The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has outlived almost every criticism of those who have spoken against it to become a native classic thrust forward exultantly in the face of any who still dare inquire, “who reads an American book?’’—its health endangered only by a smothering swarm of commentators who threaten to maim it with excessive kind attention. Except perhaps for Moby Dick, no American book has recently been opened with more tender explicatory care or by critics to whom we are better prepared to listen. The River on which or beside which the action develops is a great brown god to T.S Eliot; and Lionel Trilling reminds us of the “subtle, implicit moral meaning of the great river’’ as he translates Emerson to contemporary idiom by explaining that “against the money-god, stands the river-god, whose comments are silent,’’ that Huck is “The servant of the river-god,’’ and that Mr. Eliot is right in saying “the river is within us.”
Other commentators call attention to the social criticism, the satire, the savagery in this book of boy adventures; to its language so cleanly direct and simply natural that reasons for Hemingway’s admiration for it come to mind; to its structure which is at one time or to one critic great art, at another fumbling improvisation; to the recurrent imagery, so like what E.M. Forster pointed to in writings of Marcel Proust and called repetition by variation. Its mythic quality is explained as reinforced by elements of popular lore and superstition or by parallels with primitive initiation rites. The once familiar three-part division of the blackface minstrel show, a genuinely indigenous art from, has been superimposed on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to reveal instructive similarities. Various indigenous art theme, some inevitably religious, have been patiently explored its endless, as if the adventures might have gone on forever, has been persuasively held forth as similar to other distinctively American contrivances which emphasize process rather than product, like the skyscraper, jazz, the comic strip, chewing gum, and Moby Dick.
These things are all probably true, if only because attentive readers have discovered them. An encompassing and synthesizing rightness reveals itself now in the casual career of Samuel Clemens who drifted from one occupation to another, managing by accident of birth and qualities which moralists cannot always hold up for emulation to have been at many right places at exactly the right time. His was indeed a pioneer talent, and sometime so unused to itself that it postured boisterously, almost always ready to break into laughter if response to what was said proved it ridiculous. Its melancholy, even when invaded by the mockery of burlesque, was related to that of home-starved man who sang sad songs on lonesome prairies or rivers, in forests or mountain camps. Its sentimentality was like theirs, ready to retreat to guffaw when detected. The aggressive playfulness which delighted in hoaxes and practical joking changed in almost classic pattern to anger like that of gods- or of simple men- when the joke is turned against them.
Clemens had known backcountry America and the overland push toward great fortunes in the gold- filled, silver- lined west. He had known, better than he learned to know anything else, her great arterial river through which the lifeblood of Middle America had once flowed. And he had known men in these places, of all kinds, and then known riches and the company of well- fed, respectable people whom he also recognized as types known before. He had listened to men talk, boastfully or in anger, had heard their tales and their blandishments, and had learned to speak as they spoke. For his ultimate discovery was linguistic, the creation of a language which was simple, supple, and sustained, in what Richard chase has called “a joyous exorcism of traditional literary English.” No one had ever written like him before. What is more difficult to remember is that no one ever effectively will again because, to say it very simply, his models were not in literature but in life. Even he, when he tried to write something he had written before, succeeded only in producing books which were amusing because written in Mark Twain’s manner.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of boy who will not accept the kinds of freedom the world is able to world is able to offer, and so flees from them, one after another, to become to many readers a symbol of man’s inevitable, restless flight. It is instructive to recall that it appeared on the same year that Clemens ’ friend William Dean Howells presented in The Rise of Silas Lapbam another simple protagonist who retreated when confronted by perplexities, and a year before Henry James, who approached maturity through avenues almost completely different from those which Clemens followed, revealed in both. The Princess Casamassima and the Bostonians the struggle of honest young provincials forced to reject promises offered by society. Each played variation on a familiar American theme, which Emerson had expressed, which Whitman approached, and Melville also, and which has reappeared, which Whitman approached, and Melville also, and which has reappeared often again. It poses what has been called the inescapable dilemma of democracy- to what degree may each single and separate person live as an unencumbered individual and to what extant must he submit to distortions of personality required by society? If Clemens presented it better than most, by endowing it with qualities of myth interwoven with fantasy, realism, satire, and superstition, it was not because his convictions were different. It was because he had mastered a language supple enough to reveal the honest observations of an attractive boy and the ambiguous aspirations of many kinds of men whom he came upon, and also the subtly ominous but compelling spirit which in this book is a river.
Huckleberry Finn’s solution of the problem of freedom is direct and unworldly: having tested society, he will have none of it, for civilization finally makes culprits of all men. Huck is a simple boy, with little education and great confidence in omens. One measure of his character is its proneness to deceit which, though not always successful, is instinctive, as if it were a trait shared with other wild things, relating him to nature, in opposition to the tradition- grounded, book- learned imaginative deceptions of Tom Sawyer. The dilatory adventures of Huck and his Negro companion, both natural men enslaved, have even reminded some readers of the more consciously directed exploration in Faulkner’s “The Bear’’ of like McCaslin and his part--Negro, part- Indian guide, if only because they suggest more than can easily be explained. American fictions, we are told, are filled with white boys who are influenced by darker companions.
Young Huck had become something of a hero to the inhabitants of the little river village because of his help to Tom Sawyer in tracking down Injun Joe. He had been adopted by the widow Douglas, washed, dressed in clean clothes, and sent to school. With Tom he shared the income from the treasure they had discovered on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer .But Huck is not happy. Tom’s make—believe is incomprehensible to him. The religion of retribution which Miss Watson, the widow’s sister, teaches makes no sense at all. The religion of love which the widow suggests is better, but he will not commit himself. When his scapegrace father returns and carries Huck across the river to a desolate log house, the boy accepts the abduction with relief because, though he fears his father’s beatings and drunken rages, he is freed from restraints of tight clothing, school, and regular hours, and from the preaching and the puzzling tangle of ideas which confuse village life. But the bondage of life with his father chaffs also, so he steals down the river at night to Jackson island, where he meets the Negro Jim, Miss Watson’s slave, who had run away because his Christian owner was going to sell him.
Thus the first eleven chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tell of adventures on land, with Huck bewildered or miserable or in flight. The next twenty chapters detail adventures on the river or beside the river, in a pattern of withdrawal and return, as Huck and Jim float with their raft toward what they hope will be freedom for both. On the river or its shores many kinds of men are encountered, most of them evil or stupid or mean: cutthroats, murderers, cheats, liars, swindlers, cowards, slave hunters, dupes and hypocrites of every variety. Even the isolation from society which life on a raft might be thought to afford is violated, for malevolence also intrudes there in grotesque guises. Nor is the movement of the great brown river to be trusted. It carries Jim beyond freedom to capture again by respectable, benevolent people whose conscience is untroubled by human slavery.
The final twelve chapters take place again on land. Tom Sawyer once more appears, filled with romance- bred notions of how Jim might be freed. And Huck joins in the laborious nonsense, for he admires Tom, if he does not understand him—often on the river when confronted with crisis or cleverly, he thought, surmounting difficulties, he wished Tom had been there to aid or commend him. But the boys’ make-believe at rescue becomes a travesty, for Miss Watson had granted Jim his freedom—he was no long r a slave. The narrative ends hurriedly, as if embarrassed to linger while loose ends were tied. Huck’s father is dead—Jim had known that since the first stage of their journey but in kindness had withheld the knowledge. One threat to Huck’s freedom is gone, but another remains, for good people again pity the brave pariah boy and offer to adopt him. But Huck will not have: “I can’t stand it,” he said. “I been there before.”
Much has been made of these last chapters, in condemnation or approval. To some readers they certify Clemens’ inability to control plot, to others they reveal a compulsive attraction toward elaborate inventions such as Tom sawyer loved, but to still others they are exactly right, supplying an inevitable rounding out of tale and theme. And much has been made of the development of the development of Huck’s character, his initiation, or his disillusionment with the world and its ways, and especially the change in his attitude toward the Negro Jim whom he finally recognizes as a fellow being, more decent and honest then most of the white people who hold him and his kind in slavery. A few find special charm in the assumption that Huck does not develop in any fundamental sense at all, because as a child of nature he is changeless. But to all, it is Huck and his view of the world which secure for this book its high place among American writings.