To celebrate the centennial of its first publication, the University of California Press has brought out a handsome new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain himself complained a great deal about the “improvements” typesetters and editors made on his manuscript, so Victor Fischer and Walter Blair have carefully prepared this text by comparing the remaining manuscript with the first edition. (This text will also soon be published along with the original illustrations as part of the University of California Press’s Works and Papers of Mark Twain.) As the general editor, Robert H. Hirst, notes:
Their work has shown that Mark Twain meticulously revised even the finest details in the Pike County dialect of which he boasted, but that he also failed-inevitably-to guard against the intrusions of error. The edited text therefore comes closer to his wishes than the first edition in several thousand details of wording, spelling, and punctuation, as well as in one major passage that had been omitted altogether from Chapter XVI.
The editorial emphasis on the accuracy of the rendering of the various dialects corresponds to a widely held critical view of the excellence of the novel, that it was the first to give expression to a distinctively American voice or language. The plot, on the other hand, these critics argue, is fundamentally flawed.
Henry Nash Smith refers to the unsatisfactory character of the concluding section of the novel in his foreword to the centennial edition:
Under the spell of the powerful middle section of the book, the reader forgets how far he has been brought from Tom Sawyer’s St. Petersburg, until Mark Twain’s improvisation reaches its inevitable dead end with Jim chained in a cabin on the one-horse Phelps plantation down in Arkansas. . . . In any other place the preposterous “evasion” Tom contrives for Jim might seem highly amusing. Here it is embarrassing. . . .
To dismiss the end, however, is to miss both the careful organization and the major dramatic point of the novel.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain depicts not only a young boy’s withdrawal from civil society to live in nature but also his necessary return. To be sure, at first glance, Huck’s life on the river appears idyllic. Having evaded the supervision of both guardian and father, Huck can do as he pleases; and living outside both legal and moral conventions, the boy befriends a runaway slave. As Huck and Jim float down the river, we come to admire the ease and excitement of his existence much less than the naive moral sense which leads Huck finally to declare that he would literally be damned rather than see his black companion reenslaved. Huck clearly embodies the goodness of natural compassion. But Twain also shows the limits of compassion, for he shows that it does not suffice to secure either Huck’s or Jim’s liberty and life.
Impressed by the independent spirit and resourceful intelligence Huck displays on the river, often readers are dismayed when Huck reverts to his old habits and meekly follows Tom Sawyer as soon as he rejoins civil society. Was the amity and ease of Huck and Jim’s life in “the state of nature” merely illusory? That would seem to be Twain’s point when he shows that Huck has to return to civil society if he is really going to free Jim. Upon reflection readers realize that the runaway slave cannot possibly secure his freedom simply by floating down the Mississippi into slave territory. Even the white orphan Huck proves unable to maintain his independence from the force-based domination of adults when the “duke” and the “dauphin” board his raft. Huck has to return to civil society, Twain shows, because the force and fraud that characterize relations among men in “the state of nature” made it impossible to secure anyone’s right to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness outside the protection of the law. Jim does acquire his freedom at the end of the novel, but he does so through the operation of two forces Huck despises-religion (in the form of Miss Watson’s conscience) and law (in the form of her legal will and testament).
To dismiss the conclusion of the novel is thus to miss Twain’s irony. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that irony appears, in fact, in two forms. In the first place, Twain dissimulates. He does not tell the story himself; Huck, himself a problematic or ironic narrator, does. In the second place, the plot itself is clearly ironic. If the “point” is to free Jim, and Jim has really been free the entire time, Huck’s “adventures,” including his famous battles with his “conscience,” are as irrelevant as they are ineffective. At the end of the story, we cannot help but ask, therefore, what the point of the story really is.
Introducing himself at the beginning of his narrative, Huck points to the difference between character and creator: “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. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth” (p. 3). Where Twain explicitly writes under a pseudonym, and so is evidently artful, his narrator, an untutored, obviously rather naive boy, appears to be entirely truthful. Although we see Huck assume a series of false identities by telling a series of corresponding “stories” on the river, we believe that he is sharing his inmost thoughts with us, because he “confesses” his errors. For example, after Huck has lied to protect Jim from slavehunters, he reports:
They went off, and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and 1 see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right. . . . Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on,-s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad-I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?
Twain’s post-Civil War readers are apt, of course, to praise Huck for precisely the feelings he himself castigates. But the implicit contrast Twain draws between the perspective of the reader and the perspective of the narrator is just the beginning of the irony of his tale.
In the original manuscript, Huck’s confrontation with the slavehunters was preceded by an incident Twain subsequently cut at the urging of his publisher, who wanted him to shorten Huck Finn to make it more saleable as a companion volume to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The editors of the centennial edition have restored this incident, which has particular relevance to the role of Huck as narrator, because it involves the retelling of one man’s story by another; that is, it replicates Huck’s relation to Twain. In the restored portion, the raftsman Ed retells the story of Dick Allbright to entertain his fellows (and perhaps to warn them against violence-two have just been fighting). Dick’s story is a cover or lie, which becomes a confession when the truth about the “haunted” barrel is finally revealed. When the captain of the raft hauls the barrel on board, Dick admits that the dead baby they find inside is his; he killed it “accidentally” he claims, and jumps overboard. Like Dick, Huck suppresses a central piece of information-that Jim was really free all the time-to be revealed only at the end of his story and then by Tom Sawyer. And also like Dick, Huck concludes by stating his intention to “light out,” or escape. Where Dick was convicted by the evidence, however, Huck is finally exonerated. Why, then, we are led to ask, does Huck tell his story and “confess”?
Upon reflection we realize that Huck tells his story for the same reason his “respectable” friend Tom Sawyer agrees to help free Jim. (By having Huck masquerade as Tom at the end of the novel, Twain indicates that the two boys are in some fundamental respect interchangeable.) Because Jim is already free, the boys haven’t actually done anything illegal. By telling his story, Huck does not really confess to a crime, therefore, so much as he strives to show the good citizens of St. Petersburg that his “adventures” are truly just examples of “innocent” boyish hi-jinks. If he does not gain fame and fortune by writing, Huck will at least convince parents that it is not dangerous for their sons to play with him. (If we follow Huck’s suggestion in his introduction and refer to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we discover that all the boys in St. Petersburg were forbidden to associate with Huck.)
Huck concludes by stating, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (p. 412). When Huck first left civil society, we recall, he did not rebel against it on principle. On the contrary, we see on the river that he fully accepts conventional standards of right and wrong (including slavery). He repeatedly runs away because he finds conventional constraints uncomfortable. But, we also repeatedly see, he values fellowship more than his physical comfort and ease. Rather than continue to float down the river on his own, Huck thus returns to civil society in order to free his friend Jim. Even at the very beginning of the novel, given the choice between escaping the life of rigid manners and morals at the Widow Douglas’s or joining Tom Sawyer’s gang, Huck comes back. Huck does not merely want to escape the uncomfortable restraints of civil society. He also wants to be a member of a society, if primarily on his own terms.
But if the “rebel” Huck tells his story, ironically, in order to gain a place for himself in “respectable” society, why does Twain present us with this ironical tale? At first glance it seems that the author, like Ed the raftsman, merely wishes to entertain.
Twain explicitly separates himself from his narrator at the very beginning of the novel by prefacing the story with both a “notice” and an “explanatory” by “the author.” In the “explanatory” he stresses the precision with which he has rendered the various dialects, and in the “notice” he warns: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Twain’s disclaimer also has to be read ironically, however. In the first place, he obviously lacks the power or “authority” to carry out his threats, as he himself reminds us by signing the notice “by order of the author, per G. G., Chief of Ordnance.” Whether “plot” simply means “story” or more sinister “conspiracy,” moreover, plots certainly abound, both as a clear story line and as schemes to fool parents and to free Jim.
Twain simply did not present his lesson directly. “Humor must not professedly preach or professedly teach,” he observed in his Autobiography, “but it must do both if it is to live forever. I have always preached. . . . If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same. . . .”
Does Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then, have a moral implicit, if not explicit in the story? Viewed as a whole, Twain’s depiction of life in the “state of nature” appears to be a ringing endorsement of the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence-first and foremost, that all men are created equal. Jim’s concern for the integrity of his family, his willingness to risk life and limb to live as a free man, and his devotion to his young white friends all demonstrate that the black slave is the equal, if not the better of any white depicted in the book. Slavery is clearly based on force and convention, contrary to nature, and just plain wrong. All men may be endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, as the Declaration further teaches, but to secure those rights, they have to establish governments. Neither Jim nor Huck (nor the Wilks’ heirs nor anyone else in the novel) can secure either life or property from the designs of others except through the agency of law. When these laws fail to secure life and liberty, men like Jim have a right “to alter and abolish them,” that is, to rebel. The rule of law is important, but, uninformed by a sense of the natural goodness of human life Huck represents so powerfully, that law will be unjust.
On the other hand, Twain also shows that, like Huck, Americans do not understand their own political principles. For example, after the Revolution, they continued to hold slaves. Not understanding those principles, like Huck, most Americans regard government essentially as a restriction of their freedom through force. Americans do not understand the principles upon which their government is founded, Twain further shows in the depiction of his two most famous, most quintessentially “American characters,” because those principles are not altogether true to human nature. By nature, human beings do not regard each other as equals; like Tom Sawyer, they would rather pretend they are better. Nor are they apt to join a social contract in which they give up their natural liberty in order to secure peace and prosperity. Like Huck, they would rather continue to try to evade conventional restraints.
“While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the funniest book ever written by an American,” Smith concludes, “it is also much more.” Indeed, it is. It is one of the most serious critiques of American political principles ever written. One hundred years later, that critique is still worth pondering.