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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CLIII. Huck Finn Comes Into His Own
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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.
--[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
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--[See Life on the Mississippi, chap. xxvi.
Mark Twain himself, as a cub pilot, came near witnessing the battle he
describes.]--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
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
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