No author before Twain had been able to blend the American condition in such a fascinating and engaging manner. It is not surprising then, that 115 years later, close to 1,000 different editions of Huck Finn
have been published since the novel first appeared as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade)
. The translations number more than 100, and the amount of scholarly articles and books continue to dominate the study of American literature. Critical interpretations run the gamut from expansive social commentary of post-Reconstruction in the South, to linguistic interpretations of the African-American voice, to exploration of dark humor and the mythical trickster character. The book has continued to invite exegesis and ignite controversy, and its position as an American classic appears to be ensured.
Simply put, the book continues to thrive because of its original narrative style, its realistic subject matter, and its depiction of loyalty and sacrifice, regardless of the consequences. Unlike former southwestern humor characters, such as George Washington Harris' Sut Lovingood and Johnson J. Hooper's Simon Suggs, Huck does not rely upon an authoritative, gentleman narrator to introduce the story or help explain its significance. There is no doubt that Twain drew heavily upon his literary predecessors for inspiration, but Huck's story is his own. He tells it from his own boyish point of view, free from any affectation, underlying motive, or purpose. In doing so, Twain created a completely original American voice. As Twain scholar Hamlin Hill noted in his introduction to the centennial facsimile edition: "No major writer before Mark Twain had dared to liberate, without explanation or apology, the common character to tell his own story in his own language, and so to dramatize a realistic version of the average American."
Twain did more, however, than depict a realistic version of an average American boy, he also presented the squalid and cruel environment of the South in a brutal and raw manner, including its use of the horrid and offensive term, "niggers." The unabashed narrative approach to racism and the American condition prompted American author Langston Hughes to comment that Twain's work "punctured some of the pretenses of the romantic Old South." By allowing Huck to tell his own story, Twain used his realistic fiction to address America's most painful "sacred cow": the contradiction of racism and segregation in a "free" and "equal" society.
It is ironic that Huck Finn is currently banned in several school libraries for its content and language. Twain's original fears were also of censorship, yet his concern was that the novel would be denounced because of its positive portrayal of Jim and its realistic depiction of the South. To mask his content, Twain infused satire and dark humor throughout the novel. Thus Huck's tale is filled with both moments of childish adventure and instances of biting satire.
The rhetorical coupling of childhood fantasies and death is subtle, and yet the technique of providing the dream of the perfect boyhood allows Twain to use subsequent incongruities for the purposes of social satire. Huck's literal attitude is, at the same time, puerile and mature. In the childlike guise, he views his surroundings in a sensory manner; his environment is constructed and solidified by what he sees and hears. In the adult guise, Huck displays an uncanny wisdom that goes beyond his years as he subconsciously conveys to his readers that beneath the illusion of a carefree world is a country filled with self-doubt. Because Huck is literal, he sees through the idealism and brings about a sobering and realistic revelation.
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