Monday, March 26, 2007

Huck Finn and the Dark Side of the American Character

Huck Finn and the Dark Side of the American Character

Nook Farm, the Mark Twain estate in Hartford, Connecticut

I have two personal, but minor, connections to Mark Twain and Huck Finn. After Samuel Clemens’ death, my mother’s family, the Merrows, bought Nook Farm, Mark Twain’s home, from the Mark Twain estate, and my mother played there. I grew up hearing her tell stories of how she used slide down the banister by the front door.

In 1960, when I was five, I was asked to be a model for a series of illustrations of Huck Finn that were drawn by the son of Frank Scoonover, the famous Brandywine School illustrator, in Wilmington, Delaware (my hometown). My Huck Finn grin has often been remarked upon.

In my opinion, a number of famous Americans (both real and fictional) can lay claim to being avatars of Huck Finns—rebellious outsiders whose radical honesty transformed the national discourse.

The first to come to mind is Abraham Lincoln, the real Huck Finn—the country boy imbued with fearless honesty, who freed Jim (for real). Of course we know how he ended up.

Next is Walt Whitman, who, like Mark Twain in Huck Finn, transformed American literature by introducing the vernacular.

Walt had Huck’s fearless honesty. We all know now about Walt’s alternative lifestyle, but who cares—he wasn’t afraid of being himself.

He also worshipped Lincoln, the real Huck Finn, and no one can deny the incredible service Walt did to the nation by tending to wounded and dying Union soldiers during the Civil War under the most horrific conditions. Imagine Jenna Bush at Walter Reed.

Hemingway is another descendant of Huck Finn. I discuss him at length at the end of this essay, but like Huck, he was a lover of fishing and the outdoors, a drifter, and escapist, and like Huck, somewhat of a lost soul. God bless him.

There’s no question—everyone knows that the closest counterpart to Huck Finn in American literature is J.D. Salinger’s astonishing creation, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

As Clifton Fadiman wrote: “[T]hat rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination.” Holden, the excruciatingly sensitive, misunderstood adolescent, is always compared to Huck.

Which brings us to James Dean—another sensitive, misunderstood rural youth. A rebel.

Neal Cassady is another son of Huck Finn (and a hipster relative of James Dean).

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

Charismatic bohemian drifter, bisexual, and speed freak, he was the basis of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the inspiration for another fictional Huck Finn, Hicks in Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers (see below). Nick Nolte played Hicks in the 1978 film version, Who'lll Stpp the Rain? He also played Neal in the 1980 film bio HeartBeat.

In the Sixties, Neal was the driver of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster LSD bus—like Huck, always pushing into “the territory ahead.”

Bob Dylan qualifies as a modern Huck Finn because of his rural roots, wandering ways, and startling honesty.

As the first major singer in American pop culture to write his own songs (unlike Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and virtually everyone else), like Huck, he went his own way.

Finally, we come to Mr. Malcolm Little—better known as Malcolm X, but like Huck Finn, a rebel with ancestral roots in the rural South, a footloose youth, and searching honesty.

A black Huck Finn? You bet.

In 1974, Robert Stone consciously modeled his character of Hicks in Dog Soldiers on Neal Cassady, whom he knew as a Merry Prankster. (Read more about Hicks in Dog Soldiers in my posting on “Captain Ahab and His Children.”)

I noticed the similarity of the emotional triangle of Hicks, Converse, and Marge in Dog Soldiers to Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher (the rebel, the respectable middle-class boy, and the nice girl who comes between them)—and when I asked Stone about the parallel at Princeton in 1985, he smiled and said words to the effect of, “Well, of course, in American writing, certain patterns are repeated.”

In a very different form, I first wrote this essay while a sophomore at Princeton in May 1975 for a class in American literature 1865-1914 taught by Emory Elliott. There are two books about that period that I cannot recommend highly enough: Harvests of Change by Jay Martin and No Place of Grace by Jackson Lears. Jay Martin’s Harvests of Change is especially astonishing. With its amazing insights into American literature and history, it changed my life, and it’s one of the richest books ever written about American literature and this poor, lost, accursed country.

* * * * *

The Personality of Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain's Explication of the American Character

In writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain intended to create an epic of America; and when he fashioned its hero, his aim was to draw a blueprint of the American character. Huck’s personality is marked by several traits—emotional insecurity, moral gullibility and plasticity, racism, and yet a basically good-hearted nature—and by using Huck as a representative American, Twain explains a great deal of why America has behaved as it has for the past 160 years.

Huck is a poor white boy just coming into puberty on the banks of the Mississippi in the 1840s; so the forces that we see molding him in his early adolescence are those that will form him as an adult. These forces, and Huck's personality, will come to be of paramount importance to America, for as adult, Americans of Huck’s ilk—poor white boys from both North and South—will fight the Civil War.


If we see Huck as a representative American of his time, then it can be said that his character—representing that of the majority of Civil War veterans, who will be drawn from his class—will determine the kind of nation that America will become between the Civil War and World War One.

Huck's name itself is a symbol of his identity. His first name—Huckleberry—represents his pastoral origins and the American wilderness; huckleberries are small berries that grow in the wild. His last name—Finn, as in someone of Finnish descent—refers to his immigrant background, reminding us that all Americans are descended from immigrants.

Huck's personality is defined by insecurity. There is absolutely nothing in the world that he can rely on. As a result, he is forced to be self-reliant. (Emerson, via his famous essay "Self-Reliance,” would have understood Huck well.) Twain recognized this cardinal American character trait, born of total insecurity. Our ancestors were men and women who came here with nothing and to nothing, to a wilderness. The only help they knew of was an ocean away, and so they had to become utterly independent.

Twain imbued his hero with this distinctively American quality of independence created by insecurity. One major reason for Huck’s insecurity lies his dysfunctional family—defined by his parents, the most vital people to any boy growing up. Nobody knows what happened to Huck's mother. Nobody mentions her. Presumably she is dead. In any event, she is missing, and her absence is sorely felt by Huck, even if he is mostly unconscious of it.

Clemens family kitchen

We can see how he responds to the affection of Aunt Sally, when Tom Sawyer disappears:

And then when I went up to bed she come up with me and fetched her candle, and tucked me in, and mothered me so good I felt mean, and like I couldn't look her in the face....; and she would squeeze my hand, or maybe kiss me, and tell me to say it again, and keep on saying it, because it done her good, and she was in so much trouble. And when she was going away, she looked down in my eyes, so steady and gentle, and says:

"The door ain't going to be locked, Tom [she think Huck is the missing Tom]; and there's the window and the rod; but you'll be good, won’t you? And you won't go? For my sake?"

Laws know I wanted to go, bad enough, to see about Tom, and was all intending to go; but after that, I wouldn't a went, not for kingdoms. (p. 316)

Twain's mother Jane Clemens, 1859

His response is overwhelming. Huck is starved for maternal affection. He may only be staying with the widow and Miss Watson as long as he does because of the widow’s love and warmth, because his natural urge is to escape, and we can see how he is chafing under the yoke of adult supervision.

As for Huck’s father, Pap is the town drunk. Huck describes his father in these terms:

Every time he got money he got drunk; and every time he got drunk he raised Cain around town; and every time he raised Cain he got jailed. He was just suited—this kind of thing was right in his line. (p. 36)

There is no irony in Huck's tone, although there is in Twain's intention. As far as Huck is concerned, his father is perfectly happy. Pap has found his niche.

However, Pap makes life hell for Huck. Huck describes the terror and brutality his father subjects him to in no uncertain terms.

But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hickory, and I couldn't stand it. I was all over welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome. I judged he had got drowned and I wasn't ever going to get out any more. I got scared. (p. 37)

Twain's birthplace

The horror of this passage gains its power from Huck's understatement; and anyone familiar with alcoholism and child abuse will immediately recognize how faithfully Twain has recorded these facts of American life. The terrible thing is that Huck takes these developments all in stride, because this is the only life he is used to leading.

After the grisly incident in which Huck dodges his knife-wielding father, insane with drink, Pap, fortunately for Huck, passes out. Huck then calmly gets the rifle, loads it and stations himself beside his father, ready to shoot Pap in the event of more trouble. His only comment is: "And how slow and still the time did drag along.” This kind of terrifying abuse is nothing unusual for Huck.

Shortly afterwards, Huck has the good sense to run away; he does know how to survive. He never sees Pap again—alive—but Pap has already left his mark on his son. For one thing, Pap has taught Huck to have no faith in institutions of authority. Certainly Huck heeds his father's tirade against the government (pp. 39-41), since it is the only opinion expressed on that subject that Huck ever hears. (Pap’s suspicion of the U.S. government sounds as if it came from today’s poor and blue-collar whites, a credit to Twain's cultural perceptions.). But more importantly, Huck notices how easily Pap is able to take advantage of the new judge who comes to town. (pp. 34-5) Huck is learning quickly not to rely on organized society; it is not going to help him.

Perhaps the most important lesson Pap teaches Huck is his rationale for breaking the law. “Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things, if you was meaning pay them back, sometime,” (p. 82) and so Huck steals. This seems to be the only lesson that Pap is imparting to him; and at this rate, the reader wonders what is going to become of Huck: will he become a bum or the town drunk like his father?

At the end of the book, when he learns of his father’s death, Huck shows no sorrow; in fact, he displays no reaction. As soon as Jim tells him the news, Huck switches to the narrative (away from the action) and begins talking about Tom Sawyer. Huck's lack of feeling for his father is, I think, the strongest indication of the power of his unconscious outrage at Pap's failure as a parent.

Twain's boyhood kitchen

As a result of Pap's failure, Huck is constantly searching for a father figure. Huck responds so warmly to Uncle Silas, because Uncle Silas is the husband of Aunt Sally, whom Huck identifies as a mother figure, and because he is such a strong masculine figure; unconsciously Huck adopts them as foster parents. Of Uncle Silas, Huck says: “He was the innocentest best old soul I ever see.” (p. 258)

However, Huck also has his racism reinforced at Uncle Silas’ and Aunt Sally’s household. After Huck describes an accident, Aunt Sally says, "Good gracious! anybody hurt?" Huck answers, "No'm. Killed a nigger.” Aunt Sally’s reply? "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." (p. 252)

Aunt Sally, and presumably Uncle Silas, know that of course "niggers" are not people. Huck learns differently, after writing the letter to Miss Watson turning Jim in and tearing it up. At the end of the book, it is possible that Huck rejects the foster home of Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas because he is rejecting their racism, even though they are offering him a welcoming home and they would be more than glad to adopt him.

With the Grangerfords, he is drawn to the security and comfort of their middle-class life. "It was a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too. I hadn't seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style." (p. 119) "Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see." (p. 127) But Huck soon comes to see the price this family pays for its aristocratic pretensions and the good life: a blood feud. Even though this feud is fast decimating both families, neither family knows exactly how began. It was probably over land (p. 130). In this respect, it resembles the Civil War to come.

The savage caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Southern fanatic Preston Brooks, 1856, which helped trigger the Civil War

Senator Charles Sumner

For a while, Huck settles into the complacency of the Grangerford's life. It is shattered by the feud, when Huck happens to be on hand to witness a massacre of the Grangerfords by the Shepherdsons.

I ain't agoing to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them—lots of times I dream about them. (137)

The inference is that Huck witnessed the Shepherdsons mutilating the corpses of the Grangerfords they had killed, and he vomited in horror.

Obviously the sight greatly upset him, and it continues to disturb him, particularly his unconscious, through nightmares.

No wonder. Another one of his hopes has been destroyed. He had thought he could find security in the comfortable, middle-class family life of the Grangerfords; now he can see that that world is bent on destroying itself.

The aptly-named Devil's Den, Gettsyburg, 1863--a pivot in the war

Four dead Confederates in the woods by Little Round Top, Gettsyburg, 1863--the pivot in the entire war

Captured Union soldier, Chancellorsville

Pay any price: JFK's shirt, November 22, 1963

In reaction, now that particular avenue of security has been taken from him, Huck seeks escape, both physical and emotional. With Jim, he returns to the raft, and to numb his crushing disappointment, he seeks oblivion.

I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft. (p. 139)

When the book opens, Huck is living with two other adult models, the widow and Miss Watson, who are trying to socialize ("civilize") him; before, Huck had only lived with his neglectful father. Out of the chaotic environment he’s accustomed to, Huck naturally bridles under the Christian charity of the two women. As Huck puts it, "but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer, I lit out." (p. 127)

For the first time Huck exhibits his escapism. But he returns when he comes under the influence of Tom Sawyer's leadership qualities.

But Tom Sawyer, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back. (p. 12)

Twain's boyhood home

Tom Sawyer enforces society's conformity, the pressure to "be respectable," and Huck submits to gain acceptance from his peer group. Back home, the widow imposes "civilization" just as rigidly on Huck.

She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing commenced again. The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come on time. (p. 12)

Twain's mother 1882

Soon Huck notices some of the well-meaning widow’s hypocrisy—which Huck associates with “civilization.”

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try not to do it any more. That is just the way about some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Mere she was a bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself. (p. 12)

The women try to drill religion into Huck, but it is religion that Huck resists the most, recognizing its contradictions and fallacies. Even so, religion is a subject that occupies him; he want» to believe, but he cannot bring himself to accept a belief system that seems false.

Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body's mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow's Providence, but if Miss Watson's got him there warn't no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow's, if he wanted me, though I couldn't make out how he was agoing to be any better off than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant and so kind of low-down and ornery. (p. 21-2)

Twain honored at Oxford

Later, when Huck falls in with the two con men, the Duke and the Dauphin and shows them consideration, he makes an ironic comment about Christian humanitarianism:

But take it all around, I was feeling ruther comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many would a done it. I wished the widow knowed about it. I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead beats is the kind the widow and good people takes the most interest in. (p. 93)

Huck wants to do good; but Twain seems to be saying that even when Huck does what his society expects him to, often those expectations are founded on faulty principles. Huck does not embrace religion as a serious panacea, because he recognizes its inherent hypocrisy and he considers himself unworthy of divine attention. For example, when he is hiding on Jackson’s Island, he snatches up a loaf of bread loaded with mercury that is supposed to find his corpse.

I got a good place amongst the leaves, and set there on a log, munching the bread and watching the ferry-boat, and very well-satisfied. And then something struck me. I says, now I reckon the widow or the parson or somebody prayed that this bread would find me, and here it has gone and done it. So there ain't no doubt but there is something in that thing. That is, there's something in it when a body like the widow or the parson prays, out it don't work for me. And I reckon it don't work for only just the right kind. (p. 52)

When Huck says in the passage above "...seeing I was so ignorant and so kind of low-down and ornery," we can see that Huck is often plagued by these feelings of personal worthlessness. He is painfully aware that he is the son of the town drunk, the lowest member of his society. This is a clear manifestation of his insecurity, and one that crops up most often when Huck compares his performance to what he considers his social obligations.


Two excellent examples of his anguish over moral conflicts occur when he is confronted with the question of whether he should return Jim to slavery, which his society tells him he should do, but which he resists because he loves Jim. After realizing his failure to please his society, he says, in one instance, "I got to feeling so mean and miserable I most wished I was dead." (107) Another time, Huck vows to tell two strangers that Jim is a runaway slave and then declines at the last minute.

They went off, and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little, ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. (p.111)

Again, Huck displays this terrible feeling that he is worthless because he was born into the wrong social class; he was doomed by his circumstances from the start, a feeling that many of the poor have today.

Huck exhibits other manifestations of insecurity, among them superstition and melancholia. He is constantly searching for omens by which to foretell his fate, hoping that in that way, he can improve his luck. But all he receives are bad omens. It seems to him as if the world is allied against him. He is always afraid that disaster will strike at any minute.

Pretty soon a spider [out of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners In the Hands Of an Angry God”] went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away. But I hadn't no confidence. You do that when you've lost a horse-shoe that you've found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn't ever heard anybody say it was anyway to keep off bad luck when you've killed a spider. (p. 25)

Huck knows that even elaborate rituals won't repair his fortune. As he says, "But I hadn't no confidence."

As for his melancholia, Huck is haunted by frequent moods of acute loneliness and depression, marked by feelings of isolation, alienation, and insecurity.

Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn't no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippoorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared, I did wish I had some company. (pp. 13-14)

What is most striking about this passage is Huck’s preoccupation with death. He feels the dead calling to him. The passage bellows hints that this preoccupation could be a symptom of a strong suicidal impulse, born of despair, seen here in another bout of melancholia Huck undergoes:

When I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny—the hands all gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody's dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves, it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that's been dead ever so many years—and you always think they're talking about you. As a general thing it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all. (p. 249)

It is almost as if Huck believes that he deserves to die because he is so worthless. But he always knows his depression will pass. For instance, when he is camping on Jackson's Island, he experiences an attack of melancholia.

When it was dark I set by my camp fire smoking, and feeling pretty satisfied, out by-and-by it got sort of lonesome, and so I went and set on the bank and listened to the currents washing along, and counted the stars and drift-logs and rafts that come down, and then went to bed; there ain't no better way to put in time when you are lonesome; you can't stay so, you soon get over it. (p. 53-4)

For the bulk of the novel, Twain explores two major strains of Huck's personality, also reflected strongly in the American character: his racism and his timidity. Huck's racism is clearly expressed in his relationship with Jim. Huck is horrified when he learns Jim has run away, but he agrees not to tell because he gave his word (p. 58), showing that Huck does possess a sense of honor, even if he does not have that much regard for Jim as a human being. Huck is happy with Jim on the raft, for one thing. Jim’s companionship assuages his loneliness. In addition, Jim is his social inferior, the only one he knows, allowing Huck to get away with thoughts like, "I see it warn't no use wasting words—you can't learn a nigger to argue," (p. 98) with a clear conscience.

Thomas Hart Benton painting of Huck and Jim

But Huck responds to Jim's affection. Jim is the warmest of all the adults Huck knows up to that time, except perhaps for the widow, and Jim makes no demands on him. Huck soon grows to love him. He plays the practical joke of not having been lost in the fog not meaning to hurt Jim's feelings, but Jim reprimands him sharply for failing to give the respect due him.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way. (p. 105)

Because of his need for friendship, Huck swallows his redneck pride and abdicates his racism, and as he says, it is an effort for him. He did not mean to insult Jim; it is only that no one—and certainly not his society—ever taught him to think or act any differently.

But after his inner struggle concerning whether he should return Jim to slavery (detailed above), Huck's need for approval from his society (which has almost replaced his parents) wins out, and his racism returns. Once more he refuses to recognize Jim as a human being. At one point, Jim describes the joys of freedom he is looking forward to and anticipates his reunion with his enslaved family, saying that he is willing to buy or steal his wife and children to get them back. Huck is shocked and reverts to his redneck attitude. Huck says:

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he was about free. It was according to the old saying, "give a nigger and inch and he'll take an ell." Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger which I has as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm.

Slave quarters

I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, "Let up on me—it ain't too late, yet—I'll paddle ashore at the first light, and tell." I felt easy, and happy, and light as a feather. All my troubles was gone. (p. 108)

Without any concrete moral framework by which to judge situations, Huck is forced by his insecurity to respond to immediate psychological demands on his conscience based on situational ethics. To placate his social obligations, he decides to return Jim to slavery, never considering all the love Jim has lavished on him. Here Twain illustrates powerfully the terrible toll taken by a society based on insecurity.

Fortunately Huck cannot bring himself to tell the stranger; but he comes close. When Jim is so troubled by his separation from his family that he moans about them in his sleep, Huck again expresses his racism.

He was thinking about his wife and children, away up yonder, and he was low and home sick; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so. (p. 183)

Slave quarters

In Chapter XXI, after escaping from the Duke and Dauphin, returning to the raft, and finding Jim missing, Huck breaks down and cries and then resolves the problem of Jim's freedom. After he decides to follow the dictates of society and return Jim to slavery, by writing Miss Watson a letter, he says, "I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now." (p. 244)

But then images of Jim, and his love, flash through Huck's mind, and he comes to recognize Jim as a fellow human being. Huck rips up the letter. In doing so, by vowing to free Jim, he feels he is following his evil path; but on an instinctual, emotional level, he knows that his society, and not his soul, is sick.

Through this act, Huck makes the most important moral decision we have seen him undertake in the course of the book. For the rest of the novel, he treats Jim as a complete human being. True, there are vestiges or his former racism; when Jim refuses to desert the wounded Tom Sawyer, Huck says, "I knowed he was white inside, and I reckoned he'd say what he did," (p. 309) but they are only vestiges. Twain makes it clear that the only way black and white men will come together in America is by accepting each other as human beings—and one must be the first to take the initiative and express love.

Just as Huck's racism is a sign of his insecurity (his need for someone to look down on), so is his timidity, the ease with which he is dominated. This quality of his is brought out in his adventures with the Duke and Dauphin and with Tom Sawyer, in "freeing" Jim. When the Duke and Dauphin barge in on their raft and take over, Huck and Jim offer no resistance; indeed, they offer their complete obeisance and wait on the two con men hand and foot. After all, they are used to serving and deferring to others. Here Huck expresses his nonconfrontational, “don’t rock the boat” philosophy:

It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes, at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, 'long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way. (p. 150)

The enablers

Huck is discussing his relationships with all the people who try to dominate him, and his statement extends to how Americans relate to authority figures from their bosses at work to the President. Huck doesn't want any trouble; like most of us, he's had enough; and so he finds it much easier to abdicate responsibility and allow himself to be dominated. Only, he sees the price of such a position later in the book, when Tom Sawyer tricks him into “freeing” him, and it turns into a disaster. Whether he learns from this misadventure is another matter.

In the Colonel Sherburn episode, Huck shows that he embodies crowd mentality. As soon as trouble starts, Huck rushes to the scene, to get a good seat. "So somebody started to run. I walked down the street a ways, and stopped." (p. 169) "Somebody sings out—'Boggs!' I looked over to see who said, and it was that Colonel Sherburn." (p. 169) After Colonel Sherburn shoots Boggs, "They took Boggs to a little drug store, the crowd pressing around, just the same, and the whole town following, and I rushed and got a good place at the window, where I was close to him and could see in." (p. 178) After townsfolk start fighting for places, "There was considerable jawing back, so I slid out, thinking maybe there was going to be trouble." (p. 178) In every instance, Huck is a member of the crowd, flowing right with it, and in the last quotation, he leaves only to avoid trouble.

Huck acts true to form, with the rest of the crowd, when Colonel Sherburn challenges the lynch mob that has come to avenge his cold-blooded murder in public by brandishing a rifle and asking which of the cowards wants it first.

The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart and went tearing off every which way, and Buck Harkness he heeled it after them, looking tolerable cheap. I could a staid, if I'd a wanted to, but I didn't want to.

I went to the circus... (p. 174)

Here Huck practices herd morality, the morality of cowardice. He does not come off well. Later he gets another chance to redeem himself, when he is with the Duke and Dauphin while they plan to cheat the relatives of Peter Wilks out of their inheritance. Of the Dauphin he says, "I see what he was up to; but I never said nothing, of course." (p. 189) Again his cowardice comes through.

But when he sees them deceiving the grief-stricken relatives with manufactured sorrow, then he registers his disgust. "Well, if I ever struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race." (p. 191) His revulsion prompts him to action.

I says to myself, this is another one that I'm letting him rob her of her money. And when she got through, they all jest laid theirselves out to make me feel at home and know I was amongst friends. I felt so ornery and low down and mean, that I says to myself, My mind's made up; I'll hive that money for them or bust. (p. 204-5)

Yet he takes a course of action that will not implicate himself; he does not want to commit himself morally to that extent.

Shall I go, private, and tell Mary Jane? No—I dasn't do it. Her face would give them a hint, sure; they've got the money, and they'd slide right out and get away with it. If she was to fetch in help, I'd get mixed up in the business, before it was done with, I judge. (p. 205)

So he steals the money. But when he is in danger of being exposed as the thief, he thinks:

Blame it, I says, I might get hunted up and jailed. I'd better lay low and keep dark, and not write at all; the thing's awfully mixed, now; trying to better it, I've worsened it a hundred times, and I wish to goodness I’d just let it alone, dad fetch the whole business! (p. 211)

Morally, Huck wants to have it both ways. He wants to act morally and yet escape the consequences; and when faced with them, he wishes he had never taken the correct action.

He does not change. To get himself off the hook, he says he saw the theft committed by the black house servants, who have left, and he thinks: "So they went off a jawing; and I felt dreadful glad I'd worked it all off onto the niggers and yet hadn't done the niggers no harm by it." (p. 214) When he finally does tell the truth, he does so because he comes to realize that it would be advantageous to him.

So I went to studying it out. I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place, is taking considerable many resks, though I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me lie the truth is better, and actuly safer, than a lie. (pp. 215-6)

To be fair, Huck doesn't know better. Having received no moral instruction, he has to make it up as he goes along. But that does not change the consequences of his decisions.

After the Duke and Dauphin have turned in Jim as a runaway slave for the reward, after they and Huck have parted, Huck thinks, "I didn't want no trouble with their kind. I'd seen all I wanted to of them, and wanted to get entirely shut of them." (p. 248) Huck fails to realize that it is all well and good to want to be left alone by them, but even if he wants to be left alone by them, conflict will result. He has not learned from his recent experiences, and he does not understand that the Duke and Dauphin were able to return Jim to slavery because he did not assert himself.

This pattern of avoidance repeats itself all over again on the farm of Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas, when Huck falls under the domination of Tom Sawyer as they plot to free Jim. At first Huck is amazed that a respectable boy like Tom with "character" and a reputation to lose would engage in something as disreputable as stealing a slave to grant him freedom, but Huck, as a follower, understands that Tom, as a leader, is allowed to get away with actions that others cannot. Huck is enthralled by Tom's outrageous antics and charmed by his "style,” in the same way that Americans were charmed by JFK’s style.

When Tom objects to the practical simplicity of Huck's plan for springing Jim, Huck thinks:

I never said nothing, because I warn't expecting nothing different; but I knowed mighty well that whenever he got his plan ready it wouldn't have none of them objections to it.

And it didn't. He told me what it was, and I see in a minute it was worth fifteen of mine, for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied, and said we would waltz on it. I needn't tell what it was, here, because I knowed it wouldn't stay the way it was. I knowed he would be changing it around, every which way, as we went along, and heaving new businesses whenever he got a chance. And that is what he done. (p. 265)

Where did all the billions go?: Paul Bremer, head of the U.S. occupation of Iraq

Here Twain shows remarkable insight into the American public. He is suggesting that flamboyance is the key to American charisma and that Americans like their leaders the more visionary, the better.

This explains the enormous cults surrounding charismatic American leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, William James Bryant, FDR, Huey Long, and the Kennedys, as well as the popular support for the unrealistic, extralegal adventures of Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. The American people are like Blanche Dubois; they don't want realism, they want magic.

With his typical brilliance, Emory Elliott has compared Tom Sawyer’s charade of “freeing” Jim, when Jim is already free, to the charade of Reconstruction, when Southern blacks were “freed” (but not really) after they had already been liberated by the Civil War and the Emanicipation Proclamation. Prof. Elliott also argues that Twain included this episode in the book (which Hemingway and many other hated) because he wanted to show that moral progress is America is not inevitable. Americans are easily swayed to do irrational things against their best interests.

The Manchurian Candidate himself: Joe McCarthy waves a list

We’d like to think that people reach a certain moral plateau and stay there. But after the Civil War, America betrayed Southern blacks with the Reconstruction. After FDR saved the Republic and capitalism with the New Deal, Americans let Reagan destroy the nation’s social contract with the helpless and the underprivileged. After Vietnam, we thought American would never again be misled into an irrational war; then after 9/11, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld conned America into invading Iraq, a nation that was not threatening us, which made about as much sense at the time as invading Mars.

The thanks of grateful nation: Presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld greets U.S. ally Saddam, whom we armed, 1985

Although Huck says he thinks freeing Jim through direct means is a practical approach, he still supports Tom's irrational designs, admiring them as style. He goes as far as reinforcing Tom's illusions, pretending that a pick-ax is a case-knife. (p. 279)

Twain makes it quite clear how strongly Huck responds to Tom's leadership. Tom says: "’'it ain't no use to try to learn you nothing, Huck. Run along and smouch the knives—three of them.' So I done it." (p. 277) Tom orders—Huck obeys.

After the liberation turns into a disaster and Jim is recaptured, Huck is as timid as ever, even in the matter of Jim's comfort.

I hoped they was going to say he could have one or two of the chains took off, because they was rotten heavy, or could have meat and greens with his bread and water, but they didn't think of it, and I reckoned it warn't best for me to mix in... (pp. 319-320)

At the end of the book, we can see that neither Huck nor Tom have changed; neither have learned from the near-fatal experiences they have just survived.

Tom's most well, now, and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is.... But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before. (p. 328)

Tom is still living according to his illusions. He wears the bullet that almost killed him as a talisman and looks at it constantly with pride. Although he is right in one respect:

And then Tom he talked along, and talked along, and says, le's all three slide out of here, one of these nights, and get an outfit, and go for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory.... (pp. 326-8)

Yes, after the Civil War, the American middle class (Tom), lower class (Huck), and freedmen (Jim) will go into the Territory "for howling adventures amongst the Injuns." There will be a whole continent to steal and an entire race to massacre. Twain is being eerily prescient.

Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890

Will Huck go out West? Before, on Jackson's Island, he came to his senses and realized that isolation was not the answer; when he stumbled across a fresh campfire, he climbed a tree.

I reckon I was up in the tree two hours; but I didn't see nothing. I didn't hear nothing—I only thought I heard and seen as much as a thousand things. Well, I couldn't stay there forever; so at last I got down.... (p. 55)

Possibly Huck will never take off; he needs human companionship too much. Hopefully he would not abandon it after having experienced the love of Jim. If he did go West (and it was the Hucks, the rootless loners, who first ventured into the frontier), what could he do? He'd be a bum. Or a thief. When he feels sorry, seeing the Duke and Dauphin, tarred and feathered, being ridden out on a rail, it could be because he recognizes what might happen to himself someday.

Huck's closing statement, "I been there before," is his attempt to assert his knowledge of experience, but it is an assertion based on a short memory. He forgets how quickly he was adapting to civilization before his adventures again; it has slipped his mind that he once said, "I liked the old ways best, but I was getting so I liked the new ones, too, a little bit.” (p. 26) He needs the security of a home and surrogate family; he is not likely to abandon them for the loneliness of the wilderness.

Twain's boyhood bedroom

The major question we are left with is the quality of moral standards that Huck is to adopt. The novel leaves him at the crux. He has just gone through a set of experiences that have tested his adaptive morality and found it insufficient, insofar as the human suffering it has caused or narrowly averted goes. If he finds the security of a home and affectionate relationships, he will also find a set of moral standards strengthened by that security. Should he reject Aunt Sally's offer of a home stand and strike off on his own into the frontier, he will continue to change his morals to fit the situation, and there is a chance that eventually his morals will degenerate into the greed, lying, and viciousness of the Duke and the Dauphin, and he will meet their same end. The choice is his. Twain leaves it up to him, as it must be left with every human being.

Not surprisingly, major American writers both before and after Twain have echoed the observations Twain made about the American character in Huck Finn. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo also rejected civilization in favor of the frontier. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle was another poor white, the town bum, who indulged in escapism. Melville’s Ishmael, too, was a loner, suffering from suicidal depression, who allowed himself to be dominated by a leader. Henry James’ Isabel Archer found her place in society by changing her personality to fit the situation. The protagonists of the naturalists—Stephen Crane’s Henry Fleming, Frank Norris’ McTeague, Theodore Drieser’s Carrie and Hurstwood—all were molded by forces both within and without themselves because of the basic insecurity inherent in American life. Hemingway’s Nick Adams was a youth with a shattered home life who sought escape by deadening his feelings, because neither his family nor his society supplied him with any moral framework to help him deal with life. (See my posting below, “The Existential Emptiness of Hemingway’s Nick Adams.”)

It is Hemingway who most resembles Huck. In his critical study of Hemingway, Philip Young remarked that the family snapshot of Ernest fishing as a youth left one with no doubt—he was Huck Finn.

The "Huck Finn" photo of the young Hemingway that Philip Young refers to

In A Moveable Feast, when describing life on the Seine while he was living in Paris as a young man, he could be Huck detailing life on the Mississippi; the following passage recalls in some ways Huck's descriptions of melancholia to a chilling effect.

With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass the bridges, pulling a row of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river. With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. That was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed. (1)

The spring and fall, of course, represent cheerful and black moods, possibly of a manic-depressive nature. In the above passage, Hemingway reveals some startling parallels with Huck’s insecurity, loneliness, depression, and fear of death. And as we all know, one year the spring did not come for Hemingway. Perhaps Huck might have shared Hemingway’s fate, had he ventured out into the wilderness.

With his amazing sensitivity, Twain discerned patterns of American culture that, given terrific force by social and emotional insecurity, shaped the major events that become our history. Huck’s lack of a sure moral compass and his susceptibility to abusive authority figures explains much about the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Hayes-Tilding deal, Populism, Teddy Roosevelt's "bully" imperialistic adventures, the brutal conquest of Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (when we ran out of Indians to kill), and America’s entrance into the First World War, which occurred because J.P. Morgan warned Woodrow Wilson that the loss of his European investments would ruin America financially.

J.P. Morgan, the man who literally owned America between the Civil War and World War I

In the past fifty years, Huck’s insecurity and willingness to take orders has indirectly been responsible for McCarthyism, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, and now Iraq. We are a nation of Huck Finns. Twain wrote his masterpiece so that we, as Hucks, might see in Huck's plight our own and so learn from it.

Twain concludes his book with an open end, allowing Huck to make his own choice. Twain’s intellect was too solidly grounded in reality to hold nonexistent hopes out to the reader; he well knew the results of Sir Walter's Disease. (“Twain scorned the Southern delight in [Sir Walter] Scott as "Sir Walter's Disease," lamenting that ‘He did measureless harm, more real and lasting than any other individual that ever wrote...he had so large a hand in making Southern character as it existed before the [Civil] War, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.’” [2])

But Twain does make it clear to us that Huck can find a moral life if only he will follow his best instincts and his goodwill, and operate from the natural strength of his personality (which is surprising), instead of his insecurity, by opening himself to the love of others. If he was wise, and not overwhelmed by his insecurity, that was the path he chose. Did Huck choose that path? After reflecting on the past 160 years of American history, we have to wonder.

* * * * *


  1. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York, 1964). pp. 44-5.
  2. ClassicalFree Virtual Academy Website, entry on Sir Walter Scott


Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York, 1964.

Twain. Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, 1967. All page references are from the splendid Bobbs-Merrill edition edited by Leo Marx.