Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London: Chatto & Windus, 1884); republished as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Co., 1885)
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Mark Twain was a prominent figure in the American Realist movement. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) adopted the pen name Mark Twain while a reporter for the Virginia Territorial Enterprise in 1863 and used the literary persona to explore an array of issues—social, political, aesthetic—that arose during the post-Civil War period. He began his career as a writer while still a typesetter for his brother Orion’s newspaper in Hannibal, Missouri, by composing short sketches and, later, as a correspondent during his travels east and west. His experiences as an itinerant typesetter and steamboat pilot, wildcat miner, reporter, and lecturer shaped his narrative voice and his practice of realistic writing. He left newspaper work after his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), became a national success (it was his best-selling book throughout his life). He devoted the rest of his life to writing across genres, from novels to travel writing, from short fiction to essays, from lectures to political and social polemic. During his most prolific years (1870-1897), along with short fiction and essays, he published eighteen books including Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (with Charles Dudley Warner, 1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by the Sieur Louis de Conte (1896), and Following the Equator (1897). From 1900 until his death in 1910 Twain shifted his attention primarily to nonfiction with a series of anti-imperialism essays, a diverse collection of aborted manuscripts, and his autobiography.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written from the late summer of 1876 through late 1884. The novel was begun as the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the opening chapters return to the picaresque design of the earlier novel as Huck and Tom engage in various kinds of play, most of which is dictated by Tom’s love of the romance. The immediate difference is the point of view from which the story is told. Instead of the omniscient narrator of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the new tale is told by Huck himself in a first-person tour de force that allows readers to see the world through the eyes of a disenfranchised and much-abused adolescent. Twain was clear about the value of Huck’s voice when he wrote to William Dean Howells that he had begun “Huck Finn’s autobiography” and that he had struck the right note when he decided to use Huck as the narrator. The decision grounds the novel within Huck’s experience, and his nofrills, vernacular language offers a deadpan description of his life.
That decision to have Huck tell his own story inspired Twain, and he quickly composed roughly the first eighteen chapters of the novel. He halted only after Huck and the runaway slave Jim, together on a raft, are run over by a steamboat and Huck finds himself among the Grangerford clan. In chapter eighteen, Huck asks Buck Grangerford, “What’s a feud?” and it is at this point that Twain put the manuscript away, a practice that he described as writing until the well ran dry and then setting work aside until the creative well filled up again. While Twain waited for the well to fill, he turned to other projects: during 1877 he wrote the first twelve chapters of The Prince and the Pauper and during 1878-1879 he traveled in Europe and wrote A Tramp Abroad. The continual writing helped Twain work through the issues underlying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, he saw the relationship between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the story line and childhood experiences of Tom Canty and Edward Tudor in The Prince and the Pauper as so allied that his initial plan was to publish the two novels as a set, though the story of the prince and the pauper was published alone in 1881.
A visit to the Mississippi and its shoreline communities during 1882 (his first extended trip to the South since the Civil War) prompted Twain to write Life on the Mississippi and, more important, to complete the final chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, including a drastic change to the end of the Sherburn episode: at first Twain was willing to have Sherburn spirited away by friends as the lynch mob approaches. In what seems a fit of frustration, Twain penciled in directions to let the mob hang the man, but instead he ended the episode with Sherburn’s direct and sustained rant against mobs and mob mentality. Both the Wilkes episode and the final evasion chapters were written in a burst during the summer of 1883. The book was published in England in 1884 to preserve Twain’s copyright; it was published in the United States in 1885.
The novel is essentially the tale of a runaway, Huck, who teams with a runaway slave, Jim, on an improvised and ultimately failed attempt to find freedom. As the story begins, Huck is constrained by the social order and false piety of St. Petersburg and the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. When his father reappears (in chapter five) to claim Huck’s part of the treasure found at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he abducts Huck and brings him back to a life outside society. Because of his father’s abusive ways, Huck decides to run away, which he does by designing his own murder (chapter 7). Huck’s journey changes radically when he finds the runaway slave Jim on Jackson’s island (chapter 8), and the two quickly become dependent upon one another as they make their way down the river. Jim’s hope to escape to freedom and to rescue his wife and children from slavery form an underlying tension in the novel as Huck is forced to face the reality that he is helping a slave escape a system that is not and has not been a threat to him. As they are swept along by the river’s current, soon the two have journeyed past the free state of Ohio and have been drawn deeper into the South. Along the way, Huck and Jim face their own demons as well as a series of external threats from a corrupt and parsimonious society, including the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud, the arrival of the con men the Duke and the King and their several scams, the Sherburn episode, and (with the aid of Tom Sawyer) an attempt to free Jim from bondage after he is imprisoned at the Phelps farm. Finally, after a harrowing and absurd escape plot, Tom Sawyer delivers the news that Jim has already been manumitted and Huck once again faces the possibility of social constraints from Aunt Sally Phelps, who wants to adopt him. He announces his intention to flee into the West, but it not clear in the novel about whether this is a real possibility.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had a long and complex critical history. American readers and critics have adjusted their interpretations of the novel because they have been influenced by the times in which they have lived and in a profound way by the reactions of prior readers of the text. The novel, however, does not change. Readers and critics and their interaction with the novel change based on their own needs and interests during the decades since publication. For example, the novel was immediately banned after its publication in 1885; however, the reason was not tied to race or the conflicts over racial image and language. The book was banned because Huck was not a proper role model for young readers: he lied, stole, and used bad language. Times and readers change. Our sensitivity to race has been a focal point to the popular and academic discussions of this novel, especially since the mid 1950s and the arc of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Today the novel’s pointed descriptions of alcoholism and abuse seem disturbing. It is the Realism of Huck’s point of view, his language, his interests, and his conflicts that allow different generations of readers to approach the novel with fresh eyes. That shift in perspective allows the novel to continue to live as a touchstone for our understanding of social and domestic relations, which is a primary focus of Mark Twain’s storytelling. Students are advised to consider how their own cultural experiences shape their response to the novel.
- 2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Students can enter the critical discussion by asking questions that focus on aesthetics, with special attention to whether the final “evasion” chapters of the novel adversely affect the novel’s structural integrity, as well as how Twain’s use of dialect affects our understanding of his characters. Because the tale is set in the 1840s antebellum South, it cannot be defined as an antislavery novel; however, students should ask how nineteenth- and twentieth-century political and social concerns affect and determine interpretation as well as how the concerns with identity and the impact of race, issues prominent during the 1870s and 1880s when Twain is writing, affect their reading of the novel. Do those concerns affect the actions of the characters as they interact during their journey on and along the river? How do Huck and Jim struggle with how they are defined by the society that holds them in thrall? How do they define each other as they work to come to terms with who they are as individuals within a hostile social system? Does Huck grow to an understanding of Jim as a person? Does contact with characters and communities along the river affect Huck’s awareness of Jim’s humanity? And, if so, how? As the novel introduces a series of episodes during which Huck must either turn Jim in or take an active role in abetting his escape, how does the tension in these scenes affect Huck’s self-awareness and his reliance on social and even theological beliefs? Does that tension make an argument in favor of freedom? Of course, the issue of freedom is complex, and Twain’s realistic treatment of race and class may at times undermine the possibilities for full-throated freedom for either character.
- 3. The novel’s concern with race has become more prominent during the past fifty years as American society has addressed questions of racial identity and racial prejudice. The novel is often still indicted for its use of racist language— the fact that the word “nigger” appears over two hundred times in the novel presents a challenge to those who would interpret the text as an argument for racial transcendence. The issue is also made more complex by the image of Jim in the final chapters and the interpretation of that image as embedded within nineteenth-century minstrelsy. Students should consider how Twain’s use of racial language and images affects Jim’s place in the novel both as a character supporting racial stereotypes and as a character that challenges those stereotypes. How can readers remain open to and come to terms with the novel’s range of contrasting interpretations of race?
- 4. Finally, it is also possible to use the novel to explore issues of class and the impact of physical and mental abuse within a destructive domestic environment; for example, how does Pap Finn’s treatment of Huck influence the novel’s challenge to social order? How does the novel introduce the experience of the disenfranchised and does its description of the reality of child and domestic abuse prompt questions about the effects of abuse on the emotional and spiritual well-being of adults and especially children? Huck’s sense of self is affected by his status within and the outside the various communities portrayed as well as by his experience within his own family. How does Huck’s sense of self affect his interaction with Jim and how does his reliance on and craving for friendship influence our reading of major episodes of the novel? Huck’s relationship with Pap affects his understanding of race and family, but does it also affect his potential for and search for compassion as he makes his way through experiences with the Widow Douglas, the Duke and the King, Mary Jane Wilkes, Sally Phelps, Tom Sawyer, and, perhaps most importantly, Jim?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo with Walter Blair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
The definitive text of the novel, edited at the Mark Twain Project. The text includes material restored from the manuscript and the original illustrations. Most useful is the introduction by the editors, which offers a full discussion of the background for the text and the history of composition.
Fred Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
Runs counter to the long-established idea in Twain biography, growing out of Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966), that there is a split between Samuel L. Clemens and his literary persona, Mark Twain. Here the focus is on the way that the two personae come together in one integrated personality. A refreshing analysis, it allows readers to ponder the strength of a single creative power.
Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, 3 volumes (New York: Harper, 1912).
The first authorized biography of Mark Twain and still a standard reference work. While later biographies have superseded Paine because of the wider availability of material and a less-biased point of view, this edition is still the starting point for learning about the life of Samuel L. Clemens.
Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life (New York: Free Press, 2005).
In the tradition of the Clemens/Twain dichotomy. The study updates the image of Mark Twain and devotes considerable space to his background and the impact on the development of the literary voice.
Victor A. Doyno, Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain’s Creative Process (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
Genetic study of the second half of the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tracing both the composition history of the novel and Mark Twain’s
careful editing process. This study is the primary examination of Twain’s precise creation of dialect in the novel and offers insights into the creative mind.
James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds., Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992).
Sixteen essays demonstrating a variety of perspectives and interpretations from African American scholars. The collection explodes the idea of a monolithic approach to the novel and introduces readers to a range of nuanced readings of the novel in relation to issues of race.
Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley, eds., One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985).
Twenty-four essays giving a coherent summary of the state of criticism and the approaches to the novel marking its centennial. The contributors examine the novel in terms of the creative imagination, craft, contexts, contemporary concerns, and cultural legacy.
—Michael J. Kiskis