In 1876, the same year as the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
began work on another boy's tale of adventure along the Mississippi. After deciding that Tom
was unfit to narrate the book, Twain chose Tom's counterpart, the disreputable Huckleberry Finn
. Huck was already well known to an American audience thirsting for more of Twain's brand of humor, and Twain hoped to capitalize on his recent literary successes. Despite the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was a tumultuous time for America. Southern Reconstruction had fallen into disarray, and a new racism of segregation and condoned inequality replaced the slavery that had been abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Twain's original intention, as he stated to William Dean Howells, was to take "a boy of twelve and run him on through life (in the first person)." In the aftermath of the war and the failure of Reconstruction, however, the work quickly bogged down as the book began to address the issue of freedom and slavery; it was not a path that Twain was eager to take. After writing the first few chapters, Twain's inspiration for the tale began to fade, and he set aside the work to pursue other projects such as A Tramp Abroad (1880) and The Prince and the Pauper (1881).
In 1882, Twain again took up the manuscript and began developing the story of the young, white boy named Huck and the enslaved, black man named Jim. He worked sporadically over the next two years and finished the manuscript in July of 1883. Two years later, in February of 1885, Huck Finn reintroduced himself to American readers: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."
Huck's journey down the Mississippi River has been called an odyssey by some and a pilgrimage by others. Indeed, characteristics of each abound. Like Homer's Odyssey, the novel is episodic — that is, it is composed of a series of episodes — and in many ways Huck's adventure is a pilgrimage (a journey of exalted purpose or moral). Some consider the novel to be of the picaresque genre, which originated in Spain and depicts in realistic detail the adventures of a roguish hero, often with satiric or humorous effects. Others contend that Huck does not fit the role of rogue and that, therefore, the novel does not qualify as picaresque.
Twain did not consider the novel his best work, and he was completely unprepared for the reception that would follow. In a caustic review immediately following Huck Finn's publication, Life magazine condemned the book that contained graphic instances of nudity and death. The Concord Public Library followed by declaring the book held little humor and regarded it as the "veriest trash." And popular author Louisa May Alcott echoed the sentiments by saying that perhaps Twain should stop writing for American boys and girls altogether if this was the only work he could offer.
Although several initial reviews were negative, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was also quickly commended as an American classic for its expression of the American imagination. The ability to adapt to any situation, the tranquility and promise of the country's great river, and the colorful and varied characters that inhabited the vanishing frontier are all represented within its pages. These elements prompted one of the most famous observations about Huck Finn in 1935, when Ernest Hemingway remarked that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . . . . It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." The novel is, indeed, a masterful display of hoaxes, frauds, and pranks, all elements of American humor that Twain had explored in his own readings and previous writings.
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