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One Hundred Years Of Huck Finn

July 2024
11min read

It was a difficult birth, but it looks as if the child will live forever

“BY AND BY,” Mark Twain wrote to William Dean Howells in 1875, “I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life (in the first person) but not Tom Sawyer —he would not be a good character for it.” A month later he knew that the boy would be Huck, and he began work; by midsummer of 1876 Twain was well under way. But something went wrong. He gave up the notion of carrying Huck on into adulthood and told Howells of what he had written thus far: “I like it only tolerably well, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the ms. when it is done.”

Twain did put the book aside for seven years, during which time he produced A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper , and Life on the Mississippi . It was his return to the great river that enabled Twain to return to Huck: he knew that the river was the structural center of the book and its life’s blood; now all went well. He reported to his family: “I am piling up manuscript in a really astonishing way. I believe I shall complete, in two months, a book which I have been going over for 7 years. This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie. ” And to Howells, in August of 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to. I used to restrict myself to four and five hours a day and five days in the week, but this time I have wrought from breakfast till 5.15 P.M. six days in the week, and once or twice I smouched a Sunday when the boss wasn’t looking. Nothing is half so good as literature hooked on Sunday, on the sly.”

A few months later he gave the manuscript to Charles L. Webster (his nephew by marriage), whom Twain had set up as head of his own publishing company. When Twain saw the illustrations he had commissioned by E. W. Kemble, an artist whose work he had admired in Life , he urged him to make Huck look less “ugly” and less “Irishy.” Kemble obeyed.

The book was to be sold by subscription. “Keep it diligently in mind,” Twain wrote to Webster, “that we don’t issue until we have made a big sale . Get at your canvassing early and drive it with all your might, with an intent and purpose of issuing on the 10th or 15th of next December (the best time in the year to tumble a big pile into the trade); but if we haven’t 40,000 subscriptions we simply postpone publication till we’ve got them.”

Publication was postponed, but not for lack of subscriptions. While the book was being printed, someone added a few lines to Kemble’s drawing of Uncle Silas on page 283; the lines emerging from Silas’s groin were clearly obscene. The culprit was never discovered, although Webster immediately offered a reward of five hundred dollars to anyone who could name—and prove the guilt of—the man who did it. According to Webster, “250 copies left the office, I believe, before the mistake was discovered. Had the first edition been run off our loss would have been $25,000. Had the mistake not been discovered, Mr. Clemens’s credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” The printer, J. J. Little, was more succinct: “This cost me plenty.”

Because of the delay Webster missed the Christmas target date, and what is perhaps the greatest American novel was published first in England by Chatto & Windus on December 10, 1884. The first American edition appeared on February 18, 1885. (According to the title page of both the manuscript and Webster’s edition, the correct title is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . The word the was added by the publishers to the running heads and by Kemble in his illustrations. Sales were good. Webster’s figures show that he had 9,000 orders by September 2, 1884, and over 40,000 by April of 1885. He planned to print 50,000. On May 6 he noted, “I have already sold 51,000 of Huck.” A century later the Twain scholar Walter Blair estimates that, the world over, about twenty million copies have been sold, with sales still going strong.


Glad as he was about the book’s commercial success, Twain was disheartened by its reception. The Century Magazine , which had serialized three excerpts from the novel, ran a generally favorable review by Thomas Sergeant Perry, who spoke of Huck as the “immortal hero”—but the review did not appear until three months after the book’s publication. The newspapers were silent or, for the most part, negative: in Boston the book was attacked by both the Advertiser and the Transcript , the latter finding it “so flat, as well as coarse, that nobody wants to read it after a taste in the Century .” Robert Bridges gave it a sarcastic review in Life : “a … delicate piece of narration by Huck Finn, describing his venerable and dilapidated ‘pap’ as afflicted with delerium tremens … is especially suited to amuse children on long, rainy afternoons … ”

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.

Huck published in England and Canada by Chatto & Windus on December 10.


1885 Huck published in America (February 18) by Charles L. Webster & Co. Huck published in Germany (in English) by Tauchnitz. Danish and Dutch translations published.

1886 Les Aventures de Huck Finn published in France.

1888 Russian translation of Huck published. Five Russian editions appeared before World War I. Yale awards Twain an honorary M.A. degree.

1890 The first of more than thirty German translations of Huck is published.

1891 Andrew Lang, in London Illustrated News , calls Huck “nothing less than a masterpiece” and suggests that the “great American novel has escaped the eyes of those who watch.”

1896 Swedish translation published.

1898 First Polish translation published.

1900 First Czech translation published. A Harvard professor, Barret Wendell, calls Huck a “book which in certain moods one is disposed for all its eccentricity to call the most admirable work of literary art as yet produced on this continent.”

1901 Yale awards Twain an honorary Litt. D. degree.

1902 The University of Missouri gives Twain an honorary LL. D. degree, and the Denver and Omaha public libraries exclude Huck for fear that the “immoral and sacrilegious” book would “put wrong ideas in youngsters’ heads. ”

1903 Harper & Brothers acquires all copyrights to Mark Twain’s published writings and sells 41,000 copies of Huck in the next four years.

1904 First Finnish translation of Huck published.

William P. Trent, in A Brief History of American Literature , calls Huck a “masterpiece.”

1905 Huck is removed from the children’s room of the Brooklyn Public Library because it is a “bad example for ingenuous youth.”

1907 George Bernard Shaw writes a note to Twain: “I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.” Twain assails librarians in Worcester, Massachusetts, for banning Huck .

1908 The first Ukrainian translation of Huck is published.

1910 Mark Twain dies on April 21. First Lithuanian translation, of Huck is published.

1913 H. L. Mencken writes in Credo : “I believe that Huckleberry Finn is one of the great masterpieces of the world... I believe that [Twain] was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal.”


1915 Le Avventure di Huck Finn published in Italy.

1920 Paramount releases a silent movie version of Huck .

1921 First Japanese edition of Huck .

1923 First Spanish edition of Huck published.

1926 First Hebrew translation of Huck published.

1927 First Finnish translation of Huck published.

1930 First Norwegian translation of Huck published.

1931 Harper & Brothers publishes an edition of Huck specially prepared to let “Huck. . . step down from his place on the library shelf and enter the [upper grade and junior high] classroom.” This expurgated edition was prepared by two teachers who “scientifically” compiled thousands of reports from “young people everywhere.” They created a book they believed unequaled “in providing wholesome happiness for boys and girls, and in stimulating even the most apathetic and difficult pupils.” The final question on the twenty-four-page study guide asks: “As you close the book do you feel you have finished a great classic? Why?”

First edition of Huck sold at auction in New York City for $205.

Another movie version from Paramount, this time with sound.

1932 First Estonian translation of Huck published.

1934 First Portuguese translation of Huck published.

1935 Ernest Hemingway in Green Hills of Africa : “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” F Scott Fitzgerald: “Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restless eyes—he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever. ”

A first edition of Huck sold at auction in New York City for $400. 1937 James Joyce sends a copy of Huck to David Fleischman and, in the accompanying letter, dated August 8, Paris,writes: “I need to know something about it. I never read it and have nobody to read it to me. . . . Could you perhaps refresh your memory by a hasty glance through and then dictate to your mother … an account of the plot in general. . . . After that I should like you to mark with blue pencil in the margin the most important passages of the plot itself , and in red pencil here and there wherever the words or dialogue seem to call for the special attention of a European.... If you can then return it to me soon I shall try to use whatever bears upon what I am doing.” Finnegan’s Wake was published two years later: Joyce played not only with the name Finn but also with the theme of a river journey.


1939 Mickey Rooney stars as Huck in a movie version from MGM.

1940 The copyright for Huck expires, and the book enters the public domain; a large number of popular editions are published—among them the first of three Everyman editions.

1948 Latvian, Slovene, and SerboCroatian translations published. The noted critic, Leslie Fiedler, ignites a controversy by claiming in Partisan Review that there is a homoerotic subtext in the relationship between Huck and Jim.

1950 Greek, Indonesian, and Rumanian translations published. T. S. Eliot, in his introduction to a London edition, writes: “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece. I do not suggest that it is his only book of permanent interest; but it is the only one which creates its own category. . . . Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction. The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment. So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and the other great discoveries that man has made about himself.”

1956 William Faulkner in a Paris Review interview: “He [Sherwood Anderson] was the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on. He has never received his proper evaluation. Dreiser is his older brother and Mark Twain the father of them both.”

1957 New York City Board of Education takes Huck off the list of approved textbooks for elementary and junior high schools. The book is called “racially offensive” by the NAACP.

1960 Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn (University of California Press) by Walter Blair. This is the definitive study to date. MGM does it again, this time with Archie Moore as Jim.

1962 Huck Finn and His Critics edited by R. Lettis, R. F. McDonnell, and W. Morris: a collection of articles and a bibliography of Huck studies.

1965 Stravinsky says in Table Talk , written with Robert Craft: “At every meeting with the poet [T. S. Eliot], conversation was sooner or later drawn to the Mississippi, perhaps as much because of me as of him; the lure of the river was instilled in me in my childhood by a Russian translation of Mark Twain …”

1968 Life publishes (first time) Twain’s uncompleted manuscript of a projected book taking Huck and Tom out west among the Indians.

1971 An opera, Huckleberry Finn , by Hall Overton opens at the JuilL liard Theatre in May.

1973 The Russians make a movie of Huck , directed by Georgii Daneliya.

1974 A movie version is produced jointly by United Artists and Reader’s Digest : Paul Winfield plays Jim.

1976 Huck removed from required reading in Illinois high schools chiefly because of the word nigger .

1977 Mark Twain, A Reference Guide edited by Thomas Tenney. Reports that articles and books dealing chiefly with Huck totaled 43 between 1884 and 1915; 81 between 1916 and 1946; 161 between 1947 and 1961; and 282 between 1962 and 1976.

1978 The People’s Republic of China lifts ban on Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain.

1981 The Boys in Autumn , a play by Rernard Sabath, opens in San Francisco to bad reviews. It stars Kirk Douglas and Rurt Lancaster playing Huck and Tom as old men.

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn , a facsimile of Webster’s first edition, is published by Clarkson N. Potter. Edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, it includes voluminous critical and historical commentary.

1983 Books In Print lists fifty-one editions of Huck as still available, plus four in which the book is combined with Tom Sawyer .

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