Published 123 years ago this week, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood as our national masterpiece for so long that it can be difficult to recall what an unlikely candidate the novel is for that office. “It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality,” reads the pronouncement of a member of the infamous Concord (Massachusetts) Library Committee, which banned the book from its shelves shortly after its publication. Ever the shrewd opportunist, Mark Twain seized upon the free publicity, calling it a “tip-top puff” in a letter to a nephew. Americans have made a practice of sneering at anti-Huck sentiment ever since.
Histrionic attacks, then and now, on the corrupting force of media make an easy target. But the Concord librarians may have actually been right about the facts of their case. “It is couched in the language of a rough dialect, and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions,” the unnamed protector of the public stated. “It is also very irreverent.”
It is also very brutal. This is a book in which the main character is a boy kidnapped by an abusive, alcoholic father. He flees, and is joined by an enslaved man, Jim—a father himself who cries at night because he is drifting farther each day from his wife and children. In the book’s final chapters, that same enslaved man is subjected to a series of physical humiliations that border on torture, all at the whim of an adolescent boy, Tom Sawyer, who knows that Jim has already been set free by his owner.
That Twain’s riotous vernacular—its mixture of sly comedy and broad parody, its thick nostalgia for a fading river culture—somehow makes it possible to read this cruel narrative with pleasure constitutes an artistic achievement of the highest order, but a deeply perverse one. What other word better describes a story in which an escaping slave is drawn by the force of nature deeper each day into the heart of American slavery? T.S. Eliot famously described the controlling genius of the novel as a “River God,” and Twain’s Mississippi is an exacting, fickle divinity, capable of both demanding and delivering the lives of those who travel upon it.
Yet Huckleberry Finn has become a progressively safer book to read over the last century. This process took shape in the mid-twentieth century, when Cold War humanists in the United States sought out works that could solidify a canon of literary nationalism. They found in young Huck an iconoclastic individualism, a wish to cut free of institutions and resist totalitarian regimes. Huck’s friendship with Jim, and his struggle to understand his moral obligation to the escaped slave, served as an ideal text for white Americans during the decades of the Civil Rights Movement. As a “community of saints,” Lionel Trilling’s phrase, Huck and Jim offered an idealized vision of interracial harmony, a drama of white beneficence. Never mind that the novel, written after the close of Reconstruction, risked nothing by portraying a single boy who realizes the humanity of a single slave, and remained wholly silent on the racial politics of its own time. Huckleberry Finn found a story of individual salvation in the history of our greatest national sin, and for that reason became an American gospel.
As secular doctrine, Twain’s novel has endured. One might think that our multicultural age would demand a more satisfying portrayal of African-American life than Twain gives us in Jim. The infamous racial epithet, after all, is not the only indignity he suffers. But Huckleberry Finn remains a staple of the curriculum; a study in the 1990s found that only Shakespeare was more often assigned in high school classrooms. In my own experiences of trying to teach the novel, I’ve learned that white and black readers alike have a deep need to believe that its achievement rests in a brave, unrelenting renunciation of American racism, that Huck’s decision to aid Jim’s quest for freedom constitutes a kind of redemptive sacrament in which they can participate. The problem with this desire is that it exists independently of any actual reading of the book: American readers know the redemptive experience to which they are aspiring before they ever open its covers. What was once a sacred text has give rise to a stale liturgy.
Mark Twain would have laughed at the rich irony. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is so unsparing in its satire that rooting a moral claim in the novel is like trying to build a house on a Mississippi sandbar: You are in danger of having the ground beneath you washed away. In one of the most dramatic episodes of the book, for instance, Huck chooses damnation over returning Jim to his owner: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” he declares. The line is a jab at the organized religions that once explicitly or implicitly endorsed a system of enslavement, but the book does not give us any other place to which to turn. Huck’s own judgment is suspect: He has reached this decision via such a laborious process that the chapter reads like a comic parody of ethics, and within two chapters he will be back under the more suspect influence of Tom Sawyer. There is not an abolitionist in sight—nor does Huck show any signs that he would welcome one—and Twain will render Huck’s entire self-examination moot by the end of the novel when he tells us that, in fact, Jim had already been manumitted upon the death of his owner. At the most pragmatic level, the entire narrative of Jim’s quest for freedom is an exercise in redundancy. There are no lessons for liberation here.
What may be most useful about reading, carefully reading, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn today is the deep skepticism that the book expresses about turning to the past for examples of virtue. Twain understood the pleasures that his readers took in a history that was more mythic than actual, more fantasy than reality; in this novel, he both exploits that quality in his readers and derides it. To look to this novel or its characters for true moral instruction seems as preposterous as the lies that roll off Huck Finn’s tongue. The past, like the Mississippi, is a treacherous place in Mark Twain’s imagination. Twain loved the river, but he knew it was littered with wrecked boats, debris, and the corpses of those who had made a fatal error while trying to navigate its depths. For a nation that constantly risks turning its complex histories of struggle—think of the regular invocation of Martin Luther King by both the right and the left—into vague, wrinkle-free myths of redemption, Twain’s novel could offer a cautionary tale worth heeding.