Friday, October 11, 2013

258. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

When I began Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Washington Square Press, 1968 (FP: 1884); 374 p) what I expected to find within the age-browned pages was the adventures of a delinquent child; the farthest being that his youthful exuberance led him to do something positive, else he would not have written the book. I expected the trickery and stubbornness that afflict children at that stage of growth and development: an insatiable and inquisitive mind; an insane attraction to danger; an unquenchable love for exploration; and a restless spirit. What I did not expect to find in this seminal work is an in-depth analysis of race. 

However, Mark Twain, in his prodigious mind, brought both the expected and unexpected in one hell of a book. To say that Huckleberry Finn is a seminal work on race is just as saying that a gold anklet is a trinket; it will be a gross understatement of this work. It is more than just seminal. Using the innocent, fun-loving, inquisitive Finn, allowed Mark Twain to deliberately analyse race relations and issues that would have been almost impossible with an older character imbued with the prejudices of the time. Twain's off-handed way of broaching topics will seem a mere happenstance to the not-too-careful reader. This reader might say that he was only stating facts and was not analysing. However, the careful reader will see otherwise. He will notice the deliberateness with which issues are raised and the unsettling responses they elicited. In this regard, this book is not different from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, another American Classic. The use of children in both novels brought out the reality of lives lived at the time, the inter and intra-race relations, in as neutral a way as possible, because children - unlike adults - are not inhibited by prejudices and are more likely to compare events and situations innocuously. (However, it must be stated that Huck Finn even at that age and as streetwise as he was, had to struggle with a chunk of these prejudices). Their logic is stunning and unaffected, or little affected, by their environment and upbringing. However, unlike Harper's classic tale, Twain - like the magician - deceives the reader with his story of a delinquent and adventuresome child, whilst beneath he plays the real cards - the analysis of race relations. This percolates into the unconscious mind, stays there, and rises to the fore when one tries to recollect the story. Any attempt at recounting this tale will lead one to, as Twain perhaps meant it to be, question the conscience of men at the time.

The Influence of Religion: The story is about Jim - a nigger, and Huckleberry Finn, as they each escaped from their lives in St. Petersburg, Missouri, albeit for different reasons. Huck, has faked his own death to escape an abusive, alcoholic and almost homeless father who locks him up in their single-unit cabin, and Jim is escaping from his Mistress - after overhearing her discuss the possibility of selling him. The two met on the island of Jackson and there the journey and adventure on the Mississippi river began; Jim with the intention to reach Cairo, in the free state of Illinois. It is during the journey that it dawned on Huck that he might be doing the wrong thing; that as a gentleman he should not help a slave to escape its owner especially since the owner - Miss Watson - had done nothing bad to him. Thus, when they came into contact with a group that was after five runaway niggers, Huck nearly gave Jim up. The ignorant Jim, hailing his friend's journey to the shore shouted
Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white gentleman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim. [115]
Huck later 'just felt sick'. And this true showmanship of friendship, at a point where he was nearly betrayed by a boy he considered a 'white gentleman', dissuaded Huck from telling on him. However, this feeling of betrayal, not of Jim but of his owner, would later come to gnaw at his conscience. He deemed it irregular to be seen consorting with a slave. 
And then think of me! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. [270]
Thus, even though the two had been travelling for some time and had faced and solved problems together, they were not a pair yet, and Huck was suffering from that daunting dilemma - society's reaction. So much a burden was this on his conscience that he figured this might be a sign from God pointing out his evil ways:
The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. [270-1]
Huck reasoned that perhaps if there was a Sunday School at where they were, he would have been taught that people who do what he was doing 'goes to everlasting fire'. He then decided to pray and release himself from such a burden; however, he could not utter a word and thought that it was so because his 'heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double.' The double Huck meant was the dilemma - the moral conflict - of keeping Jim and at the same time being right and righteous. After fighting with his conscience, reflecting on the times they had shared, their common humanity 'And ... thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing' and still he 'couldn't seem to strike no places to harden [Huck] against him', Huck said to himself:
All right, then, I'll go to hell. [273]
This is one of profound statement in the story. It was a decision that would bind Huck to Jim; not necessarily Jim to Huck for Jim was not privy to Huck's internal conversations and conflicts. Jim was bound to Huck by the laws that made Huck's race superior to Jim's. Huck therefore won the struggle between the individual's moral aptitude and society's moral turpitude, in situations when the latter becomes the norm and the former an aberration. He did this without necessarily denouncing the former.

Our inability to say 'all right, then, I'll go to hell' and do what we think is morally right has created a certain herd mentality among us as a people with its consequent refusal, on our part, to mull over and question the status quo. Our incapability to hold unique thoughts has resulted in the ease with which we are unifiedly bamboozled and deceived consistently with the same template of lies; for it takes courage to hold and express an opinion different to what the masses have been programmed to chorus. Not that the masses are wise; in fact, they are mostly fools, but strong and cannot tolerate uniqueness and deviants.
Cuss the doctor! What do we k'yer for him? Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town? [P.226]
This incapability to question authorities is the foundation of fundamentalism - religious, cultural, racial and others. It is significant to note how much harm had been caused by the parochial interpretation or misinterpretation of texts, most especially religious text. Yet, more significant is the realisation that such perpetrators, these fundamentalists, would usually say 'it is said...', not 'I say...'. Today, with the fight against racism almost won, it is easy for one to say, he or she could have behaved Finn-ly and chosen right. But to dare to think this is to submit to our kind's ability to retrospectively predict and explain events.

Twain is a freedom fighter; the ones who through their works show that there is another way. Most often, people say and do one thing that the alternative is lost on them. When the Phelps family arrested Jim based on the fake post promising to pay anyone who arrested him a bounty, they did it not because they hated Jim or blacks. In fact, they treated him well and Jim himself said so. They provided him with food (including watermelons) and bedding. But they also shackled and 'imprisoned' him. To them, it was normal and usual for a slave to be treated this way. It had become the norm, everybody did it. If they had been challenged, if there was anyone to do so, they would have laughed over its ridiculousness.

Inter- and Intra-Race Relations: The irony is that even though blacks were slaves and shackled it was almost never thought that they cherished freedom. The fact was that their thinking was done for them. Their masters determined when they ate, who they married, when they slept, when they woke up and almost anything. It therefore became the belief that the black man could not think for himself. However, Twain - again, off-handedly - destroyed this belief, almost. When Huck was consoling Jim about some money he had invested and lost in good time past, Jim responded:
Yes; en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. [61]
It is clear then that Jim loved freedom; however, sadly he loved it in terms of its worth in dollars. Thus, he was not completely free from the thoughts that floated around him; that discussed his worth pecuniarily. This filtered into the way blacks or the slaves related to themselves. The inter-race relation - mostly, between blacks and whites - was one of a master and a slave; superior and inferior; commander and subordinate. This became ingrained in the slaves' sub-conscious so that their thinking and even spontaneous behaviour were thus influenced and affected by that dichotomy. 

On the other hand, blacks seeing themselves as equals never tolerated each other easily. They vented their anger, consolidated from their mistreatment at the hands of their white masters, on themselves. Today, several years after the abolition of slavery and the breakdown of racism, black-on-black murder is still a problem. This behaviour, which has almost become genetic, could be traced back to such times. When Huck asked Jim what he would think should a man approach him and say 'Polly-voo-franzy' - a corruption of the French Parlez vous Francais, Jim responded
I wouldn' think nuffn; I'd take en bust him over de head - dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat. [Emphasis mine; 102]
This was what a harmless statement by a fellow nigger would have elicited from Jim. Though he did not understand what it meant, he would still have reacted violently towards a fellow black, if such a person had said this in his face. And he would not have thought about it. But if it had been a white, he would dare not, perhaps for fear of the consequences. This does not mean that Jim will not be hurt all the same, except that the colour of the accuser would have, in this instance, crippled him from acting. This pain would have been suppressed and vented on one of equal status.

Needless to say, the opposite was the case among whites. They respected each other and maltreated blacks and their kind who consorted with them. This was seen even in the relationship between Huck and Jim; though Huck was far younger than Jim and one would have expected that he would show respect and be under Jim's guidance, it was rather Jim who looked up to Huck, the leader. Huck, throughout the story, showed this superiority overtly. He frequently referred to Jim as his property and used words that are derogatory in its attribution, sometimes to save Jim from trouble but often times obliviously. Huck still considered helping a slave sinful and most of the time, thought of Jim only as slightly better than an imbecile, especially because of his superstitious beliefs.

The Phelps' plantation offered insightful assessment of race relations. Huck Finn thought that the 'vittles' the Phelps' slave was carrying was meant for the dogs, when he together with Tom Sawyer, who later joined Huck, were planning how to smuggle items to Jim in his hold-up 'cell'. And he only realised it was to the contrary when Tom informed him that it contained watermelon. The question therefore is what would have made Finn think the food was for the dogs? The dirty plates? The leftovers?

The mistreatment of blacks by whites did not end with mere derogatory references. The white masters and mistresses were also able to kill them at will without remorse, at the slightest provocations or none at all, usually to serve as an example to other slaves. All that would be required of these white murderers of slaves would be to pay for the cost of the slaves, in situations where the murdered slave was not their property. Hence, once one was able and willing to pay, or one owned the slave, killing him or her brought no consequence. This was what the people on the Phelps' farm would have done to Jim - hanged him - when they rearrested him after Tom and Huck had elaborately freed him from his 'cell'. In fact, the only reason they did not do it was that someone informed them that they might be asked to pay for the cost. Huck reasoned from this event that people are not prepared to pay for their fun even when it involved killing slaves for their satisfaction.
The men was very huffy, and some of them wanted to hang Jim for an example to all the other niggers around there, so they wouldn't be trying to run away like Jim done, and making such a raft of trouble, and keeping a whole family scared most to death for days and nights. But the others said, don't do it, it wouldn't answer at all; he ain't our nigger, and his owner would turn up and make us pay for him, sure. So that cooled them down a little, because the people that's always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain't done just right is always the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him. [362-3]
Another outcome of the white-black relationship was the burden of blame. Blacks were responsible for every crime even if it was clear that they could not have committed it. It was the easy thing to do. When Jim's escape coincided with Huck's supposed death - note that Jim's flight was illegal, whilst Huck's would have been right - Huck's father became a suspect, briefly. Later, everybody suspected Jim and this suspicion hardened into belief, even though all the people knew that Jim was calm and non-violent and could not have committed such an atrocious crime.

Thus, Twain - in the final analysis - poked fun at human conscience; at the easiness with which it allowed this antithetical and counteracting views and actions to co-exist in one society, and in one person. That the same society that believed itself civilised and morally astute, could not only accommodate but provide moral justifications for such depravities. Huck then became the embodiment of such conflicts: though he did not denounce society's norms of 'best' behaviour with regards to slaves, he also hanged on to his own moral arguments, which he thought made him a rebel or delinquent. In one of Huck's musings, he compared the conscience of men to a dog's, concluding that he would poison any dog of his whose conscience was not higher than that of man.
So we poked along back home, and I warn't feeling so harsh as I was before, but kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow - though I hadn't done nothing. But that's always the way; it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know more than a person's conscience does I would pison him. [294]
Language: The story is driven by dialogue written in the vernacular of the time. Though this is far from how English is currently spoken among average Americans, it does not detract. Rather, it reinforces the beauty and importance of this story as one of the greatest American Classics. It shows that Twain was not only embarking on an academic treatise on social relations but also was offering us a window into the real lives of real people. Besides, because it was written in the first person - by the less educated Huck - it makes more sense to use this vernacular that would likely have been spoken. In this regard Tutuola's The Palm Drinkard comes to mind.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a deeply revealing book. It is more than teenage jests; it is the distillates of society's conscience of the time, beautifully and magically delivered. This book has been consistently banned in schools across the United States because of its use of the 'N' word. Some have suggested taking it out - refining it. However, the book will lose a lot if such a thing is done for it underlines the importance and understanding of the novel.


  1. This book is one of the great treasures of U.S. literature. You hit just about every high point in it. The link to Tutuola is insightful - the use of the vernacular is half the fun.

  2. The last time you heard of me and Tom was in that book Sam Clemens wrote telling of when Jim and me flowed down the Mississippi and met up with the King and the Duke. Then Jim got captured and Tom and I had to set him free. Of course, Jim was already a freed man; Tom just neglected to mention that fact during the planning stage.

    Well, we were twelve years of age when Sam wrote about that. Now Tom and I are a mite older and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. One thing is that we’re a little bit smarter than we were. We’ve been reading a lot of books and our English has improved a little. But it wasn’t just books. Both Tom and I have traveled many miles, not always together, and travel broadens one’s outlook on life.

    We went from being children to men before we knew it. Tom and Becky Thatcher never got married like everyone expected. In the summer of '54, Becky ran off with a drummer. I think he sold women’s corsets, but of that, I am not certain. We haven’t heard from her since. Judge Thatcher and Tom’s Aunt Polly both took sick and died the next year when the Cholera epidemic passed through town. Two years after that, the widow Douglas died; the doctor said it was heart failure.


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