notions of inheritance. Instead, it attempts to extend the logic of corporate responsibility—responsibility not simply for harms you have caused but also for harms committed in your name—to the nation.

What it would mean to hold an entire nation accountable for harm is articulated most compellingly in the novel's final scene of compensation—the much discussed moment in which Tom hands Jim forty dollars for playing the part of prisoner “so patient, and doing it up so good” (365). Almost all critics of Huckleberry Finn—proponents and detractors alike—are united in their condemnation of Tom's attempt to settle the score. Critics as diverse as Holland and Arac have suggested that this forty-dollar payment is, at best, condescending and have seen in Tom only the manifestation of postwar racism. Not only is this payment a paltry sum in comparison with Tom and Huck's wealth, the argument goes, but it is hardly enough to give Jim a fair chance to support himself or to buy his family out of slavery. That the number forty is something of an obsession in this text suggests, however, that it represents more than a pittance. Twain seems to insist on the symbolic weight of the payment by referring to the number with astonishing frequency in the evasion sequence. The Duke, lying to Huck, tells him that Jim is being held “forty mile back here in the country, on the road to Lafayette” (275). Huck and Tom, plotting to sneak a ladder into Jim's cabin in a pie, claim that they had “rope enough for forty pies” (322). When Tom is injured, Jim agrees to stay with him: “No sah—I doan' budge a step out'n dis place, 'dout a doctor; not ef it's forty year!” (345). And the neighbors surveying the damage after the evasion imagine that the slaves have been plotting: “A dozen says you!—forty couldn't a done everything that's been done” (350).

This interest in the number gives Tom's payment an iconic quality; the payment appears as the culmination of a complicated circuit through the text, as a sum repeatedly given to and withheld from Jim. He first receives the money, indirectly, from the two slave catchers who offer Huck forty dollars after they refuse to help tow his raft to safety. The money then resurfaces with the King and Duke (who sell Jim for forty dollars) and reverts back to Jim when Tom pays him for his patience at the end. Both payments to Jim, it is worth noting, serve as damages for harm, even if the donor misunderstands the harm he has caused. If Tom's final gesture counts, then, it counts as an attempt to imagine what real compensation for a series of harms would look like. By linking these characters—Huck, the slave traders, the King and the Duke, the Phelpses and their neighbors—through their relation to Tom's largely symbolic payment, Twain ties the scene of compensation that ends his antebellum tale to the post-Reconstruction era of failed national promises.

Set against both the rise of negligence and the fall of the Freedmen's Bureau, Tom's offer begins to look like the antithesis of buying Jim off for a pittance and thus maintaining the fiction that he is property. It looks instead like formal, legal recognition of his personhood, of the obligation to compensate him for his injuries. Surely forty is meant to recall the promise of forty acres and a mule, which were to make the freedmen equal as well as free.11 From this perspective, Tom's payment looks less like further injury to Jim—a refusal to see him as a man—than like a form of compensation much broader in its effects because it makes him representative of a group. In the post-Reconstruction era, Tom's payment would have recalled not only the promise of the Freedmen's Bureau to support freed slaves through the redistribution of confiscated or abandoned lands but also, and more forcefully, the government's total failure to fulfill its obligation. It was, at the time, the nation's most famous broken promise.12

This investment in collective forms of compensation also helps explain why Huck virtually disappears from the last third of the novel: Twain attempts to dissolve him, finally, not simply into Tom (whose name he takes) but also into the collective that Tom (always the mouthpiece for the authorities) has come to represent. Since Tom is the source of this collective voice, his final gesture, far from a dismissal of the economic problems faced by the freedmen, symbolically enacts the compensation that the nation withheld.13 And if, as I have been arguing, the force of the novel is to disarticulate accountability from intention, to make it possible to imagine guilt even in the absence of malice, then Tom's gesture is collective not because it stems from a shared experience of hatred reformed but because it offers Jim compensation for a series of systematic harms. To end the novel by recalling the promise of forty acres and a mule is thus to suggest a very different way of defining collective accountability. Instead of imagining a spiritual connection among disparate individuals, it imagines “some general view of the conduct which every one may fairly expect and demand from every other, whether that other has agreed to it or not” (Holmes 77). Like the law of negligence, which created (even as it tried to limit) new forms of corporate responsibility, Twain's novel imagines extending this version of the collective—the corralling of actions for which no individual is to blame—to the nation.

From this perspective, Huckleberry Finn represents Twain's way of rewriting history or, more accurately, of fantasizing a new racial history of postwar America. What remains puzzling is that his biography suggests a much more ambivalent position on and within post-Reconstruction racism than this reading of the ending might seem to allow. Assessing the political and economic situation of African Americans in 1885, Twain remarked, “We have ground the manhood out of them. The shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it” (qtd. in Fishkin, “Racial Attitudes” 613). This “brutally succinct comment on racism,” according to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “is a rare non-ironic statement of the personal anguish he felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery” (613). Of course, as Fishkin has pointed out, Twain had a habit of contradicting himself. “What would it take,” she asks, “to acknowledge the complexity and diversity of this man?” (Lighting Out 127). One thing it might take is a clear-sighted sense of Twain's equivocations on the subject of race: he was both a critic of political discrimination and a fan of minstrel shows and “darky jokes” (Pettit 127), a defender of both George Washington Cable and Joel Chandler Harris.14Huckleberry Finn is full of these kinds of puzzles: why, for instance, does Jim reprimand Huck for his selfishness early in the novel and then silently bear his humiliations at the end? Tom Quirk, grappling with this problem, asks us to separate “Mark Twain, the imaginative artist” from “Samuel Clemens, U.S. citizen” (74-75) and thus attempts to rescue Twain from his own opinions. Smiley and Arac ask us to absolve the man by blaming the book.

The reading of the ending advanced in this essay depends on a recognition of Twain's commitment to black civil rights. But it would be a mistake, I think, simply to add Huckleberry Finn to the list of evidence in his favor. For the interest of the novel lies in its attempt to think about the problem of American racism in structural rather than personal terms and thus to shift the focus (not permanently but, perhaps, strategically) from belief to practice, from intentions to effects. The fantasy enacted by the novel demands that the ascription of responsibility be seen as a formal rather than a moral question and that the world accordingly begin to see the problem of the freedmen as political rather than moral. What Twain recognizes is the poverty of treating racial justice as a question of sentiment (requiring a “change of heart”) instead of as a question of structure (requiring new political policies). Unlike Cable, who frames his answer to the problem of postwar black civil rights in terms of “equity,” so that people might begin to judge on the basis of “the eternal principles of justice” (74), Twain frames his answer in the context of negligence, so that the individual's blindness and petty prejudice might be replaced by a system that overrides the accidents of personal opinion. Ultimately, the logic of Twain's novel—which fantasizes a political solution to Jim's troubles—works to override the deficiencies of its representations, in which Jim is often made a fool.

Since I have set aside until now the difference this reading makes to the issue of the novel's canonization, let me return briefly to the question of readership with which I began. It would be tempting to argue that, given Huckleberry Finn's critique of Jim Crow America and its fantasy of racial justice, those who have argued so strenuously against its continued presence in the canon and curriculum are wrong and must stop. Indeed, if my reading is persuasive, it counters Arac's and Smiley's arguments against the novel not only because it sees an interest in social effects where they see only liberal bad faith but also because it has the potential to change the way readers experience the novel. But taking the project of Huckleberry Finn seriously means taking effects seriously, and that must include bad as well as good effects that the novel has had on readers. To insist that effects, whether bad or good, are irrelevant or based on misreading is, as the novel itself illustrates, to misread the way in which objects and actions can produce profound social consequences that cannot be explained in terms of intentions. Huckleberry Finn is about both the difficulty and the necessity of valuing effects over intentions. Thus, one of Twain's implications is that no reading of the novel can put an end to the debate it has engendered. Taking effects on readers seriously means acknowledging that responses to the novel can be neither dictated nor replaced by a reading of the novel; even more important, it suggests that Huckleberry Finn provides the grounds for its own reassessment. Seen in this light, both proponents and detractors get the novel wrong. That Arac and Smiley have finally pointed us to the social effects of Twain's project should not, despite their best intentions, be understood as entailing its dismissal. Their use of Huckleberry Finn to oppose the politics of good intentions must count as a sign that we are beginning to get the novel right.


  1. The responses in Harper's were uniformly hostile to Smiley. Although they raised different objections, most were troubled by her insistence on using contemporary standards of political correctness to criticize Twain. One example: “It's too bad Smiley couldn't judge Twain for the book he wrote rather than for his failure to meet her 1990s political agenda” (Pendleton 7).

  2. Both polemics can be understood as extensions of Leo Marx's influential 1953 essay contending that American idolatry of Huckleberry Finn had gone so far that it had blinded readers to the novel's serious flaws. Against Lionel Trilling's and T. S. Eliot's well-known celebrations of Huckleberry Finn, Marx argued that the “burlesque” Phelps farm sequence destroyed the novel by undermining its moral seriousness. For recent attacks on the ending that follow Marx's logic, see Carton; Jehlen. For recent defenses of the ending, see Hill; Morrison.

  3. When Holland's essay appeared in Glyph in 1979, James Cox had already made a version of this argument about the ending (although Cox sees the ending as an indictment of the complacent liberal reader). This tendency to read the novel in the light of post-Reconstruction politics has only gained steam in recent years, during which the imperative to historicize has been taken to mean addressing the moment in which the novel was written. One of the latest of these essays is by Christine Macleod, who interestingly extends Holland's claims without ever citing his essay. See also the essays collected in Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (Leonard, Tenney, and Davis), especially by Nilon; Barksdale; and Smith.

  4. This impulse both to berate and to absolve Twain is shared by Arac and Smiley themselves. Arac claims, “I am not holding Twain solely responsible for such use of his book” (23). Smiley claims, “These are only authors, after all, and once a book is published the author can't be held accountable for its role in the culture. For that we have to blame the citizens themselves, or their teachers, or their teachers, the arbiters of critical taste” (66).

  5. My discussion of tort law and the novel is indebted to Ferguson.

  6. For another important contemporary treatise on torts, see Cooley. For legal histories of the period, see Friedman; Horwitz.

  7. For an opposing view, see Goodman.

  8. Twain continues this pattern in later stories like “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians,” and “Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy” (the last two were unfinished), in which Huck and Tom endanger Jim so that they might have adventures rescuing him. It seems worth noting, however, that in the years following Huckleberry Finn (esp. after the Plessy decision, when almost all hope for racial justice evaporated), Twain does not address the problem of responsibility for harm in the same terms. The relevant legal context had changed. In “Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy,” for example, Jim is falsely accused of murder and threatened with execution; he is thus no longer a victim in need of legal remedy but a victim of the criminal law.

  9. Wai Chee Dimock has suggested that this sense of universal liability must be understood as an extension of contractual relations. Yet to imagine that one could calculate responsibilities as one calculates the benefits of entering a contract is to miss what is most important about the form of responsibility created by negligence: it is nonnegotiable. One cannot, generally speaking, contract out of liability. See Dimock's “Economy.” For an account of the late-nineteenth-century American novel in relation to contract, see Thomas.

  10. There is a vast archive that sees the Jewish relation to the Holocaust in terms of memory. Some of the most interesting recent examples are Hansen; Hartman; and Young. For a critique of this position, see Michaels.

  11. Richard Gollin and Rita Gollin link Tom's claim that it would take thirty-seven years to free Jim to Lincoln's suggestion during the war that the slaves be freed by the year 1900 (thirty-seven years later). Their argument that this number ties Twain's text to the history it seems to be evading remains relevant to the current debate over the novel and to my account.

  12. To say that the nation's offer of forty acres and a mule functioned as a promise suggests that it was a kind of contract. But not all promises are contracts. In this case, there was not even the pretense that the freedmen and the government were equal partners.

  13. For a history of the Freedmen's Bureau, see Foner.

  14. For an interesting account of Twain's use of ethnic caricature, see Wonham.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.

Barksdale, Richard K. “History, Slavery, and Thematic Irony.” Leonard, Tenney, and Davis 49-55.

Cable, George Washington. “The Freedman's Case in Equity.” The Negro Question. Ed. Arlin Turner. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1958. 54-82.

Carton, Evan. “Speech Acts and Social Action: Mark Twain and the Politics of Literary Performance.” Robinson 153-74.

Cooley, Thomas M. A Treatise on the Law of Torts; or, The Wrongs Which Arise Independent of Contract. Chicago, 1880.

Cox, James. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.

Dimock, Wai Chee. “The Economy of Pain: Capitalism, Humanitarianism, and the Realistic Novel.” New Essays on The Rise of Silas Lapham. Ed. Donald Pease. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991. 67-90.

—. Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

Ellison, Ralph. “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity.” Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1964. 22-44.

Ferguson, Frances. “Justine; or, The Law of the Road.” Aesthetics and Ideology. Ed. George Levine. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. 106-23.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

—. “Racial Attitudes.” The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. Ed. J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson. New York: Garland, 1993. 609-15.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper, 1988.

Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. New York: Simon, 1973.

Gollin, Richard, and Rita Gollin. “Huckleberry Finn and the Time of the Evasion.” Modern Language Studies 9.2 (1979): 5-15.

Goodman, Nan. “A Clear Showing: The Problem of Fault in James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers.Arizona Quarterly 49 (1993): 1-22.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Schindler's List Is Not Shoah: Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory.” Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List. Ed. Yosefa Loshitzky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. 77-103.

Hart, H. L. A. Punishment and Responsibility. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.

Hartman, Geoffrey, ed. Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.

Hill, Richard. “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Huckleberry Finn.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33 (1991): 492-513.

Holland, Laurence. “A ‘Raft of Trouble’: Word and Deed in Huckleberry Finn.American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Eric Sundquist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 66-81.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. The Common Law. New York: Dover, 1991.

Horwitz, Morton. The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977.

Jehlen, Myra. “Banned in Concord: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Classic American Literature.” Robinson 93-115.

Leonard, James S., Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

Macleod, Christine. “Telling the Truth in a Tight Place: Huckleberry Finn and the Reconstruction Era.” Southern Quarterly 34 (1995): 5-15.

Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Ed. Gerald Graff and JamesPhelan. Boston: Bedford, 1995. 291-305.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “‘You Who Never Was There’: Slavery and the New Historicism, Deconstruction and the Holocaust.” Narrative 4.1 (1996): 1-16.

Morrison, Toni. Introduction. Twain, Adventures xxxi-xli.

Nilon, Charles H. “The Ending of Huckleberry Finn: ‘Freeing the Free Negro.’” Leonard, Tenney, and Davis 62-76.

Nussbaum, Martha. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon, 1995.

Pendleton, James D. Letter. Harper's Magazine Apr. 1996: 6-7.

Pettit, Arthur G. Mark Twain and the South. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1974.

Quirk, Tom. Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1993.

Reising, Russell. The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Robinson, Forrest G., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Smiley, Jane. “Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's ‘Masterpiece.’” Harper's Magazine Jan. 1996: 61-67.

Smith, David L. “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse.” Leonard, Tenney, and Davis 103-20.

Thomas, Brook. American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Trilling, Lionel. “Huckleberry Finn.The Liberal Imagination. New York: Viking, 1950. 104-17.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

—. “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.” “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians” and Other Unfinished Stories. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. 33-81.

—. “Tom Sawyer Abroad.” “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” “Tom Sawyer, Detective,” and Other Stories. New York: Harper, 1904. 7-136.

—. “Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy.” “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians” and Other Unfinished Stories. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. 134-213.

wain, Mark, and Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

White, G. Edward. Tort Law in America: An Intellectual History. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Wonham, Henry B. “‘I Want a Real Coon’: Mark Twain and Late-Nineteenth-Century Ethnic Caricature.” American Literature 72.1 (2000): 117-52.

Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date spring 2001)

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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 Huck and Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the several medieval institutions and mythologies represented in Connecticut Yankee, one can trace Twain's sense of the artistic demands of cultural unity and assimilation, as well as his strategies of resistance to these demands.

In The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America, Sacvan Bercovitch advances the thesis that major American literary works, from puritan histories and sermons to the nineteenth-century fiction of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, function as “rituals” by means of which cultural continuity is promoted and by which a consensus mythology is continually reaffirmed by way of cooptation or rejection of oppositional forms of belief.1 For Bercovitch, of course, “the rhetoric of consensus, which helped sustain and mold the social order, originated in large measure in colonial New England” (41). Bercovitch's analysis of cultural consensus traces the development of a puritan communal myth, evolving through Revolutionary national legend and nineteenth-century transformations. The citizens of a republic, Bercovitch writes, “require some means of consecrating their way of life—a set of metaphysically (as well as naturally) self-evident truths; a moral framework within which a certain complex of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs can be taken for granted as being not only proper by right; a super empirical authority to sustain the norms of personal and social selfhood” (41). The particular cultural myth which came to be agreed upon in the New Republic, closely tied to the symbology and metaphysics of puritan New England, was adaptable to the changing requirements of a developing democracy, apparently transformed from its Whiggish origins in the Jacksonian Revolution and in the expansionist and radically democratic tendencies of late nineteenth-century American imperial culture. In Bercovitch's reading, however, the frontier movement is subsumed within the original communal myth: thus, through the ritual of re-statement, the frontier experience, apparently so dissimilar to that of established New England culture, was consolidated within the earlier and unchanging myth of “America.”

This model of American culture is, of course, open to question in several respects. Bercovitch's narrow focus on New England culture undervalues other contributions to the formation of American society: those of immigrants from Hispanic, African, Asian, and other non-northern European origin, as well as the contributions of other geographical regions. Secondly, the very assumption of “consensus” may be overstated: Bercovitch's reading of the two great crises (only two?) of American democracy—the Revolution and the Civil War—would appear to smooth over what was in fact a more tortuous history, if not in terms of cataclysmic historical events, then in the perpetual crisis of economic and cultural existence. Focusing narrowly on the puritan thesis, Bercovitch dismisses certain “oppositional mythologies” which are made to appear to have had little role in the cultural construction of “America.” The regional bias in Bercovitch's language is so obvious as to require only citation: “Southern leaders had learned that ‘America’ could not be manipulated to mean the ideals of feudal hierarchy, because it already represented something else” (19) or, speaking of the New England settlement of the American Northwest, “the fact is that other immigrant groups responded in entirely different ways. I think here not only of the Spanish, who had the entire run of the West from the Mississippi Valley to California, but primarily of the Anglo-Canadians, who had the same cultural heritage as the Americans. They also defined themselves in relation to the Western frontier, yet their definition issued in a decidedly un-American outlook” (51-52). Bercovitch's historical project relies on a circular argument: from within the cultural consensus, its origins are self-apparent and its path of consolidation inevitable, while competing mythologies of “America” are subsumed or rejected depending upon their assumed suitability within the New England symbology.

Mark Twain's writing from the 1880s, centered on an imaginative return to the Mississippi Valley of the period a generation after the frontier—and, at that point in time, neither purely “frontier” nor yet “consolidated” into the national mythology—, provides evidence of both the power of the cultural consensus which Bercovitch details and of the oppositional mythologies, and indeed of an oppositional component, central to American communal myth, which rebels against any discourse of consolidation. Moving beyond the oppositional mythologies which Bercovitch sees as inevitably consolidated within the stable national ideal, Twain's oppositional mode of writing questions the nature of consolidation itself and undermines the possibility of a single cultural consensus, however broadly defined. It resists not merely elements of the New England ethos but the formation of consensus itself—and in this respect perhaps reflects the historical environment in which Twain wrote, a period in which a third great national crisis was embodied in the centripetal forces of foreign immigration, alienation of labor from capital centralized in “captains of industry” and “great corporations,” the failure of reconstruction in the South, and imperialist expansion of America overseas. Bercovitch might well argue that following this third crisis, which Twain's work addresses as does Whitman's the Civil War or Bancroft's both the Civil War and the Revolution, the cultural consensus reasserted its control. The problem with this analysis is that, if with ever-increasing frequency between the Revolution and the present, crises and oppositional mythologies appear to rival the one dominant myth, can we really describe the puritan mythos as the cultural consensus? Despite its resilience and longevity, it has at all times been challenged by oppositional mythologies, some of which, such as the oppositional myth of revolt that Twain draws upon, appear to be equally crucial in the construction of American ideology.

Significantly, it is not the pioneer experience, with its own legendry and myth, but the historical gap between the frontier and settlement (with its attendant symbolism of establishment and consensus) that Twain repeatedly evokes. Twain's “indecisiveness” in regard to the consensus mythology of liberal democratic culture is embodied in his presentation of Huck Finn as a possible examplar of frontier democracy, whose portrait as drawn by Ray Billington distinguishes the westerner in several ways. Less integrated into society, yet taking more communal responsibility for neighbors, the westerner was “relatively more self-sufficient” (173). “Faith in the equality of men was the great common creed on the West” (173). This egalitarianism meant that “on the newer frontiers rich and poor lived, dressed, and acted much more alike than in the East” (176). Instinctively resentful of display of wealth or social pretension, the westerner judged others on their merit and contributions to the community. The figure of Huck Finn cites frontier democracy in obvious ways: independent, solitary to the point of “lonesomeness,” judging others by their actions, skeptical of social pretension, Huck is even more a radical democrat than “Pap” (who, an egalitarianist in a sense, is also at heart, as Huck is not, a pretender to “rank” based on race and citizenship), yet the figure of Huck is other things as well. Twain's affinity with frontier democracy is in tension with the ritual of cultural consolidation simultaneously but indecisively enacted in Twain's novels, and even more so in tension with his skepticism toward all discourse of consensus.2

Bercovitch's term “Christianography,” defining the relationship of history and the printed word in the Puritan tradition, encompasses developments including the revivalist transformation of Puritanism, the development of civic humanism, and a libertarian ideology supporting entrepreneurialism and social freedom for the individual. The identification of nationalism and eschatology—national mission as sacred errand—is admittedly conveyed in Twain's occasional boosterism and his tirades against competing national purposes (whether southern, agrarian, feminist, socialist, or environmental), as well as in the disciplining of private life (Huck's “sivilizing”), with Huck and Jim's drifting, for example, figured as “leisure,” the “free time” of society's servant rather than actual freedom from society. (As an escape from a murderous parent, Huck's journey originates of course under another sort of duress, and one that equally betrays his bond to society.)

The work of cultural consolidation is also promoted in a treatment of gender issues in Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee that involves a refashioning of primitive frontier roles to a genteel norm in line with a more modern (i.e., Victorian) ascent to respectability. Only among the most degraded population of medieval England does the feminine equivalent of Pap appear, suitably distanced from Victorian America so as not to raise invidious comparisons with one's frontier ancestors. However isolated they may be on the new frontier, figures such as Judith Loftus, Aunt Sally Phelps, and the Wilks sisters exemplify progressive culture, as of course do the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. The role of women in the consensus mythology was tied to a maternal role (whether literal or symbolic motherhood) and the responsibility for molding the future through nurture and education.3 In Huckleberry Finn, Huck encounters progressive domesticity wherever he meets adult women: Mrs. Judith Loftus, who instructs Huck in how to pass as a girl but also feeds him and promises “to get him out of trouble” if necessary; Rachel Grangerford, who orders food and dry clothes for the “boy” on her doorstep; and Sophia Grangerford—“gentle and sweet, like a dove” and secretly engaged to Harney Shepherdson (729). Though there are few actual mothers in the novel, there are many maternal women, a fact that discloses the cultural imperative toward motherhood at the center of the woman's role. Despite these instances of consolidation and Twain's temperamental prudery, however, his narrative also inscribes resistance to the consolidation of woman's role within the responsibilities of national mission: for example, when Tom Sawyer, still disguised as a visiting “stranger,” plays his joke of kissing Aunt Sally and asking her and her husband if she “liked” it, a momentary break with decorum that humorously mitigates her sober commitment to the domestic role. In protesting too much, Aunt Sally signals her knowledge, if not her approval, of the alternative mythology, in which woman's role is more independent and physically emancipated.

The figuration of western nature from primitive wilderness to controlled resource implies a similar process of consolidation. As the western extension of a contiguous American civilization and for the expansion of puritan ideals of free enterprise and representative individualism, the Mississippi Valley had much to recommend it. Its lush, fertile shores, serviced by an enormous network of navigable waterways, was portrayed in contemporary paintings as Edenic because of its suitability for human industry; its apparently unlimited natural resources and fertility, revitalized by the river's flow, seemed providentially to invite exploitation. The imagery of the assimilatable garden is suggested by the wondrous power of a summer thunderstorm and in the idyllic nights Huck and Jim spend drifting, merging so completely with the indolence of the summer season. Not surprisingly, nature in Huckleberry Finn is prettified from the sweltering, infested, malarial, violently stormy summers of the actual Mississippi Valley. The natural setting of the novel is made to stand for American nature in general, censoring the local extremes and disparities of a national landscape that the consensus mythology wished to figure as continental, optimistic, provident, and, to a degree, homogeneous. Figured as such, the great plenitude and vitality of American nature would excuse a great deal of environmental misconduct and carelessness: Jim and Huck are no better stewards of the earth than they are raftsmen, but the force of American nature, figured in Edenic terms, is not really to encourage difference but to assimilate it. The point is that given the safety-net of “boundless” resources, even such truants as Huck, Jim, and Tom can be enfolded into the continental mission.

Twain's frontier garden, by virtue of its value as a locus on natural wealth, has been inextricably drawn within history. As an avenue of transport between the West and the slave states, the Mississippi River, in fact, played a crucial role in antebellum political alliances, until railroad links between the Northeast and Northwest vitiated the river's importance. Within such historical contexts, Huck and Jim's flight to Jackson's Island and their night-drifting is hardly an escape from society. Throughout the novel, Twain located the river within historical contingencies, of which the longing of Jim and Huck for freedom is its own yardstick, and, with the force of history in the narrative, Huck is haled into the role of civic participation: he sympathizes with Jim, sets to work on the behalf of the Wilks sisters, and agonizes over victims such as Buck, Boggs, or the “humiliated” drunk and the “fooled” ringmaster at the circus. As Myra Jehlen rightly notes, the character of Huckleberry Finn includes “[a] conventionalism as instinctive as his rebellion” (99). His sentimental participation in the national culture is hinted at both by his impulse for “fair play” and by his embarrassed superiority at the ignorance and laziness of his own kind, and the suggestion of reform that enters the novel with the initial chapter's description of Huck's resistance to Miss Watson's “sivilizing” is never really dismissed: Huck's errant but essential goodness advertises his candidacy for reform, and he elicits the efforts of a succession of cultural consolidators.4

Against such reform, Twain's stubborn refusal to embrace the dynamic, culturally omnivorous America of New England mythology resulted in his humorous celebration of all sorts of resistance and inertia connected with the frontier and with the unrulier aspects of the garden mythology, instanced in Tom Sawyer's reappearance in the final third of the novel as the same childlike gang leader, as much the truant and misfit as Huck Finn; in Jim's decision to play along rather than grasp immediately his dream of personal ascent; and in Huck's mounting insight into the imperfections of pluralist democracy. The very mechanicalness of Tom's “games,” insisting that Jim be freed according to the “rules,” resists social responsibility by breaking intelligent reform upon the wheel of an almost surreal conduct of fantasy. Even the legalistic process by which Jim's “ownership” is noted, asserted by both his hunters and his defenders, lost track of during his flight and disguise as a “sick A-rab,” and re-established with his simultaneous manumission suggests some erratic mechanism beyond the control of the consensus mythology. If the American ideal seduces each of the three characters, the legal, economic, and social realities impose humorous correctives.

To understand the role of the frontier in Twain's resistance to reform, it is useful to revisit Henry Nash Smith's account of the garden of the world mythology, centered as it was in the Mississippi Valley of the mid-nineteenth century:

The image of this vast and constantly growing agricultural society in the interior of the continent became one of the dominant symbols of the nineteenth-century American society—a collective representation, a poetic idea (as Toqueville noted in the early 1830's) that defined the promise of American life. The master symbol of the garden embraced a cluster of metaphors expressing fecundity, growth, increase, and blissful labor in the earth, all centering about the heroic figure of the idealized farmer armed with that supreme agrarian weapon, the sacred plow.

(Virgin Land 124)

The fictional time period of Twain's Mississippi River writing is within the period of the “garden's” greatest vogue, but the agrarian myth in and of itself is not the central subject of the fiction: it is not farming that interests Twain, but the garden mythology's continuing rhetorical power to counter an even more aggressive mythology. Accordingly, even amid the rich natural productiveness of the Mississippi Valley, Twain's focus shifts from the garden's promise to the human betrayal of the American Dream. Huck's silence about the murder of his new friend Buck (“I don't want to talk much about the next day” [735]) is typical. Frontier justice is comically dismissed, as in the Duke's joke about escaping the mob of Wilks's supporters (“we'd a slept in our cravats to-night—cravats warranted to wear too—longer than we'd need 'em” [827]). Accidental death was even more common, as the frequent mention of drowning, steamboat explosions, and fire implies. In Huck's flight from the corruption and frailty of human society, Twain is transposing his sense of fin de siècle entropy from the 1880s back onto an earlier era, so that in conflating the fictional and compositional time periods in works such as Huckleberry Finn,Connecticut Yankee, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, the myth of the garden is retained in a negative way only: once glamorous images of agricultural opportunity—free land and the sacred plow—have been superseded, although the garden myth is simultaneously retained as a vehicle to interrogate more modern dreams of technological progress and new forms of social organization. The closest we get to a decent, independent small farmer in Huckleberry Finn is the Phelps plantation, and, as we know, the novel subjects the Phelpses to biting satire.5

If Twain dismisses the agricultural dream of the garden, centered in the vast developing basin of the Mississippi River, he explores an updated American Dream for the nation as a whole. Focused neither on agriculture nor on the frontier, the Gilded Age version of the dream features its own sacred icons: the captain of industry, the great corporation, the rise of great cities, the development of transportation networks and of national and international trade, and the new reality of national power. Unlike the myth of the agricultural garden, where the individual might with luck assume a reward commensurate with his or her own efforts, the industrial order delivered wealth for a few, power for the nation, but less opportunity and freedom for the ordinary citizen. Living through the fulfilled dreams of others (or of “others” figured as collective national greatness), mediated by journalistic fantasies of mass popular literature, newspapers, magazines, and later film and television, the mediated discourses of national power substituted for the earlier promise of the agrarian dream. The increasing separation of the individual from the possibility of actual independence was offset, so to speak, by increasingly vivid fantasies of technological progress, collective power, and the ascent of representative popular heroes.

The new nation which emerged after 1890 was dramatically more urban, industrial, and corporate; less rural, agrarian, and individualistic. In his fiction, Twain has, to many readers, appeared to reflect a national ambivalence toward the receding frontier; his fiction from the 1880s has been termed nostalgic, elegiac, and pastoral, but also technocratic, futuristic, and modern. It appears in this respect to mirror the national experience: technological possibilities were both alluring and abhorrent; the expansion of the middle class raised educational standards and refined daily life but also fostered a bland and conformist society; “great corporations,” as they were admiringly termed, broadened markets for industrial goods while suppressing local and small-scale industries. In terms that for moderns would become unrecognizable Twain interrogated the “moral virtue” of modernization itself, employing an outdated morality of individualism more suitable to the frontier mythology of the past than to amoral structures of capital and production. The humanist ideal of enlightened rational decision, comically mirrored in Huck and Jim's discussion of “what seems right” in the case of “Solermum” or moralistically enshrined in Jim's allegorical sermon on “trash,” seems unsuited to the corporate and imperial future.

Such a reading of Twain's enlightened reaction to an increasingly corporate amorality seems plausible, and appears to mirror national experience, if only because of the powerful influence on historiography of Frederick Jackson Turner, whose frontier thesis of 1893, refined and extended over the next forty years, offered a similar emplotment of frontier virtue sustained by centuries of “movement” beyond settled society until finally overturned by modernization. Turner's thesis that American character had been shaped by the effect of the continual frontier settlement, that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier” (4), suggested the virtuous result of fostering an open-minded, pragmatic, innovative, “strong” population. Further, the history of American settlement, in this interpretation, depicts in microcosm the social evolution of the human race: from Indian and hunter, to trader, rancher, farmer, and manufacturer. The effect of the frontier's disappearance will be to recast American character along the lines of Europe, that settled and less virtuous society which has finally “corrupted” America.

For generations of critics, Turner's model, despite attacks upon it beginning in the 1930s, helped to explain Huck's “uncomfortableness” and his fear of Miss Watson's brush and Bible. Yet it is apparent that Huck himself is imaged as out of place on both the frontier and in urban America, and surely this is the point of his continual discomfort: he has been born too late for frontier America. His command of frontier lore and skills is no less amateurish than Tom Sawyer's (indeed, Tom, whose class definition removes him further from the frontier, has mastered frontier skills—as hobby—more perfectly than Huck). Huck is a picaro-figure that exists in its dissenting voice and outsider perspective; its relation to the frontier lies not in those economic opportunities and disappointments that must have shaped the experience of so many actual settlers, but in the frontier's usefulness for social satire. Like Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee, the Huck-figure displays a near universal skepticism, directed at both establishment society and the absurdities of the recent frontier, but the skepticism is not entirely universal since Huck as a figure of resistance defends a set of particular virtues intrinsic to a model of unconsolidated America.

In this respect, Twain's employment of the frontier myth was considerably less nostalgic than that of his younger contemporary, Frederick Jackson Turner. In terms of the traits of national character that Turner identified with frontier experience—radical individualism, antipathy to control, and primitive social organization based on the family—Twain's figuration is distinctly unlike Turner's: Huck is hardly “anti-social,” he submits to or at least avoids challenging the control of others, and his social organization is hardly based on the family (although a cohesive “family” may well be what Huck is seeking throughout the novel). “The expansive character of American life” which Turner traced to the frontier experience—its movement and energy, its innovativeness, its pragmatism and materialism—are, of course, embodied in Hank Morgan, but in casting the “frontier” virtues in the Yankee figure, particularly one in the employ of one of those “great American corporations,” Twain has gone out of his way to distance these elements of the national myth from the western frontier.

Twain does register at least one specific criticism of eastern hegemony that Turner later articulated: the quite conscious efforts of New England educational and religious “reformers” to regulate and redirect the energies of the Western culture. The changes which Turner observed ten years after his famous 1893 address also parallel Twain's critical response to imperial expansion overseas and to a growing “complexity” of American society. Frontier nostalgia does nothing to critique the rise of oligarchic power, of course. Indeed, it appeals to none so well as to members of the controlling oligarchy itself. Thus, the patrician critic, Robert Herrick—recalling a brief encounter with the aging Twain on the family's New England summer retreat—includes himself, though never a westerner and certainly never a pioneer, among those “born into an earlier time and different place” who imbided values of “free, individual, independent human beings” (109). Although pure fantasy, Herrick succeeds in this “tribute” to the departed Mark Twain, in positioning the oligarchy itself, alongside Twain, as the last pioneers. A hint of Herrick's looping strategy is visible in his suggestion that the prominence of Europe in Twain's writing implies a “new frontier,” that of “culture” and refinement rather than mass movement westward.

Despite revisionists such as Herrick, Huck's plan to “light out for the Territories” implies much more than “fantasy” or nostalgia; it suggests Twain's resistance to cultural consolidation, not least in terms of sectional hegemony. After the popularization of Stephen H. Long's 1819-20 map of the West, the Great Plains was conceptualized as the “Great American Desert,” thus mythologizing a fertile region that included the Indian Territory to which Huck intends to light out, into a fruitless desert (Boorstin 229). The Great American Desert was, in other words, the only remaining proximal region which appeared in Huck's day to be “wasteland” and thus unassimilatable, indeed uninhabitable except by scattered ranchers and trappers. Huck's “lighting out” is not merely an escapist remark but an allusion to a uniquely desert section of America, one in which free individualism could presumably survive the advance of cultural progress. In this sense, it was the myth of the Garden itself that Huck was fleeing, the notion of a “New World garden long kept virgin to redress the overcultivation of the Old” (Boorstin 231). Yet, if Indian Territory (in the boy's book idiom of Huck's imagination) might be figured as attractive wasteland, in Twain's contemporary culture Oklahoma as one of the last undeveloped economic and cultural regions on the American continent would become another magnet for progressive consolidation. Twain's irony embraces both the former misconception of the Great Plains as unrecoverable desert and his own period's conception of Indian Territory, amid the land runs of the 1880s, as assimilatable resource.

Twain's recording of cultural resistance implies that the consolidation detailed in Bercovitch's model—the orderly procession westward of New England ideals, seriously troubled only twice by the crises of the Revolution and the Civil War—was far more troubled and proceeded at greater and more constant human cost that the model admits. Twain's problem was how to represent those who remain “unconsolidated,” those southerners, for example, for whom the deadend plantation mythology continued for generations after the Civil War a cogent, if sterile, explanation of the past. Or those westerners, like Cooper's Natty Bumppo, relocating from one frontier to the next, made as uncomfortable as Huck by society's consensus. The trope that Twain's narrative connects with such cultural deadends is, reasonably enough, death itself. As a travesty of the frontiersman, doubly outdated by his defense of slavery, Pap's mythologies get what they seem to deserve, a gruesome and disgusting end. The particular vice of dueling, another cultural dinosaur presumably abandoned after the Age of Jackson, condemns the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons (practitioners of other culturally oppositional activities, such as crayon painting and sentimental verse) to mutual extinction. The mob behavior of the Arkansas River towns implies death not for the victims of mobs so much as for the mob itself: for his part, Colonel Sherburn is vital enough, a complex figure of aristocratic disdain susceptible of refiguration into New South initiative.

The various strategies of resistance in Twain's writing, in a broader sense, may be interpreted as recognition of the transition of America, once understood in specifically human and personal terms, as a Republic of free individuals, toward a troubled and enslaving modernity. More effectively than any other critic of American literature, Lewis P. Simpson has analyzed the effects on literary consciousness of this cultural transition. In Simpson's conception of modern culture, human consciousness, formerly governed by mythic forms of belief, is now seen as imprisoned within a narrowly historical self-consciousness. Applying Simpson's insights, we might say that Twain's problem with modernity was complicated by his own complicity in Progress—his having been an agent, so to speak, of the very cultural consolidation which his narratives indecisively endorse and resist. Twain experienced much the same divided consciousness as William Faulkner, who, in Simpson's language, experienced the radically disturbing effects of “the almost complete displacement of a society of myth and tradition by a novel society of history and science” (96). In this sense Faulkner's, and perhaps Twain's, true subject is the artist's own experience, the unsettling and abrupt encounter with the modern world that leaves the writer attempting “to render the story of the self as literary artist attempting to confront and to order a desacralized world, in which all … has become historical” (Simpson 102). The artist's grappling with the shock of historical consciousness may be involved in the slippage in Twain's repetition of the word “freedom” and “free,” its many connotations alluding to contemporary discourse ranging from abolitionist rhetoric to laissez-faire economics. Embedded in Twain's references to “freedom” are contemporary discourses concerning agrarian homesteading, a particularly acute issue in the 1880s, the “freedom” associated with an idealized yeoman farmer from the time of Thomas Jefferson to Horace Greeley; of abolitionist-secessionist debates, with both sides manipulating the discourse of rights and liberty to suit their purposes; of the scientific and technological discourse connected with a mythology of “labor-saving” machines, consumer goods, and new “freedom” for both the laborer and consumer; and finally of a moral and social freedom from traditional authority associated with church and static community.

In an intriguing study of Twain's resistance to concensus ideologies, Walter Benn Michaels argues that “the defense of individuality against the ‘group’ took the form of imagining persons as machines, independent because essentially inflexible—mechanical as opposed to social” (73). Citing examples from Connecticut Yankee, Michaels suggests that Twain's resistance was particularly acute to programs of progressive education and cultural control, including proposals for educational and moral reform. Michaels notes that, in both the depiction of nineteenth-century American individualism and in that of Arthur's stubbornly unreformable knights, “it is with the power to resist training that Connecticut Yankee is most concerned” (74). The knights themselves, those who “can be killed, but … cannot be conquered” are, in Michaels's terms, “monuments to an individuality defined by nothing but the powers of resistance” (74). The massacred knights are metaphorically identified with the Native American, who epitomized the individualism which later, transformed into the “captain of industry,” produced machine culture. The very conception of “training” in Connecticut Yankee insists on a rejection of reform and education as social control: “schooling is re-described by Twain as manufacture, training as production—it takes place in the man ‘Factory’ [159] or in the ‘civilization-factories’ [396]” (Michaels 77). The same “essential likeness of persons to machines” can be seen in the “commitment embodied also in Twain's own identification with the Paige [typesetting machine] and in his vision of himself as a kind of writing machine” and reaches its narrative high point as the mechanical bowing of St. Stylite is utilized to run a sewing machine (Michaels 79).

Despite Twain's later avowal of his intention in Connecticut Yankee to contrast medieval English life with that of “modern civilization—to the advantage of the later, of course” (qtd. in Franklin 158)—Twain's narrative itself, in the form of its subsequently more extreme critique, suggests that “despite spectacular technological progress,” to paraphrase H. Bruce Franklin, early twentieth-century America “apparently has gone ‘backward’” from the earlier America (162-63). The representation of cultural consolidation in Huckleberry Finn also suggests that progress has “gone backward,” and Huck's response is to flee in futility without any definite purpose. As Franklin notes, in Connecticut Yankee, Hank and Clarence's discussions of “technical improvements in their electric fence … become vehicles for Twain's savage satire on the crass materialism and pragmatism of modern industrialized war” (169). Perhaps in reference to America as the overly exploited “garden of the world,” the forty-foot belt of dynamite torpedoes—a product of Hank's American technological prowess—is termed “the prettiest garden that was ever planted” (Connecticut Yankee, qtd. in Franklin 169).

Jonathan Arac's conclusions in “Nationalism, Hypercanonization, and Huckleberry Finn” raise further questions for my argument concerning Twain's resistance to national consensus. Contrasting Huckleberry Finn with James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers, a narrative that Arac terms “national narrative” for its explicit addressing of central political issues—narrative that “held a positive understanding of the course of American history and … believed it was a responsibility of culturally ambitious and important narrative not only to show but also to make explicit this understanding”—Twain's merely “literary narrative denied any such responsibility, challenged any such understanding, and developed techniques to supersede such explicitness” (29). According to Arac, allegorical readings which attempt to politicize Twain's writing, including Philip Fisher's “Mark Twain” in The Columbia Literary History of the United States, seriously mistake the cultural purposes of Twain's narrative. Through the point of view of Huck Finn, “Twain isolates the historical setting of the book”: Huck has “almost no historical perspective on the land he lives in, either in its local or national dimensions, and there is no narrative presence beyond Huck to open up a deeper past or to link his time and concerns to those of the time when Twain was writing” (Arac 30). Only in the “isolated grotesques” of Pap's and Colonel Sherburn's tirades does Arac find social and political issues significantly addressed. In so far as Huck considers moral issues, according to Arac, “the form and fable of Huckleberry Finn reject the very possibility of public debate” (33): the quasi-religious mode of Huck's ethical reflection seals off social discussion as the necessary secrecy and isolation of his moral crises force acceptance of his moral vision without debate.

Arac's reading recognizes the resistance to national consensus in Twain's narrative, but it also views this resistance as a retreat from public issues. As Arac writes: “Huck Finn lives so as to feel right with no sanction beyond his own psyche, the imaginative construction of an autonomous self that is the cultural work of literary narrative” (33). As I read Arac, however, I find his own urgency to reposition Huck Finn within what is termed “national narrative” another manifestation of the ambitious cultural consolidation outlined by Bercovitch. It is not that Twain fails in the figure of Huck Finn to debate public issues—certainly Huck's justifiably famous reflections on the equal worth of all human beings and the evil of racial bias were public issues in the 1880s and remain so today. Rather, it would seem that Twain's position in the debate, one that forecloses a “positive understanding” of American history, since it images and then resists the formation of cultural concensus, disqualifies his work as “national” narrative. Significantly, each of Arac's prominent examples of national narrative (George Bancroft's History of the United States, James Fenimore Cooper's novels, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's fiction) are located within the New England cultural establishment, while Arac's list of less consequential “local” and “personal” narratives is overweighted with western, southern, and culturally diverse authors: among the “local” narratives, Irving, Hawthorne in his shorter works, and “the so-called southwestern humorists”; among the personal narratives, Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail, Frederick Douglass's Narrative, and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In any case, Twain's writing, which in the 1880s is hardly without socio-political content and which becomes sharply more political in the following decades, implies resistance primarily toward the reduction of discourse to the socio-political mode which Arac equates with “national narrative.” If some readers find the socio-political ideals of Jacksonian democracy—individualism, democracy, and equality—inscribed in Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee, or identify the free man in these novels with industrial workers of Gilded-Age America, there is more than enough incongruity built into Twain's narrative to frustrate its reduction to political allegory.6 The satiric focus in Connecticut Yankee, for example, changes continually from its allusions to southern slavery to an indictment of all monarchist and oligarchist forms of oppression to an examination of democratic rhetoric turned violent. In the insistence on creative “vividness” and force (related to the primacy of “entertainment” for which Judith Fetterly finds evidence: polishing his lecture performance more carefully than his published texts, dramatically rendering fictionalized scenes of entertainment, or scenes where thematic meaning devolves into entertainment), Twain privileges the theater of unconsolidated social voices over the debate, necessarily restricted by the terms in which it is framed, concerning national concensus.

Ultimately, the “indecisiveness” that Bercovitch finds in Twain's writing evidences a resistance to reducing his creative intelligence, and by implication the creativity of a nation of readers only just removed from the frontier, to the New England model of American cultural development. In the discourse itself of consolidation and resistance, often registered as no more than “talk,” the novels suggest the value of burlesque and parody which recognizes nothing so simple as “the national character” or “the frontier experience.” Even the suggestion that mockery itself may be valorized—that Twain created the “modern ironic mode of personality” (Brown 174)—might seem to assimilate Twain's complexity to a manageable principle. Twain's artistic practice is not so much “indecisive,” as Bercovitch and others have viewed it, as stubbornly resistant to programmatic and redemptive discourses. In this respect perhaps, Twain's art retraces the topography of his life, neither western in embracing a frontier ethos nor eastern in conforming to the “national” mythology, nor again southern in figuring resistance as sectional politics. Like the figure of Huck Finn, Mark Twain as artist is liminal and indecisive by intention. Despite the force of national consensus, Twain's mythology embodies an alternative of resistance.


  1. The title of this article self-consciously echoes and contrasts the terms in which Henry Nash Smith and Sacvan Bercovitch have written about nineteenth-century American culture. My argument interprets Twain's resistance to cultural consolidation differently from the views of recent commentators such as Bruce Michelson, Myra Jehlen, and Eric Carton. I share Michelson's emphasis on the ways in which Twain's literary identity “defines itself by how it refuses and evades, rather than by how and what it affirms” (2), yet I view Twain's evasions as purposeful acts of resistance to particular cultural forces rather than, as Michelson states, a “war against convention widened to the absolute” (4). Even as I find evidence of that war against convention, I do not read Twain's resistance within the “American hunger for the unnamable” (Michelson 267) but as a struggle against anti-democratic and anti-populist cultural forces. Nor would I go so far as Myra Jehlen, who argues that “dissonance is the message of Huckleberry Finn” and that the novel is “radically contradictory—so dissonant, indeed, that it finally fails to represent the contradictions it means to address” (96). While the novel is enormously complex and subtle in its responses to consolidation, it does not “collapse” in its “contradictions” (Jehlen 96). Eric Carton's intriguing analysis of “the politics of literary performance” raises profound questions concerning the relationship of Twain's writing to the profit motive and social exploitation, but his view that “[f]or Twain, all acts of communication, even invitations to democratic communion, simultaneously enact the will to mastery and domination” (161) seems overly fatalistic for an author who did, after all, engage in nearly a lifetime of moral satire, often with clearly identifiable purposes.

  2. In a discussion of Life on the Mississippi, Maurice Brown finds that “revolt” is the central feature of this work. Brown traces the growth of Twain's “social concern” and states that Twain's ironic vision “mediates a major conflict in American values” (167). This conflict or identity crisis involves a dilemma between romantic, premodern culture and modern technological culture. Brown's reading challenges the familiar emphasis on the oppositional southern mythology as the dominant conflict of Twain's writing from the 1880s. Both northern towns, such as Quincy, Illinois, or Keokuk, Iowa, and southern metropolises such as Memphis and New Orleans, were equally ridiculed as targets of the “westward course of culture and opera houses” (Brown 171) and as aspirants to technology (“the practical application of science to the making of oleo” [Brown 171]). Brown's reading, however, which interprets technology as a generalized evil, dehumanizing in and of itself, does not explain Twain's obvious fascination for technology or, in his writing, the cultural value of technology, as both the means of enlightened progress wrought by “captains of industry” and also the means of repression and imperial control.

  3. As Bercovitch points out, even militant feminism echoed the terms of the national mission, as, for example, the 1848 Seneca Falls Manifesto repeats the “rights” language from the Declaration of Independence.

  4. Myra Jehlen's reading of Huck's role as a figure of resistance focuses on Huck's relationship to Jim, and especially on that fact that his innate goodness is motivated by “his own desire for absolute freedom, not out of any antislavery conviction” (102). In this reading Huck's moral action is “indecisive” because it lacks of consciousness of the need for “social action.” As Jehlen writes: “Huck has no ambition to change the world; he just can't live in it” (102). Jehlen's argument, echoing Bercovitch's view of Twain's “indecisiveness,” is convincing in so far as it accounts for Huck's relationship with Jim, although it would seem to demand a great deal of improbable development from Huck's consciousness. It also goes well beyond Huck's consciousness to interrogate some of the contradictions of national identity, especially issues of race and class in relation to the national ideology of free individualism. In its focus on his relationship to Jim, however, Jehlen devotes less attention to the significance of Huck's more decisive resistance to cultural consolidation in other respects.

  5. Twain's opposition to the oligarchical power of the cultural establishment is evidenced in his admiration for Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and his association with Sylvester Baxter, editor of the Boston Herald. As Horst Kruse documents, Baxter was involved in the organization of the Nationalist movement in Boston, along the lines of the utopian democratic principles set forth in Looking Backward. In attempting to persuade Twain to address the group's first anniversary meeting, Baxter wrote to the sympathetic Twain on 22 November 1889 that the Nationalist Clubs were “getting ready to give the Plutocracy a shaking up before many years” (qtd. in Kruse 482). The process by which Twain came to associate actual slavery with economic enslavement is explored in Sherwood Cummings's chapter on Connecticut Yankee in Mark Twain and Science. Finding that the “germ” of Connecticut Yankee lay in Twain's “return trip” to the South in writing Life on the Mississippi, Cummings believes that the contrasts between the tradition-bound, backward-looking South and the “go-ahead atmosphere” of the northern river towns formed the basis for Twain's broader analysis of privilege in contemporary Gilded-Age America. No longer focusing on southern slavery, Twain's allegorical purpose in Connecticut Yankee targeted America's entrenched oligarchy of wealth and cultural elitism: “a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name” (136), as “the Boss” assesses Arthur and his Court. Cummings observes a “vacillating motion” in the structure of Connecticut Yankee. “Basically, the conflict is between an idealistic, sentimental view of man and a clinically behavioristic view” (166-67). Both modes of response to medieval oppression—sentimental idealism and reductive behaviorism—are distinctly American, and indeed “frontier,” modes of expression. Whether sentimental or cynical. Twain's tone is a response to the same outrage at the injustice of hereditary privilege, whether among European nobility or American oligarchy.

  6. In a detailed contextual reading of the publication and publicity campaign surrounding Connecticut Yankee, Horst Kruse argues convincingly for “the author's attempt to direct the response to his novel in the light of current political and social events and developments” (465). Kruse shows that “just as topical matters had affected the novel's course of composition throughout, current events and political developments also determined the final preparations for presenting it to the public” (470). Kruse cites five contemporary news stories which were seized upon by Twain to prove the topicality of his novel: Czarist atrocities in Russia, recent weddings between American heiresses and European nobility, the impact of Edward Bellamy's recent Looking Backward, scandalous crimes involving the English nobility, and the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil (471). Kruse's review of Twain's specific socio-political intentions, and of the extraordinarily energetic manner in which he advanced his novel's political purposes with reviewers and through advertising, serves as a useful corrective to generalizations concerning Twain's political or apolitical allegorizing, but Kruse's findings also highlight the broader difficulty with socio-political readings that evaluate narrative art against topical issues (whether the reading that Twain pressed upon his readers and reviewers, Arac's denial of that political debate, or Kruse's reassertion of it). Presumably, if we accept Kruse's case, the ideological purpose—succinctly stated in Twain's “Preface” (updated just before publication 12 December 1889): “The character of the book is an arraignment of all shades and kinds of monarchy and aristocracy as shams and swindles, ridiculous and played-out anachronisms, silly and criminal survivals of ancient savagery” (qtd. in Kruse 476-77)—would qualify Connecticut Yankee as “national narrative” in a class with Bancroft, Cooper, and Stowe, for Twain's “Preface” clearly addresses broad national ideals of a maturing Republic. Yet, in this case Twain's outburst seems embarrassing in its mangling of what remains a suggestive and complex novel.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. “Nationalism, Hypercanonization, and Huckleberry Finn.” Boundary 2 20.3(1992): 14-33.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformation in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Billington, Ray A. “Frontier Democracy: Social Aspects.” In Taylor 160-84.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Brown, Maurice F. “Mark Twain as Proteus: Ironic Form and Fictive Integrity.” In Budd 165-75.

Budd, Louis J., ed. Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1910-1980. Boston: Hall, 1983.

Carton, Evan. “Mark Twain and Literary Performance.” In Robinson 153-74.

Cummings, Sherwood. Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.

Fetterly, Judith. “Mark Twain and the Anxiety of Entertainment.” In Budd 216-24.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “Traveling in Time with Mark Twain.” American Literature and Science. Ed. Robert J. Scholnick. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992. 157-71.

Herrick, Robert. “Mark Twain and the American Tradition.” In Budd 106-11.

Jehlen, Myra. “Huckleberry Finn and American Literature.” In Robinson 93-115.

Kruse, Horst H. “Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee: Reconsiderations and Revisions.” American Literature 62.3 (1990): 464-83.

Leary, Lewis. Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1971.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “An American Tragedy, or the Promise of American Life.” Representations 25.1 (1989): 71-89.

Michelson, Bruce. Mark Twain on the Loose. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1995.

Robinson, Forrest G., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Schwartz, Thomas D. “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll: The Freethought Connection.” American Literature 48.1 (1976): 183-93.

Simpson, Lewis P. The Fable of the Southern Writer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. New York: Vintage, 1957.

Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “Contribution of the West to American Democracy.” In Taylor 28-50.

———. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In Taylor 3-27.

Twain, Mark. Mississippi Writings. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Sanford Pinsker (essay date autumn 2001)

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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 than what freedom in America means, and does not mean.

Critics of Twain's novel generally shy away from what makes it simultaneously disturbing and important. So, let me offer the following proposition in the spirit of plain Orwellian speech: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that does not blink about all that militates to keep genuine freedom under wraps and in control. Just as the book is as wide as the Mississippi on which many of its most memorable moments are set, it is also wide enough to take on the full range of American culture—from those elements out to elevate to those which run the gamut from the lower-browed to the downright coarse.

At this point, a thumbnail sketch of how the novel has been read, and misread, may be helpful. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn began its long, complicated history as America's most controversial novel shortly after its publication in 1885, when the well-meaning members of the Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee decided to exclude the book from its shelves on the grounds that the story was, in their words, “trashy and vicious.” The trouble with Mr. Clemens, they went on to say, was that he had “no reliable sense of propriety.” They were, of course, right about this, even if their rightness rather resembles that of a busted watch that tells correct time twice a day. What they worried about, between the words of their carefully crafted objections, is that Twain's novel would corrupt the young—of Concord and, presumably points west and south. The charge is a very old one and has been leveled against those, from Socrates onward, who were regarded as corrupters of the young.

In Twain's case, what he did that so upset the moral arbiters of Concord is boldly announced in the novel's second sentence: “That book [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer], Huck tells us by way of introduction] was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” The operative word is truth, although we get a pretty good idea about who Huck is and what he stands for by way of his qualifying “mainly.” I shall have more to say about the “mainly” later, but for the moment, let me concentrate on what it means to tell the truth and thus begin our journey down a long, complicated path. One should be aware, for example, that truth-telling, properly understood, is not always what Huck had in mind or what many of Twain's readers imagined when they went about separating lies from the truth. Truth, in short, is one of those words—slippery, troublesome, but nonetheless, of great importance. This is even truer, as it were, at a time when many thinkers positioned on theory's cutting edge confidently insist that “truth” be surrounded by sneer quotes and interrogated until all that remains are the easy certainties of nihilism. Twain would have found this brand of postmodernism very strange indeed, although I hasten to add that the “pursuit of truth” in his novel leads to darker conclusions than theory has yet dreamt of.

One way to explain the difference between versions of truth-telling is to sharply distinguish between small-t truths of the sort that conform to observable “facts” and the large-T Truths that philosophers worry about and writers explore in fiction and poetry. In this latter sense, to tell the truth about the world requires more than a careful attention to realistic detail, however much this was certainly part of Twain's aesthetic agenda. Rather, it is a matter of burning away the social conditioning that puts layers of fat around the soul and that covers the eyes with motes.

In the late 1940's Lionel Trilling, perhaps the most influential critic of his time, famously declared that Huck and Tom Sawyer may tell the lies of children but they do not, in Trilling's words, “tell the ultimate lie of adults: they do not lie to themselves.” These characters, who (rightly) believe that “the world is in a conspiracy to lie to [them],” are thus swaddled, Trilling argues, in “moral sensitivity.”

In general T. S. Eliot is right about the way that Huck, Twain's satiric persona, works, but there are moments when Huck is not quite all that Eliot claims on his behalf. Take, for example, the moment in which Colonel Sherburn beats back a potential lynch mob by standing up to bullies and taking their cowardly measure. Huck describes the last, tail-between-their-legs moments this way: “The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart and went tearing off every which way, … I could a staid, if I'd a wanted to, but I didn't want to.” Here, despite Eliot's large pronouncement, is a moment where Huck, in his own term, heaves off a “stretcher.” In plainer language, he clearly lies to himself; moreover, we see his feeble rationalization as the sham it surely is.

Why, one wonders, would Twain so embarrass his otherwise savvy protagonist? My hunch is that he means to remind us that Huck is a very young, young boy, despite his sound heart and outbursts of good sense. He is, in short, given to back-sliding of the human sort. This often overlooked point deserves emphasis if only because so many readers, including quite intelligent ones, fall into fits of disappointment whenever Huck—or by extension, Twain—lets them down. This usually occurs when Tom Sawyer enters the scene and bullies poor Huck with his insider knowledge of romance novels, but it can also happen when such readers tire of satire, even of dark, uncompromising satire, and prefer that the novel head off to other, more morally soothing directions.

Eliot makes much the same point about Huck's honesty when he talks about his “vision.” He sees the real world, Eliot argues, but “he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself.” Enter Leo Marx's “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” a 1953 essay that attacks both critics as “tender-minded” because they substitute structural arguments (Eliot's paean to the mythic river) or easy platitudes (Trilling's magisterial assertions about Huck's honesty) for the more sober recognition that Twain's novel ends in shambles and failure.

At this point, let me drag in Huck's comment about Mr. Twain telling the truth, mainly. Huck is not especially bothered by this—certainly he is not as lathered up about it as Mr. Marx will be—because, as he puts it, “I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.” Everybody else is given to heaving in “stretchers”; as far as Huck is concerned, they come with the territory. What the novel dramatizes, however, is how dangerous, and indeed, how deadly, certain “stretchers” can become—especially if they are generated by the small-r romantic wish to make quotidian life more glamorous than it in fact is. That romanticism of the sort behind the blood-curdling oaths taken by would-be members of Tom Sawyer's gang is one thing; when it generates the ongoing feud of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords, however, this is another matter altogether.

In much the same way that Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, argues that the novels of Sir Walter Scott were singularly responsible for the Civil War, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents one episode after another in which romance trumps his ignorant protagonist. For early generations of believers, Satan was the force to reckon with. He was cunning, shape-shifting, and always threatening to steal away with one's soul. Calvinists took his power seriously; no measures were too stern when it came to resisting the many forms his temptations took, whether it be packaged in a whiskey bottle or a pack of playing cards. Twain may have rather enjoyed kicking Christians in the slats when they refused to act as proper Christians or when their hypocrisy poked out like a sore thumb, but he did not see Satan lurking around every corner. Rather, it was the endless versions of small-r romanticism that got Twain's dander up. They lied—not as simple “stretchers,” but as lies. And the biggest lie of all is that anyone, black or white, could be genuinely free.

This is why the current obsession with Twain's failure to address the implications of slavery comes to half a loaf. Yes, slavery was the most visible manifestation of man's inhumanity to man—not just the shackles and the beatings, but also in the systematic way in which an entire people was reduced to chattel property. Jim's line about being a rich man if he owned himself cracks the heart, and I would add, goes a long way to counter those arguments in which Jim is reduced to minstrel clown. Granted, the tone drips out of Twain's pen, just as it does when Tom dramatically proclaims that Jim is as “free as any cretur that walks the earth.” Attentive readers cannot help but ask themselves, given all that the book has demonstrated, “How free is this?”—for not only the newly freed Jim, but also for Huck, for Tom, for everyone on the Phelps plantation and for everybody back home.

Granted, no American writer can match Twain when it comes to giving vivid expression to the great abiding dream of being free:

Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us. … Sometimes we'd have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time … It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

The dream, alas, cannot last, however much it remains lodged in the head of every reader with an ear for the music that language at its most supple can make. As my grandfather used to say about the America he both loved and quarreled with, “You could live if they'll let you.” No remark better sums up the history of the Jews, or, with a snip here a tuck there, the necessary fate of Huck and Jim. Huck's instinctive goodness turns out to be no match for Tom's book-learning and charisma. Indeed, how could it? After all, it is Tom, not Huck, who knows how a proper “evasion” should be conducted, and how to give Jim the theatrical homecoming his protracted suffering deserves. Huck goes along with the former because, well, that is Huck's modus operandi, but he balks at the latter because he's had a bellyful of Tom foolishness. Granted, Twain knew full well that lighting out for the Territory would put Huck in harm's way, and that the lawlessness of the West was an exaggerated mirror of the more “sivilized” lawlessness of the East. Pursue it as Huck will, freedom remains an elusive promise, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald would later characterize as the boats that forever recede into the past no matter how hard one paddles.

Seen one way, Huck is a survivor, with an eye on a warm meal and a trundle bed; seen from another angle, he is the satiric lens through which we see the world's endless capacity for cruelty. That is why Huck's deadpan descriptions of, say, the Duke and the King are so effective. They know—or think they know—all that con men need to work a crowd—namely, that you can't cheat an honest man and, better yet, that there's a sucker born every minute. The same thing applies to Huck's account of the drunks who populate the shore towns and who take an enormous pleasure in setting dogs on fire. Freedom, for these folks, consists of inflicting as much cruelty as they can. Pap is squarely in their camp. He would vote for slavery if it were on all the ballots—that is, if he could stagger to the local polling place. He is, of course, not alone in this sentiment. Indeed, which voter in the world of Twain's novel felt otherwise?

Small wonder, then, that Leo Marx was so infuriated when he took Trilling and Eliot to task in the early 1950's or that Jane Smiley, a novelist of some reputation, recently argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is in every way superior to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Marx is a critic worth taking seriously. Smiley, unfortunately, is not. She sides with propaganda rather than with art, preferring a work that confirms her politically correct certainties rather than one which questions her unquestioned beliefs. For her, it is not enough that Huck feels a certain way toward Jim, he needs to act—and it is precisely on the level of action (or more precisely still, non action) that Twain's novel so badly fails in Smiley's opinion:

To invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnwith “greatness” is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is and to promulgate it, philosophically, in schools and the media as well as in academic journals. Surely the discomfort of many readers, black and white, and the censorship battles that have dogged Huck Finn in the last twenty years are understandable in this context. No matter how often the critics “place in context” Huck's use of the word ‘nigger,’ they can never fully excuse or fully hide the deeper racism of the novel—the way Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don't care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans.

Smiley much prefers Uncle Tom's Cabin because it is full of people acting against slavery, because it is, unashamedly, an Abolitionist manifesto. But after the Civil War resolved the matter at the end of the rifle barrel, after oceans of blood had been spilled, Stowe's novel no longer packed the same immediacy it once did. True enough, Uncle Tom's Cabin retains an importance as an historical novel, but not, I think, as a living (which is to say, disturbing) piece of literature.

As Americans, we bow to no one in our official regard for freedom, but we are also a country whose Pledge of Allegiance insists that, here, there will be “liberty and justice for all.” School children mouth the words without every quite realizing that they are a contradiction, that if there is unbridled liberty there cannot be endless liberty. The contradiction also lies at the very heart of Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote well before Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents explained the small-print costs, in repression, deferred gratification, and neurosis, that inevitably come with the clear benefits of civilization. Huck does not want to return to a world that will insist that what he calls “sivilization” be spelled with a c—and moreover that such people are expected to wear shoes and have clean fingernails.

Huck prefers freer space and a separate peace. In this sense, his dream of freedom is the antithesis of Linda Loman's painful recognition that the American Dream of a paid-off house does not, alas, make one “free and clear.” Arthur Miller's play is an indictment of a life lived in noisy, manic-depressive desperation. Willy, alas, was a man who never knew who he was, a man who bought into a world where Success lies just around the corner and where “being well liked” will eventually carry the day. But powerful as Miller's play clearly is, it does not limn freedom as darkly as Twain's novel does. For the problem of freedom in Huckleberry Finn so co-exists with its humor that readers forget just how broad the brush that Twain uses is. Jim's slavery and gradual movement toward freedom is at best only a small part of what the novel is about. Rather, it is Huck's understanding that, unlike Tom, he can never fit into society, added to our growing realization that he will never be free—even should he make it to the Territory and manage to survive—that makes Twain's novel so problematic. In short, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a deeply subversive book, not because it is peppered with the N-word or even because some see racism in what is the most anti-racist book ever written in America, but because it tells the Truth—not “mainly,” but right down to the core.

Laurel Bollinger (essay date winter 2002)

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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; not if it's forty year!’” (1995, 251). While the moment certainly contains troubling elements, we must acknowledge the profound, almost telepathic connection between characters in this encounter.2

That the connection involves a moral choice is particularly appropriate in this novel that hinges on such moments. This particular decision reveals the two major threads of morality examined in the novel. Emerging from a set of assumptions most readers (and teachers) of the novel probably expect, Jim's argument prevails: he claims that the risk to Tom's life trumps his own need for freedom, that the doctor must be fetched even if it means Jim stays where he is—a slave—for “forty year.” This proposed timeframe brings Jim to the moment of Twain's composition, representing Jim's willingness to extend his slavery not just past an historical end Jim cannot foresee but quite possibly for the remainder of his life. In his mouth, the words become a willing sacrifice—one Huck cannot offer on his behalf.

Yet Huck's reticence to speak isn't simple courtesy, nor, certainly, a test of Jim, who has already proven himself a morally admirable figure. Huck's silence reveals an alternate moral code that has, in fact, driven him through the novel: a code based on the maintenance of relationships, not on an abstract hierarchy of values. Huck never moves into the realm of “abstract” morality; he never asserts a conviction that when two moral principles come into conflict, one will have priority because of the nature of the moral principle itself. Instead, he acts strictly through his sense of commitment to his friends—and in the moment when Tom is shot, Huck finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Both friends have powerful and immediate claims upon him. Yet Huck has no recourse to abstract assumptions to establish that preserving Tom's life is the highest moral obligation at that moment—or even the reverse, that Jim's need for freedom takes priority over the arguably small risk to Tom's life (or perhaps only to limb, as he's been shot in the leg rather than in a more vital region). My point is not that one value or another should have priority but rather that Huck's decisions are not based on abstract moral reasoning. His loyalty to both friends means that, in the face of their conflicting needs, Huck is paralyzed. Huck needs Jim to say what must be done because if Huck says it himself, the demand for a doctor betrays Jim's need for freedom—and so betrays Huck's relationship with Jim. Only after Jim insists on the doctor can Huck act: “[S]o it was all right, now, and I told Tom I was a'going for a doctor” (1995, 251). The key is “now”: only after Jim has said “it,” acknowledging the demand Tom's injury places on them, does the moral hierarchy become “all right,” releasing Huck to respond accordingly. The hierarchy of values Jim describes—that liberty must give way when a life is at stake—doesn't free Huck to act. The principle Jim articulates is considerably less compelling for Huck than is Jim's implicit assurance that Huck's actions will not compromise their friendship.

This interpretation of such a pivotal moment makes more pressing a question that continues to plague us as readers and teachers of the novel. If Huck's relationship to Jim really is the centerpiece of the text, a friendship demanding that Huck step outside the conventional morality of his era, how can we account for its trivialization during the evasion sequence at Phelpses' farm? In other words, how can we make sense of the ending? Even if we don't simply take “The Weak Ending of Huckleberry Finn” as a given, as Richard Hill suggests most modern critics do (1991, 492-93), any reader interested in Huck and Jim must see that allowing Tom to dictate the terms of the escape—complete with his boyish, bookish ideas on how such an escape ought to play out—violates not just the profound connection of “Say it, Jim,” but of any friendship based on mutual respect. Huck cannot recognize Jim as an equal or a friend and yet allow Tom to amuse himself at Jim's expense. For reasons ranging from a concern with Huck's moral growth to the reassertion of racism implied by Jim's treatment and voicelessness in the escape sequence, any number of critics have considered the ending what Leo Marx labeled “a failure of nerve” on Twain's part, an evasion of the very direction the novel seemed to be taking (1986, 19).3 The novel is often taught this way too, for suggesting that Twain has “got it wrong” by the end eases our discomfort with the painful elements of the novel's conclusion. I would argue, however, that a morality of connection functions throughout the text, and—paradoxically—that the problematic ending emerges not from a shift in that ethic, but from its very consistency. To see this ethic at work in the novel also demands that we reconsider the book's status as an icon of individualism, recognizing the deeper connectiveness underlying Huck's character and, with him, the novel as a whole. Such reconsideration also has implications for our teaching of other icons of autonomy, and perhaps for further consideration of the mythic status of American individualism.


Recognizing the conflicting patterns of moral behavior within the novel may be aided by reviewing modern research on moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg (1983) and Carol Gilligan (1982), especially as illustrated through their analysis of the moral reasoning of eleven- and twelve-year olds presented with the Heinz dilemma. The Heinz dilemma has Heinz's wife terminally ill. She can only be helped by a drug sold by the pharmacist who developed it at a price too high for Heinz to afford. The pharmacist will not lower his price. After presenting the situation, the researcher asks the participants a question: should Heinz steal the drug?

Kohlberg expected that at an appropriate level of development for an eleven- or twelve-year-old, the answer will be yes, Heinz should steal the drug, and furthermore, should do so because the right to life outweighs the right to property or profit making. Kohlberg sought to identify the logic behind the decision rather than looking strictly for the answer, arguing that “mature” moral reasoning will see the Heinz dilemma as a matter of competing rights, with the moral agent responsible for determining which of the competing rights must take priority. Kohlberg's schema assumes that, at the pinnacle of moral development, individuals develop a set of universal hierarchical moral principles, applicable to any set of circumstances or participants, which may or may not accord with the values of the society as a whole. Kohlberg's ideas echo Kant's Categorical Imperative: a moral person chooses actions that could serve as universal human law.4

The problem emerged when Kohlberg interviewed girls. In his six-level system, he ranked boys' yes answers as somewhere in the fourth or fifth level. Girls frequently ranked much lower, often never achieving the “higher” levels of morality at all, leading Kohlberg to question girls' abilities at moral reasoning. But in listening to the girls' actual answers, Carol Gilligan (originally Kohlberg's student) detected a pattern: rather than providing Kohlberg with the “yes” he was listening for, the girls refused the underlying assumptions of the dilemma. Talk to the pharmacist, they tended to say. Perhaps something can be worked out.

As Gilligan theorizes from these answers, Kohlberg failed to recognize what Gilligan at first considered a specifically feminine pattern of moral reasoning. The girls articulate a different set of concerns than the boys—not a lesser level of moral understanding. Rather than seeing moral decisions as predicated on universal moral rules, the girls particularize the response, seeing the problem as occurring between this pharmacist and this husband. They construct the issue as one involving a breakdown in the relationship, resolved not by the imposition of abstract principles but by mending the rupture between people. Rather than talking about fairness issues—which assume a hierarchy of competing rights—the girls implicitly define moral acts as occurring within a web of connections. For them, moral decisions must meet the very particular needs of each person in the relationship, contextualized within the specific situation. Gilligan calls this an ethic of care, wherein the highest goal becomes maintaining connections between specific people and mediating between the conflicting demands of those particular relationships, as opposed to an ethic of justice, wherein the highest goal becomes acting on the basis of universal principles whereby conflicts between competing rights could be adjudicated.5

Furthermore, subsequent research breaks down the exclusively gendered quality of the categories. Gilligan suggests that while in their first consideration of the dilemma the gendered patterns prevail, when pushed, both boys and girls seem able to shift moral perspectives, although in general it appears easier for girls to take on a justice pattern than for boys to move into an ethic of care (Gilligan, Ward, and Taylor, 1988). Moreover, expanding the research beyond middle-class white children reveals that an ethic of care predominates among inner-city children of both genders (Bardige and Ward 1988). Faced with challenges to their very survival, the inner-city children tended to consider the affect of their moral actions on those close to them, upon whom they depend more heavily (or recognize that dependence more fully) than would economically privileged children in other settings. What we see then, as Gilligan has described it, are two separate languages through which moral concerns can be articulated. While gender plays a role in defining which language any particular person may prefer, it is not the only factor. Justice remains the language of the powerful, while care seems to be preferred by the less powerful, however power may be constructed.

In discussing Gilligan's contributions to moral philosophy, Lawrence Blum offers additional clarification about the distinction between the moral codes of care and justice. He offers as an example that the general obligation to “protect one's children from harm” does not adequately address the specifics of that obligation, and the principle of fairness (as one abstract moral stance), taken on its face, may not always accomplish this goal. He considers a situation in which “a father has to decide whether and how to deal with a situation in which his daughter has hit her younger brother” (1993, 60). To reach a morally adequate solution, he will have to consider his specific relationship with each child, not simply an impartial consideration of the circumstance itself. The father,

must take into account what various actions, coming from himself in particular, would mean. … Would his intervention serve to undermine (either of) his children's ability to work out problems between themselves? Would punishing his daughter contribute to a pattern of seeming favoritism toward the son which she has complained of recently? How might each of the children's self-esteem and moral development be affected by the various options of action open to him?

(Blum 1993, 60)

The care for and attentiveness to each child's individual needs—along with the very recognition that one must know each child that closely—constitutes a moral stance within Gilligan's schema. As Blum explains, such morality demands that both the moral agent and the recipient of moral action be “radically particularized,” with “morality … founded in a sense of concrete connection and direct response between persons, a direct sense of connection which exists prior to moral beliefs about what is right or wrong or which principles to accept. Moral action is meant to express and to sustain those connections to particular other people” (52-53). In other words, within an ethic of care, even were the father to opt for a solution in accord with a justice framework, he would do so because it is in the best interests of both specific children, not because the solution was “right” or “fair” in absolute terms. Were the father to subscribe simply to an ethic of justice, he might opt for a “fair” punishment and hope (or even assume) that the needs of each child would best be served by that choice, but the principle of fairness would govern him more than it would in the particularized ethic of care Gilligan defines. Within a justice system, principles of care might be valued, but are secondary to fairness itself. Within the care system, the values of justice—when implemented at all—are secondary to the relationship and the individuals in it.

Gilligan's contribution to moral philosophy is to suggest that rather than being adjunctive to universalist concerns with justice, care constitutes a legitimate and significant moral stance, one that in a mature moral philosophy might well be integrated with justice—but as an equivalent, not subordinate, moral concern. Gilligan's work illustrates a new way of examining moral behavior, and in as much as literary works reflect human behavior, this larger awareness also applies to our teaching of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


In his 1895 lecture tour, Twain described Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as containing a two-pronged moral conflict in which “a sound heart” collides with “a deformed conscience.” Scholars have suggested that Twain himself saw this dichotomy in terms suggested by W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals (1869): “intuitive” morality, which argues that humans are naturally able to distinguish between right and wrong, and “utilitarian” morality, which claims instead that observation of one's social environment and the quest for personal gratification shape moral behavior (Camfield 1992, Cummings 1988). These scholars claim that Twain, although initially attracted to the intuitionist position, gradually shifted to the utilitarian mode, in part to reconcile his perception that the adults of his childhood were good to the fact that they practiced slavery (Cummings 1988, 59, 150). In this schema, Huckleberry Finn basically advocates the intuitionist position, showing “heart” defeating the more socially constructed “conscience,” with the novel presenting a sustained argument between the two definitions of morality. Yet in mediating between those two options, Twain, we now see, posits an alternate set of moral considerations, quite different from Lecky's system. For “heart” and “conscience” apply equally well to the moral languages Gilligan establishes, articulating not simply how morality arises but what constitutes the centerpoint of that moral understanding, with “heart” representing care and “conscience” as justice.

Huck speaks in the language of care. The style of Huck's narration, the very grammatical imprecision that originally got the book banned in Boston, reveals that the voice with which he speaks—and so implicitly his moral stance—is not the dominant voice of the society in which he lives. Indeed, Twain's construction of Huck as functionally powerless within St. Petersburg sets him up to have readier access to an ethic of care, just as had the girls or the economically disadvantaged urban children in Gilligan's studies. Huck's outsider position in each of the other communities separates him still further from their socially dominant moral language.

Certainly the observation that Huck's outsider status provides him with special moral insight is nothing new. Much has been written arguing that Twain's antebellum setting serves to call into question the morality of society at large, perhaps implying that only an outsider can see with moral clarity into Huck's particular world. Daniel Wright, examining the novel's smaller communities (the boys' gang, aristocratic families, mobs), suggests that Twain's skepticism of the value of “civilized” morality leads him (and the novel) to conclude that only in utter isolation can one find moral integrity—communities, no matter how small, “nurture a moral apathy that anesthetizes the more acute and responsive individual conscience” (1991, 89). I would suggest, however, that rather than privileging individual conscience, Twain's construction of Huck places him in a different moral community—a community of the disenfranchised, perhaps including some women but certainly including Jim as a representative of the slave community, where moral decisions are reached based on a very different set of criteria than those established by the dominant codes.6 If in teaching the novel we want to present Huck as a moral exemplar, then we want to see him go beyond the dominant moral language, to make the “right” decisions for the “right” reasons, to recognize the wrongness of the antebellum communities that would enslave Jim. And like the early researchers into moral development who were deaf to the real moral issues the girls were articulating, before we recognize an ethic of care we may not hear what Huck is actually saying instead.

Huck's moral stance becomes clearest when we look at his specific moral decisions. One of the more comic of these decisions (and thus least fraught with readerly tension) occurs on the raft, where Huck and Jim consider the morality of stealing. Huck remembers the moral codes he has been taught:

Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things, if you was meaning to pay them back, sometime; but the widow said it warn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn't borrow them any more—then he reckoned it wouldn't be no harm to borrow the others. … [T]owards daylight we got it all settled satisfactory, and concluded to drop crabapples and p'simmons. We warn't feeling just right, before that, but it was all comfortable now.

(Twain 1995, 83)

Part of the humor of the scene must surely be our recognition of how far from moral reasoning these characters are—indeed, rationalization seems the more appropriate term. Their discussion of morality is wholly self-serving; they plan to keep stealing, but want some satisfactory justification for their behavior. This becomes clearest when Huck notes how much better they feel given their new-found moral code.7 Kantian ethics do not recognize the moral imperative of “feeling just right”; Kant is emphatic that even otherwise praiseworthy activity cannot be considered truly moral if undertaken strictly because the individual takes pleasure in it (1898, 14-15). How much less so, then, can immoral behavior be justified on the grounds of feeling?

Yet the sequence does share elements with the “Say it, Jim” moment. In both scenes, Huck and Jim recognize that to be effective, their decision must satisfy them both, and the logic of relationship—rather than abstraction—prevails. The ostensible topic of their discussion, theft, is only nominally the moral issue. As Jim will say later about King Solomon's moral behavior, “de real pint is down furder—it's down deeper” (Twain 1995, 94). The “real pint” is that Huck is faced with two competing moral codes: the ideas of the widow, whose words represent conventional morality,8 and those of Pap, who speaks for a kind of hedonism. To embrace one code essentially means to value one person over the other. By offering a way to reconcile the two conflicting positions, Jim helps Huck avoid making an irrevocable decision about which morality—and with it, which relationship—he will prefer. Clearly, Huck and Jim both know the language of conventional morality; their discussion takes place within its framework, however much they seek to evade its claims. But their goal is wholly other: after all, they have no real motivation to resist behavior both desirable and to some degree necessary for their mutual survival, and, moreover, they have no intention of stopping, even though their conversation seems to suggest they might. Instead, their moral concerns center on establishing and maintaining emotional ties to each other and to the significant figures in Huck's life.9 As Lawrence Blum puts it, moral action exists “to express and to sustain … connections to particular other people,” with that concern preceding any abstract assumptions about “right and wrong” (1993, 52-3).

Only when relationships come into conflict does Huck's moral reasoning become problematic. In the famous scenes where Huck agonizes over whether or not to help Jim find freedom—both when he and Jim near Cairo, and later when he tears up the letter to Miss Watson—it is not the greater wrong of slavery that motivates him. However much our students and we want it to be so, Huck has not reached what Kohlberg would define as the highest stage of moral development, the post-conventional level where one sees beyond culturally specific values to universal ethical principles. There are any number of other slaves in the novel whose status does not concern Huck in the slightest. He bases his decision to help Jim strictly on their friendship; the particularity of their relationship means that, although Huck clearly upholds slavery as morally acceptable, he knows that it is not acceptable to Jim. Huck's dilemma emerges from competing issues of care.

On the river, listening to Jim's enthusiasm for his impending escape, Huck feels the “pinch” of conscience because of his connection to Miss Watson. She has treated him decently; as he says, she “tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how” (Twain 1995, 101), and her care for him constitutes a moral claim. Rather than seeing Jim's need for freedom as more significant than Miss Watson's right to hold Jim as property, Huck feels guilty that he has not stopped Jim's escape. Huck frames his consideration of Jim's wife and children in similar terms; the man who owns Jim's children has done Huck “no harm.” Huck's particular sense of their relationship (or lack thereof) specifies that he should behave in at least a morally neutral fashion; he ought not contribute to the theft of the man's property (102). Here is a “universal” judgment coming into play, yet I suspect most readers see it as a failure of Huck's moral nerve rather than as a higher level of morality. One of the significant elements of Gilligan's description of an ethic of care is that it is not hierarchical, and as such does not offer a clear way to decide between conflicting needs of individuals with whom one is in relation. Gilligan notes that “when responsibilities conflict and decision entails the sacrifice of somebody's needs, then [the person practicing an ethic of care] confronts the seemingly impossible task of choosing the victim” (1982, 80). Miss Watson's claim on Huck is a genuine one, and without principles of abstraction Huck is faced with an ethical dilemma—he cannot satisfy both figures, but his moral language does not provide him with ready means to choose between them.

Theft as a moral issue only “pinches” in situations where the lines of relationship suggest it ought; Huck never does anything to help the many people the Duke and King bilk until he finds his relationship with Mary Jane supersedes his (admittedly unwilling) relationship with the men—a relationship he reaffirms in his desire not to see the men tarred and feathered once he reaches the Phelpses' farm. But even when Jim is the “property” at stake, Huck must consider the matter in terms of the relationships involved, not the abstract principles of theft or slavery. So his decision to help Jim is couched in the language of feeling; he decides he has acted correctly because he would “feel just the same way” whether he turned Jim in or not (Twain 1995, 104). Both moral languages have their claim over him, but his closer relationship with Jim becomes the deciding factor (especially, we might note, in Miss Watson's absence).

The same moral reasoning takes place in the famous scene where Huck tears up the letter to Miss Watson, deciding to “go to hell” instead (Twain 1995, 202).10 Throughout this passage, Huck acts on the basis of relationship not abstract principles.11 He writes the letter from this context; he has not decided that helping Jim was wrong, but that “it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he'd got to be a slave” (201). In other words, his behavior emerges from his specific knowledge of Jim's love for his family. The conflict within Huck in this sequence has been read in many ways—a fight between conventional religion and “absolute” right, between the discourse of racism and white double-consciousness—but the language in which the discussion plays out clearly depends on a conflict between universal principles (the language of justice, however unjust the specific claim of slavery seems to us now and to Twain writing in the 1880s), and relationship, particularized to Huck's understanding of Jim's needs (the language of care). The deciding factor is not principle or the wrongness of slavery in general, but his memory of Jim's claim on their friendship, echoing back to the earlier decision Huck made to help Jim escape: Jim “said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now” (202). Connection, not abstract reasoning, proves the basis for the decision, as it has for Huck throughout the novel.

All of which leads us to the apparent moral bad faith of the ending, where Huck seems to betray his relationship with Jim. The moral failure is too clear to require much rehearsal here:12 Huck, finding Jim in a cabin too dark for growing flowers, chained to a bed, with only the occasional, functional visits of Nat for company, makes no effort—not even of a provisional, unobtrusive sort—to ameliorate his condition. We might exonerate him for that, since Jim himself (doubtless aware of the much harsher treatment a fugitive slave might expect) notes that Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally are both “as kind as they could be” (Twain 1995, 230), but Huck fails more egregiously in the evasion sequence itself. Faced with Tom's proposal for an elaborate escape plan, Huck makes only the most tentative protests against Tom's plan to house snakes, spiders, and mice in Jim's cabin, even standing by as Tom contemplates cutting off Jim's leg, only (fortunately!) to think better of it on his own, recognizing that “there ain't necessity enough for it” (223). To be sure, Huck speaks out in favor of pragmatism at any number of points—applauding Tom's decision to “let on” they're using case-knives while employing the more effective pick-axes, reminding Tom that stealing the slave-girl's dress will cause trouble “because of course she prob'bly hain't got any but that one” (228, 246)—but he never voices any concern with the premise itself; never says, “Look, Tom, Jim is my friend and you can't treat him this way.” And that, it seems, is something he ought to say even within an ethic of justice—and we might suppose the demand to be all the greater within an ethic of care.

But again and again Huck has proven himself incapable of mastering the language of justice. For modern readers, one frustration with the novel lies in the degree to which Huck fails to abstract general principles from specific examples, to move from “it is wrong for Jim to be a slave” to “slavery is wrong”; or even from “Jim cares ‘just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n’; Jim is ‘white inside’” (Twain 1995, 155, 251) to “Jim is like me; racism is wrong.” But Huck never makes these leaps. Even his attitude toward Jim never seems wholly to recognize Jim's humanity; in the Grangerford episode, Huck considers his servant “my nigger,” and only a few pages later thinks of “my Jim” in the same fashion (116, 120)—and this well into their idyllic river voyage and well before the “failed ending” where we might expect such textual difficulties.

Yet for Huck to refuse Tom's escape plan would demand just such a level of abstraction, and, paradoxically, a move out of the ethic of care itself. Just as in the earlier episodes, Huck has a relationship with both figures—and his relationship to Tom might have greater claim on him as being the prior commitment. Even setting that aside, what happens at the end of the novel is simply the logical extension of Huck's moral reasoning. An ethic of care provides Huck no hierarchies whatsoever—no way to adjudicate between the conflicting needs of his two friends. The ethic of care demands he do precisely what he does: he makes sure that the needs do not conflict. From an ethic of justice, we may dismiss Tom's need for amusement as clearly beneath Jim's need for freedom—but in so doing, we might also jeopardize the relationship with Tom (a relationship, we might add, based on amusement). Rather than risk the friendship, Huck doesn't evaluate the merits of Tom's needs—he doesn't establish a hierarchy between Tom and Jim, or their conflicting needs. So long as both needs are being met, Huck intervenes with the language of necessity when he must (as in the case-knives and servant-girl moments already noted), but otherwise he simply works to mediate between the two figures so that both Jim and Tom will be satisfied. Huck's insertions of the language of necessity (his pragmatism) becomes one facet of that mediation; his apparent willingness to sacrifice Jim's dignity is another.

Huck's moral problem is exacerbated by the fact that Tom speaks the language of justice (hence Huck's shock that Tom would help him “steal” Jim in the first place, and his grudging acceptance of Tom's word that they must act according to the “regulations” of Tom's books [Twain 1995, 212, 223]). Tom recognizes a hierarchy of values (at least when it serves his interests), as we see when Tom rationalizes the theft of the sheets or the knives on the basis that “‘it ain't no crime in a prisoner to steal the thing he needs to get away with … it's his right’” (225). Like the boys in Kohlberg's interviews, Tom establishes an abstract principle regarding theft, one he derives from the principle that freedom is of higher value than property. This hierarchy takes precedence over any concern for Aunt Sally's well-being, for example, who is tormented by the boys throughout the sequence in a clear violation of the ethic of care. Tom, running the show, considers abstractions before individuals.

Throughout the evasion sequence, Huck's immersion in an ethic of care leads him to defer to Tom's language of justice. When Tom assures Jim and Huck both that they “‘would see [Jim] got away, sure’” (Twain 1995, 230), his words constitute a promise within the relationship that Huck and Jim accept.13 For Huck, no abstraction—be it Tom's “regulations” or a principle of fairness to Jim—is as compelling as the need to work within each relationship as best he can. To assert either abstraction would be to reject the moral logic that has defined Huck throughout the novel. If Tom represents the dangers of taking justice to the point of absurdity, Huck shows us that care taken to extreme offers its own—equivalent—risks.



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.


More honored in the breach than the observance, few instructions regarding textual interpretation have been the subject of more discussion. Absent from Twain's other “boy's books,” the Notice suggests both the danger and the necessity of considering just those elements Twain proscribes: motive, moral, and plot. Twain's list connects the very acts the Notice would criminalize, suggesting that our narrative performances are both intentional and bound up with morality.14 Gilligan's insights into a language of care help us to see with greater precision just how the sense-making and moral-making functions are connected within Twain's novel, becoming most problematic in the ending.

The girls' response to the Heinz dilemma reveals two elements in their moral thinking: the formulation of relationships and the construction of narrative. Kohlberg's dissatisfaction with the girls' response occurs in part because they do not provide a decisive statement of moral value. Their answer depends upon a relationship forming between the pharmacist and the husband, and begins a sequence of events with no strong certainty of a positive resolution. In other words, the response begins a story, and the dilemma becomes not “a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time” (Gilligan 1982, 28). The girls recognize that the story must continue for a morally adequate solution to be found; Gilligan cites one girl in the study worrying that if Heinz were arrested, his wife might get sick again and then there would be no way for him to help her. The girl's concern reveals that any moral gesture is the beginning, not the end, of the tale.

Twain's warning at the outset of the novel reveals something similar. In the language of conventional morality, a “moral” and a “plot” share a significant similarity: both are decisive gestures, arguing for a finality that real life rarely offers us. “A moral” becomes the statement of a story's “meaning”—the moral at the end of an Aesop's fable, for example. Similarly, in narratological terms, a “plot” is a structured ordering of events that leads to a conclusion, or, in its non-technical use, something planned and (ideally) accomplished—that is, finished. In that sense, “motive” and “plot” too become connected, for a “plot” is a plan to accomplish something—clearly in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, Stowe had a “motive,” a specific course of action she assumed the novel would help produce. Twain's recognition that moral events are rarely finished in the sense that plot or moral imply reveals his novel's embeddedness in the realities of the major moral questions of the Reconstruction Era.

For Twain, as Christine MacLeod (1995) convincingly argues, was very much a product of the Reconstruction Era, and insofar as his novel may be about race, he surely recognized the impossibility of considering his era to have reached any finality in race relations. Here he shares Gilligan's adolescent girls' suspicion of the moral gesture—for as Twain knew, the decisive moral gesture of the Civil War was not, in fact, the end of the story of race relations in the United States. In the absence of Lincoln's clear intent of reconciliation, of caring for the defeated and the liberated both, Northerners hungry to punish defeated Southerners implemented punitive measures, including a military government for the region. Reconstruction started from lofty “care” principles, like Senator Thad Stevens's “forty acres and a mule” proposal, but degenerated into issues of rules, rights, and justice as the proponents of care stood helplessly by. And so, the nation turned its collective interest exactly where Huck himself does—to the West, to the “territories” Huck envisions as the solution to his moral problems. It was—and continues to be—easier to consider a moral problem solved through the fiat of justice than to recognize the profound and on-going demands an ethic of care places upon an individual or a people.

Twain's novel not only reflects the harsh moral realities of its era, but works toward incorporating simultaneously the possibility of success alongside significant failure within the very moral terms it explores. As we've long recognized, Twain's ending slides away from the realism of the Reconstruction Era and into a romanticization of the antebellum era in which the novel is set. He gives the novel's most significant slaveholder the major moral gesture of the text in Miss Watson's deathbed liberation of Jim, despite the fact that Jim is not only a fugitive slave but also widely believed to have killed Huck (and as Julius Lester puts it, “[w]hite people may want to believe such fairy tales about themselves, but blacks know better” [1992, 203]). Beyond that, Twain imagines Huck “light[ing] out for the Territories ahead of the rest” (1995, 265)—a possibility for the young Samuel Clemens, or for the antebellum hero he wants to create in Huck, but from the perspective of Twain writing in the 1880s, more a fantasy than a realistic option. Twain published the novel in 1885, only five years before the census would declare the frontier closed—meaning that, while Twain wrote, there was precious little “Territory” left for Huck to explore that had not already been at least touched by the very “sivilization” he hopes to reject.

And this very gesture remains most problematic if we see Huck operating within an ethic of care. At one level, we could perhaps accept the ending as successful in moral terms. The society in which Huck lives is so defined by the dominant code of justice that Huck must leave these communities to find a space to develop the alternate moral code of care he has envisioned. Although he does not explicitly repudiate Tom's assertion that they should go to the Territories together, Huck does stress that he must go “ahead of the rest”—that only by extricating himself from the code of justice Tom (and the whole of his “sivilization”) demands can Huck learn to be the fully moral figure we as readers want him to become.

An ethic of care doesn't permit this fantasy of autonomy—yet that is precisely what Twain embraces. Read in terms of care, the moral failure in the novel is not Huck's acquiescence to Tom's cruelty but—ironically—Huck's failure to continue the novel. Even the (unfinished) sequel won't do; we need to see the continuation of Huck's connection to Jim. About this, the ending tells us nothing. Most contemporary readers are dissatisfied with Jim's apparent pleasure at the forty dollars and the novel's absolute silence on the matter of his wife and children—feeding into claims such as Lester's that “Twain did not take slavery, and therefore black people, seriously” (1992, 201). Huck's failure to be concerned with the particular needs of Jim for that family is a violation of the ethic of care that has motivated him—as is more generally his end gesture of “light[ing] out for the Territory.” Indeed, rather than his acquiescence in Tom's cruelty, this may be his least moral act, for in his desire to separate himself completely from everyone, friend and enemy, Huck rejects completely the notion of connectivity as a moral stance.

The gesture emerges out of the same moral problem with which we have been concerned—not, as Wright suggests (1991), that any community will suck us into moral apathy, but that moral dilemmas exist only through and in our relations to each other. Morality is itself a profoundly connective matter, and Huck can only avoid the sorts of problems that shape the end of the novel—or misshape it, if we find Tom's re-emergence troubling—by rejecting friendship altogether. And he cannot do it within the terms of Realism. His interior self has already been structured by the connections he has forged; his moral “self” is not autonomous, but connective. To say more, to write the second book that he rejects, would be to unmask the fiction of that autonomy, and the end gesture of the novel is to embrace fictionality—ironically, at the very moment Huck rejects the continuation of the narrative. The failure of Reconstruction suggests how fully Americans had bought into the assumption that moral gestures were enough; that declaring an end to slavery really was sufficient. It wasn't, any more than Jim's freedom is a sufficient conclusion for the novel. And in that, Julius Lester is right to see that “Twain's failure is that he does not care until it hurts” (1992, 206), for surely within an ethic of care the worst transgression against moral behavior must be to abandon the relationship.15 Ending the novel with Huck's desire to leave all of the other characters behind is just such an abandonment.


Huck's ethic of care reveals the flaw in considering moral judgments as final and absolute; and like the Civil War, which rested on principles of justice but could not resolve the larger issues of care the elimination of slavery demanded, Huck's moral vision produces a narrative not a solution. If the ending of that narrative becomes the moral failure I've posited, then all narrative to some extent violates an ethic of care in that all narrative posits the end of the relationship—between reader and characters, if not among the characters themselves. And thus to tell stories we may need to integrate both moral voices, to pull together concerns for justice and care—as Huck would have needed to do for the evasion sequence not to be morally problematic.16 Extremes of either moral stance, justice or care, are ultimately equally destructive. Indeed, to speak wholly in either moral voice is to miss the urgencies of morality itself. But to hear only the dominant voice, the language of justice that critics have listened for and failed to find in the evasion sequence, is also to misunderstand the nature of the moral self Twain has constructed in Huck, a self fundamentally connected to the very notion of community Huck ostensibly rejects. Our recognition of this connected moral self will not erase our students' or our own discomfort with the novel's ending—and perhaps it should not; perhaps we must learn to accept discomfort in our moral discourse rather than settling for the too-easy comfort the language of justice sometimes permits. But if Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn't really a novel that glorifies individualism, then perhaps we must also learn to listen more closely for the voice of connection speaking from the interstices of our other fictions as well, telling us about the urgent connectivity of our real lives.


  1. An emphasis on autonomy in Huckleberry Finn is sometimes offered as proof of the same trend in the culture at large; for instance, Bertolini, in an essay about Hobbes and Locke, asserts that “Twain's Huckleberry Finn, therefore, is a great American novel because it addresses the key concept of American socio-political culture—liberal individualism” (1994, 459).

  2. Holland describes “Say it, Jim” as the moment when “Huck and Jim are as close in rapport as they have ever been,” noting that they speak “in utter reciprocity” (1982, 68-9). We might also note the degree to which the experience conforms to one of Twain's abiding interests in the 1880s and beyond—what we might call telepathy, although he described it as “mental telegraphy,” a process he held in large measure responsible for his creative processes. He wrote about “mental telegraphy” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1884, shortly after finishing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Robinson 1995, 366).

  3. See, for example Hoffman (1986) on the issue of Huck's (lack of) moral development, and several of the essays in Leonard and Tenney (1992) for more telling indictments of racism in the ending.

  4. For a useful overview of Kohlberg's basic concept, see Rich and Devitis (1985). For Kohlberg's own writings (including a response to Gilligan), see Kohlberg, Levine and Hewer (1983). For a series of essays debating the two positions (although leaning toward Gilligan's findings), and including a thorough bibliography, see Larrabee (1993).

  5. See Gilligan (1982) for the original statement regarding this system of ethics, although her students and other researchers in the area have subsequently generated a considerable literature on the topic. Her work offers interesting implications for the study of literature, although it has been used only once in the discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Feather 1986). Feather's conclusions differ substantially from my own, although this may be due in part to the fact that Gilligan's work has been on-going and Feather did not have access to some of the more recent developments.

  6. Wilson argues that Jim becomes Huck's moral teacher, helping him to recognize “the necessity of abandoning abstract, codified ideals and [instead] clings to the enduring values of love, compassion, and self-sacrifice—values which can meaningfully emerge only from concrete human relationships” (1974, 80). While I agree with Wilson's distinctions between abstract and contextualized moralities, I cannot agree with his conclusion that the ending, “while perhaps unnecessarily drawn out,” is necessary to show Huck's moral growth in moving away from his teacher (92). The essay is also marred by some sloppy reading, especially in conflating Miss Watson with the Widow Douglas as “old mainds” and condemning the Widow—not Miss Watson—as Jim's hypocritical owner. For more on the question of women's moral voice in the novel, see note 8.

  7. For more on the way in which “feeling” functions as an ostensible (if false) morality within the novel, see Mitchell (1985). He too argues that the terms of moral decision are consistent throughout the novel, but (as a side note to his other interests in the novel) emphasizes Huck's lack of abstract reasoning rather than accounting for the logic Huck uses in its place—a logic of relationship rather than abstraction. In fact, as Lawrence Blum has argued, within an ethic of care, “feeling” and emotion play a much stronger role than in traditional ethics (1993, 52)—although not precisely in the way Huck wants to use “feeling just right” in this specific example.

  8. In describing the widow, we should distinguish her from the novel's other major voice for conventional morality: Miss Watson. Nancy Walker (1985) persuasively argues that the two women function very differently within Huck's moral landscape: Miss Watson remains the stereotype of the spinster, speaking the dominant morality (and a bleak Calvinism) in a way that only alienates Huck, while the Widow Douglas has been softened from traditional stereotypes of widows to offer an image of moral responsibility and kindness (even to the extent of self-sacrifice) that Huck will emulate in his behavior with Jim. I would argue that the Widow represents the ethic of care, while Miss Watson offers up the voice of justice. As Gilligan reminds us, words like “responsibility” and “obligation” may occur in both moral languages with different meanings (1982, 173 and passim); individuals may speak the dominant language of justice to accomplish aims that are primarily care-oriented, for example. Both the widow's and Miss Watson's expression of moral issues correspond to the social role established for women through much of the nineteenth century, where whatever their preferred mode of morality, women framed their moral discussions within the language of the prevailing moral codes (much, one might imagine, like the girls who were able to provide Kohlberg with the moral logic he was expecting). The Widow Douglas seems to perform just such a binary role in her dealings with Huck; she speaks justice while practicing care.

  9. In fact, Gilligan's research into urban youth also suggests the possibility of an additional moral logic: a language of necessity (Bardige and Ward 1988). In this novel in which Huck is the protagonist, Huck remains quite clearly the “subject” of moral development, for which Jim remains largely an “object.” Otherwise, we might expand this discussion into the language of necessity, which as a slave Jim must surely have mastered. His placating Huck's sense of morality may work into the often-noted possibility that Jim is manipulating Huck, tricking him into providing assistance to escape slavery (as he does by failing to tell Huck that Pap is dead, knowledge of which would eliminate Huck's need to travel down the river). It is interesting to note, however, that even functioning as little more than a sounding-board within a language of necessity, Jim depends upon a language of connection—not only does he help Huck maintain his sense of relationship with both the Widow and Pap, he also works to sustain the relationship between Huck and himself.

  10. Derwin offers a useful corrective here in pointing out the self-congratulatory nature of Huck's memory of the friendship; Huck figures himself as Jim's savior, and remembers strictly “the pleasure Huck derives from being the center of Jim's affections and the recipient of his gratitude” (1993, 446). Similarly, Quirk reminds us “as for deciding to go to hell, we know from the very first page of the novel that [Huck] wasn't much interested in playing the harp anyway” (1994, 196). Yet my goal isn't to recanonize Huck's morality, but rather to suggest the ways in which his moral language differs from the one I suspect we as readers were expecting to hear.

  11. French makes a similar point about Huck's moral reasoning, using an Aristotelian model to clarify Huck's behavior. French describes Aristotle's concerns as embracing “the ‘ultimate particulars’” of relationship (1998,169), and so in that sense echoes what Gilligan finds implicit in an ethic of care. French himself argues that “the elitism that marks aspects of the Aristotelian ethical tradition” cannot fully account for so “quintessentially American” a book; Gilligan may offer us a way of getting at an ethics of relationship that does not depend upon elitism in any way.

  12. I find overly optimistic Jehlen's comment that “the political offensiveness of Jim's reenslavement on the Phelps farm … must have made unpleasant reading at any time” (1995,100). Besides evidence that Twain regularly read the sequence aloud for its humor, even contemporary scholars continue to defend the episode as comedic, or at least pleasurable to those retaining “the best features and truest perceptions of childhood,” as Hill suggests (1991, 509). Hill claims that elements in the sequence “demonstrate beautifully the wide gulf between how old women and young boys view the natural world” (496), but if insensitivity to the pain of others is one of the “best features” of young boys, many adult readers might be just as glad to be classed with the old women.

  13. I am indebted to Hill for pointing out the “sacred guarantee” of Tom's “sure” (1991, 502), but of course Tom already knows that Jim is free, making Tom's behavior more reprehensible.

  14. See Derwin 1993 for a discussion of this very problem.

  15. The question of abandoning relationship is taken up by Gilligan (1988) where she suggests that friction within the family unit will be met differently by boys and girls: boys tend to leave (either physically or emotionally), terminating the relationship, while girls engage in back-talk—in voicing their concerns—precisely to sustain the relationship. In this, if Huck and Jim have actually formed the family critics like Shulman (1985) and Wilson (1974) describe, Huck may indeed be asserting the “masculine” self critics have long claimed such a move to autonomy suggests—Huck chooses the “exit” option rather than staying to face the complexities of the family relationship and thus to continue the narration. Within the ethic of care that has defined him, this is quite clearly a moral failure.

  16. Gilligan frequently argues for just such an integration of moral voices, ending In a Different Voice by stressing that “these languages articulate with one another in critical ways. Just as the language of responsibilities [care] provides a weblike imagery of relationships to replace a hierarchical ordering that dissolves with the coming of equality, so the language of rights [justice] underlines the importance of including in the network of care not only the other but also the self” (1982, 173).

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Shulman, Robert. 1985. “Fathers, Brothers, and ‘the Diseased’: The Family, Individualism, and American Society in Huck Finn.” In One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Twain, Mark. 1995. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. New York: Bedford.

Walker, Nancy. 1985. “Reformers and Young Maidens: Women and Virtue in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Wilson, James D. 1974. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: From Abstraction to Humanity.” The Southern Review 10.1: 80-94.

Wright, Daniel. 1991. “Flawed Communities and the Problem of Moral Choice in the Fiction of Mark Twain.” The Southern Literary Journal 24.1: 88-97.


Essays and Criticism