Literary Essays On Huckleberry Finn

Not a small amount of debate bubbled up recently over the plans of the publisher NewSouth Books and the scholar Alan Gribben to release censored editions of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Their intention, they say, is to offer versions of these texts that are cleansed of their most hurtful racial epithets, so as to enable continued teaching of the books in this era when Huckleberry Finn has all but disappeared from young classrooms.  The issue was addressed from a variety of perspectives in a New York Times roundtable.

This plan to radically alter one of the most important novels in American history sent us back to an essay on Huckleberry Finn by the great Ishmael Reed, one that was included in our New Literary History of America. In the essay, presented here in full, Reed offers a characteristically sharp take on Huck Finn that, read in the context of this debate, makes clear the importance of Twain’s original language to the book’s continued power.


Mark Twain's Hairball

Ishmael Reed

Structurally, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of an escaped black slave named Jim and a young white boy named Huck floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, is about as solid as a New Orleans levee and, beginning with the entrance of Tom Sawyer, seems to implode, but its epic sweep is impressive, its characters, both major and minor, engaging, and the novel tells us a good deal about how nineteenth-century Americans lived—as well as what has changed and what hasn’t.

The characters are given to excessive speech-making, and some of it is reminiscent of the form of tall-tale-telling prose poetry Muhammad Ali gets credit for inventing. “I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!” one of Twain’s characters boasts. “Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’ed by an earthquake, half-brother to cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on my mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing!” Some of Twain’s characters use gab to hustle the gullible; today they would be on Madison Avenue, and then as now using advertising to attract customers to their dubious wares. Even Jim, one of the few characters in the book with anything close to integrity, has a game. He peddles a hairball removed from the innards of an ox that, he claims, can solve mysteries and predict the future—if you feed it with money. An early talking head.

The novel is Twain’s hairball, a prescient book that lays down patterns of race relations in American life, just as the hairball represents the superstitious thinking not only of Twain’s time, but, when twenty-first-century presidential candidates appeal to millions of voters by claiming that the earth is 8,000 years old, of ours. Superstition takes many forms: when Twain wrote, Americans were as easily turned into mobs by rabble-rousers as they are today. Once it might have been characters like “the duke” and “the king,” the fast-talking con artists who take over Huck and Jim’s raft; in our time their place is taken by talk-show hosts as well as by those who are considered part of the nation’s intellectual elite. It was the noted commentator Charles Krauthammer who created the “crack baby” scare: part of a wider effort to paint blacks as subhuman, and a hoax.

The duke and the king provide Twain with an opportunity to poke fun at the awe with which their American cousins view European royalty. But even now, networks raise their ratings by appealing to the insatiable curiosity of Americans about the British royalty. Vanity Fair and other publications regularly feature royal doings for the entertainment of the upscale, white, second-generation Americans whose forebears were regarded as among the genetically damaged. In 2007, Helen Mirren received an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and hours of television are still devoted to Princess Diana, who has been dead since 1997. The duke and the king, so successful in their impersonations that they are able to fleece wide-eyed Americans of their money, were merely there first—and they themselves are a mirror of the impersonation of royalty that was the antebellum South. “Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see,” we hear of one member of the Southern fake aristocracy. “He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well-born, as the saying is”—yet his family is meting out mindless violence to its enemies, the Shepherdsons, who are, like the Grangerfords, “high-toned, and well-born, and rich and grand.” In their dedication to murdering each other, both families have been nearly emptied of male members.

Both Jim and Huck are fugitives from another form of violence: domestic violence. Huck escapes from his father’s beatings. Jim escapes from the “rough” treatment of Mrs. Watson, a white woman who inflicts physical as well as psychological damage on the captive, threatening to sell him “down the river.” She not only owns slaves, she participates in the breakup of the black slave family, the central issue of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which borrowed so liberally from Josiah Henson’s 1849 autobiography that the black nationalist and Reconstructionist Martin Delany proposed, in a letter to Frederick Douglass, that Stowe’s publisher pay Henson five thousand dollars). Through Huck’s eyes, focusing first on two white women, Twain renders these disunions in an effective though melodramatic scene: “So the next day after the funeral, along about noontime, the girls’ joy got the first jolt. A couple of nigger traders come along, and the king sold them the niggers reasonable, for three-day drafts as they called it, and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to New Orleans. I thought them poor girls and them niggers would break their hearts for grief: they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town.” Even though the white women in this scene are attached to the blacks, the blacks are still slaves under their control. Twain’s descriptions and those of others show that they could wield a whip with the best of them.

Jim commits violence against one of his daughters, not realizing she is deaf—but unlike the women who cooperated with the vile institution of slavery, Jim expresses remorse. Jim might have been surprised by the ignorant comment of Michiko Kakutani, who, in a review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved written when Kakutani was the most powerful literary critic in the United States, concluded that black men, during the slavery period, treated black women in the same manner that white men treated blacks. “Whites carelessly beat, rape and maim their slaves, sell them for a price and kill them for a lark; and in this world,” she wrote, “. . . a similar violence festers between black men and women, between parents and their children.” Perhaps Ms. Kakutani hasn’t toured plantations where she could have observed the instruments of torture, or, as I have in Ghana and Martinique, seen the slave dungeons where rebellious men were held. Or perhaps she, who slanders black men while honoring the misogyny of Saul Bellow, is the kind of critic, one among many, who experiments on black men but has a Stockholm-syndrome relationship with white authors. Perhaps she wasn’t aware that those who trafficked in blood forced black women to undergo painful medical experiments without anesthesia, or that most of the cadavers used in nineteenth-century medical experiments were those of black men. Black men didn’t have the equipment to inflict the same kind of damage on black women that white slave masters, both male and female, possessed to apply to both genders of slaves. I would be remiss in not subjecting such dangerous fantasies to the most severe form of evisceration, since such propaganda influences public opinion—and indirectly public policy.

Slavery being a more valuable mid-nineteenth-century American enterprise than all others, throughout the pages of Twain’s book Jim is much sought after. In fact, along with William Quantrill, the James Brothers, whose exploits have been celebrated by Hollywood in nearly a hundred years of pro-Confederate Westerns (with, at first, Jesse James portrayed by his own son, Jesse James, Jr.), murdered 180 people in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, for being “negro thieves.” The thin glue that holds Twain’s plot together is the pursuit of Jim by different characters. Jim is no fool, and has learned like other captives to outmaneuver the whites with whom he comes in contact, sometimes through flattery. At one point he salutes Huck as “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.” Even Huck, whose attitude toward Jim is ambivalent (in our century he would be a Nation-magazine progressive), has to admire his cleverness. “Jim had a wonderful level head for a nigger,” Huck says. “He could most always start a good plan when you wanted one.” There are other moments in the book that show the cunning blacks had to develop in a society where they could be punished or even murdered at a white person’s whim. When relaying a message from Jim to Huck, a slave invites Huck to inspect a nest of moccasins.

The book is a festival of what linguists call code switching, and of identity changing, where in order to get out of a jam characters must create bogus biographies on the spot. Another thing that hasn’t changed: blacks as criminal suspects. Whether blacks are homeless or university professors, they are constantly under surveillance by department stores, banks, and the police. Under the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, 35,000 black and Hispanic men in the city were stopped and frisked without cause; even the federal government admits to racial profiling. When Huck has to cover his commission of a crime, he blames it on blacks and is believed. As in Twain’s time, many American whites believe that their morality is higher than that of blacks; even Huck’s father, a drunk and a ne’er-do-well, accords himself higher status.

Of all the white characters in Huckleberry Finn, it is Huck’s father who best represents white, mainstream attitudes toward blacks in our own time. Though blacks are presented in the media as intellectually slothful, with constant reference to blacks who view reading as a “white thing,” the reading and math scores of Americans would lag behind those of whites in many other countries even were no Hispanics or blacks included. To be elected president in the United States, one must avoid appearing too intellectual or bookish. Huck’s father punishes Huck for his learning: “Well, I’ll learn her [Miss Watson] how to meddle. And look here—you drop that school, you hear? I’ll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better’n what he is.”

Like many contemporary white Americans, Huck’s father doesn’t want blacks to appear to be “better’n” what they are. He complains to Huck about a black who doesn’t know his place.

Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t man in town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful-est gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fesser in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home.

With this speech, Twain exposes a consciousness that still exists among many white Americans. The three blacks who were lynched in Memphis in 1892, as described by Ida B. Wells in “Lynch Law in America,” were murdered by a mob not for raping white women but for being too prosperous; they were followers of Booker T. Washington. In the twenty-first century, black voters are not deterred from voting by mobs, as was the case during the Confederate restoration, but by identification laws, vote caging, and subtler methods. Biographies of Colin Powell and Ralph Ellison, who was described by Robert Penn Warren as “every white man’s favorite black man,” chronicle the countless humiliations they endured so that they would never forget their place—to the point where, at a cabinet meeting, George W. Bush had Powell, as the secretary of state, locked out of the room because he was a minute late, forcing him to knock on the door to gain admission. How different from Huck’s Pap, who has a candor missing from today’s think-tank scholars and op-ed writers, who hide behind graphs and junk science to say what the old man said in plain words.

Mark Twain caught his time and place in a manner that statistics and policy papers can never approach. Twain takes the reader into the interiors of an age; he takes us into the minds of those who inhabit an age. While movies like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation give us an age through distorted and narrow lenses, a great novel permits us to enter an age and take our time and mosey about. Twain is often criticized for the supposed crudity of his portrait of Jim, but his Jim cares about his family, finds a way to survive in the wilderness, and is a sympathetic character struggling against forces that are insurmountable. By contrast, the black male characters in the work of Bellow, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, David Mamet, and that of a number of feminist writers, black and white, including Gloria Steinem, Barbara Smith, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan, are ignorant, bestial sexual predators exclusively, like the typical portrait of minority men in the media of the Nazi regime, a portrait that did and does make it possible for harsh social actions to be taken against them. But when, finally, Huck literally aches for Jim, missing Jim’s calling him “honey,” and “petting him,” Twain, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nathanael West, takes us to the very bottom of the American psyche, where the visibility is zero. Huck cries, “I want my nigger,” like the children of the suburbs who are addicted to gangster rap, like the white Southern children after the Civil War who craved their coon songs from New York. Twain exposes this bizarre hunger, this exotic yearning of those who despise blacks yet wish to imitate them. Who wish to be called “honey” by them. Who wish to be “petted” by them. Who wish to burn them, cut out their very entrails, and take them home with them. If you can’t give us our nigger, they seem to say, we’ll make do with Elvis. The late Rick James asked an interviewer why there was more interest in Michael Jackson’s trial for child molesting than in the war in Iraq, where the American occupation was causing ethnic cleansing and the deaths of tens of thousands. The same might be said of the near-pathological fascination with the doings of O. J. Simpson. Twain knew. I want my nigger!

(Electronically reproduced from A New Literary History of America, by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, eds, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.)

For more about A New Literary History of America, and for the full text of another handful of its more than two hundred essays, visit

. . .he ain’t no slave; he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth.
Tom Sawyer spilling the beans about Jim.
We’re free . . . We’re free . . .
Linda Loman at Willy’s graveside.

Freedom is America’s abiding subject, as well as its deepest problem. I realize full well that I am hardly the first person to ruminate about the yawning gap between our country’s large promises and, its less-than-perfect practice, much less the first to comment on the ways in which 19th-century America struggled with the “peculiar institution” known as slavery. But I am convinced that the way these large topics find a local habitation in the pages of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is yet another instance in which George Orwell’s prophetic words ring true: “It is the first duty of intelligent men to restate the obvious.” What Twain means to test out in Huck’s idiosyncratic telling of how he and Jim made their way down the river is nothing less than what freedom in America means, and does not mean.

Critics of Twain’s novel generally shy away from what makes it simultaneously disturbing and important. So, let me offer the following proposition in the spirit of plain Orwellian speech: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that does not blink about all that militates to keep genuine freedom under wraps and in control. Just as the book is as wide as the Mississippi on which many of its most memorable moments are set, it is also wide enough to take on the full range of American culture—from those elements out to elevate to those which run the gamut from the lower-browed to the downright coarse.

At this point, a thumbnail sketch of how the novel has been read, and misread, may be helpful. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn began its long, complicated history as America’s most controversial novel shortly after its publication in 1885, when the well-meaning members of the Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee decided to exclude the book from its shelves on the grounds that the story was, in their words, “trashy and vicious.” The trouble with Mr. Clemens, they went on to say, was that he had “no reliable sense of propriety.” They were, of course, right about this, even if their rightness rather resembles that of a busted watch that tells correct time twice a day. What they worried about, between the words of their carefully crafted objections, is that Twain’s novel would corrupt the young—of Concord and, presumably points west and south. The charge is a very old one and has been leveled against those, from Socrates onward, who were regarded as corrupters of the young.

In Twain’s case, what he did that so upset the moral arbiters of Concord is boldly announced in the novel’s second sentence: “That book [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer], Huck tells us by way of introduction] was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” The operative word is truth, although we get a pretty good idea about who Huck is and what he stands for by way of his qualifying “mainly.” I shall have more to say about the “mainly” later, but for the moment, let me concentrate on what it means to tell the truth and thus begin our journey down a long, complicated path. One should be aware, for example, that truth-telling, properly understood, is not always what Huck had in mind or what many of Twain’s readers imagined when they went about separating lies from the truth. Truth, in short, is one of those words—slippery, troublesome, but nonetheless, of great importance. This is even truer, as it were, at a time when many thinkers positioned on theory’s cutting edge confidently insist that “truth” be surrounded by sneer quotes and interrogated until all that remains are the easy certainties of nihilism. Twain would have found this brand of postmodernism very strange indeed, although I hasten to add that the “pursuit of truth” in his novel leads to darker conclusions than theory has yet dreamt of.

One way to explain the difference between versions of truth-telling is to sharply distinguish between small-t truths of the sort that conform to observable “facts” and the large-T Truths that philosophers worry about and writers explore in fiction and poetry. In this latter sense, to tell the truth about the world requires more than a careful attention to realistic detail, however much this was certainly part of Twain’s aesthetic agenda. Rather, it is a matter of burning away the social conditioning that puts layers of fat around the soul and that covers the eyes with motes.

In the late 1940’s Lionel Trilling, perhaps the most influential critic of his time, famously declared that Huck and Tom Sawyer may tell the lies of children but they do not, in Trilling’s words, “tell the ultimate lie of adults: they do not lie to themselves.” These characters, who (rightly) believe that “the world is in a conspiracy to lie to [them],” are thus swaddled, Trilling argues, in “moral sensitivity.”

In general T. S. Eliot is right about the way that Huck, Twain’s satiric persona, works, but there are moments when Huck is not quite all that Eliot claims on his behalf. Take, for example, the moment in which Colonel Sherburn beats back a potential lynch mob by standing up to bullies and taking their cowardly measure. Huck describes the last, tail-between-their-legs moments this way: “The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart and went tearing off every which way, . . . I could a staid, if I’d a wanted to, but I didn’t want to.” Here, despite Eliot’s large pronouncement, is a moment where Huck, in his own term, heaves off a “stretcher.” In plainer language, he clearly lies to himself; moreover, we see his feeble rationalization as the sham it surely is.

Why, one wonders, would Twain so embarrass his otherwise savvy protagonist? My hunch is that he means to remind us that Huck is a very young, young boy, despite his sound heart and outbursts of good sense. He is, in short, given to back-sliding of the human sort. This often overlooked point deserves emphasis if only because so many readers, including quite intelligent ones, fall into fits of disappointment whenever Huck—or by extension, Twain—lets them down. This usually occurs when Tom Sawyer enters the scene and bullies poor Huck with his insider knowledge of romance novels, but it can also happen when such readers tire of satire, even of dark, uncompromising satire, and prefer that the novel head off to other, more morally soothing directions.

Eliot makes much the same point about Huck’s honesty when he talks about his “vision.” He sees the real world, Eliot argues, but “he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself.” Enter Leo Marx’s “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” a 1953 essay that attacks both critics as “tender-minded” because they substitute structural arguments (Eliot’s paean to the mythic river) or easy platitudes (Trilling’s magisterial assertions about Huck’s honesty) for the more sober recognition that Twain’s novel ends in shambles and failure.

At this point, let me drag in Huck’s comment about Mr. Twain telling the truth, mainly. Huck is not especially bothered by this— certainly he is not as lathered up about it as Mr. Marx will be—because, as he puts it, “I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary,” Everybody else is given to heaving in “stretchers”; as far as Huck is concerned, they come with the territory. What the novel dramatizes, however, is how dangerous, and indeed, how deadly, certain “stretchers” can become—especially if they are generated by the small-r romantic wish to make quotidian life more glamorous than it in fact is. That romanticism of the sort behind the blood-curdling oaths taken by would-be members of Tom Sawyer’s gang is one thing; when it generates the ongoing feud of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords, however, this is another matter altogether.

In much the same way that Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, argues that the novels of Sir Walter Scott were singularly responsible for the Civil War, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents one episode after another in which romance trumps his ignorant protagonist. For early generations of believers, Satan was the force to reckon with. He was cunning, shape-shifting, and always threatening to steal away with one’s soul. Calvinists took his power seriously; no measures were too stern when it came to resisting the many forms his temptations took, whether it be packaged in a whiskey bottle or a pack of playing cards. Twain may have rather enjoyed kicking Christians in the slats when they refused to act as proper Christians or when their hypocrisy poked out like a sore thumb, but he did not see Satan lurking around every corner. Rather, it was the endless versions of small-r romanticism that got Twain’s dander up. They lied—not as simple “stretchers,” but as lies. And the biggest lie of all is that anyone, black or white, could be genuinely free.

This is why the current obsession with Twain’s failure to address the implications of slavery comes to half a loaf. Yes, slavery was the most visible manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man—not just the shackles and the beatings, but also in the systematic way in which an entire people was reduced to chattel property. Jim’s line about being a rich man if he owned himself cracks the heart, and I would add, goes a long way to counter those arguments in which Jim is reduced to minstrel clown. Granted, the tone drips out of Twain’s pen, just as it does when Tom dramatically proclaims that Jim is as “free as any cretur that walks the earth.” Attentive readers cannot help but ask themselves, given all that the book has demonstrated, “How free is this?”—for not only the newly freed Jim, but also for Huck, for Tom, for everyone on the Phelps plantation and for everybody back home.

Granted, no American writer can match Twain when it comes to giving vivid expression to the great abiding dream of being free:

Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all lands of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us. . . . Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time . . . It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

The dream, alas, cannot last, however much it remains lodged in the head of every reader with an ear for the music that language at its most supple can make. As my grandfather used to say about the America he both loved and quarreled with, “You could live if they’ll let you.” No remark better sums up the history of the Jews, or, with a snip here a tuck there, the necessary fate of Huck and Jim. Huck’s instinctive goodness turns out to be no match for Tom’s book-learning and charisma. Indeed, how could it? After all, it is Tom, not Huck, who knows how a proper “evasion” should be conducted, and how to give Jim the theatrical homecoming his protracted suffering deserves. Huck goes along with the former because, well, that is Huck’s modus operandi, but he balks at the latter because he’s had a bellyful of Tom foolishness. Granted, Twain knew full well that lighting out for the Territory would put Huck in harm’s way, and that the lawlessness of the West was an exaggerated mirror of the more “sivilized” lawlessness of the East. Pursue it as Huck will, freedom remains an elusive promise, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald would later characterize as the boats that forever recede into the past no matter how hard one paddles.

Seen one way, Huck is a survivor, with an eye on a warm meal and a trundle bed; seen from another angle, he is the satiric lens through which we see the world’s endless capacity for cruelty. That is why Huck’s deadpan descriptions of, say, the Duke and the King are so effective. They know—or think they know—all that con men need to work a crowd—namely, that you can’t cheat an honest man and, better yet, that there’s a sucker born every minute. The same thing applies to Huck’s account of the drunks who populate the shore towns and who take an enormous pleasure in setting dogs on fire. Freedom, for these folks, consists of inflicting as much cruelty as they can. Pap is squarely in their camp. He would vote for slavery if it were on all the ballots—that is, if he could stagger to the local polling place. He is, of course, not alone in this sentiment. Indeed, which voter in the world of Twain’s novel felt otherwise?

Small wonder, then, that Leo Marx was so infuriated when he took Trilling and Eliot to task in the early 1950’s or that Jane Smiley, a novelist of some reputation, recently argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is in every way superior to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Marx is a critic worth taking seriously. Smiley, unfortunately, is not. She sides with propaganda rather than with art, preferring a work that confirms her politically correct certainties rather than one which questions her unquestioned beliefs. For her, it is not enough that Huck feels a certain way toward Jim, he needs to act—and it is precisely on the level of action (or more precisely still, non action) that Twain’s novel so badly fails in Smiley’s opinion:

To invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with “greatness” is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is and to promulgate it, philosophically, in schools and the media as well as in academic journals. Surely the discomfort of many readers, black and white, and the censorship battles that have dogged Huck Finn in the last twenty years are understandable in this context. No matter how often the critics “place in context” Huck’s use of the word “nigger,” they can never fully excuse or fully hide the deeper racism of the novel—the way Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don’t care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans.

Smiley much prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it is full of people acting against slavery, because it is, unashamedly, an Abolitionist manifesto. But after the Civil War resolved the matter at the end of the rifle barrel, after oceans of blood had been spilled, Stowe’s novel no longer packed the same immediacy it once did. True enough, Uncle Tom’s Cabin retains an importance as an historical novel, but not, I think, as a living (which is to say, disturbing) piece of literature.

As Americans, we bow to no one in our official regard for freedom, but we are also a country whose Pledge of Allegiance insists that, here, there will be “liberty and justice for all.” School children mouth the words without every quite realizing that they are a contradiction, that if there is unbridled liberty there cannot be endless liberty. The contradiction also lies at the very heart of Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote well before Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents explained the small-print costs, in repression, deferred gratification, and neurosis, that inevitably come with the clear benefits of civilization. Huck does not want to return to a world that will insist that what he calls “sivilization” be spelled with a c—and moreover that such people are expected to wear shoes and have clean fingernails.

Huck prefers freer space and a separate peace. In this sense, his dream of freedom is the antithesis of Linda Loman’s painful recognition that the American Dream of a paid-off house does not, alas, make one “free and clear.” Arthur Miller’s play is an indictment of a life lived in noisy, manic-depressive desperation. Willy, alas, was a man who never knew who he was, a man who bought into a world where Success lies just around the corner and where “being well liked” will eventually carry the day. But powerful as Miller’s play clearly is, it does not limn freedom as darkly as Twain’s novel does. For the problem of freedom in Huckleberry Finn so co-exists with its humor that readers forget just how broad the brush that Twain uses is. Jim’s slavery and gradual movement toward freedom is at best only a small part of what the novel is about. Rather, it is Huck’s understanding that, unlike Tom, he can never fit into society, added to our growing realization that he will never be free—even should he make it to the Territory and manage to survive—that makes Twain’s novel so problematic. In short, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a deeply subversive book, not because it is peppered with the N-word or even because some see racism in what is the most anti-racist book ever written in America, but because it tells the Truth—not “mainly,” but right down to the core.

Sanford Pinsker

Sanford Pinsker is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including book-length studies of Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Heller, and J. D. Salinger. He also has published more than 800 articles, essays, editorials, and book reviews, frequently contributing to Georgia Review, Sewanee Review, and VQR. He recently retired after 37 years of teaching at Franklin and Marshall College.


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