Click to enlargeThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The classic adventure story of 14-year-old Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim on a raft riding down the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. The characters are memorable, the plot twists and turns, there is humor, tragedy, danger.

Quoting the publisher's foreword:

If quality and decency are the marks of all works published by, then what is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn doing in the collection? All throughout, the main characters are nothing if not liars and thieves, and it is full of the dreaded N-word, not to mention violence and swindles and other various and sundry improprieties.

Well, that is the point. This book is not a politically correct, cleaned-up and santizied rendering of mid-nineteenth-century life along the Mississippi River, nor is it intended for the sensibilities of self-proclaimed "enlightened" readers at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Rather, it is probably a reasonably accurate, though perhaps exaggerated, rendering of the culture of that time and place. The place continues to exist, but is now transformed by modern transportation and cable television. It can truly be said that there are few real "hicks" left in modern America, because everyone today has sixty channels and an internet connection. Such was not the case when it took many days or weeks, a considerable slice of income, and considerable assumption of risk to travel a few hundred miles.

The question of this book's depiction of slavery has hung over it for a hundred years, and has been hotly debated for decades whenever a school has decided to use it in its curriculum. Some have said that the race question should have been dealt with more directly, meaning that the book fails to show slavery for the true evil that it was, wheras others feel that Twain must have been a racist or he wouldn?t have depicted slaves as he did, and put such speech in their mouths. To both criticisms, I would turn to Solzhenitsyn's argument, that it is more clearly damning to an institution to present it at its very best and have it found wanting, than to present it at its very worst; we visit the gulag of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch on a good day, when the rations are hotter and more plentiful than usual, the guards are in good moods, and not too many of the prisoners are sick. We find Twain's depiction of slavery to be insufficiently cruel, and the social degradation of slaves to be onerous, perhaps because he projects things more like they really were than as we imagine them. Today we may wish to view slaves as highly eloquent and educated people who were beaten senseless all the time. In actuality, it is perhaps more accurate to see them as people who were raised without regard to their human potential to be ignorant and superstitious and ineloquent, and who were not especially poorly treated unless they got out of line. Their bondage could not have been more complete or more immoral either way.

If there are doubts about Twain's view of the morality of slavery or the degree to which the descendents of Africans may have deserved to remain in bondage, then I would suggest that the reader give careful thought to the moral dilemma Huck faces as he weighs Jim's human rights against the property rights of his owner. The internal debate is illuminating on the dilemma the nation faced at the time. There were certainly hard liners on both sides of the debate, but many average people found themselves caught between the notion that a slave had the right to run away from an immoral institution and have an opportunity at life as a free person and the idea that a slave bought and paid for was the property of its owner and that an injury is done to the owner if a slave is freed. The mere fact that people of a given race could be in the same town square and some be slave and some free was the paradox Lincoln pondered when he stated that the nation would not be able to last half-and-half-- that it must one day be either all slave or all free. In the end, Jim is set free, both physically and morally, by a combination of circumstances. And he becomes a free black in the Deep South amongst people who hours before were ready to lynch him for running away. What strange irony is it that such a man would find himself physically and legally free but only in the smallest of ways more socially free than he had been while fleeing down the river on the raft. And interestingly enough, the question of the true freedom of the descendents of those slaves is still with us today.

Huck's moral journey is also an interesting study. We find him now and again doing the right thing, but continuing to be a liar and a cheat to the very end. From time to time he has his moral moments, and despite all that he gets himself into and out of, we find that he is a good deal more appreciative of the high stakes of the dangeours game they played at the Phelps farm than was his compadre, Tom Sawyer. Ultimately, we are left wondering if Huck ever became an upstanding citizen, or if a life of crime awaited him.

Perhaps Huck fulfills the dream of every fourteen-year-old boy. He lives just a little outside the law, lies as easily as he breathes, outsmarts nearly everyone, and falls back on his social status as a boy to dig himself out of scrapes. He is tested by his unsettled upbringing, and he develops a cool sense of calculus about the world: That his immoral steps are necessary, and therefore somehow forgivable. He is different in his own way than more modern morally ambiguous characters in that Huck really does know right from wrong, and he chooses to rationalize every act. The picture of Huck abused by his drunken father is truly bleak, but Huck also gives us insight into the resilience and adaptablility of youth. In that way he symbolizes the grit and pluck of a young United States as it, for better or worse, morally or immorally, subdued a wild continent.

Above all, this is a pure adventure story. Twain clearly meant it so, for in the "NOTICE" he posts at the beginning of the book, he warns us that his intent is not to be morally instructive, or historically accurate, or to create a great work of literature, but to be merely entertaining. To his credit, Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens seems to have well covered all four bases.

Mark Twain's famous Huckleberry Finn in one PDF file, 1792K, 143 pages in all.

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Last update: 24 APR 2023