Go West, young man.
Part of our summer vacation was spent on the banks of the Huzzah (pronounced “HOO-zah”) River in Steelville, Missouri, site of many a Beers family camping expedition back in the day. We waded. We fished. We threw rocks. We caught tadpoles. Erin caught a softshell turtle. If none of this sounds exotic to you, you are not a five-year-old boy.
One hundred fifty miles north of Steelville is Hannibal, Missouri — hometown to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A much larger river runs past Hannibal: the Mississippi. Twain said of that river that it was like a book with “a new story to tell every day.” His most famous book, set on that very river, is of course Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And as I (Ben) sat on the banks of the Huzzah in June, beholding its presence and witness to its slow, steady glide through time, I remembered a line Huck says about there being “no home like a raft,” because “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.”
No book was harder for me to teach this year than Huck Finn. No book seemed to have changed so much since I last read it twenty years ago. I do not know if I taught it well. If success is measured by how much students “like” a book, then (with one or two exceptions) I did not. But I wondered, as I stumbled through teaching it, how much Huck Finn is a book that — despite its permanent fixture in the American canon (“all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway) — really wants to be liked. Like its author, Huck Finn is an ornery, subversive beast, punching up and down. It’s also really funny, although my students seriously questioned the integrity of my sense of humor. Nonetheless, let’s begin.
What You Probably Remember About Huck Finn From High School: A young boy and a black man on a river. And that Tom Sawyer is in it. Tom and Huck’s stories overlap, but it’s important to keep them separate as well. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written first, nine years earlier) is the one where Tom and Huck discover the treasure in the cave. It’s also the one when Tom whitewashes the fence (or, more accurately, bribes other kids to paint it for him) and appears at his own funeral. He shows up early in Huck Finn to serve as a foil for Huck (Tom is the hopeless romantic; Huck is more pragmatic), then returns late in the novel to hijack the story, both in plot (he gets shot “rescuing” Jim) and theme (though we’d argue that this is intentional on Twain’s part, but no less problematic).
You might remember — especially if you hated English class and thought your teacher was a pedantic bore for insisting there was hidden symbolism (usually involving sex) behind everything — the delightful “Notice” that prefaces the novel, which we will include here in its entirety:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be executed; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
You may have read that and thought, “Mark Twain — my man!”, and assumed because your English teacher went on and on about what a satirical, troublemaking genius Mark Twain was, that said English teacher would, you know, take Twain at his word and not waste everyone’s time dwelling on motives and morals and plots and all that.
What a naive fool you were then.
You might remember, more than the actual plot of Huck Finn, all the controversy. Specifically that the n-word is used two hundred and nineteen times. Censorship has always swirled around Huck Finn; it most recently resurfaced in 2011 when the publisher NewSouth came out with an edition that replaced “nigger” with “slave.” One of the arguments NewSouth made was that this actually helped Huck Finn attain a broader readership, since squeamish school boards could theoretically substitute a version that would be less offensive. (As Toni Morrison said of such efforts, “It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”) Never mind that changing the words also changes the meaning, since meaning derives itself from language; that edition was largely ridiculed, notably by Larry Wilmore, back when he was the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show”:
Mark Twain put that word in for a reason … and [“slave” is] not even accurate. In the book, Jim is no longer a slave. He ran away. Twain’s point is he can’t run away from being a nigger.
Indeed, the word has different meanings — depending on who’s using it, how it’s being used, when it’s being used. Twain knew this; an astute reader knows this. For its boy adventure stylings and comical overtones, Huck Finn is anything but light. It demands an astute reader.
Let’s move on.
The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.
Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.
There is a shimmer to Twain’s portrait of white childhood in the antebellum era. But there are also murders, suicidal ideation, child abuse, and a profound satire on standardized education, and the ambivalent ways American parents both protect their children from, and provide them uncritical access to, popular culture. Huck Finn is a book about the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them — a disconnection so intimidating that, naturally, we placed this tribute to children’s alienation at the center of public school curricula.
Why We Think You Should Give Huck Finn A Reread: At its simplest, Huck Finn is the story of a boy who comes to see the worth in a man that the rest of society tells him is worthless. That’s a story that still resonates today.
“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” Morrison said. This is another way of saying that returning to Huck Finn will both reassure and unsettle, both challenge and reward you. It will also make you laugh. (The Shakespearean word salad in chapter 21 is a highlight, especially if you’re an English teacher.)
Levy argues that “Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness” — and added, in an interview, that “we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.” Rereading Huck Finn forced me to consider how far we’ve come since 1885 but also, sadly, how much we’re still stuck in the same place.
Finally, if for nothing else, rereading Huck Finn will remind you just how much since owes some debt to it. And it made me appreciate, again, one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:
For Toni Morrison’s full introduction to “this amazing, troubling book,” see here.