The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
At some point in crafting my ever-growing list of American history books I had made the decision to include iconic works of American fiction that I felt were essential to understanding the era in which they were set. A Farewell to Arms would augment my education on the Great War, The Grapes of Wrath and The Color Purple would add nuance to my exploration of America’s Depression years.
In that spirit, I can’t think of a book, or an author for that matter, more associated with the antebellum era than Mark Twain and his classic work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Set somewhere in the mid 1830s to 1840s along the Mississippi river where Twain grew up, the novel follows the runaway boy Huck with his fugitive slave companion, Jim.
These were years of immense change for the young nation. While steamboats and railroads were transforming how people moved, the telegraph was revolutionizing the speed at which they communicated. It was the end of something in America. Jefferson’s pastoral republic was giving way to Hamilton’s industrialized powerhouse. Of course for men like Jim, change of any kind was still decades away.
Ernest Hemingway has famously claimed that Huck Finn is the novel that “all modern American literature comes from.” Groundbreaking in its use of vernacular dialogue and local dialects, the book reminded me of reading Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting as a college freshman, as I untangled the characters’ thick Scottish brogue, often rendered phonetically, intertwined as it was with street slang and UK pop culture references. Twain’s dialogue wasn’t quite that challenging, but there were moments where I had to slow down, especially when reading Jim’s often terrified and bewildered utterances.
The basic plot of the novel follows Huck as he makes his way down the mighty river, fleeing his abusive father and the adult world that seems intent on civilizing him. Along the way, he comes across another runaway, the slave Jim, and together they both seek the freedom that they’ve always longed for.
As they make their way down the Mississippi they grow close, stumbling upon riverboat robberies, warring families, and eventually two con men known as the King and Duke. As they traverse the countryside, putting on plays and swindling locals, Huck and Jim become separated, eventually reuniting at Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally’s house.
Tom Sawyer’s presence at this stage of the novel stands in stark contrast to his role earlier in the book. At the story’s outset, he is Huck’s partner in crime, a conjurer of playful adventures and boyhood scrapes. By the time the two meet again, Sawyer’s antics feel more and more childish to both the reader and the more world-weary Huck. Tom’s outlandishly prolonged game of ‘rescuing’ Jim from Aunt Sally’s shed creates a tension in his relationship with a more complex Huck, a boy who has a deeper understanding of Jim’s status as a slave and the dangerous world beyond his boyhood home.
It’s a novel that isn’t afraid to thoughtfully investigate themes of identity and race, morality and conscience, while holding a mirror to an America that would increasingly be at odds over similar themes as it strived to resolve its noble aspirations with its contrasting realities.