The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.
While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”
Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.
The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.
Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”
Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.
At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.
The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.
Huck, who’s grown up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.
Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Mark Twain’s death in 1910.
In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.
A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.
To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.
The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.