I heard about the release of the autobiography from a student in my class. While no one in that class could tell me who Dickens was, they all knew Mark Twain. In fact, most of them had read (or had been assigned to read) Huck Finn. It is the most taught book in America and, according to TIME magazine, among the most banned. Only a year after its initial publication, in 1885, the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, banned it for “coarse language, though not originally for the use of the “N” word, which sparked later controversies.
Unlike Melville or Hawthorne or Poe, Twain does not write like a 19th century European novelist. By imitating Huck’s voice and Southern dialect for other characters, Twain creates a new style. He is as satirical as Jonathan Swift but more realistic. The front matter reflects the author’s typical ironic stance: “Notice: 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. By Order of the Author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordinance.” Of course, the novel has all three: motive, moral, and plot. However, narrating the story from Huck’s perspective allows Twain to keep his distance from his subject matter, and thus keep his own views ambiguous.
The story follows Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, on their quest for freedom, an American play on a medieval trope. Its protagonist exemplifies the American hero—a pilgrim, a pioneer, an adventurer, an entrepreneur, and above all, a rebel. Although the book sets out to be a sequel to Tom Sawyer, its themes and tones demand more gravity than the light-hearted tales of its predecessor. Instead of small pranks and discoveries of gold, the adventures consist of faking death to elude an abusive and alcoholic father, running away with a slave, getting caught up in a clan battle, and being implicated with con artists. On this journey on the Mississippi River, Huck attempts to find his way literally and metaphorically.
Through Huck’s innocence, Twain asks readers to question their own social mores. While the reader would do best not to conflate Huck’s perspective with Twain’s, the author seems to mock society’s civil form of barbarism—slavery. Huck often complies with his society’s assumptions about human nature, but he thwarts its regulations with his behavior. However, Twain does not merely castigate the proponents of slavery: his slaveholders are not wart-ridden villains with whips and lashes but sweet old ladies who seek to do good in their community. Twain juxtaposes their good intentions with their complicity in evil (his depiction could be a model for the Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace).
Despite the controversy over the novel’s language and themes, Ernest Hemingway asserted, “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing good since” (Green Hills of Africa, 23). Hemingway makes a bold claim, but it’s rooted in truth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become a model for the fiction that follows it, epitomizing American literature, and contending for the title—“The Great American Novel.”