Huck Finn Chooses Eternal Damnation

Huck FinnOur choice of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for this month’s Snotty Literati is four-fold:

  1. We pride ourselves on covering the best in American Literature, and this book has long been heralded as a classic and even called The Great American Novel by many. Is it? We will discuss.
  2. Lara made it through her entire public education without having ever been assigned to read it (or she missed a semester of some English class and has somehow completely erased the experience from her memory).
  3. Lara and Jennifer both have a requirement to read a classic novel for their game of Book Bingo (another nerdly book pursuit of ours that we love and cherish).
  4. Jennifer already checked off her Bingo Card for a classic book and generously agreed to read Huck Finn with Lara so that we could review something for you this month. (She’s a bit of a show off.)

All that said, let’s dive in, shall we? 

Lara: I am starting to feel like our monthly column is an effort to give me the literary education I was supposed to have growing up.

Jennifer: Either that, or it’s an attempt to make me sound like the biggest snob around. Success!

It’s hard to know how to begin. Great American Novel? Homoerotic overtones? (You didn’t see that one coming, did you, Lara?) The use of the “n-word”? (Interestingly enough, I’m known for swearing like a sailor, as those who speak in clichés like to say, but I’m not going to use that word.)

Here. Is this The Great American Novel, Lara?

Lara: You know, I think I need to have read a lot more to be able to make such a declaration; but I will say that I think it is an extremely important novel. I think it’s more representative of the American experience than say, Moby Dick, which you forced me to read last year. I think more Americans have direct experience with discrimination, loss of innocence, oppression, freedom, and coming of age than they do with whaling.

Twain also wrote a story of unprecedented friendship, a story never before told about a young white boy escaping his abusive father and teaming up with Jim, a slave running for freedom. When Twain wrote his book, slavery had been officially abolished in the U.S., but racism remained a strong backdrop to daily life in the South.

It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a remarkable one.

Jennifer: It is, okay? It is. The Great American Novel. Accept this now.

Before I launch into my apologia, allow me to say two things. First, the homoerotic thing is, in my opinion, part of a little overblown scholarly hullabaloo taking its cue from Leslie Fiedler’s pretty famous essay (which I admittedly haven’t read) called “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Second, no one required me to read Huck in college, even though we’re talking undergrad and grad, and multiple American lit classes. Not sure what’s going on there.

This is The Great American Novel. When I did a little review of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I went on and on about The Great American Novel. Right now (since my list changes), I think a strong list of candidates might include the following books:

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Marilynne Robinson’s Home
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Lara: Hold up. HOLD UP. If it’s The Great American Novel, there can only be one. I’m not great at math but I am good at singular and plural nouns, so let’s check ourselves. Oh, and you need to add Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

Jennifer: Fine then. Ernest Hemingway said this one is the seed from which all modern American literature stems, or something like that.

What makes A Great American Novel (I’ll substitute “a” for “the”)? It speaks of a uniquely American experience in a great way. It’s not only American, but it’s also awesome too. Or, perhaps, it speaks of a universal human experience in a way that is unique to Americans? Twain’s story is about the dehumanization of humanity through slavery. American racism and American slavery are unique; racism is universal, no doubt. But Twain nails the American form of it. Twain’s novel also captures other American themes (industrialization as symbolized by the steamboat going upstream, downstream, wherever; pragmatism and the rejection of romanticism and religion and the genteel world of the English novel; rugged individualism as personified by Huck, Jim, Tom, Pap, and even the King and Duke). These things make it very American.

The American character is a bizarre blend of brash humanity, and—while this may not be entirely accurate (I’d have to think more about it)—I think the two concepts that plague the American moral landscape more than anything are race and God. Twain knew this.

Other things make it Great, though, beyond theme: Twain’s wild representation of dialects and the picaresque, coming-of-age romp that Huck goes through as he becomes himself. I have to admit to one horrible crime against literature I committed. I accidentally read an edited version of Huck. It was an accident, but the edition made the dialects “accessible” by eliminating the difficulties of the language. Gone were passages like the following:

“Huck, does you reck’n we gwyne to run acrost any mo’ kings on dis trip?”

“No,” I says, “I reckon not.”

“Well,” says he, “dat’s all right, den. I doan’ mine one er two kings, but dat’s enough. Dis on’s powerful drunk, en de duke ain’ much better.”

Basically, by making the book more “accessible,” the editors castrated the prose, rendering the colorful and difficult verbiage sterile. Twain was a freakin’ master of virile writing with bite.

And I ask, not for the first time, why isn’t anyone asking me to teach a class on The Great American Novel?

Lara: Okay, I guess I would agree with you that it is one of the small handfuls of Great American Novels. But as great as it is, it’s hard. While Twain is a master at dialects, the dialogue is easy to stumble over. It’s also hard to read the repeated and seemingly too casual use of the n-word, when it was probably used that casually and that frequently. It’s hard to see how Jim is treated. And it’s hard to know that this treatment of Black men, women, and children is a part of our history.

As hard as it is, that’s why I think we need to keep reading this story. It’s a painful reminder of our not so great past.

Jennifer: Yes, you’re right. And I don’t think we can deny that the constant repetition of that word is tough—and we’ve both been exposed to theories surrounding the n-word that support the idea of dismissing Huck as great. I think, as difficult as it is, it behooves us to read with understanding. Not only do we need to understand the historical context—the place from where Twain was writing—but also we need to give that man some credit. This is radical!

The radical thing isn’t just in Huck’s haphazard admission that Jim is a human like he himself is. The radical part is that, in order to embrace Jim’s humanity, Huck willingly accepts the fiercest, most horrible consequences anyone can possibly conceive of: he’ll go to hell. He’ll be rejected by God. Eternal damnation.

He’ll do the American thing, actually. While being part of a Judeo-Christian tradition, he’ll embrace secular humanism. He’ll uphold the humanity of Jim at the expense of losing God:

“It was a close place. . . I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up [a letter confessing how he’s helped Jim]. It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again . . .”

This is the American way, you know? Rights upheld, secularism prized. This made way for Hemingway’s supremely secular love stories so unlike sweet Jane Austen, for Holden Caulfield’s rejection of societal phoniness, and Gatsby’s greatness. Twain paved the way for the Secular American Dream.


Twain, a literary trailblazer. A shirtless photo trailblazer, too. We aren’t quite sure what to make of this.

Lara: It’s like he’s the Father of American Literature, with so many after him writing under his influence or at least inspired by him to push the literary envelope.

Let’s switch gears and go back to the story.

So, Huck and Jim are on the run, both looking for freedom (Huck from his Pap and Miss Watson who wants to “sivilize” him; and Jim from enslavement). They raft down the Mississippi hoping to make it to a free state and, in the process, Huck keeps Jim hidden, gets separated from him after a near drowning, witnesses multiple murders, and gets messed up with a pair of nomadic gypsies (King and Duke) who con entire towns of people.

It’s through these experiences that Huck loses his innocence and “comes of age.” While they add depth and intrigue to the story, I have to say the ending was less remarkable than the rest of the story. Jim is free, thank goodness. But it’s a superficial closure.

Jennifer: The ending fails, it’s true. I believe Hemingway even qualified his statement on Huck by saying that everything’s great, except the end. Skip it.

It gets farcical, at best, and downright exasperating/unmerciful/tragic, at worst, when Tom Sawyer enters the picture and makes a long game of helping Jim. I remember reading this in high school, unaware of the criticism surrounding this, and just not liking Tom. I wanted them to get on with it. There was a man unfairly imprisoned! I’m still not entirely sure how to process it.

I read—somewhere—how Twain falls prey to the minstrel show-thinking of his day with this end. (The Minstrel Show is often considered the original or first genuinely American theatrical form; it was pretty much this comedy and musical routine making fun of black people with actors in blackface. Demeaning stuff, popular until the turn of the century.)

It’s as if—and I really don’t want to be too hard on Twain for this—he fell short of his own noble intentions. He could affirm the humanity of Jim; he didn’t, however, fully escape the cultural context from which he came. I think the contemporary reader looks at the end and is frustrated—not only with the extent to which the tomfoolery is carried out, but also with the fact that Jim’s fate as a free man is grossly ignored. What about his future? What about his wife and children, who are still enslaved?

Not to mention the philosophical, moral, and political ramifications this whole thing might have.

Lara: Exactly! If Twain is wanting to make a grand statement about freedom and equality, he falls short by failing to cover some of these major considerations. That all said, he still wrote a novel that was beyond its time and one that, despite it having been banned and suffered from watered down versions, has lasted and resonates more than 100 years after it was written.

Jennifer: What you just said is an echo of an interesting essay by Toni Morrison, in which she discusses the problematic ending, as well as the novel’s amazing staying power. We’re still talking about it!

Okay, so I feel like I’m sounding mighty academic this time around. Here are a few more academic kinds o’ considerations:

  1. Why does Twain open his novel with the following notice: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot”? Why this warning? What point about literature is he making?
  2. Did you notice that Huck speaks a lot about being lonesome? “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” This is recurring, and it’s also part of the American experience. Therein lies a tension between individualism and being part of a community. Aren’t Americans plagued by loneliness and the need for a good friend like Jim? Isn’t Jim like the friend we all need?
  3. While Twain is radical in his affirmation of the humanity of slaves, I would say that he’s even more radical in his stance against Christianity. There is nothing more damning than those good Christian slave-owners saying their prayers out of one side of their mouths and using the n-word out of the other. Twain humorously critiques Christianity, but it’s a deadly kind of humor. This might be an intrinsic part of his literary legacy.
  4. My peeps know I’m a fan of Little House on the Prairie, which is set in post-Civil War America, but, well, seriously, when one considers the depth and breadth of Twain’s critique of America as compared to the idealization of the American landscape in Wilder, the juxtaposition is amazing. Twain, perhaps, held an unsentimental view of the country.
  5. I’m not even going to get into it, but Mark Twain’s biography also sheds some interesting light on all of this. So, like, if you’re so inclined, you might want to look into his family’s history and involvement in slavery and the Civil War, Twain’s own views on humanity, and the kind of guy he was.

So there you have it. I’m done, I think.

Lara: I think you are done. I know I am. We will leave those questions for you, our gentle readers, to ponder; and if you have any answers or thoughts at all on Huck Finn, share them in the comments!

Next Up!

We are reading classics of a different sort, Maus I & II, the Pulitzer winning graphic memoirs by Art Spiegelman about his father’s survival of the Holocaust.

See you soon.


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