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A Few Words On Huckleberry Finn

I believe that Huckleberry Finn is one of the great masterpieces of the world, that it is the full equal of Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, that it is vastly better than Gil Blas, Tristram Shandy, Nicholas Nickleby or Tom Jones.  I believe that it will be read by human beings of all ages, not as a solemn duty but for the honest love of it, and over and over again, long after every book written in American between the years 1800 and 1860, with perhaps three exceptions, has disappeared entirely save as a classroom fossil.  I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson.  I believe that, admitting all his defects, he wrote better English, in the sense of cleaner, straighter, vivider, saner English, than either Irving or Hawthorne.  I believe that four of his books--Huck, Life on the Mississippi, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, and A Connecticut Yankee--are alone worth more, as works of art and as criticisms of life, than the whole output of Cooper, Irving, Holmes, Mitchell, Stedman, Whittier and Bryant.  I believe that he was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the royal blood.

--H. L. Mencken, Review of Albert Bigelow Paine's biography of Mark Twain, in The Smart Set (February 1913).

Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restive eyes--he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald (1935)

Huckleberry Finn himself is the most American of heroes: he is the boy-man in a male world . . . and solitary--alone even among others, a first-person narrator who is at home in nature and, like Cooper's Natty Bumppo, at a loss in town, yet as able to cope with the venality and evil of knaves as any Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler version of the Scout. As alienated as a James Baldwin youth, and as deeply engaged in the search for a proper father as a Faulkner boy, Huck Finn, an American orphan . . . is, above all, a lonely survivor, one who accommodates to his changing world. . .

--Eric Solomon (1985)

We are aware that Huck cannot live comfortably in any of the worlds he inhabits. He searches for a father he cannot find, having killed, at least symbolically, the legal one. He cannot find a home, at Widow Douglas's, in Pap's cabin, on Jackson's Island, at the Grangerfords, on the raft, or at the Phelps plantation, either because none of his worlds is insulated from outside interference or because he loses them to circumstance or expediency. The entire structure of the novel is one of frustrated attempt to escape from restrictions only to find the refuge susceptible to invasion and destruction. Judith Loftus's husband is "after us"; the slave-hunters and the Duke and Dauphin violate the pastoral immunity of the raft; Tom Sawyer appears at the Phelpses to orchestrate an attempt at freedom.

Hamlin Hill (1985)

The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers. . . . All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

--Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa (1934)

It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending. A river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force that can wholly determine the course of human peregrination. . . . Thus the River makes the book a great book. . . . Mark Twain is a native, and the River God is his God.

-- T. S. Eliot

I do not see that it means much to talk about the river as a god in this novel. The river's connection with this high aspiration for man is that it provides a means of escape, a place where the code can be tested. The truly profound meanings of the novel are generated by the impingement of the actual world of slavery, feuds, lynching, murder, and a spurious Christianity upon the ideal of the raft. The result is a tension which somehow demands release in the novel's ending. But Clemens was unable to effect this release and at the same time control the central theme.

--Leo Marx

Doubleness patterns the book thus: (a) the real thing is presented, as in the death of Boggs, and then (b) the parody of it, as in the mock imitation of his tragic death (Ch. 21). The structure of Huckleberry Finn, as I see it, consists of a recurrent counterpointing of the real or true thing or event with the juxtaposed parody of it. Nothing is not parodied. Everything exists thus in doubleness, by contraries. . . . With doubleness of selfhood goes masked selfhood in clothes, false fronts and false words, false identities, maudlin sentiments, and lies. While disguise occurs not only on land but also on the river, the river on the contrary is the sole sanctuary for nakedness, literally and spiritually.

That the river represents conscience is indicated by the fact that the river gnaws at the land. . . . In the river's always gnawing at the land and the town's always drawing back from it Twain provides the analogy for Huck's own plight. Huckleberry, having paddled up a creek in search of berries, confronts instead his other self--personified in the pair of frauds.

--R. W. Stallman

A close look at the part women play in Huck Finn's life thus makes clearer the extent of his moral regression at the end of the novel. In his relationships with his principal female mentors--the Widow Douglas, Judith Loftus, and Mary Jane Wilks--he has achieved an appreciation of those virtues that begin to separate him from the hypocrisy and violence of the society in which he lives. But his contact with these women has also confirmed that he is in fact male and must remove himself from what he perceives as a "female" world of conformity to certain standards of behavior. With the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson he plays the part of the unruly boy; with Judith Loftus he tries to be a girl and fails; and with Mary Jane Wilks he assumes the role of the male protector of female innocence. Finally, with Jim, he arrives at a mature friendship with another man, one for whom he is prepared to risk eternal damnation.

--Nancy Walker