Mark Twain American Literature Analysis
Twain’s general reputation as one of the most admired, and possibly the most beloved, writer in America is based, in the main, upon the work he published before 1890. After that time, his work takes on a much darker hue. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, published in 1894, though still a book of some comic mishap, marks the obvious pessimism that was to pervade his work until his death. Indeed, some materials left unpublished during his lifetime, such as “The Mysterious Stranger” stories, published posthumously, bear very little resemblance to the sunny idealization of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Twain was, however, always more than simply a comic entertainer, and it should be remembered that as early as The Innocents Abroad, he responds to human error, on occasion, with quick satiric thrusts that remind one of eighteenth century English satirist Jonathan Swift. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is reasonably free from such tonal darkening, but Adventures of Huckleberry Finn certainly is not. In order to appreciate fully the greatness of the latter novel, it is necessary to go beyond a sense of triumph in Huck’s conversion to an outright defender of Jim to an understanding of the kind of world that threatens both the slave and the boy.
The confidence men of the novel, completely insensitive to the pain they cause, may be an obvious example of Twain’s sense of evil in the world, but that does not circumscribe the way in which Twain suggests that human cruelty is gratuitously omnipresent—not simply among the rogues but in the center of society. Jim’s greatest individual enemy is a spinster woman of scrupulous moral and religious credentials, simply because he is black.
In The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—which start out reading like amiable fairy tales—cruel acts of physical violence are dwelt upon in detail and go far beyond the ignorant “horseplay” of the rural citizens who simply do not know any better in Twain’s earlier works. It is, therefore, unwise to simplify the tonal range of his oeuvre. If he is most often seen as a humorist, and often as a romantic, especially about boys and life on the Mississippi, he is often more than that. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his best work, tonal and intellectual range is very wide indeed, leaning strongly toward serious concern about human conduct. There are ideas in that novel that Twain wants to disturb his readers quite as much as they bother Huck. Perhaps an ambition to become a writer of ideas was his from the start.
In Twain’s early work he seemed to touch the core of late nineteenth century popular humor, giving Americans what they felt was the best part of their character in stories of good-natured, slightly skeptical, occasionally vulgar trickery. Twain had an eye for hypocrisy, self-interest, and pomposity, however, and his main characters, if sometimes less clever than he himself was, could not be fooled for long, even if they could be misled initially out of innocence. He certainly could have played it safe and been satisfied with a minor, lucrative career as a funnyman, but The Innocents Abroad showed that he could sustain a larger literary shape and, more important, that he had some things to say about human nature which could not be satisfied in the short comic story.
The other, perhaps greater, gift, was to show up in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Twain emerges fully formed as a writer of children’s fiction. The success of that work might have satisfied a lesser man and led him into a long career of repetition of the same kind of sweet-natured appreciations of childhood. The Prince and the Pauper looks by its title to be in that pattern, but it is loaded with comments about human stupidity and cruelty.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, finally out in 1884, shows a further refinement and has been recognized not simply as one of the finest juvenile novels, not simply as a book of social comment, but as one of the greatest books of American fiction. Twain was never to write a better book, but he did not rest with it. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was to show that he had not abandoned his ambition to write the novel of ideas, opposing old English inequities against the ideals and practices of a nineteenth century American and giving himself the opportunity to create political theory.
What has to be recognized in Twain’s work, beyond the singular success of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is his range—not only in his richness of fictional embellishment but also in his way of using material to make moral points with very little preaching. He can be, on too many occasions, heavy-handed (surprisingly enough, when he is being funny), and twenty-first century sensibility may find him a bit ponderous, even “corny.” He can, however, be very sly and very smart. Sometimes the ideas get out in front of the fiction; this is often the case when he lets himself be personally moved by the subject. Yet he possesses a lively, quicksilver way of moving in and out of moral problems without much preaching, and he usually keeps the tale in the forefront of the work written before the dark days of the 1890’s.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
First published: 1865 (collected in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, 1867)
Type of work: Short story
Jim Smiley, an obsessive gambler, meets his match when he bets that his trained frog, Dan’l Webster, can outjump any other frog in a Northern California mining area, Calaveras County.
Mark Twain, who had made his living as a Mississippi steamboat pilot before the Civil War and had gone on to be a printer, a journalist, and a sometime prospector, could hardly have imagined that his comic tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which appeared originally under the more modest title “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” was to change his life forever and establish him in a career which was to lead to him becoming one of America’s greatest writers.
Certainly the tale is moderately amusing, but it seemed to catch the imagination of the American reader, and Twain was to follow it up with equally artful stories and lecture tours which were to make him well known some time before the artistic success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Part of the reason for the success of the story lies in its moderation, its seeming lack of artfulness. Good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler tells the story to the unsuspecting Mark Twain, who is, in fact, trying to find out about an entirely different man, the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley. What he gets is a rambling, disjointed, ungrammatical tale of Jim Smiley, who sometime back in 1849 or 1850 had provided the locals with entertainment with his antics as a gambler.
Style is a strong element in the power of the tale. Twain sets himself up as the straight man for the dead-panned raconteur, who, once he gets started, is impossible to stop. Twain (the character) provides part of the amusement in his indignation. His letter to A. Ward (which is the exterior framing device for the story) is a complaint to the effect that Ward (probably Artemus Ward, who was himself a popular humorist) had deliberately misled Twain, knowing that the surname “Smiley” would trigger the long reminiscence in Wheeler. The style of the first paragraph of the letter has a kind of prim formality about it and the sophisticated facility of an educated writer barely able to suppress his grudging suspicion that he has been made the fool.
This style of fastidious restraint continues, but when Wheeler begins to speak, the prose relaxes into a homey, genial vulgarity and sly wit which immediately establishes the old man as a master teller of tall tales. Whether the story is true hardly matters; its real power lies in the telling. The way in which the “fifteen-minute nag” fumbles her way to the finish line and the look that Andrew Jackson, the bull-pup, gives to Smiley after the defeat by a dog without hind legs are examples of how skilled Twain was in writing cleverly without seeming to be writing at all.
Twain shows equal skill in the dialogue between Smiley and his supposed victim. The repetitions, the grammatical errors, the misspellings to indicate accent, and the wary rejoinders have a seamlessness about them which gives them an air of authenticity, of improvisational vivacity, which is part of Twain’s charm as a comic writer. The story’s success lies in Twain’s ability to make it sound like the real thing: the loose-tongued babble of an old man who has caught another innocent fellow by the ear. Twain, the victim, twice-bitten (once by Ward and once by Smiley’s narrator, Simon Wheeler), can only get away, if good-naturedly, by running for cover. The story’s secret is not the trick it describes but the structure and use of style.
Beyond its technical cleverness, however, the popularity of the story lay in large part in the fact that Twain refrains from patronizing his unlettered inhabitants of Calaveras County. Smiley may have been fooled this time, but he is usually the victor and is likely to rebound. His proposed victim is to be congratulated on his quickness of mind; Simon Wheeler may be a bit long-winded, but he tells a good story. If anyone is made to look the fool, it is Twain, the aggrieved letter writer, whose proper way with grammar has not made him any less susceptible to a harmless practical joke. The story’s tone, in fact, is one of generosity and good nature. The joke is ultimately on Twain, and he takes it well.
It was this kind of happy tomfoolery in the early stories, with the acceptance of rural America as a place not without its own kind of bucolic silliness and occasional quick wit, which readers and audiences liked about the young writer and performer. The tougher, sharper Twain was yet to come.
The Innocents Abroad
First published: 1869
Type of work: Travel literature
Twain accompanies a group of affluent Americans on a tour of Europe and the Holy Land and reports on the sights and sounds and the comic and satiric confrontations between the Old and the New Worlds.
It must have seemed a clever idea to send a popular young comic journalist on a tour with a boatload of prominent citizens in order to record, as The Innocents Abroad did, the day-to-day experience of Americans having a good time in the exotic old countries. When the book came out, however, the reaction was not entirely favorable. Twain had confirmed what every American already knew—that Europe was terribly run-down and was greedy for the dollars of rich Americans. He also suggested that the Americans often made fools of themselves and quite as often were downright vulgar—thereby confirming what Europeans already knew about America.
Obviously someone had misjudged Mark Twain when he was sent on the trip. His career as a literary figure was in its infancy, and he had yet to write a novel, but there was surely sufficient evidence in his newspaper work and in his short stories that he had a gift for satire that was barely controlled and that he was not quite as refined in his literary conduct as might have been expected from an East Coast journalist. He was, in short, not always as fastidious in his work as might have been expected, and this book, certainly one of the funniest (and sometimes satirically savage) works in the travel genre was to offend at the same time that it added to his reputation as a writer of promise.
The book can also be seen as an interesting anticipation of a theme that Twain is to use over and over again: the confrontation between liberal, nineteenth century ideas of politics and society with the old, sometimes savage conservatism of the Old World. The latter problem is to be used in The Prince and the Pauper, in which the concern for humanity and for fair treatment of citizens is manifested in the conduct of both the prince and the pauper. It becomes even more central in the later work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a nineteenth century American finds himself in a position of power and attempts to put his ideas about society, politics, and commerce into action—with sometimes comic but often dangerously disastrous results.
Most obvious, and perhaps most enjoyable from an American point of view, are Twain’s astringently funny comments upon the limitations of European civilization. He sees how quick the Europeans and the Near Eastern citizens are to take advantage of the Americans, who are open and generous in their curiosity. He has an amusing running joke about guides who may change throughout the tour but have a kind of obvious sameness in their determination to make a meal out of the Americans. They give very little in return, usually because they hardly have any idea what they are talking about.
Twain is weakest, as he freely admits, in dealing with the art and architecture of the old countries, and he is often surprisingly insensitive, revealing himself as vulnerable to the charge that he is occasionally as stupidly stubborn as his fellow travelers. Yet that revelation gives the book a credibility which helps to keep it from becoming a tedious listing of constant complaint. It often breaks out into first-class description, particularly if Twain is moved by a scene, but its main line is that of slippery comic comment upon the discomfort of travel.
The Holy Land, in particular, fires the greatest enthusiasm in Twain and some of the most pungent complaint, caused in part by the difficulties of travel in the barren landscape. The Christian history of that area is most interesting to Twain and his fellow travelers, but Twain, who usually maintains a pose of amused indifference, is enraged by the commercialization of the biblical sites. From early in the tour there is a line of anticlerical comment which can become sharply splenetic, particularly if the Roman Catholic Church is involved.
Twain’s reaction to the tawdry, profit-making manipulation of the Christian mystery was enjoyed by his American readers, but he was not afraid to suggest that Americans on the road could also be less than admirable. He could be sharply disdainful of how his fellows flashed their money, their fractured French, and, particularly, their hammers, chipping away at any monument, however sacred, that might come under their hands. Much of this is funny, and that was expected of Twain, but it can involve a strong satiric bite; Twain can be irascible. He refuses to stay within the confines of the genial, romantic idea of what a travel book “should” be.
He is often very good at showing what the foreign landscape looks like, but what really interests him is how human beings live and what the political, social, and physical implications are of the long histories of great civilizations, now less powerful and somewhat tattered and torn. Most to the point, he is fascinated by how people respond to tourists, how the experience seems to bring out the worst in both parties. He plays fair here, revealing that if the natives are often on the cheat, the Americans, acting thoughtlessly and sometimes stupidly, just as often deserved to be fleeced.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
First published: 1876
Type of work: Novel
Tom Sawyer, the town’s bad boy, experiences disapproval, love and hate, and imaginary and real adventure and he ends up the town hero and a boy of property.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s finest study of a boy’s character and his best novel, but it is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that is the more popular boy’s tale with the public. Its simplicity, lack of psychological density, and single-minded celebration of the joys of childhood are the reasons for its attraction and the affection with which it is remembered by adults who have not read it for years and never intend to read it again. It is the American dream of ideal childhood written with unmitigated joy.
Much of its success lies with Tom, a child of lively curiosity with a mildly anarchic personality and an imagination fueled by reading (and often misreading) everything from fairy tales to the classics. He is also a boy capable of disarming affection. His relationship with Aunt Polly, swinging as it does between angry frustration and tears of loving joy, is one of the memorable child-adult confrontations in literature. For all of his strutting imitations of maleness, he has no inhibitions in his courting of Becky Thatcher. Twain has a rather crude way with feelings, but in Tom he found a character who acts out his emotions with a comic bravado that often saves the book from falling into sentimental excess.
The Tom Sawyer confidence tricks are part of the folklore of American life. The famous fence-painting game has developed a life of its own that goes beyond the novel. Tom’s systematic accumulation of those yellow tickets awarded for memorizing Bible passages leads to one of those lovely moments of exposure that fall regularly into Tom’s life of precarious mischief.
Beyond the individual incidents of comic chicanery, however, the novel has a strength which is often not noticed because it is carried on with such ease: It has a complicated plot that comes seemingly out of nowhere and increases in dramatic energy from its inception until the very end. The chance encounter of Tom and Huck that leads to the visit to the graveyard for the purpose of trying out a new method for curing warts leads them right into witnessing Injun Joe’s murder of Doctor Robinson. Terrified by possessing a secret which they do not want, they vow to keep quiet, even after Muff Potter, a stupid, drunken companion of Injun Joe, is accused of the murder.
Tom’s failure at love when Becky finds out that he had another girlfriend, his depression over the murder, and his feeling that he can do nothing right lead him to run off with Huck, but only to a nearby island, and the boys are thought to have drowned. The tale becomes complicated further as Tom and his friends return to their own funeral and Tom manages to get away with his nonsense, but the murder still hangs fire. Add to that the trial, the hunt for the pirates treasure, the discovery of Injun Joe, the picnic, Tom and Becky’s misadventure in the cave, and the discovery of the hidden money, as well as the uproar that is caused in the town and the happy ending, and the reader has a deftly organized example of how adventure literature works at its very best.
At this stage in his career, Twain was most interested in telling the tale and in turning the simplicities of universal childhood play-acting into a tale of intrigue and heroism. What he never does, and this may be part of the secret of the novel’s success, is expect Tom or his companions to do anything that might not be credible.
Everything that happens is probable (if unlikely to happen). More to the point, Tom is not a morally perfect character. He is hardly the ideal child: He is superstitious, he is often ignorant, boastful, and devious, and he is slow to come to Muff Potter’s defense. He does, eventually, do the right thing, however, even in the face of the fact that he is still terrified of Injun Joe. What Twain has brought into children’s literature is the flawed, unfocused moral sensibility of the American boy who only wants to have fun but who has in some mysterious way—through breeding, through education which he ignores and religion which he despises, through social contacts which he finds boring, and through a natural, if embryonic, fineness of character—the capacity ultimately to act with courage and firmness. Do not count on him being changed forever, however; one suspects that Tom is still susceptible to getting in and out of trouble for a long time to come.
The careful reader of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be able to watch the structure—the way Twain pulls the threads together; the way he puts on the dramatic pressure, then releases it, and puts it on again; the way seemingly separate occurrences come together in surprising ways and lead to the marvelous and dangerous discovery in the caves. Tom and Huck become rich boys, but they are not yet tamed, as Huck will prove in his own novel in which Tom once again spins a marvelous yarn of sheer comic trickery. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer may have the requisite happy ending necessary in juvenile fiction, but there is a slight opening left—in Huck’s reluctance to settle down—which will allow Twain to go on to a more ambitious fiction.
The Prince and the Pauper
First published: 1881
Type of work: Novel
In the last days of English monarch Henry VIII, a London beggar boy and Crown Prince Edward change roles by chance, then attempt to undo the error.
In The Prince and the Pauper, Twain brought together several of his literary interests. His interest in old European civilization, which had been so successfully employed in his travel book The Innocents Abroad and had been essayed again in A Tramp Abroad (1880), is here focused on England, with emphasis upon life in London. (He will come back again to the theme in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which also returns to the idea of taking the novel back into the past.) The novel does not forget the part of Twain’s literary gift that is most celebrated: his interest in boys and how they cope in situations that are not without serious consequences. Twain also had wider ambitions for the novel, and he makes use of it to comment upon politics, social problems, and the relations between children and parents or, as often is the case in his books, surrogate parents.
The book is directly related to the fairy tale genre, and it starts simply enough with the unusual, but not impossible, idea that a London street urchin, who looks surprisingly like Prince Edward, is taken into the palace by the prince. They innocently change clothes, and the prince goes off to chide the guard who mistreated his new friend, only to be thrown out on to the street despite his claim that he is the prince. Then the real trouble starts, both for him and for Tom Canty, the beggar boy, for whom the danger is less physically obvious but potentially serious if he is discovered to be an imposter.
Twain then begins an interleaved narrative of the adventures of the two boys, both determined to get back their identities. However much they protest, they fail to impress and are considered mad. Tom, sensing how precarious his situation is in the palace, goes about accumulating as much knowledge as he can about how he ought to act, hoping to wait out the absence of the prince. His task is complicated by the death of the king and the subsequent need for the prince to take a serious role in governing the country even before he is crowned. Pleased in part by the comforts of his position, he brings his native intelligence and his guile to bear on the problem, but he is determined eventually to clear up the matter.
The prince’s situation is much more difficult. Tom’s brutal father catches up with him and, mistaking him for Tom, proceeds to give him his daily beating. The prince is always less flexible than Tom, and he never admits to anyone that he is not the royal child; indeed, he is determined to play the ruler even in rags. Only the chance help of Miles Hendon, a gentleman-soldier home from the wars, protects him, and even Hendon has difficulty keeping the prince out of trouble. Hendon thinks he is mad, but he likes the boy and is prepared to be patient with him, hoping that in time, he will be drawn out of his madness by kindness.
Both boys, caught in radically different situations quite beyond their former experience, respond admirably, if the prince is always somewhat less agile in dealing with problems than Tom. All the obvious problems of rags and riches are displayed, sometimes with comic intent but often with serious concern. Twain uses the switched identities for purposes beyond the study of character or comic confusion. Tom, champing at the boring nature of political duties (in a way that reminds one of Huck Finn’s dislike of civilized life), is, nevertheless, aroused sufficiently to go beyond the pleasures of his position, and he begins to intrude upon the laws slowly, tempering their harshness but doing so with a care which does not alarm his courtiers.
Edward, out in the country, confronted by the harshness and violence of common life, can do little to help the unfortunate, but his reactions to a world he did not know existed are as civilized in their own way as Tom’s, and he is determined to do something about the lot of the common people, particularly the cruel penal laws, if he gets out of the mess alive—which is quite often shown as unlikely.
The parallels between the two, then, go beyond their physical resemblance. They are lively, strong-willed, imaginative boys who at the beginning of the novel are captives. Tom is terrorized by his criminal father. Edward, if in an obviously comfortable position, lives a sequestered life in the palace, dominated by the dying Henry VIII.
Tom dreams of a life of royal power and plays that game with his mates in the slums, then he is given his chance. Edward is also given his chance to meet his subjects, sunk in the squalor of poverty, class privilege, and legal savagery. Both are freed of their fathers, one dying, the other disappearing into the criminal world forever, possibly also dead. What they do with their chances is central to the most serious themes in the book. What could have been simply a charming fairy tale becomes, as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to become later, a study of boys becoming men.
Life on the Mississippi
First published: 1883
Type of work: Travel literature
A loosely organized, partly autobiographical story of Mississippi steamboat life before and after the Civil War.
Life on the Mississippi is Twain’s happiest book. Written early in his career, before the difficulties of his personal life had a chance to color his perception, and filled with reminiscent celebration of his time as a boy and man, as an apprentice and as a Mississippi steamboat pilot, it is a lively, affectionate tribute hardly muted by the fact that the world of the romantic pilots of the Mississippi had disappeared forever during the Civil War and the development of the railroads.
It is a great grab-bag of a book. It starts formally enough, with a sonorous history of the river that reveals how much Twain feels for the phenomenon of the Mississippi (which will appear again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but swiftly falls into rambling anecdotes, comic turns, and tall tales. It has, as is often the case in early Twain, a weakness for elephantine humor of the unsophisticated, midwestern rural stripe, but the obvious happiness that marks the tonality of the book manages to keep it going despite its regular habit of floundering in bathos.
The book could well have descended into an amusing shambles had it not been used to tell the very long, detailed, and sometimes hilarious story of the steamboat pilots and of how Twain as a young boy wheedles his way onto the Paul Jones, where Mr. Bixby, the pilot, agrees to teach him the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, which Twain is to pay him out of his first wages as a pilot. These passages are some of the best action writing done by Twain, and they anticipate the kind of exciting river narrative that is so important in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Beyond the action, however, is Twain’s ability to relate the minute-by-minute excitement of learning how to handle the great boats in their perilous journeys up and down a river that changed so rapidly, hour by hour, that charts were of limited use; the pilots had to learn to read the river, night and day, with a sensitivity that was hidden behind the hard-drinking, tough-talking braggadocio of men who possessed a high skill, improvisatory intuition, and sheer nerve.
Twain obviously fell in love with the river and with piloting, and the whole book is a joyful exercise in telling it once and for all, since it had, at the time of printing, been lost forever. Mindful of this, Twain was determined to get it down in all its detail, and he follows the trade from its height, when the pilots were kings, through the battles to unionize as a defense against the owners, to the eventual falling away of the trade during the war period.
There is a kind of broken-backed structure to the work, caused in part by the fact that earlier versions of chapters 4 to 17 originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in serial form. These, together with three further chapters, are concerned with Twain’s career on the river. These were not sufficient to make a book, so the second half was added, with Twain, now the celebrity writer, touring the river and the cities along its banks. This later material is not all bad, but it has nothing like the dramatic focus or energy of the earlier chapters, and there is a feeling that Twain is sometimes at pains to pad it, despite the success of the anecdotes.
The twenty-two years that separate the later Twain from the early adventures of the boy Clemens take much of the immediacy out of the book, even when Twain tries to praise the improvements that engineering science has imposed on the river. There is a feeling that his heart is not really in it, and the latter half of the book has a melancholy air about it that Twain does not fully acknowledge but which haunts the book’s conclusion. Twain, the businessman, saw the profit; Clemens, the old pilot, saw the loss.
It could be argued, however, that there is a kind of structural propriety about the book, divided as it is between Twain’s early life on the river and his return many years later to discover the changes not only to his beloved river but also to the Mississippi region in general. It is certainly true that this latter material best illustrates the function of the book as a travel document, as Twain catalogs the changes in the river and in the towns along its banks. The decades that had passed between the events of the first half and the second reveal how quickly the Midwest was catching up with the East and how the village and town landscape was giving way to small cities.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
First published: 1884
Type of work: Novel
Huckleberry Finn, tired of being beaten by his father and of well-meaning people trying to civilize him, takes to the Mississippi on a raft and discovers that he has a runaway slave along for the ride.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may at first have seemed to Twain to be an obvious and easy sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but this book, begun in the mid-1870 s, then abandoned, then taken up again in 1880 and dropped again, was not ready to be published until 1884. It was worth the delay. It proved to be Twain’s finest novel—not merely his finest juvenile work but his best fiction, and a book that has taken its place as one of the greatest novels written in the United States. In some ways it is a simpler novel than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; it has nothing like the complication of plot which made that earlier novel so compelling.
Huck, harassed by the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, who want to give him a good home and a place in normal society, and by his brutal father, who wants to get his hands on the money that Huck and Tom found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, decides to get away from it all, and he runs away. This time, he does not have the tempering influence of Tom Sawyer, who was prepared to run away to a nearby island but could not resist going home for his own funeral. Tom is only an occasional renegade, eager for the romance but not the long-term reality of rebellion. Huck is of tougher stuff, and he intends to go for good. No better indication of this is to be seen than in the simple fact that Tom tries to smoke but does not have the stomach for it: Huck does not play at it. He is a real smoker and a real rebel—or so he thinks.
Kidnapped by his father and held captive by him, Huck revels at least in the freedom of the barbaric world without soap, water, or school, but he manages to get away, leaving a trail that suggests he has been murdered, and heads for an island in the Mississippi as a start on his attempt to get away from his father and from the well-meaning sisters who would turn him into a respectable citizen. He is on his way to leave all of his troubles behind him.
It is at this point that Twain adds the complication that is to be central to the ascent of this novel from juvenile fancy to the level of moral seriousness. Huck discovers that Jim, Miss Watson’s Negro slave, has also run away, having overheard her plans to sell him to a southern farmer. Jim, whose wife and children have already been separated from him and sold to a southern owner, is determined to escape to the free northern states, work as a free man, and eventually buy his family out of bondage. Huck is determined to help him, but he is also unnerved by his concern for Jim’s owner. Jim is property before he is a man, and Huck is deeply troubled, surprisingly, by the thought that he is going to help Jim. He sees it, in part, as a robbery, but more interestingly, he sees his cooperation as a betrayal of his obligation to the white society of which he is a member. Huck, the renegade, has, despite himself, deeply ingrained commitments to the idea that white people are superior to black people, and for all his disdain for that society, he is strongly wedded to it.
This conflict provides the psychological struggle for Huck throughout the novel. Even when the two move on, driven by the news that in the town a reward has been posted for Jim, accusing him of murdering Huck, Huck carries a strong sense of wrongdoing because he is helping Jim to escape—not from the murder charge, which can be easily refuted, but from his mistress, who clearly owns him and is entitled to do with him what she will.
Nevertheless, Huck and Jim set off on the raft, which is wedded archetypally to the Ulyssean ship and may be seen as the vehicle for Huck to find out who he is and what kind of man he is likely to become. The pattern is a common one in the history of fiction; Twain weds it to another common structure, the picaresque, which has a long literary history and in which the main characters, while traveling, encounter trials and tribulations that test their wits and ultimately their moral fiber. Twain tends to open this pattern up to include examples of human behavior that do not necessarily have any influence on Huck and Jim but rather indicate Twain’s pessimism about human nature in general. The Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, for example, shows the kind of virulent stupidity that can obsess even relatively civilized human beings.
The confidence men who call themselves the Duke and the King, however, take over the raft and use Huck and Jim (and anyone else they can deceive) for profit without concern of any kind. They reveal a much deeper strain of human degradation, which anticipates the inhumanity that is to become even more common in Twain’s later works. Huck fears these men but is reluctant to make a clean break from them, though it is fair to remember that they watch him and Jim very closely. The ultimate betrayal comes when Huck, who has let their confidence games be played out in several communities, draws the line when they try to defraud a family of three daughters of their inheritance. The Duke and the King escape without discovering that Huck has revealed their plan. Undismayed by their loss, they start their fraudulent games again, committing their most thoughtlessly cruel act by selling Jim for the reward money.
This is the point of no return for Huck. Jim—ignorant, superstitious, and timid but loyal and devoted to Huck—has, on the long trip down the river, shown over and over that he is a man of considerable character, despite his color and despite his disadvantaged life as a slave. Huck, in turn, discovers that however much he tries to distinguish Jim as other than an equal, however much he is bothered by his determination to see Jim as a lesser being than the white man, he cannot ignore his growing concern for him nor his deepening affection and respect for the way in which Jim endures and goes on. Disgusted by the unfeeling barbarity of the King and the Duke, Huck sets out to free Jim, believing that in so doing, he will go to Hell.
Here the novel returns to the less dangerous world of Tom Sawyer, as it turns out that Jim’s new jailors are, in fact, Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle. Huck passes himself off as Tom in order to get to Jim, who is being kept in a farm outhouse. With the arrival of Tom himself, who passes himself off as his brother Sid, the fun begins, as Tom, as wildly romantic as ever, plots to free Jim the hardest way possible. From this moment on, the novel can be said to fall away from the power that has been explored in Huck’s battle to come to terms with his loyalties to society, to his own race, and, most important, to Jim. That battle has been won when Huck decides to save Jim.
All works out well in the end. Tom reveals that a repentant Miss Watson freed Jim before she died, and Aunt Sally, Tom’s aunt, thinks she might have a try at civilizing Huck. Huck has other ideas. All this horseplay on the farm is irrelevant, if pleasingly so, to the real strength of the novel, which lies in the journey down the mighty Mississippi, during which Huck Finn learns to care for someone, and perhaps more important, throws off that least valuable influence of society upon him: its belief that white people are superior to black people and have a right to treat human beings as property. Huck, in a sense, comes to the end of this novel as the most civilized white person of all.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
First published: 1889
Type of work: Novel
A nineteenth century Yankee foundry superintendent, hit over the head with a crowbar, wakes up in King Arthur’s time and promptly decides to bring ancient England up to date.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can be seen as looking both backward and forward in Twain’s career. It is a further version of the historical fantasy that he used in The Prince and the Pauper, in which the commonly accepted inhumanities of early Renaissance life were exposed to civilized, liberal ideas which were not to have much support for some centuries to come. It also looks forward to the bleaker, more deeply pessimistic work which was to be so common in the Twain canon in the 1890’s. Some of that savagery had been shown in The Prince and the Pauper, but in this book there is a predominating line of outright cruelty.
Surprisingly enough, Twain’s hero, Hank Morgan, the enlightened nineteenth century man of science and democracy, is not without a tendency to violence; he may be on the right side, but he is no romantic. He does not intrude on the gratuitous cruelty of King Arthur’s world unless he can do so safely, and he is often inclined to use force in ways that would make any nineteenth century reader somewhat cautious about praising him.
This change from the hero or heroes of reasonably romantic character is a mark of the darkening nature of Twain’s artistic sensibility, and it is a long way from the fairly minor misconduct of a Tom Sawyer or a Huck Finn. Hank Morgan may want to civilize a vicious, savage, ignorant populace, but he has in himself disturbing inclinations to what, in the twenty-first century, would be recognized as a fascistic zeal for power, if strongly tempered by his desire to bring an entire civilization out of the Dark Ages and into the nineteenth century in one lifetime.
In Twain’s previous work with the idea of confronting the modern sensibility with the ignorance of the past (which begins with his nonfiction account of Americans on tour in Europe in The Innocents Abroad and continues in The Prince and the Pauper), there was still room for the comic and the satiric to operate, although the latter book had a serious tonality. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, however, is comparatively bereft of comic effects, and its satire has a hectoring shrillness which suggests that Twain no longer finds the idea of human frailty—however fictional or, at least, long since dead and buried it may be—amusing.
The novel is a very dark one which, significantly, does not have the happy ending which draws The Prince and the Pauper back into the fairy tale genre with a kind of Dickensian sweetness, with the villains punished and the good people living happily ever after. No such resolution is available in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which ends in destruction of the dream.
Along the way, however, Twain’s abundant imagination is used with great skill, not only to tell an interesting tale but also to provide him the opportunity to make his points about superstition, religion, and politics with an earnestness that forces the reader to realize that this is not simply an excursion into fancy. The structure of fantasy is used to make serious comments upon human stupidity, and particularly upon people’s stubborn refusal to learn, timidity, and tendencies to respond to authority with sheeplike devotion.
Hank Morgan is not simply trying to get through an unfamiliar situation with some vestige of moral integrity intact, as was often the case with previous Twain characters, including Huck Finn. He sees this accident as a chance to anticipate history, to eliminate hundreds of years of pain and suffering, and to bring Camelot kicking and screaming(as it surely does) into the enlightened nineteenth century.
The richness of incident, particularly the various ways in which Hank Morgan adjusts the scientific knowledge he possesses to the limited resources of the Arthurian times, manages to rise above the gloom of the novel, and the battle between Morgan and Merlin has a kind of comic energy that is expected in Twain’s work. How his baby comes to be called “Hello, Central” reminds readers of Twain’s earlier, happier works. The center of the novel is not in the fantasy, the trickery, or the adventures, however; it lies in Hank Morgan’s character. Just as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ultimately finds its real quality in the development of Huck’s personal set of moral standards, this novel gets its strength from Hank Morgan—at first bemused, then outraged, then seizing and working his way through to the dream.
In the battle to civilize, the author is able to make Morgan his mouthpiece for Twain’s concerns about society, sometimes without breaching Morgan’s character (although the shrill, repetitive attack upon the clergy sometimes is more didactic than artistically appropriate). It is, however, another example of the way Twain makes obviously simple literary forms work in more than one way, and it possesses tonal range which, if sometimes excessive, indicates how ambitious and daring he can be. This book may have a title suitable for a child’s bookshelf, but the book is a rough and powerful attack upon human nature, ancient and modern.