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One Hundred Years Of Huck Finn
It was a difficult birth, but it looks as if the child will live forever
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
It is, of course, impossible that so great a novel should have been misconstrued by everyone. Howellsknew right away: “If I had written half as good a book as Huck Finn, I shouldn’t ask anything better than to read the proofs [which he did]. . . . ” It was called the “great American novel” as early as 1891 by the English writer Andrew Lang, and nine years after that a Harvard professor wrote that it was the “most admirable work of literary art as yet produced on this continent. ” Twain did not live to see Adventures of Huckleberry Finn assume the unshakable place in the literary firmament it holds today, but there is no doubt he knew its worth. And yet what held his increasingly bitter attention—almost from the moment the book appeared—was the controversy into which it was born.
In March of 1885 there occurred one of the great ironies of our literary history; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by a committee of the Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, the town of Emerson and Thoreau, which had been the brightest center of intellect the country had ever known. The committee found the book too crude and had it removed from the public bookshelves. Louisa May Alcott expressed the committee members’ views: “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”
Twain thus was probably the first American writer to gain advantage by being banned in (or around) Boston. As he wrote to Webster: “The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. . . . That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.” In his notebook for April 15 he observed: “Those idiots in Concord are not a court of last resort, and I am not disturbed by their moral gymnastics. No other book of mine has sold so many copies within 2 months after issue as this one has done.”
The “moral gymnastics”—as American as the book itself—have now continued for one hundred years and show no sign of abating.
The first objections to Huck arose merely from notions of gentility: literature was to be high-toned and elevating. Even Emerson, who had noted again and again that ordinary speech had its own power and poetry, thought it necessary to keep it out of his printed Essays . But in his journal entry for October 5, 1840, Emerson wrote: “What a pity that we cannot curse and swear in good society. . . . It is the best rhetoric and for a hundred occasions these forbidden words are the only good ones.” In addition to the language, there was the problem of Huck’s character: he told lies, defied his elders, was shiftless. Not a good example for young people.
So widespread was this genteel recoiling that in 1907 E. L. Pearson, a librarian, complained that Tom and Huck were being “turned out of some library every year. ” Pearson went on to conjure up the attitudes of a censorious children’s librarian: “No, no,” she says, ‘Tom Sawyer, and you, you horrid Huckleberrry Finn, you mustn’t come here. All the boys and girls in here are good and pious; they have clean faces, they go to Sundayschool, and they love it, too. . . . But you—you naughty, bad boys, your faces aren’t washed, and your clothes are all covered with dirt. I do not believe either of you brushed his hair this morning.... As for you, Huckleberry, you haven’t any shoes or stockings at all, and every one knows what your father is.” Yet what is literature, asks Pearson, but a “record of people doing the things they should not do.”
During the last forty-odd years the objections have shifted to other grounds. Now it is the treatment of Jim, the presence of the word nigger , and what seems to some readers a degree of ambiguity in Huck’s (and Twain’s) attitude toward the man. Others cannot even see ambiguity. The book is the “most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life,” said a school administrator in Virginia in 1982. His post was at the Mark Twain Intermediate School.
Mark Twain wrote his own sad projections about Huck in 1891, when he planned a sequel: “Huck comes back, 60 years old, from nobody knows where—and crazy. Thinks he is a boy again, and scans always every face for Tom and Becky, etc. Tom comes at last from . . . wandering the world and tends Huck, and together they talk the old times, both are desolate, life has been a failure, all that was lovable, all that was beautiful, is under the mold. They die together. ” He never wrote the book, and Tom and Huck probably will live forever.
1883 Mark Twain finishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in August, in Elmira, New York.
1884 Revised chapters from Huck appear in Century Magazine (December 1884; January and February 1885) but are still found offensive by some readers.