America has undergone incredible changes in the 100-plus years since the publication of Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, and yet opening this book transports us unfailingly to the antebellum South, to a time of steamships and slavery, of widespread illiteracy and its attendant superstitions. A native of Missouri and former Mississippi riverboat pilot, Twain knew this place and its people intimately, from their accents and idioms – dogs my cats, blame it all, raise whoopjamboreehoo – to their innermost fears and ambitions. He knows what goodness resides in them, and what evil, and he burlesques both with equal delight, and the instrument of his satire is Huckleberry Finn himself, a young boy, son of the town drunk, far more clever and independent-minded than he gives himself credit for.
Huck is our narrator, the most famous in American fiction, and his voice distinguishes itself from the beginning, even from his author: “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.” Huck was introduced to us in Tom Sawyer, which ends with him receiving a considerable sum of money – enough to live well on for the rest of his life – and this level of comfort grates both him and his author, for no adventures can be had from such comfortable beginnings. Adopted by a widow bent on “sivilizing” him with the fear of God, Huck knows himself to be temperamentally unsuited to the life of a gentleman, and so when his alcoholic father kidnaps him in an effort to get at his fortune, he seizes the opportunity to escape down the Mississippi on a raft, joined by a runaway slave, Jim, who has caught word that his owner plans to sell him “down South,” where his life would be considerably more uncomfortable. The premise is widely familiar; it is the execution that has made this book timeless.
Twain’s great coup is to filter his observations about Southern society through the eyes of Huck Finn, who cannot help but notice some very odd behaviors among the adults he encounters. Their faith in prayer, for example, stumps Huck, for pray as he might for practical things – a fishing line and hooks, for example – they never materialize. Next he notices the hypocrisies, or at least the contradictions, of the “upright” adults who would have him emulate their example: the aunt who condemns smoking even as she takes snuff; or the 30-year feud between the well-to-do, respectable families, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, who shoot each other on sight for reasons they no longer even comprehend. But the greatest contradiction, the one most scathingly described, is the contrast between the outwardly moral society – the insistence on propriety and honesty and standards of behaviour that chafe a young boy – and the institution of slavery, so deeply woven into the fabric of Southern society that it passes almost without any explicit comment from Huck. What he does notice – what he cannot help but notice – is the humanity of his friend Jim. Early in the novel, when Jim has had his first tastes of freedom, Twain gives us this exchange:
Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free – and who was to blame for it? Why, me.
This is the first instance of what will become a recurring theme: Huck feeling guilty for what he knows to be a violation of the laws and morals of the South, even as understands, on a deeper level, their inherent injustice. By running away with an escaped slave, Huck is complicit in an act of thievery, and at several times, when the opportunity to betray his friend presents itself – indeed, when it would be the convenient thing for him to do – he succumbs to a bad conscience about this. And yet, every time he is tested, he sides with the escaped slave, whose humanity Huck cannot fail to notice. On several occasions, for example, Huck wakes up early and catches Jim crying, and he has no trouble intuiting why: “He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their’n.” Not ten pages later, Huck will note the deceitful, cheating behaviour of a pair of white confidence men, who have lied and bullied with their every breath: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.” He has, in his innocence and his essential honesty, intuited the moral hypocrisy at the center Southern society.
It had been more than a decade since my last reading of Huck Finn, and I was glad – and unsurprised – to discover that so much of it had remained vivid in my memory. There is a vitality in this novel that instantly sets it apart, and that goes a long way towards explaining its enduring influence and popularity. And there is a powerful moral voice at work here, sheltering an important and enduring truth, and reminding us of the power fiction has to hold a mirror to society, to show us our ugliness – but only when we have the courage to look.