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"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twains various books which can be called a masterpiece. I do not suggest that it is his only book of permanent interest; but it is the only one in which his genius is completely realized, and the only one which creates its own category." T. S. Eliot
Huckleberry Finn, rebel against school and church, casual inheritor of gold treasure, rafter of the Mississippi, and savior of Jim the runaway slave, is the archetypical American maverick.
Fleeing the respectable society that wants to "sivilize" him, Huck Finn shoves off with Jim on a rhapsodic raft journey down the Mississippi River. The two bind themselves to one another, becoming intimate friends and agreeing "there warnt no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft dont. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."
As Huck learns about love, responsibility, and morality, the trip becomes a metaphoric voyage through his own soul, culminating in the glorious moment when he decides to "go to hell" rather than return Jim to slavery.
Mark Twain defined classic as "a book which people praise and dont read"; Huckleberry Finn is a happy exception to his own rule. Twains mastery of dialect, coupled with his famous wit, has made Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one of the most loved and distinctly American classics ever written.
Nominated for a Grammy for his work as co-producer of the five-CD box set The Jazz Singers (1998), Robert OMeally is Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia University and Director of Columbia Universitys Center for Jazz Studies. He is the principal writer of Seeing Jazz (1997), the catalogue for the Smithsonians exhibit on jazz and literature, and the co-editor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996).
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About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), best known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an author and humorist noted for the novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which has been called "The Great American Novel") and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among many other books. Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and he spent time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before finding fame as a writer.
Date of Birth:November 30, 1835
Date of Death:April 21, 1910
Place of Birth:Florida, Missouri
Place of Death:Redding, Connecticut
Read an Excerpt
From Robert OMeallys Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
As an African-American who came of age in the 1960s, I first encountered Huckleberry Finn in a fancy childrens edition with beautifully printed words and illustrations on thick pages, a volume bought as part of a mail-order series by my ambitious parents. While I do not remember ever opening that particular book-as a junior high schooler I was more drawn to readings about science or my baseball heroes-I do recall a sense of pride that I owned it: that a classic work was part of the furniture of my bedroom and of my life. Later I would discover Twains ringing definition of a classic as "something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read."
Like many others of that generation-and then I suppose of every American generation that has followed-I was assigned the book as part of a college course. Actually I was taught the book twice, once in a course in modern fiction classics (along with Cervantes, Mann, Conrad, Wolfe, Faulkner), then in a course tracing great themes in American literature, including those of democracy and race. In both these classes, Mark Twain and his Huckleberry Finn appeared as heroic and timeless exemplars of modernism in terms of both literary form and progressive political thought. Here was an American novel told not from the standpoint or in the language of Europe but from the position of the poor but daring and brilliant river-rat Huck, whose tale was spun in lingo we could tell was plain Americanese-why, anybody could tell it, as the boy himself might say.
His was a story of eager flight from the rigidities of daily living, particularly from those institutions that as youngsters we love to hate: family, school, church, the hometown itself. That white Huckleberrys flight from commonplace America included a deep, true friendship with black Jim, who began the novel as a slave in Hucks adopted family, proved Hucks trust of his own lived experience and feelings: his integrity against a world of slavery and prejudice based on skin color. Hucks discovery that he was willing to take the risks involved in assisting Jim in his flight from slavery connected the youngster with the freedom struggle not only of blacks in America but of all Americans seeking to live up to the standards of our most sacred national documents. Here was democracy without the puffery, e pluribus unum at its most radical level of two friends from different racial (but very similar cultural) backgrounds loving one another. Here too was a personal declaration of independence in action, an American revolution (and some would say also a civil war) fought first within Hucks own heart and then along the Mississippi River, the great brown god that many have said stands almost as a third major character in this novel of hard-bought freedom and fraternity, of consciousness and conscientiousness.
I understood these themes as supporting the civil rights movement of that era, and, further, as significant correctives to sixties black nationalism, which too often left too little space, in my view, for black-white friendships and, alas, for humor, without which no revolution I was fighting for was worth the sacrifice. In those days, Huckleberry Finn was also part of my arsenal of defenses against those who questioned my decision to major in literature during the black revolution; for me, it served to justify art itself not just as entertainment but as equipment for living and even as a form of political action. For here was a book whose message of freedom had been so forcefully articulated that it was still sounding clearly all these years later, all over the world. What was I doing in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond that was as courageous and selfless (and yet as individually self-defining)-as profoundly revolutionary-as Hucks act of helping to rescue Jim?
And yet I do have to say that even in those student days of first discovering this novel, I was troubled by the figure of Jim, with whom, from the very beginning, I found it impossible to identify. Though as a college sophomore or junior I wrote an earnest essay in defense of Jim as a wise man whose "superstitions" could be read as connections to a proud "African" system of communal beliefs and earned adjustments to a turbulent and dangerous new world, it was definitely Huck whose point of view I adopted, while Jim remained a shadowy construction whose buffoonery and will to cooperate with white folks foolishness embarrassed and infuriated me. Then too the novels casual uses of the word "nigger" always made my stomach tighten. Years later, when I read about black students, parents, and teachers who objected to the novels repeated use of this inflammatory word, I knew just what they meant. Lord knows, as a student I had sat in classes where "Nigger Jim" (that much-bandied title never once used by Twain but weirdly adopted by innumerable teachers and scholars, including some of the best and brightest, as we shall see) was discussed by my well-intentioned white classmates and professors whose love of the novel evidently was unimpeded by this brutal language. (Did some of them delight in the license to use this otherwise taboo term? What might that have meant?)
Using some of these ideas about democracy and race (including some of my doubts and questions), for fifteen years I taught Huckleberry Finn at Howard, at Wesleyan, and then at Barnard. And then somehow my battered paperback, my several lectures, and my fat folder of articles by some of the novels great critics-Eliot, Hemingway, Ellison, Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Henry Nash Smith-all were set aside. I suppose that one problem was simply that the book was taught too much-that students came to me having worn out their own copies already. And too often they seemed to respond not to the book itself but to bits and pieces of the classic hymns of critical (and uncritical) praise, grist for the term-paper-writer and standardized-test-takers mill. In recent years, when I wanted to teach Twain again, I turned to the novel Puddnhead Wilson, with its own tangled problems of racial and national masks and masquerades; to short fiction and essays (including perhaps his funniest piece of writing, "Fenimore Coopers Literary Offenses"; see "For Further Reading"), and to The Mysterious Stranger, in which wry, darkly wise Satan drops in on a hamlet very much like the ones of Twains best-known fictions, including Huckleberry Finn. One of Satans messages is close to Hucks, too: that it is better to be dead than to endure the ordinary villagers humdrum (and very violent) life.