Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece


Andrew Levy

Simon & Schuster


Huck Finn is a mess, a hodgepodge. Parts of the book are ‘fun,’ and parts are traumatic, and parts are ‘real,’ and parts are implausible, and parts are written for children, and parts for adults, and the ghosts of all this playfulness persist: a study at Penn State in 1983 found that, even after ‘weeks of serious study,’ approximately one-third of all students missed the ‘satire’ and still saw Huck Finn as ‘an adventure story.’

                          from  Huck Finn’s America


The adventures of an American masterpiece

Biographer Justin Kaplan once noted that Twain’s masterpiece has had almost as many adventures as Huck Finn himself.

From the day it was first published, on February18, 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was controversial. By March 17, it had already been banned in Concord, Massachusetts, beginning “its long career of being removed from library bookshelves.” (Sales of the book immediately increased; Twain was delighted.)

But it wasn’t banned because of race—most contemporary reviews hardly mentioned race at all; they were more concerned about the messages it sent to children. It was seen as “a too-violent book about a too-bad boy.” It wasn’t until 1957 that it was banned specifically for “passages derogatory to negroes.”

For most people today, controversy surrounding Huckleberry Finn is about the use of the so-called “n-word,” a self-conscious construction created in the 1990s, Andrew Levy tells us, “where a racial slur can be used and not used at once.” We are left with the paradox of the first Great American Novel being an anti-racist book that appears racist. (At least one modern edition has replaced the word with “slave.”)

As the subtitle suggests, Levy’s book is also about the cultural context in which Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn: the years following the Civil War, amid the crumbling, corrupt failure of the Reconstruction period, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the resulting loss of the dream of equality.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, insuring (male) African Americans the same rights as white males, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, restoring segregation and white control to the southern states. (Sound familiar?) Levy notes, “Southern governments became homogeneously white again…There is no question that Twain was paying attention. And there was no question he was angry.”

Though coming from Missouri, a slaveholding state, Samuel Clemens’ attitudes toward race had shifted by the time he became Mark Twain, and he was now capturing that shift in the story of a boy’s awakening to the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.

The rising popularity of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom coincided with the American civil rights movement. “Racism is first learned, Huck told American schoolchildren, and then unlearned through contact with the racial other, and then combated through acts of individual courage and contrition.”

Finally, writers will also enjoy seeing how this masterpiece changed as it went through numerous drafts, and the different possibilities Twain considered for Huck’s adventures. He decided against one scenario where the boy escapes on an elephant. Good call.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June15-July 14, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.