Why should you choose to read classic literature? Classic literature is the best of the best from a bygone era. It offers a glimpse into our former social habits and customs, the foundations of our modern society and intellectual reasoning. In coming to understand those times and people, you will know our modern life better.
I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to try to become well read. I understand that it all seems so daunting, almost overwhelming. You can feel like you need to be well read, or at the very least highly educated, before you can even attempt to read classic literature. But you don’t. It’s easier than you think. So where should you begin? This series is here to help you, to walk you through the veritable minefield that is classic literature.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best known by his pen name Mark Twain, has been called the father of American Literature, most notably by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered the first great American novel. It is also one of the first American novels by a major author to be written in the first person using the colour and vernacular of the region. It is for this reason that it has always been a controversial book.
To read Huck Finn you will need to set aside your modern-day PC prejudices, and keep in mind that this book is set years before the American Civil War, the war that freed the slaves. As such, the book is scattered with the word Nigger. Yes, it’s a word that most white Europeans cringe at, and rightly so, as it is a symbol of our repression and enslavement of many Africans. A detestable word indeed but widely and commonly used in the American South of the 1840s and 50s, a time when Twain was living and working on the Mississippi River.
Twain himself was a staunch, outspoken abolitionist and and showed his support of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation when he said “Lincoln’s Proclamation… not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” In writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was satirising a society that he saw as deeply and tragically flawed. Although Huck Finn wasn’t published until 1885 in the US (vandalism of the original printing plates delayed its US début), more than 20 years after the end of the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves, racism was still rife and justice for US non-whites, something else Twain was passionate about, was non-existent.
Is Huck Finn a racist himself? Yes, but he doesn’t know it; he is a product of his environment and has been taught that niggers are property, not humans. However Huck treats the co-protagonist, runaway slave Jim, like a man – and a wiser man at that, rather than property. Twain wrote Jim as a dignified character and allows Huck to accept and respect this, as Jim comes to serve as Huck’s travelling companion, moral compass and eventually his friend.
In the words of the noted black novelist Ralph Ellison “Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being, a symbol of humanity”. So Twain never intended Jim to be a caricature of a slave, but rather a man with human capacities and capabilities, something that most Southerners would never have considered at the time.
So true does their friendship become that when the time comes for Huck to decide whether or not to turn Jim in, he is forced to wrestle with his conscience. Is he stealing Miss Watson’s property (Jim) or not he asks himself? Huck quickly decides “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”, rather than betray his friend Jim. Through Huck, Twain shows his support of the abolition of slavery; as Ellison said “…in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalised evil taken for civilisation by the town”.
But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is more than just satirical commentary on racism and slavery, it’s the adventures of a straight talking, salt-of-the-earth po’ [sic] boy and his older wiser friend as they seek riches and freedom together. Huck helps Jim escape and together they set off on the adventures on the Mississippi.
Told in first person by Huck himself, you see the world through the eyes of a boy who baulks at the attempts to “sivilize” [sic] him, who yearns simply for the freedom of the mighty Mississippi River. Huck has the kind of down-on-the-farm wisdom that has become almost stereotypical of such tales, but it all began here with Huck. Twain mastered the out-of-the-mouths-of-babes style of offhand wisdom well, and there are many examples throughout Huck Finn.
The story begins where the earlier The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off, with Tom and Huck now $6000 richer, and Huck back living with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. Huck Finn was originally intended as a companion piece to Tom Sawyer but don’t worry, the book was re-worked by Twain as a stand-alone novel and the narrator, Huck Finn, brings you up to speed very quickly.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain questions more than just slavery, he explores justice versus morality, the wisdom of superstitions and the true nature of love and friendship. Twain was more than a century ahead of his time, preaching love, friendship, peace, freedom and justice for all people. It may have been intended for children but I never really understood his revolutionary message when I was in high school, it’s only now that I can marvel at their charisma, satire and meliorism. If you read Huck Finn in school, it deserves another read; if you didn’t, it certainly deserves a first read now.