About this Recording
NAX36012 - TWAIN, M.: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (The) (Unabridged)
English 

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

‘You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.’

It was while writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that Mark Twain became more interested in another character. Huckleberry Finn walks into that novel carrying a dead cat and very soon, even before Tom Sawyer came before the public, his creator found himself embarking on a different book altogether. However, after a brisk start, Twain lost impetus. When his own publishing house finally brought the completed novel out, Twain told his brother Orion that he ‘had been fooling over [it] for 7 years’. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has since come to be regarded as one of the most important American novels of the nineteenth century.

It is hardly surprising that Huck engaged his creator’s imagination, for though from the same sort of background as Tom, he is in some ways a richer and for many readers a somewhat more endearing character. (Nevertheless, it was Tom who was ‘recycled’, reappearing in Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.) Tom is a prankster who enjoys playing tricks on people because he likes to laugh at their discomfort. Huckleberry himself is no angel and finds himself caught up in various hair-raising scrapes but only because he is misled or forced into them by others or in reaction to the hypocrisies of the world he lives in. He may be far from perfect but his imperfections are those of the rascal rather than the villain.

Twain based his unsentimental portrayal of Huck on a real boy from his hometown. Tom Blankenship was the son of the town drunkard. Twain writes in his autobiography that Tom was ‘ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had…he was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community.’

The figure of the innocent (or at least naïve) child has often been used by writers to sharpen the perspective from which to view society. Dickens frequently uses children partly for this purpose. Such a figure is comparable to the holy fool whose innate and incorruptible goodness wins out against all odds. Huck is neither quite innocent nor exactly naïve, neither holy nor a fool, but he finally remains uncorrupted by attempts to turn him into ‘a good boy’ if that means accepting vicious compromises with a society that degrades everyone while desperately striving to keep up appearances.

From the outset he finds himself in the worst state for a child: that of an orphan—he does have a father, Pap, but he is no more a father to his son than a wolf is a shepherd to a lamb. Huck can only distrust the moral precepts of a society which has failed its primary duty of taking care of its young and guarding them from cruelty and abuse. Life teaches him that he must decide for himself and if that means coming into conflict with the generality of folk, so be it.

Thus it is that he sides, against his better judgement but because of his ultimately unspoilt good nature, with Jim, the runaway slave. He is as uncertain, however, about whether it is right to help him as Pip is about helping Magwitch in Dickens’s Great Expectations, but whereas Pip is terrified into offering that help, Huck has formed a kind of friendship with the slave and trusts his instincts rather than what his socially-directed conscience would instruct him to do. Any anti-Negro prejudices instilled in him fall away when he encounters the reality of an individual.

At the end of the book, tired of the way people treat one another, he takes off westwards into the unknown, away from the ‘sivilised world’.

This all sounds very earnest but earnestness was the last thing on Twain’s mind when he was writing these adventures. Indeed, he declares at the beginning that anyone looking for motive, plot or moral will be prosecuted, banished or shot. And so the reader looks forward to entertainment, with which he is duly rewarded. At the same time an undercurrent of social criticism principally concerned with slavery, racism, and the double standards of the so-called civilised world should not escape his perception.

But the history of this book shows that many readers are incapable of seeing what Twain places before them. Or rather, before they can see it, they are side-tracked. Nineteenth-century readers regarded it as the duty of an author to offer his community something morally ‘improving’. Misguided if well-meaning readers of our own time regard it as their duty to censor the book or ban it from classrooms and libraries because of its use of the word ‘nigger’.

Huckleberry Finn’s adventures are ‘improving’ in that they expand the limits of the open-minded reader’s imagination. Alerting us to the hypocrisies of society of the Southern states, Twain focuses on the lowest orders of Mississippi society—i.e. to those normally as ignored in literature as in life. This was the shock for his contemporaries. As for today’s zealots of political correctness, if it is not evident that Twain is attacking the twin evils of slavery and racism, then one wonders from what limited perspectives such high-minded authorities examine the text.

T. S. Eliot suggested that Huckleberry Finn could stand alongside such literary creations as Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote and Hamlet—but Huck is not the only source of pleasure in the novel. There is a gallery of fascinating and fully realised characters, to each of whom Twain painstakingly gives a distinctive spoken voice. These carefully observed accents and idiosyncrasies were also a source of criticism at the time the book was published. Many readers were outraged, so offensively vivid was the language. The Library Committee of Concord, Massachusetts, dismissed the book as ‘rough, coarse and inelegant…more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people’. It was, in short, the ‘veriest trash’.

For The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain drew on memories of his boyhood in the small riverside town of Hannibal, a ‘picture’ of which he said remained in his mind ‘as clear and vivid as a photograph’. He wrote nostalgically in Old Times on the Mississippi of his days as a pilot on that huge river where he knew a freedom from constraint that eluded him in later life. Huck, too, delights in that same freedom on the raft with Jim but, of course, it is continually under threat—both from evildoers and well-wishers alike.

Some have said that through the character of Huck, Mark Twain is directing his barbed criticisms at a society in which he personally felt stifled and cramped. The agencies of his confinement included his wife and the genteel New England literary circle which held him back from the broader horizons of the frontier. He also expressed regret at having turned himself into the comic mouthpiece of a form of civilisation which by and large he held in contempt.

Before he married Olivia Langdon, he wrote to her: ‘but you will break up all my irregularities when we are married and civilize me, and make of me a model husband and an adornment to society—won’t you?’ In this we can hear Huck: ‘The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me.’ And again at the end: ‘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.’ But if Twain spoke at times with bitterness, these adventures are in the end unsoured by it.

For Twain the worst aspect of the society he lived in was its suppression of ‘natural and healthy instincts’. Its morality was based on negation and denial. In the episode of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, two families caught up in a vicious blood feud, the affirmation expressed in the Sunday morning sermon on ‘brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness…faith, and good works’ (Huck’s words) is followed that very afternoon by a blood bath. This isn’t a mere matter of hypocrisy. So-called ‘civilised’ people are prey to the very savagery they condemn in Native Americans and ‘niggers’. As often as not they project it on to others, failing to observe the commandments which their superior civilisation is supposedly founded on.

Critics have generally agreed that the way the book ends shows a falling off of inspiration or at least an extraordinary change in tone that is at odds with the moral heart of the novel. Others have declared that it seems right that the end should echo the beginning as it does. Whether the majority of readers detect any disappointment is debatable.

Whatever one’s view of this issue, the general verdict on the book as a whole is summed up by H. L. Mencken, who in 1931 proclaimed that it was ‘one of the greatest masterpieces of the world’ and that Mark Twain was ‘the true father of our national heritage’. Ernest Hemingway went even further: ‘It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.’


Notes by Maurice West


Close the window