I’ve got a little surprise for you, Keeper-Upperers: this review is actually a two-fer! The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the book from my original reading list, and most of this post will focus on that story, but when I picked up this Wordsworth Classic edition, I realised it actually contained The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer as well, so I decided to read them both. As per the blurb on the back, “sharing so much in background and character, these two stories, the best of Twain, indisputably belong together in one volume” – and, as it turns out, in one review 😉
The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer
The introduction to this edition says that Huck Finn is quite inconsistent as a character, and Tom Sawyer is a “simpler affair” to read. Plus, it comes first in the chronology of events, so aside from anything else it makes sense to read it first. Twain published The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and it was initially a complete flop (all the best ones are!) but it went on to become the best-selling of any of his works during his lifetime. The story is set in the 1840s, in the fictional town of St Petersburg (which is quite obviously based on Twain’s own hometown: Hannibal, Missouri).
I’ll resist the temptation to break down the entire plot in detail for you (otherwise this two-fer review would end up longer than the novels), but suffice it to say that the young protagonist – Tom Sawyer – has a whole bunch of small-town adventures. He wags school, tries to start gangs like his heroes from adventure books, falls in “love” with a girl from his school and breaks her heart, the whole nine yards. The character of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck”) appears often, usually as a kind of side-kick in The Tom Sawyer Show.
I noticed reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer that Twain presents the reader with a really unsettling juxtaposition of innocence (see: small-town adventures, as described) and very adult themes. Tom Sawyer witnesses a murder, many in the town experience abject poverty, a couple of the adults are dreadful alcoholics, plus… well, y’know, slavery. These elements – innocence and darkness, side-by-side – really reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suppose that’s hardly surprising; I’d wager that almost all Southern literature has its roots in Twain’s stories. After all, our mate Hemingway once said that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (and, yes, he was technically referring to Huckleberry Finn, but I think it still holds up).
Tom Sawyer is a good lead-up to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in terms of getting you acquainted with the time period and the language. I’m going to acknowledge right here that, yes, there are a lot of racial epithets – some folks are cool with that, some aren’t, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. And on a related note, I must confess it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that “Injun Joe” actually meant INDIAN Joe (i.e., Native American)…
The introduction was right: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is indeed a simpler affair, and I knocked it over fairly quickly. Despite the adult themes, it’s basically a straightforward boy-adventure story. Huck Finn, on the other hand…
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn
As much as he was Tom Sawyer’s side-kick in the first book, Huck is definitely the star of the show in this review. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was published eight years after The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and represents – in my mind, anyway – a huge leap forward in terms of Twain’s craft. It was the first major American novel to be written entirely in vernacular English (i.e., in the slang and local colour of the region), and is now considered to be one of the Great American Novels.
I know we generally shit all over vernacular writing and whinge that it makes stories harder to read, but Huck Finn actually felt a lot more readable than Tom Sawyer, like Twain had finally hit his stride. The writing was far more engaging and immersive, and I didn’t struggle with the vernacular at all. If you really hate that style of writing, then sure, give this one a miss, but don’t make the mistake of lumping it in the same basket as D.H. Lawrence and his cronies. If you can handle the Southern accents in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, you won’t have any trouble with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.
And here’s a cool piece of literary history for you: Twain actually composed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by hand on notepaper, over the course of several years, and the original manuscript still exists today! On it, we can see how Twain’s use of language and vernacular evolved as he was writing it. The famous opening line originally read “You will not know about me”, which Twain later changed to “You do not know about me”, before finally settling on the final version which we now all know so well:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
So, as you can see, Huck tells us of his adventures himself, and they’re a direct sequel to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Now, our mate Tom takes a pretty sharp left turn; in his book, he’d seemed like an innocent ragamuffin who let the pirate adventure stories he read feed his overactive imagination, but in the first few chapters of Huck Finn he comes across as an out-and-out psychopath. I really didn’t like him much at all after that; he literally tried to start a murder cult, and I’m not about that life.
We get to learn more about Huck Finn, finally, and he is infinitely more likeable (I mean, he’s not perfect, but I was rooting for him just the same). Huck is about thirteen or fourteen, his father is the town drunk and they’re incredibly poor, so it’s tough for the kid to fit in. In his adventures with Tom at the end of the previous book, Huck had come into a large sum of money, so the townsfolk suddenly take an interest in his upbringing and welfare. He goes to live with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson for a while, and they try to beat some Jesus into him, but he escapes their clutches… only to wind up being kidnapped by his drunken a-hole father.
Huck manages to keep his Pap’s dirty hands off the money, but still has a bit of a rough trot with the old man. He’s locked in an isolated cabin in the woods, subjected to bouts of extreme violence, and on the whole things are looking pretty bad… but Huck is an enterprising kid, and he goes all-out with an elaborate escape, literally faking his own death. I mean, sheesh! I tried to run away a few times as a kid, too, but I never took it that far.
On the run, Huck encounters Jim, a huge (but very polite) black man who was once the slave of Miss Watson. It turns out most of the townsfolk assume that Jim killed Huck, and he was scared that Miss Watson would sell him down the river, so he’s done a runner too. Huck has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt he’s been conditioned to feel for helping a runaway slave, but he comes to care deeply for Jim and they have a lot in common, so they become fellow travellers on the Mississippi River. They head towards a town in Illinois (a free state) where Jim won’t have to live looking over his shoulder.
Now, opinion is very divided as to whether this is a “racist” book, even above and beyond Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. Many academics posit that Twain intended The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to read as a scathing satire of entrenched social attitudes, especially racism, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They say that Twain not only used racist language, but relied on racial stereotypes to get his point across. For my part, as I read it, there’s obviously a lot of structural racism involved and some white-saviour elements that grossed me out, but Huck and Jim’s relationship seemed to be very genuine, mutual, affectionate, and respectful. On several occasions, Twain explicitly showed Huck working hard to overcome the attitudes he had been socially conditioned to hold, and behave in such a way that contradicted the racism of the time. As such, I don’t think we should hold up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the last word on defeating racism in America, but simultaneously it seems that it was rather progressive in its own time, and it’s still a book from which we could certainly learn more.
“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience… [Huck Finn is] a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collusion and conscience suffers a defeat.”Mark Twain
Anyway, back to the fun stuff: Huck and Jim have a series of adventures and mishaps as they travel along the Mississippi. Towards the end, Jim gets captured by a family who believe there is a substantial reward on his head (being, as he is, a runaway slave). Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, and the two of them make a (very, laughably, elaborate) plan to set Jim free. It involves secret messages, a hidden tunnel, a rope ladder smuggled in Jim’s food (he was kept on the ground floor, but okay), snakes, and a bunch of other stuff that Tom had read about in adventure books. When they finally get Jim out, Tom gets shot in the leg and Jim remains with him, at risk of being recaptured, rather than taking the opportunity to escape alone.
(This is all pretty typical of the adventures that Huck and Jim have together, by the way, and there are a lot of ’em.)
Still, it’s all resolved rather quickly. It turns out that Jim’s “owner” (ugh) had died a couple weeks prior, and granted him freedom in her will. Huck’s father is dead, so he can return home safely. He and Tom set off back to St Petersburg, and Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story. He knows there’s a plan afoot to adopt and “civilise” him, so he plans to flee west (to “Indian Territory”) if they try it.
As much as Tom Sawyer’s adventures reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn oddly evoked another more contemporary book: The Catcher In The Rye. A lot of the same elements are there: a lost, wayward boy; strong characterisation through coarse language and slang; and (of course) a long history of being challenged and banned. As early as 1885, libraries had banned Huck Finn from their shelves. The Boston Transcript newspaper that year ran a story that read:
“The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiencing not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”Boston Transcript (1885)
Twain reportedly then wrote a letter to his editor, saying:
“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums’. This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?
The controversy persists to this day, and it ties into the whole is-the-book-racist debate. Huck Finn was the fifth most challenged book in the U.S. throughout the 1990s, with most objections citing its frequent use of the n-word and other racial slurs. Some publishers have attempted to mollify concerned parents and teachers by, for instance, publishing editions that cut out or replace the offending language. These attempts always backfire (duh), serving only to stoke the fires of the controversy. There’s no “winning” this debate, I tell you…
There is a whole world of really interesting articles and discussions out there, and if you’re curious you should definitely take a look. A lot of people who are far cleverer than me have posted some really insightful analysis about Twain’s treatment of race, identity, class, and the American South. It makes for fascinating reading, whether you (like me) have just read The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, or whether it’s your life-long favourite. As for the book itself, I’d say steer clear if you’re sensitive to issues of race and discriminatory language, but if you can stomach that stuff reasonably well, you should give it a go. If you read it once in high-school. but haven’t picked it up since, it’s definitely one that’s worth revisiting. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a nice entree, a simpler story of some interest, but The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the main course, Twain’s pièce de résistance.
Note: I enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn SO MUCH that I ended up including it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:
- “I THOUGHT THAT THE STORY WAS GOING GREAT AT THE BEGINNING AND IT WAS BUT I JUST STARTED TO GET BORED” – Paul Robert Carroll
- “Warning, will tell kids about some of your tricks.” – Regular Buyer
- “Book isn’t normal sized” – Emily S
- “Mark Twain didn’t write many bad ones.” – Thomas E. Bracking
- “I’d talk about the plot but I don’t want to get shot!” – Solong
- “Haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure I will like them because Mark Twain is incredibly entertaining for a dead guy.” – M. Waters
- “i got this book as a gift to my ex a bit before we broke up.” – David A Medina
- “Dude no words only pics a few pics 4 me. I hated it. This best way 2 read this is 2 smash whatever device u r using” – Ayden mccormick
- “I was forced to read this for school and it was a complete waste of time I would much rather be reading Lolita or listening to one direction” – Felicia Hill