Huckleberry Finn: A Misunderstood Classic
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
Generations of parents, teachers and screenwriters have erroneously portrayed Mark Twain’s greatest classic as a children’s story. Containing thirteen killings and depicting the evils of slavery, racism, alcoholism, bigotry, child abuse and corruption, it hardly qualifies as a bedtime story for toddlers. Huck Finn, the quintessential free spirit, possessing an almost primal innocence, finds himself at odds with the people of the Antebellum South, who accept without question their roles as both victims of and accomplices to a morally reprehensible system.
Mark Twain based Huck upon a boyhood friend in Hannibal, Missouri, while he served as his own role model for Huck’s wildly imaginative pal, Tom Sawyer. The central conflict involves the tension between Huck’s conscience and the mores of a brutal and hypocritical society.
Fleeing from an abusive, alcoholic father and the stultifying rectitude of a well-meaning but clueless foster parent, Huck takes up with the runaway slave Jim. The two fugitives embark aboard a raft on a journey down the Mississippi that has become immortal, each fleeing his own dreadful past. The river serves as a metaphor for the natural world. So long as the two remain on its waters, all is well, but when they leave its safe, predictable embrace or when the world comes to them in the persons of several disreputable characters, danger ensues. The world of men is fraught with menace.
The conflict between natural man and civilized society reaches its climax when Huck finds himself torn between a societal imperative that he turn Jim over to slave catchers, while his conscience tells him otherwise. When Huck decides to assist Jim in his escape plans, concluding that he will experience guilt regardless of which course he follows, religious fundamentalists over the years have accused Twain of advocating moral relativism. In reality, Twain peels away the veil of society’s pretensions, exposing ugly truths to the light of day.
Other censors have attempted to remove Huck from school libraries because of the novel’s repeated use of the detestable “N” word, somehow overlooking the story’s impassioned condemnation of racism and slavery. With his acid wit, western colloquialisms and deadpan exaggerations, Twain was often introduced to audiences as a humorist who was really funny, but as he confided to others, “Scratch a humorist and you find a sad man.”
Mark Twain, a highly sensitive observer, was driven to despair by the realities of man’s folly and brutality. His stories run the gamut from the hilarious “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” to the sorrowful “A Dog’s Tale.” Responding to reports of lynchings in the South, Twain mounted his soapbox and beseeched missionaries to come home from foreign lands and convert their own country to Christianity. He excoriates “The Damned Human Race,” insisting, “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the joy of doing it.”
Using humor as a surgeon would use his scalpel, Twain raged against racism, slavery, bigotry, vivisection, imperialism, the subjugation of women and the venality and obtuseness of established institutions. “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” he railed.
Attacking the venomous piety of his day, he fumed, “What a hell of a heaven it will be when they get all those hypocrites assembled there!” and remarked, “There has been only one Christian. They caught and crucified him—early.”
Twain was born in 1835, the year of Halley’s Comet, and accurately predicted that he would leave this life upon its return, in 1910. He left us with a legacy of unforgettable characters, tall tales and a unique exploration of moral and ethical conundrums that have provided American literature with enduring themes. Most of all, he left us with Huckleberry Finn, the first great American novel.