Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLIII

Huck Finn Comes into His Own

In the December Century (1884) appeared a chapter from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, “The Grangerford-Shepherdson Feud,” a piece of writing which Edmund Clarence Stederian, Brander Matthews, and others promptly ranked as among Mark Twain’s very best; when this was followed, in the January number, by “King Sollermun,” a chapter which in its way delighted quite as many readers, the success of the new book was accounted certain.112

112 [Stedman, writing to Clemens of this instalment, said: “To my mind it is not only the most finished and condensed thing you have done. but as dramatic and powerful an episode as I know in modern literature.”]

‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ was officially published in England and America in December, 1884, but the book was not in the canvassers’ hands for delivery until February. By this time the orders were approximately for forty thousand copies, a number which had increased to fifty thousand a few weeks later. Webster’s first publication venture was in the nature of a triumph. Clemens wrote to him March 16th:

“Your news is splendid. Huck certainly is a success.”

He felt that he had demonstrated his capacity as a general director and Webster had proved his efficiency as an executive. He had no further need of an outside publisher.

The story of Huck Finn will probably stand as the best of Mark Twain’s purely fictional writings. A sequel to Tom Sawyer, it is greater than its predecessor; greater artistically, though perhaps with less immediate interest for the juvenile reader. In fact, the books are so different that they are not to be compared — wherein lies the success of the later one. Sequels are dangerous things when the story is continuous, but in Huckleberry Finn the story is a new one, wholly different in environment, atmosphere, purpose, character, everything. The tale of Huck and Nigger Jim drifting down the mighty river on a raft, cross-secting the various primitive aspects of human existence, constitutes one of the most impressive examples of picaresque fiction in any language. It has been ranked greater than Gil Blas, greater even than Don Quixote; certainly it is more convincing, more human, than either of these tales. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “It is a book I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again to-morrow.”

It is by no means a flawless book, though its defects are trivial enough. The illusion of Huck as narrator fails the least bit here and there; the “four dialects” are not always maintained; the occasional touch of broad burlesque detracts from the tale’s reality. We are inclined to resent this. We never wish to feel that Huck is anything but a real character. We want him always the Huck who was willing to go to hell if necessary, rather than sacrifice Nigger Jim; the Huck who watched the river through long nights, and, without caring to explain why, felt his soul go out to the sunrise.

Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there — sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as the night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up — nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres — perfectly still — just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line — that was the woods on t’other side, you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away — trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks — rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers. . . . And next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

This is the Huck we want, and this is the Huck we usually have, and that the world has long been thankful for.

Take the story as a whole, it is a succession of startling and unique pictures. The cabin in the swamp which Huck and his father used together in their weird, ghastly relationship; the night adventure with Jim on the wrecked steamboat; Huck’s night among the towheads; the Grangerford-Shepherdson battle; the killing of Boggs — to name a few of the many vivid presentations — these are of no time or literary fashion and will never lose their flavor nor their freshness so long as humanity itself does not change. The terse, unadorned Grangerford-Shepherdson episode — built out of the Darnell — Watson feuds 113 is simply classic in its vivid casualness, and the same may be said of almost every incident on that long river-drift; but this is the strength, the very essence of picaresque narrative. It is the way things happen in reality; and the quiet, unexcited frame of mind in which Huck is prompted to set them down would seem to be the last word in literary art. To Huck, apparently, the killing of Boggs and Colonel Sherburn’s defiance of the mob are of about the same historical importance as any other incidents of the day’s travel. When Colonel Sherburn threw his shotgun across his arm and bade the crowd disperse Huck says:

113 [See Life on the Mississippi, chap. xxvi. Mark Twain himself, as a cub pilot, came near witnessing the battle he describes.]

The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart and went tearing off every which way, and Buck Harkness he heeled it after them, looking tolerable cheap. I could a staid if I’d a wanted to, but I didn’t want to.

I went to the circus, and loafed around the back side till the watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent.

That is all. No reflections, no hysterics; a murder and a mob dispersed, all without a single moral comment. And when the Shepherdsons had got done killing the Grangerfords, and Huck had tugged the two bodies ashore and covered Buck Grangerford’s face with a handkerchief, crying a little because Buck had been good to him, he spent no time in sentimental reflection or sermonizing, but promptly hunted up Jim and the raft and sat down to a meal of corn-dodgers, buttermilk, pork and cabbage, and greens:

There ain’t nothing in the world so good, when it is cooked right; and while I eat my supper we talked, and had a good time. I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t; you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

It was Huck Finn’s morality that caused the book to be excluded from the Concord Library, and from other libraries here and there at a later day. The orthodox mental attitude of certain directors of juvenile literature could not condone Huck’s looseness in the matter of statement and property rights, and in spite of New England traditions, Massachusetts librarians did not take any too kindly to his uttered principle that, after thinking it over and taking due thought on the deadly sin of abolition, he had decided that he’d go to hell rather than give Jim over to slavery. Poor vagrant Ben Blankenship, hiding his runaway negro in an Illinois swamp, could not dream that his humanity would one day supply the moral episode of an immortal book.

Able critics have declared that the psychology of Huck Finn is the book’s large feature: Huck’s moral point of view — the struggle between his heart and his conscience concerning the sin of Jim’s concealment, and his final decision of self-sacrifice. Time may show that as an epic of the river, the picture of a vanished day, it will rank even greater. The problems of conscience we have always with us, but periods once passed are gone forever. Certainly Huck’s loyalty to that lovely soul Nigger Jim was beautiful, though after all it may not have been so hard for Huck, who could be loyal to anything. Huck was loyal to his father, loyal to Tom Sawyer of course, loyal even to those two river tramps and frauds, the King and the Duke, for whom he lied prodigiously, only weakening when a new and livelier loyalty came into view — loyalty to Mary Wilks.

The King and the Duke, by the way, are not elsewhere matched in fiction. The Duke was patterned after a journeyman-printer Clemens had known in Virginia City, but the King was created out of refuse from the whole human family —“all tears and flapdoodle,” the very ultimate of disrepute and hypocrisy — so perfect a specimen that one must admire, almost love, him. “Hain’t we all the fools in town on our side? and ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” he asks in a critical moment — a remark which stamps him as a philosopher of classic rank. We are full of pity at last when this pair of rapscallions ride out of the history on a rail, and feel some of Huck’s inclusive loyalty and all the sorrowful truth of his comment: “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

The “poor old king” Huck calls him, and confesses how he felt “ornery and humble and to blame, somehow,” for the old scamp’s misfortunes. “A person’s conscience ain’t got no sense,” he says, and Huck is never more real to us, or more lovable, than in that moment. Huck is what he is because, being made so, he cannot well be otherwise. He is a boy throughout — such a boy as Mark Twain had known and in some degree had been. One may pettily pick a flaw here and there in the tale’s construction if so minded, but the moral character of Huck himself is not open to criticism. And indeed any criticism of this the greatest of Mark Twain’s tales of modern life would be as the mere scratching of the granite of an imperishable structure. Huck Finn is a monument that no puny pecking will destroy. It is built of indestructible blocks of human nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not always agree, we need not fear. Time will blur the incongruities and moss over the mistakes. The edifice will grow more beautiful with the years.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00