I know it’s foolish to try to nominate a single work of art (or anything else for that matter) as quintessentially American (or anything else for that matter). It’s a parlor game akin to desert isle choices and the favorite child. Nonetheless, if you asked me to think of the most representative of American of artworks, I’d truthfully choose Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a heartbeat. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to decide what came in second. Hemingway famously said that American literature begins with this “one book by Twain,” and there has been “nothing as good since.” Even an avant-gardist like Laurie Anderson seems to recognize the unique way in which Huck Finn captures the spirit of America. Her 1984 six-hour, four-part performance art extravaganza was called United States and she concluded it with a short piece entitled “Lighting Out for the Territories,” a paraphrase of Huck’s plans for his next adventure.
I was lucky with Huck Finn; I was never required to read it in school and so encountered it for the first time in my early twenties. I’d read plenty of short works by Twain, and had laughed heartily through them, but I was still surprised by how much plain old fun Huck was. Of course, in recent years the book has become beleaguered by the controversy surrounding Twain’s liberal use of the work “nigger,” and somehow the book has lost its luster as a comic masterpiece, at least in editorial discussion.
So I decided, forty years after my first go, that it was time to read the book again.
It’s every bit as good, and as funny, as I remember it; maybe even better. There’s an elegance to the plotting and structure of the novel that complements the knowing wink with which Twain perpetually addresses us readers. Huck’s naiveté is a blind for true sophistication (that we can appreciate as much as Twain does); his guilelessness is matched by his craftiness, his willingness to deceive by his unimpeachable honesty. It’s clear that Twain has both a high regard and a soft spot in his heart for his creation; we as readers, and more importantly as Americans, do too. Huck is who and what we all want to be. Well, at least us white folk.
There are a few fundamental dichotomies that structure the world that Huck lives in and in which he and Jim (and to a lesser degree Tom Sawyer) have their adventures. Perhaps the most obvious and important one in the story is the distinction between the river and the shore. The river is freedom, movement, adventure, and high spirits. When Huck and Jim are on their raft they abide in an Edenic, uncomplicated world. (The prelapsarian quality of this existence is marked by the unashamed nakedness of the pair as they are carried along on the current.)
In contrast, the riverbank towns are almost always locations of imprisonment and conformity of one sort or another. From the start, the widow is civilizing the restless Huck until his pap shows up and literally imprisons the boy in a cabin further upstream. Later in the book the towns along the river threaten the freedom of runaway Jim, and become sites of danger thus for Huck, who is complicit in the slave’s escape.
When the pair meet up with the Duke and the King, their adventures ashore are another kind of imprisonment, forced as they are to go along with the ever more elaborate and dangerous schemes of these faux royals. Even in the extended concluding episode, when Jim is literally taken prisoner and in danger of being sold down the river, Huck himself has to submit to the madcap Romantic ideals of Tom Sawyer as they plot, in an ever more baroque and ludicrous fashion, to rescue Jim and make their escape back onto the river.
If being ashore means being somehow imprisoned, or at the least, in someone else’s control, that lack of freedom is manifested as well in questions of identity. Whenever Huck is ashore, he is almost always in disguise or under an assumed identity. He masquerades as a girl to discover if there’s news of himself and Jim abroad; he plays the supporting actor in the scams the Duke and the King perpetrate. Finally, and most absurdly, after Jim has been captured, he assumes Tom Sawyer’s identity at Aunt Sally’s, forcing Tom to impersonate his brother Sid when he arrives.
It is only on the river that the boys can be themselves, and here again, their nakedness as they float downstream suggests the truth of their identities aboard the raft: nothing hides who they are and they have to hide from no-one.
They don’t have to hide on the raft because they travel by night: the darkness hides them and keeps them safe. Is it ironic (as well as naturalistic) that it is only in the blackness of night that Huck and Jim are free? If the river is freedom, it is also a darkness that the two share, in contrast to the differing colors of their skin.
This pair of refugees is bound together by the very essence of being (Jim) and abetting (Huck) a runaway slave. Huck knows that what he’s doing is illegal and dangerous and in some way wrong; but he can’t do otherwise. To turn Jim in, to condemn him once again to slavery and to deny Jim the chance of ever being reunited with his family, is impossible. Such an act would violate the very core of Huck’s identity. If Huck is so sympathetic to Jim’s plight, so assured of the rightness of his own actions in keeping Jim free, what are we to make of his persistent use of the word nigger to describe Jim?
Huck never uses any other word. At the time at which the action of the book takes place—prior to the Civil War—the most common term for Africans and their descendants (at least according to Google’s ngram viewer) was “negro.” Twain uses the word only in his “Author’s Notice” to describe a dialect he employs in the book. The next most common term in the Google corpus is exactly “nigger,” which outstrips “coon” by far; “darkie” is rare in comparison. So the available choices, largely, were “negro” and “nigger,” and the latter is clearly more degrading.
I’d argue that its use highlights Huck’s heart, rather than his mind and mouth. Twain’s “Author’s Note” tells us that “The shadings [of dialect] have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly….” Huck speaks as he was brought up to speak, but he acts solely upon his conscience, and Twain’s unvarying choice of the word “nigger” demonstrates the difference.
On the campus of my university in the American South there was a building named after a prominent politician in our state who flourished in the years after the Civil War. He was also a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. A furious debate went on for months recently over whether the building should be renamed. (I’ll point out as an aside that the lines were not drawn with respect to race, as one might expect.) One sides argued that erasing history does not undo its legacy; the other than honoring that history honors that legacy.
It would be difficult to erase The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from American literary history, and self-defeating to try. I would argue that to bowdlerize is to rob it of one of the chief strategies for articulating its argument about the equality of the races. If anything, the book demands more from education, not less. I just hope that in the process, nobody attempts to make Huckleberry Finn cramped up and sivilized.