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Huck Finn Drawing 1Huck Finn is the ultimate boy's boy.
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Courtesy of Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum
Mark Twain Boyhood HomeMark Twain's childhood home still stands in Hannibal.
The Misread Classic by Daren Dean
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those rare books that has inspired great love but also no end of controversy. It is an iconic story and probably everyone knows at least these basics: A boy named Huck Finn tries to escape his problems with a runaway slave named Jim on a raft going down the Mississippi river south; he further south they go the further away they travel from Jim's potential freedom.
It’s a deceptively simple premise, but beyond that it’s a novel that cries out for a close reading. Ernest Hemingway once famously said of the book, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
Born and raised in Missouri, I could not escape the ubiquitous influence of Mark Twain and especially his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Missouri was once considered the Western frontier (The St. Louis Arch is referred to as “The Gateway to the West” afterall), but partially because of Twain’s written body of work, the mythical status of Jesse James, the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars before and during the Civil War, and the Little Dixie region, the Show-Me State was long associated with its Southern heritage, but make no mistake it was also a home to a flood of immigrants, abolitionists, and people who were just looking to fulfill the promise of the expanding country.
This is in sharp contrast to today. “Missour-ah” is most often thought of as decisively Midwestern (albeit with some call almost cartoonish hillbilly roots—take a drive through the touristy Lake of the Ozarks), but in my understanding of history, it is somewhat enigmatic, which probably owes to the geography, positioned in the center of the country.
Upon my first visit to Hannibal (St. Petersburg if you will), I can remember making the pilgrimage with my mother to tour the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, which was then part cheap museum. Just across the street was said to be the home of Becky Thatcher, who anyone knows was best friends with Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn was originally intended as a sequel to Tom Sawyer, but the latter is definitely a children’s book, and the former is much more complex by comparison. There’s even a notice before the novel’s opening lines, “By order of the author,” that may qualify as meta-commentary which reads: “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.”
In Tom Sawyer, we find a version of the competent boy’s boy in Mark Twain that through his cleverness and American sense of industry sees Huck's dodgy friend Tom Sawyer convincing other boys that painting a fence is so much fun they might even trade something of value for the pleasure of painting a white picket fence. What I really wondered as a boy seeing that boyhood home not far from the river (Hannibal sits on the banks of the Mississippi River just across from Quincy, Illinois) was where does Huck Finn live? Not where did he live, but where does he live?
He’s still alive, heading down the river in the collective American imagination.
The influence of Huck Finn on contemporary writers seems fairly obvious. Just to name a few I’d mention Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, The River Wife by Jonis Agee, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, and The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell. Also, I would be remiss if I did not point out a modern sequel to Twain’s book called Finn by Jon Clinch, and no doubt you can think of many more.
Huck Finn is in the DNA of our national consciousness. There’s no way to escape this picaresque novels influence on American writers and Americans in general even those who today may not have read it. This much loved but maligned novel has its creator, Samuel Clemens, to blame for the misunderstandings and misreadings of the novel.
These misreadings, I believe, are partially a result of the wild popularity of Mark Twain—the quintessential American writer and international celebrity of his time. Also, the other confusing factor for Americans who pride themselves on being pragmatic realists is the youth of the character of Huck Finn.
Long ago it was decided that the book was a children’s book because Huck is a boy, but I would argue the book’s moral themes and metaphors are much too complex for the majority of young people to understand (or perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for teachers to convey these concepts to young people in general or to ask students to draw their own conclusions), so it has long been understood through the action of the plot or what happened rather than through meanings the plot and characters engender. When I say meaning I am talking about Twain’s social commentary on things like race, religion, and politics through his narrative. One function of literary art is that it doesn't provide easy morals by the author, but takes an approach that forces the reader to decide what it means. It would be easy enough if Twain provided his own moral lessons in the form of maxims (which he certainly could deliver a quip as ready and hilarious as anyone), because then the reader could say “I agree” or “I disagree,” but ambiguity is the literary writer’s ally and the pragmatic reader’s nightmare.
Tell me what happened, don’t ask me what it means.
If we want to talk about morality in fiction, John Gardner seems to be a good one to evoke. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said:
“…immoral fiction is indifferent to the real issues. I'm saying that there's good and evil. And in particular situations, maybe the only healthy situation is universal destruction. I would never set up a morality that's goody-goody. Sometimes morality is awful. Was Twain’s project here merely to use his characters to point out the ills of society? Definitely not. Sometimes unsophisticated readers think, perhaps because they teach us this in grade school, what is required is a 'moral-to-the-story’ understanding of a novel, although that may be comforting to some it strikes me as misguided in some cases and disingenuous in others."
To be sure there is a moral dimension to the novel. Huck Finn makes a choice to help Jim escape, which we applaud him for, but he’s not perfect, especially in his language nor intention. He comes from a very poor and abusive background, which makes it even more unlikely that Huck would stick his neck out for a runaway slave, no matter how much he likes him, especially when we consider that he is still a boy after all. Huck seems to backslide as a noble character with the appearance of the Duke and the Dauphin and the later after the unlikely appearance of Tom Sawyer in Arkansas when he seems to forget all about the bonds of his unique friendship with Jim for awhile.
Although we may applaud a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its desire to transform society, Huck Finn may have more in common with the contemporary American psyche than we would like to admit. Instead of denouncing the society that would enslave a man, Huck rejects genteel society represented by his Aunt Sally who wants to adopt him in favor of the unknown wild, simply because he values his own personal freedom first and foremost—a very American trait.
In the last few lines Huck sums it up this way, “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.”
Daren Dean’s fiction, poetry, and interviews have appeared in The Oklahoma Review, Midwestern Gothic, Ecotone online, Fiction Southeast, Image, Poetry Southeast, the University of Missouri Press blog, and others. His story "Bring Your Sorrow Over Here" was selected as Runner-up in Yemassee's William Richey Short Fiction contest by Judge George Singleton and appeared in the Spring 2012 issue. Another story, "Affliction," was a Finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Contest for New Writers in 2012. He is the founding Editor of CEDARS (cedarsmag.com) an online literary magazine. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He also worked for several years in Acquisitions and Marketing at the University of Missouri Press.