WILLIAM MARKLEY feels Twain’s great novel has much to say to our age
The ticking of a clock on a mantelpiece – the joy of eating corn pone after a hard day – lights of a hillside village, seen from a raft on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn powerfully evokes the atmosphere of a long-ago America. Along with the details and flavours of everyday life, Twain looks at social problems, habits and moral quandaries that were significant before the American Civil War: slavery, mob violence, feuding families, hospitality to strangers, loyalties pulled in different directions. Some readers today will immediately assume how they would respond to such issues if they found themselves transported back to the 1840s. Yet Huckleberry Finn is concerned with timeless questions and inner struggles which aren’t as easily resolved as we might think. These loom large for the narrator Huckleberry, or Huck as he is known to his friends.
I befriended Huck Finn late in life. Although the book was long considered one of the greatest of American novels, it wasn’t among my schools’ required readings. I was a bookworm as a boy, but I avoided stories with children as principal characters. I wanted to read only about adults and their adventures. Little did I know how Mark Twain offered a narrative and a power of description that would grab a reader’s attention. Huck faces his inner dilemmas as he proceeds on an eventful trip along the Mississippi valley – and Twain weaves several unforgettable characters into the story—especially the runaway slave Jim.
I’m very fortunate to have an early-19th century clock. When I hear it ticking and chiming, I marvel at hearing the same sounds which meant something to people in Huck’s day, and which aren’t commonplace anymore. We still have many of the same yearnings, fears, and joys that people had when my clock was made. And yet, as the English novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” Americans in the first half of the 19th century had serious worries and troubles I don’t have: cholera, Indian attacks, how the crops would fare, and how many children in the family would survive the winter. All of us today make decisions about right and wrong, but I haven’t had to face the predicaments caused by slavery which plagued northerners and southerners.
Back to the book. Soon after Huck flees downriver to escape his abusive father, he encounters Jim, and the two develop a deep affection and appreciation for each other. Yet Huck grew up in a slaveholding society which stamped its values on him. His white family was destitute, without any slaves, but in this society everyone was expected to consider some people as the legal, legitimate property of others. Slaveholders’ rights were held sacred. At times, Huck is remorseful for going against the law and the feelings of Jim’s owner. Conscience for him isn’t the simple matter that it might seem to be, to one raised in a society that preaches egalitarianism or ‘equity.’ On the other hand, his torments resemble what we sometimes experience today when confronted with very different social matters. Ultimately, Huck decides that his loyalty to Jim and his commitment to help Jim find freedom override what society insists that he should do. Agonizing over this, he believes his conscience tells him that he’ll go to hell for this decision. His unsophisticated yet eloquent ruminations are memorable.
Such struggles might have rung true to thoughtful Southerners in the 19th century. Some of the most devoted soldiers of the Confederacy had principles regarding slavery which today’s readers might find surprising. General A. P. Hill was firmly against the institution, and he did not own slaves. “Stonewall” Jackson was very kind to his slaves, and, against the local laws, he devotedly taught them to read and write as part of a special “Sunday School” which he created for them. Some leaders, such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, believed that they offered their slaves better lives than would be available otherwise. Immediate emancipation might place former slaves in more dangerous conditions than they had lived under previously. Not all slaveowners considered these factors, but it’s undeniable that people of good will in the South found themselves in a situation without simple, easy answers. And over 600,000 men died trying to settle the issue.
While the West made tremendous, praiseworthy efforts in the 19th century to eradicate slavery, it still hasn’t gone away in the world. Various forms of human-trafficking are thriving, as the recent movie Sound of Freedom highlights. Most of us have been insulated from these all-too-hidden crimes, and yet the victims suffer as horribly as any slaves did in earlier eras.
Apart from slavery, there are other prominent moral issues which beg for our attention. We allow schools and other institutions to influence and indoctrinate our children in ways that earlier Americans would rightly find shocking, outrageous and deeply immoral, and we bow down meekly to governmental and corporate forces which our ancestors would have rejected with contempt.
C. S. Lewis aptly warned about the “chronological snobbery” of people who feel superior to those of the past. A prominent feature of ‘wokeness’ is a vicious form of this – an overwhelming disdain for our ancestors, based on historical ignorance and rampant self-regard. The destruction of monuments, memory-holing of politically incorrect writings, and transformation of public schools and colleges into indoctrination centers are among the manifestations – and of course there is the “cancelling” of individuals.
Huckleberry and other characters use coarse language, especially regarding race, which publishers and HR staff would now find shriek-worthy. Yet Mark Twain shows much more compassion, understanding, moral clarity and nuance about race, character and moral dilemma than many modern people will offer. And despite uttering words which would immediately get him cancelled today, Huckleberry clearly shows in his actions, and in his other words, that he loves others, no matter their race. Jim does the same, and is presented by Twain in a rounded way, rather than as an unblemished victim. Like Huck, he admits that he has acted in ways which he deeply regrets. Both characters are curious observers who sometimes think critically, yet sometimes succumb to superstition, as many of us still do. As T. S. Eliot says, Huck and Jim “are equal in dignity.”
One unforgettable episode, while Jim is absent for a time, is a tragic feud between two families. After Huck is nearly killed in a mishap on the river, he is cared for by a cultured family, the Grangerfords. The intriguing Colonel Grangerford is a sympathetic, strong character, but he and several members of his family are urged on by dire imperatives imposed by their clannish local society. In some regions of America, where law wasn’t as firmly established as elsewhere, family and tribal ties and obligations were much tighter than we see today. This could result in feuds lasting for generations, with later participants not even understanding the origins of the violence. In the case of the Grangerfords and their opponents, Eliot noted that Twain allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections.” My own reaction is that while the feud is undoubtedly a terrible folly, some of the Grangerfords show admirable loyalty to their own kin. Today, maybe we have strayed too far from such loyalty. Somewhere there’s a balance that should be sought.
For the most part, America has traveled far away from the kind of clannishness shown by the Grangerfords. We now have widespread rootlessness, and a separation from family and community. Many grandparents, parents and children live in different states, and social media doesn’t offer enough to make up for the distance. Neighbours rarely interact with each other compared with earlier times, when families frequently invited neighbors and even strangers over for a meal. This atomization has obviously grown more extreme with the growth of digital technology, and the influence of mass popular culture. In Huck’s day, the frontier encouraged some similar centrifugal tendencies, while it also offered opportunities to people who needed a fresh start. Mutual-assistance organizations strengthened community ties, even in frontier areas. These have almost completely vanished. A close-knit community can descend into a mob, as shown in Huckleberry Finn, yet something has clearly been lost.
Grimness isn’t the only mood of the book – far from it. And Twain has a way with describing the world of the Mississippi:
“Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”
As much as I like the book and find it thought-provoking, a few parts of it are unappealing to me. Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer makes a welcome appearance at first, yet his elaborate schemes for pushing Huck and Jim into 19th-century romantic adventure-novel scenarios become tiresome. Nevertheless, the lyrical passages, adventure narrative, well-drawn characters and realistic, perceptive portrayals of moral questions and resolutions more than make up for any weakness. People act kindly, cruelly and with mixed motives, and in some cases this is all demonstrated by a single character. Like most boys, Huck can be callous, and also kind and generous. In his thoughts he contradicts himself, as most of us do. Along the river he meets murderers, frauds and other unpleasant characters, along with people who are models of charity, and although he and his creator wouldn’t want themselves to be pigeonholed into any particular church or creed, Huck develops a very Christian ability to love his neighbors.
Twain had seen a lot of the world and of people by the time he wrote this book. Born in 1835, he grew up in small Missouri towns, worked a variety of jobs including riverboat pilot, spent time in the American far west, and settled down in the more established east. He knew too much to present simplistic characters and an overly sentimental story. And yet, as critic Fred Pattee wrote, Twain “was a knightly soul, sensitive and serious, a nineteenth-century soul who would protect the weak of the whole world and right their wrongs.” With Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows us a lost world, but he also helps us understand ourselves, if we’re willing to put our smartphones down for a while.
 Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953
 T. S. Eliot, “An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn”, in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Huck Finn, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004, p. 20
 Ibid, p. 19
 Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: The Century Co., 1915, p. 61
WILLIAM MARKLEY was born and raised in Ohio, in the United States, and currently lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He has worked in librarianship, government, and the corporate sector, and is currently a caregiver for elderly and disabled clients. He is an old-fashioned American anglophile, and an amateur historian, who has written on local history topics, and conducted oral history projects