Lecture on Huckleberry Finn
[This is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 401, in November 1996, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released June 1999]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
With Huckleberry Finn we move for the first time away in our curriculum from European literature across the Atlantic to America, to a civilization and a culture obviously derived in many respects from Europe and yet in some ways intriguingly different. One of the reasons I really like this novel in a program like this is the nature of that difference. And that is what, in part, I will be focusing on today, no doubt in a rather sketchy and erratic way.
By common observation, whatever Huckleberry Finn is about, it has a peculiar relationship to what America is all about. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . .” claimed Ernest Hemingway, “it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” This, no doubt, is a huge overstatement, but it points to something important and worth considering--the way in which this book is closely linked to a culture which is significantly different from the European traditions, which defines itself, in large part, by a revolutionary break with those traditions.
In this lecture I want to focus on the novel, but I want, in doing so, to make some suggestions about the connections between the vision of life here and the culture most of us know so well (directly or second hand). I don’t want to suggest that one has to approach the novel this way. However, the approach happens to be one which answers to my continuing fascination with the United States, and so I shall pursue it.
Observations on the Structure of the Novel
To begin with, however, I would like to make some common general observations about the structure of the story, the plot, which is the subject of much commentary, a good deal of it very unfavorable.
The story falls naturally into three distinct parts: (a) initial escape of Jim and Huck and the setting out upon the river, the beginning of the voyage on the raft; (b) the adventures in the towns with the Duke and the Dauphin, and (c) the events at Phelps’ farm leading to the ending (the reappearance of Tom Sawyer and the liberation of Jim). These changes are fairly easy to spot and to agree about, because they are clearly announced, and most readers sense a significant change from section to section in the shifting tone and focus as one moves into the next part. An important interpretative challenge in dealing with this book is to reconcile the different parts of it.
The opening deals with the most complex and serious issue, the notion of slavery and the appropriate response to it, in a society in which assisting a slave to escape is against the law. We are invited here to see that Huck faces a real moral dilemma here in sorting out his conflicting loyalties to the “law” and to his friendship with Jim, something much more serious than Tom’s silly adolescent adventures. And we follow Huck making a clear decision to assist Jim and to follow through the consequences by aiding his escape to a place where he can be free.
The second section of the novel begins once Jim and Huck pass Cairo, and thus miss the chance to travel north to freedom (on p. 103 they realize their situation). From this point on they are, in fact, moving further and further away from the goal of the original escape and heading towards the place which for Jim is the worst possible place on earth, New Orleans, the heart of the slave trade.
In this section of the novel, the focus moves away (although not entirely) from the issue of slavery, for the major attention directs itself onto the adventures of the Duke and Dauphin and onto a savage satire of the townsfolk living beside the Mississippi in the pre-Civil War South. In this section of the novel Jim occupies the sidelines, and the issues we had to deal with in the first third lose some of their urgency.
To some extent there is still a certain moral pressure facing Huck, as he has to witness the attempts of the Duke and the Dauphin to swindle money out of people Huck has come to like. Here, as I shall observe later, because of the way Twain sets up the events, we find it hard not to like some things about the Duke and the Dauphin, even though we also recognize that they are defrauding people, lying, cheating, and stealing. But the main energy and focus of much of this part of the narrative have shifted from Jim and Huck’s relationship onto the dealings of the two con men and the various townsfolk they swindle as Huck for the most part stands on the sidelines and watches.
The final section begins with the capture of Jim and Huck’s decision to help him, even if it means he will go to hell (p. 235): here we seem to be back where we were near the start of the novel. Only now the issue is much more complex, because Jim is captured and they are in the deep South, not conveniently close to a escape route up the Ohio River. But this tone is quickly abandoned with the idea that Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, and for many readers the novel becomes something very different once the real Tom Sawyer reappears, something, in fact, rather silly.
The dissatisfaction stems from two major points. The first is the sheer improbability and over neat coincidental nature of the conclusion. Of course, many fictions are improbable and rely upon coincidences. But for most of this novel we have been dealing with a different reality (in fact, one of the points of the novel seems to be forcing us to recognize the practical details of life as opposed to sentimental illusions or strange folk beliefs)--and this conclusion (for some people) violates our sense of the world as the novel has developed it.
The second, and more important objection, is that the novel does not face squarely the issues it itself raises. Twain puts on the table very early the issue of slavery, and the issue keeps cropping up in the middle section: How is an individual to behave in a society which legally enslaves my friend? How am I to sort out the conflict between my personal and my social allegiance? What is the appropriate stance towards such a society?
Having put this question on the table, Twain seems unwilling in the last section to explore it fully, deal with it, or provide an answer for it. So to provide some sense of narrative finality he brings Tom Sawyer back, a character who has, in a very real way, already been discredited in the novel by Huck’s learning that life is not like a Tom Sawyer adventure. The reason Tom is such a disappointment at the end is that we have moved during the course of the novel from Tom Sawyer’s world into one much more complex, challenging, and significant. His adolescent romantic adventurism seems now what it always has been, intensely childish and cruel (even if unintentionally so), because it relies upon fantasy and manipulation, treating other people (i.e., Jim) as means not as ends.
Tom, in other words, decides to steal Jim not out of any intense feeling of friendship for Jim or any revulsion against slavery. He does it to give himself an adventure and needlessly complicates the plans and multiplies Jim’s suffering in order to amuse himself. And the fact that Huck goes along with Tom’s plans is all the more irritating, because it violates our sense that Huck has learned some important things on the trip down river, that he has matured in some important ways so that he is a better person than Tom Sawyer, to whom he now constantly defers. And when we find that Tom has known all along that Jim was a free man, the whole point of the ending seems ridiculously cruel More important that that, perhaps, the humour and inventiveness become tiresome.
We might be tempted to see the reappearance of Tom Sawyer as a satire on Tom and what he represents. To me that makes good sense. The problem here is that the satiric point about Tom has already been made. We do not need to have our noses rubbed in it. We get the point. So the energy of the satire and the nature of the folk humour tend to run out of steam.
What I want to suggest in this lecture is that that disappointment with the ending of the book points to something that is of particular interest in it, namely, that it is a vision of life which explores important human possibilities in a new way and which proposes as a solution to issues which cannot be easily solved evasion and escape. The novel refuses to deal with the moral issues in certain ways we might expect, because those solutions might complicate the system of values which the novel has developed. And this, I want to argue, makes this a particularly American novel.
The American Experience in Huckleberry Finn: Initial Observations
Before looking at particular details of the novel, I want to make a few observations about why this is such a great American novel. I would like to avoid giving the impression that I really want to foist upon the novel some preconceived idea about what “American” means; on the other hand, I would like to call attention to some preliminary matters which I will return to when I consider the novel in more detail.
As I have already mentioned, we have been spending most of our time in Liberal Studies in Europe; this is the first time we have crossed the Atlantic. And if we are attentive, we should be noticing that the vision of life here offers some new perspectives and, above all, a new sort of hero. I want to advance the claim in this lecture that what is particularly significant in Huckleberry Finn is the nature of this hero, who is someone distinctly different from any heroic figure we have met yet (although he has some similarities with some others). And if I have time I would like to offer and defend for a bit the opinion that this new heroic model is one of America’s greatest exports.
The Paradox of the Eighteenth Century Inheritance
By now you should be becoming aware that the legacy of the eighteenth century created something of a paradox for Western societies. The legacy of the new science, the growing industrialization, the commitment to democracy, the stress on the equality of human beings, and the growth of capitalism was encouraging people to think in terms of a growing uniformity of life and opinion (what Mill calls the tyranny of the majority). As Europe committed itself more and more to democracy, science, and equality, many of the traditional sources of variety in life disappeared or decreased in value (we have already discussed Marx’s correct sense that capitalism, the economic order of this new Enlightenment culture, aggressively erodes all sense of traditional differences).
At the same time as these pressures for conformity were increasing, the Romantic inheritance stressed the primary obligation to self-creation, to a life which did not answer to community standards or traditional beliefs but rather to one’s own conception of one’s own identity, even in opposition to the uniform standards of the community. We have followed in some writers, notably in Wordsworth and Mill, the importance of guarding this romantic freedom to create one’s own life in the face of the growing conformity of democracy, equality, technology, and capitalism.
The paradox is an even more urgent problem as soon as one moves from the conceptual level to the practical. How, in daily living, can I escape the surrounding social conformity in order to create my own identity? Mill believes that free speech and the freedom to do what we think best provided we do not injure others are sufficient. Marx believes that we must define ourselves in terms of our class identity and await the full romantic individual possibilities which will come only after the establishment of communism. Both of these options--the liberal and the socialist possibilities--are full of problems on the practical level, simply because it is so difficult to find any room for oneself in a complex, modern, conforming society. And they both require long effort and a demanding process of education.
Mill’s “solution” demands literacy and access to some highly sophisticated forums and also, something he overlooks, sufficient leisure time and education; Marx’s “solution” demands the time-consuming development of a class consciousness and a revolution. Neither appears particularly attainable to the average person concerned about the issues today. By this time, especially having read Middlemarch and Mill, we should be thoroughly familiar with the importance of this problem: How can one live out one’s self-created vision of oneself in a society which makes powerful demands to conform? How can we avoid becoming like Lydgate, swallowed up by a society whose power to neutralize and destroy our individual ambitions seems all powerful? How can we avoid becoming like Wordsworth in “Ode to Duty,” filled with a sense of despair because our individual imaginative energies have failed us and we need something to fall back upon? How can I be both a fully realized individual and yet a member of a thriving modern industrial egalitarian community?
The place where this paradox was most fully resolved in daily life and at the level of folk mythology was America, which has always been the country most committed to both sides of the Eighteenth-century paradox--the advance of rational democratic civilization through technology, democracy, equality, and capitalism, combined with the fully realized life of romantic individualism. My fascination with the United States (and for me it is clearly the most exotic country in the world) stems from the passionate commitment to both sides of this problem and the ways in which this creates a culture simultaneously marked by strong conformity and uniformity and by an enormous faith in individual freedom and a fierce desire to maximize it.
I want to argue that Huckleberry Finn is a fascinating novel because it addresses these issues and provides an answer--not a conceptual “solution” or a philosophically coherent position but a model for the way one should live one’s life. And the problems which arise out of the novel stem from the very vision of that answer to the conflict between a conforming civilization and a romantically free individual.
Before turning to the novel, however, let me telegraph where I am going with this thought. Simply put, the American resolution of the problem is three fold: first, live one’s life on the edge of civilization--close enough to nature to escape the contamination of society but close enough to civilization to establish human contact (and, if necessary, to serve that civilization or at least not fight it). In other words, live on the frontier (in the Darkness on the Edge of Town, in Walden, in a Gulf Island); second, keep moving on so that one never gets defined by a particular place, set of relationships, or identity; third, rely on your spontaneous instincts, placing no trust in the past, in books, even in your own experience.
If one follows these three precepts, then one will always be free to define oneself day by day in a new environment and thus, without rejecting civilization, one will escape its conforming pressures. By keeping in motion, one escapes the inevitable social definition which comes from staying anywhere long enough to form friends, family, communities (i.e., social responsibilities and “ties”). One can thus be the friend of civilization and yet remain untouched by its confinements.
This response to the eighteenth century paradox I have described above creates what is a new form of hero, someone called in the literature The American Adam. Unlike the first Adam, he carries no taint of original sin (since he has no past); nor does he have an inconvenient and disobedient wife or, for that matter, friends whose demands might compromise his freedom to move; nor does he answer to some supervising deity; nor does he follow any inherited or acquired wisdom; nor does he carry any baggage with him (in that sense he is the complete opposite to the old fashioned European materialist who, in the Aristotelian sense, is concerned with spending a great deal of life accumulating beautiful things and creating an appropriate setting for them in his own home and passing them on to his descendants); nor does he stay in one place. Always in motion, always alone, he defines himself day by day in the encounters between him and whatever situation he happens to find himself in. Thus, he is always creating himself anew.
The consequences of this definition of heroic conduct on popular culture in North American and beyond have been immense (everything from guitar players, to cowboys, to bikers, to itinerant errant policemen, to jazz music). One critic (Boorstin) has argued that this figure is America’s greatest export.
As I say, I don’t want to force onto the novel a preset notion of what the American hero is. However, I do want to argue that Huckleberry Finn is a major contribution (perhaps even the major contribution) towards the development of this heroic figure. For all of Twain’s disclaimer at the start of the novel that there is nothing serious here, no moral purpose, the vision in the book is clear and has been enormously influential. If we wanted to be good Marxists in our approach to this text, we might say that it serves the vitally important function of defining and popularizing a vision of life about as far removed from what Marx is proposing as it is possible to get.
What I propose to do here is to focus on certain features which are relevant to what I have been talking about. And to do that I am going to take (more or less at random) a series of things about this novel which strike me as interesting (without suggesting that this list is exhaustive).
Movement: On the Road
One of the most obvious features of this novel is movement. The major figures are always going somewhere, and we are invited to see in their freedom to move something that sets them apart from those who prefer to stay in residential communities. What commands our attention in this book is figures in motion--their energy, their resilience, their clear intellectual superiority (in terms of wit) over the townsfolk--these qualities insist upon the fact that life on the road brings out the human characteristics most worthy of our admiration (even when the figures involved are cheats and con men). In this sense, the central metaphor of the river is crucial. It is not only the road, but it is a moving road, bringing things of importance with it (like rafts, fish, and so on) but also carrying the travelers.
No other book we have read takes the characters on this sort of a trip. We have seen voyages (as in the Tempest or Robinson Crusoe or Exodus or the Odyssey) but they had definite purposes and were temporary--in many cases they are attempts to get back home or to engage in trade. In Huckleberry Finn the central people live in motion and for motion. Compare this novel with, say, Middlemarch (about the same time chronologically) and you can get an immediate sense of an important difference. Who in Middlemarch travels at all or is interested in travel? Eliot has so little interest in that that she does not take the opportunity to celebrate the virtues of travel for its own sake. The most extensive trip (the honeymoon of Dorothea and Casaubon) is an emotional nightmare, a social convention which temporarily removes people from a community to which they return.
One might be tempted here to compare Huck with Odysseus. And there is immediately an important similarity, especially in the way in which their “trips” test them against the unpredictable threats of experience. A good deal of the interest in this book, as in the Odyssey, after all, comes from seeing Huck and Jim escape from some predicament and move on. Like the Odyssey (or large parts of it) this novel has a linear episodic structure held together by the central figures who must finds all sorts of ways to evade or overcome mischance.
But we should not let those similarities overshadow some of the important differences. Huck is the first character we have met who is always in motion but has no destination. True, he starts his trip with the idea that he will take Jim to freedom up the Ohio River. But that is not a strong enough motive to stop the trip downstream once they discover they have passed Cairo. What matters most to Huck is the motion itself. Thus, it’s not surprising that the conclusion of the novel (and this is characteristic of a great deal of American fiction) sees him moving on.
The nature of the motion is different, also. Whereas for Odysseus, Prospero, Robinson Crusoe and the Israelites, nature is something that must be navigated with skill and care, and there is a great danger that people might give up, in Huckleberry Finn the motion is effortless--you simply put the raft (which is a gift from the river) into the current and you go with the flow. There’s no insistence here, as there is in, say, the Odyssey, that sailing is a complex tribute to human skill. By contrast, motion here is natural and easy. There are dangers, of course, but they tend to be human dangers (e.g., steamboats), not a malevolent nature seeking to catch you unawares.
This point cannot be stressed enough. The moments when Huck is happiest come from lying around on the raft, relaxing with a pipe, and watching the shoreline or the stars drift along. The opening of Chapter 19 provides the most sustained lyrical moment in the book, when Huck describes the sunrise from the raft. He concludes as follows (p. 131)
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened--Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened. . . .
It’s not that they are arguing or anything, because the answer to the question about the stars doesn’t really matter. The talk has the quality of a lazy conversation, with both men fully at ease, unconnected to the working life on the shore; that sense of ease makes this a very special moment. They are moving, but what they are doing is unconnected to the forces directing the motion. The connection between this image and, say, modern American styles of transport from Western saddles, to Harleys to Cadillac convertibles always strikes my mind when I read the passage (in America the nonchalance of the driver seems to determine the design of the machine, with no special tribute to aerodynamics, safety, economy, or often comfort).
Again and again the novel calls attention to the fact that this sort of moment is the very best that life has to offer. When you think about it, they should be worried about what they are going to do as they head further and further south. After all, the trip originates in Jim’s desire to escape. But the wonderful thing about being in motion on a raft is the way in which life just, well, happens. One doesn’t have to attend to the mundane realities of the complexities on shore or to any concerns about where the river ends. What matters is capturing moment by moment the motion itself.
Community: On and Off the Road
The only human community which Huck has any real sense of is the community of travelers who have come together by chance on the raft. On the road certain values are important, as Huck points out: “for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.” There is, if you like, an initial camaraderie among fellow road warriors. This, interestingly, seems something of a reversal of the traditional Homeric values: there welcoming people into your home with a most appropriate hospitality has a very high priority; on the road, however, one needs to be very wary of any strangers one meets (who might be Sirens or other dangers or gods in disguise).
So there’s a certain hospitality of the road, which encourages Huck to associate with those who are also on the road--to share the raft and make allowances for them. But if this is a community of a sort, it’s a very limited and fragile one, held together by a shared sense of having to keep going. There is certainly insufficient bonding or mutual respect or communal commitment to going out of one’s way for one’s fellow traveler. Everyone is basically on his own. The tension between this on-the-road ethic and what we sense is a deeper bond between Jim and Huck is one of the sources of emotional tension in the novel (to which we shall return below).
On the shore things are very different. There are people and communities on the shore--and they are the source of everything dangerous. For one thing, life on shore is extremely violent: people have guns and alcohol and move around in mobs; they are also (and the novel really brings this out) frequently very stupid, gullible, and bored. We have read a number of books featuring much violence, but in none of them is the violence so disturbing as in this book, because here the violence is casual, a way of life. It is not a special moment of self-defense or even purposeful aggression (e.g., in service to the Lord) or the result of some temporary madness. It is a common and frequently pointless manifestation of what civilization does to people.
Back home, the domestic violence which Huck’s father inflicts on him is routine. Elsewhere feuding families kill off each other for no apparent purpose. In another town a drunk is helplessly gunned down for no particular reason. Crowds of people seek to vent their feelings by beating people up or running them out of town. Much of Huckleberry Finn is a savage, although often funny, satire of the corrupting effects of a routinely violent civilization.
[One might remark here on what many foreigners find so strange about American culture, the nature of the violence, which is so casual and so frequent, and to the unwillingness seriously to address the most obvious cause, guns. Such an attitude to violence is often associated, correctly, with fictions about the frontier, where six-gun justice is an essential part of the genre. It has been remarked more than once that this violence in fiction does not correspond particularly well with the historical realities of life in the West, but it was much in demand from the readers, the vast majority of whom lived back East in big cities, as a way of coming to terms with the violence all around them. In other words, the Western novel’s commitment to rough gun justice, with a happy ending, helps to explain the violence in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans]
Nothing the community offers has the values we have learned to associate with it from our past reading. Huck is bored with school, indifferent to religion, resentful of clothes, manners, and all the basic requirements of living in groups. Many of the people are generally nice, and Huck makes friends with some of them. It is certainly not true that everyone in a town is without any moral or intellectual qualities. Still, whatever stable communities have to offer, they are not, as they have been in so much of our reading in Liberal Studies, the places where the most cherished values of life reside. Whatever the good life for man, in this book it does not beckon from the villages and towns.
For there is nothing that tempts Huck to remain anywhere, nothing that persuades him that what he needs to do in life is find the right community for himself. There is no adult figure for him to recognize as a suitable role model (some have characterized this novel as a search, a vain search, for an appropriate father). In fact, the conclusion of the novel suggests that what Huck has really learned in this experience is the importance of moving on.
At the same time, however, Huck is no Gulliver. His adverse reactions to much of what goes on in society do not lead him into a full scale social critique. In fact, and this is absolutely crucial, Huck never takes his dissatisfactions with society into a social forum at all. He simply moves on.
This, I would argue, is a really important aspect of what I have earlier called the American nature of this novel. For it is not the case that this novel’s hero is wholly happy with society--quite the contrary. However, he channels that response in a way different from any we have seen. He does not retreat into some private space in the midst of the community (like, say, Gulliver with his horses or Montaigne with his books, wine, and essays). He does not seek to transform society or any part of it through argument, work, politics, or revolutions (as, for example, Defoe, Marx, and Mill might urge him to). Huck never develops any sense of social responsibility. He resolves any emotional discomfort (either of attraction or repulsion) in the same way: he keeps moving.
This, I think, emerges as one of the central ironies of the book (intentional or not), and it is, in fact, one of the great ironies of the American experience. For it amounts to leaving intact (or at least not challenging) a society which is clearly in need of attention. The response to social ills is simple: leave that society behind.
Huck thus, like so many American heroes, does not emerge as a social critic or social activist, while at the same time he defines himself, not in opposition to the traditional community, but apart from it. This approach thus delivers something of an optimistic message: The community, in spite of all its shortcomings, is all right, but it’s not for me. I won’t live in it, but I won’t oppose it either.
I think that that is, in part, what feeds our dissatisfaction with the treatment of race in this book. I am not going to say an enormous amount about Jim, because Russell McNeil has already spoken about that character. But Jim is quite clearly in a different situation from Huck. He cannot afford to ignore society or take it lightly. First of all, he is a slave and has therefore a very specific social identity which it is a crime for him to ignore. He has an owner and a cash value. If he forgets that, his life is in danger. He also has a family, which he cares about.
So the friendship between Huck and Jim forces Huck to confront social issues and to take a stand on them. This is not a matter of principle with Huck--he is not, for example, a Kantian following a thought-out response to the Categorical Imperative; nor is he a Christian anti-abolitionist whose social action in favour of Jim come from a firm faith. Huck doesn’t really understand why he is helping Jim, and at times he feels almost ashamed or scared or confused about breaking the law. Nothing in Huck’s nature prepares him to deal with his friendship with Jim on anything but an immediately spontaneous level. And even having made the decision from the heart, Huck does not then meditate on the nature of the society which enslaves Jim or on slavery as a concept or on any other slaves besides Jim. In fact, for Huck it’s almost a game: Jim is my friend, people are after him, therefore we must get out here.
So once Jim is freed at the end, then, so far as Huck is concerned the business is concluded, and he might as well head out for the Indian Territory. Whatever he has learned, it has not served in any way to educate him in the need for a social awareness any wider than he had when he started his adventures. His friend is all right, and that’s all that matters. At stake, therefore, was a personal relationship not a social problem.
What I am trying to point out here is that the vital and enormously complex issue of slavery, which this novel raises so clearly again and again, is never explored as anything other than something Huck has to work out personally in his relationship with Jim. So the novel closes off or refuses to face the full implications of the major moral issue it calls attention to. Or alternatively, it is calling ironic attention to this deficiency as problem with Huck’s response to life.
We can argue about whether or not that is part of Twain’s purpose. For the case I am trying to make, whether Twain intended us to see that or not is irrelevant. The fact is, the closing off of a more intelligent and mature approach to the “peculiar institution” of slavery is evident. That, of course, is a part of the book’s great appeal. To the extent that we take Huck as a role model, as an admirable hero, we are encouraged to interpret society’s treatment of Jim as a bad thing and worth Huck’s efforts, but we are not encouraged to raise our sights any higher to examine the possible connections between all the other slaves and all the other Hucks and Tom Sawyers in the society which promotes slavery. There may even be a sense that Huck desire to go into Indian Territory is the result of a desire to get away from a problem which is just too complex for him and which, if he sticks around, he is going to have to face, because it’s all around him on the Mississippi.
[Parenthetically, this is the stance that makes the Frontier, that area between the wilderness and the advancing civilization such an important feature of American culture--still vitally alive in the lore long after the frontier has officially disappeared. The frontier figure is not a social being, in the sense of belonging to a traditional community, and he is always in motion through the area in advance of the march of civilization, always alone or with temporary road companions. At the same time he is not the foe of civilization, and often what he does out of his own initiative aids in that progress--getting rid of anti-civilized aboriginals or gangs of roving wild men or corrupt types who are impeding the march of the nation across a continent. Thus, he does not have to face problems which arise out of social injustice in the community, except on his own terms when it suits him, for deeply personal reasons]
The Vision of Nature
What makes this motion possible is a faith in nature somewhat different from what we have read in most of our other texts. Nature here is not a great enemy, against which one needs to be constantly on guard. True, it contains rattlesnakes, and you have to be careful. But nature is far kinder than the human community. It provides all the sustenance anyone might require (food and shelter), it brings Huck his raft, and it is, in general, his friend. Above all, nature provides Huck some place he can move through--it exists as something of a backdrop to his exploration.
This is an interesting point. Huck is not, I would maintain, a lover of nature, nor does is he at all speculative about it. It creates in him no metaphysical musings, nor does he see in nature any source of moral meaning (on the Wordsworthian model, for example). At the same time, he likes a fresh morning on the river with the sun coming up. He will look at the stars with pleasure and converse with Huck about where they might have come from. But, as I mentioned before, the question reflects no strong desire to know, understand, or relate to nature. It’s just a pleasant conversation. So he will use nature, derive benefits from Nature, pay tribute to a particular scene or two, without finding there anything to come to rest on. Nature, in other words, plays no part in his sense of who he is or where he belongs (as it does in Wordsworth, say, or any writer who identifies himself with a particular landscape). It’s a place where he likes to be because it gives him what the community does not: freedom to move.
[This point may help to explain why America should be the place where such an ethos as I am describing developed first and fastest. Physically America has always provided opportunities for such freedom to move. You could actually do what Huck did--something virtually impossible in Europe, because there is no escape there from community and territoriality and the restrictions of established towns and regions (language, for one thing, was a major barrier). And although the frontier was officially closed in 1890, the myth lingers on as a very powerful element in the way Americans like to think about themselves. Daniel Boorstin, the famous American historian, describes his people as modern Bedouins, who value freedom to move more than anything else. It’s not a case that people actually have to move; they can to live with the belief that they could if they wanted to. The frustrations of modern American society may owe some of their tensions to the fact that the economic and geographical realities are no longer a match for the official belief system]
The Nature of the Hero
Early in this lecture I made the claim that when I read this book I see in it a new kind of hero, The American Adam, significantly different from the heroic individuals we have encountered so far in Liberal Studies. It should be apparent by now what some of those major differences are. However, I’d like to touch on some points which I have not yet mentioned.
First, Huck in a sense has no past or is defining himself by a rejection of that past. He sets out by running away from his father, his relations, and his community, and he never expresses any regret about losing them or any desire to rejoin them, even though by the standards of his community he is relatively wealthy, especially for a young boy.
Huck has no particular interest in orienting himself with any cultural past. The commonest sources of that past--books, religion, inherited customs--not only do not interest him, but the novel expressly mocks them. Tom Sawyer clearly has a false sense of the world largely because his imagination is driven by books. The tribal warfare of the feuding families is carried out by fine looking cultured people in the name of traditional honour. And their conduct is self-destructive and insane. The churches Huck encounters are full of pigs--that seems to be their main use as far as he is concerned.
Huck is not particularly interested in knowledge or curious about the way things work. He has an instinctive trust of hands-on experience as a means of coping with the problem at hand, whether that is faking a murder or navigating the river or dealing with a moral crisis. He is a great on the spot improviser, rather than a thinker.
And the language of the novel contributes to this sense, as well. In reading this novel, we are listening to Huck himself. He speaks in a free-wheeling vernacular, unconstrained by any of the common rules of grammar or formal speech. This gives to the novel an energy and freshness and humour as important as that provided by the ease with which he can move along without regard to social conventions.
In other words, the commitment to inventing one’s life as one goes along, answering to nothing but the promptings of one’s adventurous spontaneous spirit, manifests itself in Huck’s treatment of the commonest cultural inheritance we all have--our language. And in this, too, the novel is particularly American, emancipating itself from the restrictions of inherited patterns of expression, of thought, or vocabulary.
The people with the most interest and energy are of the same kind. The Duke and the Dauphin make their living by duping people’s false admiration for “culture” by putting on ridiculous (but very funny) renditions of Shakespeare or religious services. They, too, invent an identity through language to suit their immediate needs. They don’t bring a past with them. History for them, to the extent that it exists at all, exists as a store house of old props, junk, handy costumes for duping people. It contains no important lessons, no fabulous stories, no moral value at all. To have to listen to people instructing one in such matters is confining.
Neither Huck nor the Duke and the Dauphin are particularly materialistic, at least not in the sense that they live to obtain fine things. Money is important to the pair of con artists, but it’s money for food and drink and a good time. They have no sense of money as a source of enduring beautiful things, as a means to secure social status, or as anything other than the immediate means to keep the journey going. Conning people, telling outrageous lies and tall tales, fabricating identities--all this is part of what they live for, more important than the money (which they tend to spend or lose).
It’s hard not to respond to the sense of liberation this emancipation from the past and from the community bring, because in the way Twain tells the story, there’s little evidence that anything is town is as vigorous, amusing, intelligent as the work of the con men. And, however criminal they may be, they are not killing people or beating their children or carrying on in a way that Twain identifies as the reality in “civilization.”
[This point, it might be worth stressing, accounts in some ways for the curious nature of American materialism. Yes, Americans are often correctly perceived as materialistic. But at the same time they are, in a sense, among the least materialistic of people. What matters is the material stuff which makes the journey possible--the car, the motorcycle, the high-tech portable computer. But material things which tie one down are a threat to the journey. Thus, for example, what matters in the purchase of the house is not its enduring beauty but its resale value; what matters in the purchase of a commodity is its portability. What I cannot carry will entrap me. No wonder the Americans are the masters of miniaturization. No wonder the guitar is the instrument of choice among those who would be popular icons: what other instrument is so portable both during a performance and on the road, what other instrument allows you more freedom to be yourself, with no concessions to the instrument]
Out of this sense of escape from the past, Huck has, in a sense, no firm lasting identity. He is constantly inventing who he is--as are the Duke and the Dauphin. Only the road in a country full of transients can one do this. In any other place in the settled world, one’s clothes, accent, and appearance define one fairly clearly. On the Mississippi, however, Huck can be whoever he wants to be, and he is very good at manufacturing an instant identity. He even wonders about this ability of his: “for I’d noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone” (241). This, of course, is funny, and we admire Huck’s amazing verbal ingenuity
Women are an inessential feature of life for these sons of the road. In that sense, the American Adam has no counterpart in an American Eve. Huck likes women and gets along with them all right, but they make him feel penned in. He is polite and prepared to help, but not prepared to linger or to answer to any wakening feelings about getting to know some attractive young girl better.
This, of course, sets up something powerfully different from what we read about in the Odyssey and in the Tempest and in Middlemarch, where much of what is most valuable in life emanates from or concerns itself with women or with relationships with women. In this case, the life the hero is defining for himself tends inevitably to put women on the sidelines as part of civilization which is nice, frequently attractive, but finally something to pass by. Significantly, there are no women on the road; it is not a life which affords any room for women. (see p. 210).
We might be tempted to offset this point by saying, in effect, that Huck is too young to have such interests. But that, in a way, proves the point. For this hero is young, and the way of life he gives to us is a celebration of youthful qualities. The novel does put some pressure on us, in the characters of the con men, to wonder about what happens as people get older. And it proffers a picture of a life that essentially does not change. The Duke and the Dauphin are, in a sense, visions of what Huck might well become, what the living consequences of a life committed to the values Huck is learning about become as one gets older. Whether we are supposed to derive some ironic sense of the ultimate futility of such a life or enjoy the wit, energy, and versatility of these characters, recognizing them as in some sense superior to the townsfolk or something else, I’m not sure. It may even be the case that the novel remains unaware of the ironies to which it calls attention.
In European novels about young people, the main point generally tends to be the process by which they mature, move beyond their youthful dreams and possibilities into some acceptance of the social realities of becoming an adult (for better or worse). The stress in such novels is on the inevitability of the transformation. In Twain’s novel, by contrast, the stress falls on the resistance to such change. At the end of the novel Huck commits himself to hanging onto the same qualities that launched his movement at the start; there is no sense that he has learned to adjust to the complex demands of civilization or that he is ever going to be capable of that.
Given all the above details, it comes as no surprise that Huck’s moral sense is something quite different from what we have encountered elsewhere. For it is unencumbered by any speculative questioning, any desire to deal with issues traditionally seen as very complex, anything earned through disciplined learning. Having no particular love for or reliance on scripture, books, community standards, rational argument, historical example--in short any systematic ordering of moral questions, Huck deals with moral questions the way he deals with everything else: by improvising on the spot in reaction to how he feels at the time.
He does have a moral sense, and it is strong enough to overcome serious reservations he has about breaking the law or ending up in Hell. So his moments of doubt and wavering are real enough. But he brings to such moments nothing but his own uninformed judgment and pure heart. For Huck is entirely innocent--not just in the sense that he is not a sinner but that he has no informed sense of evil (his own capacity for evil or anything else). He sees things he doesn’t like, but he doesn’t try to understand them or their motives. The extent of his moral understanding of the world is summed up when he sees the Duke and the Dauphin being hounded out of town: “It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” In the world outside myself, some things are friendly and some are not; it’s wise to be wary. And it’s very important to act decisively when one’s moral sense (a very personal feeling) speaks (as in helping Jim).
The result is that Huck’s moral sense is what one might call naively optimistic. He trusts in himself to tell him what to do. He knows what he doesn’t want, of course. Again, this is much more of an immediately personal emotional attitude than a thought out philosophy of life. His objections to community living, after all, like his desire to move, are radically emotional, uninformed, and spontaneous: it just doesn’t feel right. He runs on emotional energy. In that sense he is essentially a Romantic, but he is a Romantic spirit which is, in important ways, very shallow. Since he is brave, resourceful, and lucky, he succeeds. But his success does not provide him with any sense of what to do next, except to keep moving. And the Indian Territory is more attractive than any return to his community, even though his community has a pot of money waiting for him. He is, in other words, the living embodiment of Keith Richards’ answer to life: “I’ll just keep on rocking and hope for the best.” Or as Huck says, “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (321).
The appeal of such a hero is immense, not just in the enormous popularity of this novel or in the way in which Huck Finn has become a folk hero, transcending the limits of the book which made him famous, but in the entire attitude towards life which he defines--a rebel who is no threat to what he is rejecting, a self-defining spirit unfettered by concessions to any traditional ties or, more important than that, any emotional or material baggage from past lives, a spirit intensely in touch with immediate experience, but carrying from each experience nothing but the momentum generated by the motion. All this comes to him naturally and is as easy as breathing.
Another way of putting this is that in Huck Finn we have a new vision of freedom which offers us a vision of the good life which is new and hard to resist because it is so easily attained. It requires none of the traditional virtues and no commitment to any thing restricting.
You will recall that in many of the book we have read, freedom is a very high ideal for communities and individuals. But it is in some ways the supremely difficult value to attain and to maintain. For the ancient Greeks freedom for the community was the highest goal, and they were prepared to sacrifice certain personal freedoms and a great deal of equality in order to protect the freedom for the community. In addition, of course, the freedom the ancient Greeks so prized was the freedom to do something, namely, to participate in the governing of the community’s affairs. The concept did not include doing as one likes or the freedom to move outside the community and life out beyond the limits of the polis--indeed, such an idea would have seemed, as they would say, idiotic.
For the Israelite, the freedom that most mattered was the freedom to worship according the community faith and to move to a place where that could best be carried out in accordance with the wishes of God. This freedom had little room for personal departures from established group practice (the punishment for transgressing group practice could be very severe), and, as we have seen in Exodus, such freedom might require a heroic group effort in moving through the wilderness. In other words, this freedom, like that of the Greeks had a very clear sense of moral purpose.
The Christian view, as it emerged in institutionalized form throughout the Middle Ages, also saw freedom as freedom to dedicate oneself to something outside the self--to the Christian faith and to the secular community of which one was inherently a part. While the commitment to equality was ambiguous and democracy non-existent, the sense of freedom that mattered was intimately bound up with a life governed by group standards and, if necessary, by sanctioned force (ecclesiastical or secular).
The Protestant movement altered this significant, placing much more stress on the individual’s responsibility to use freedom in the appropriate manner without external authority or assistance. And, for all its insistence upon private prayer over public ceremonial, Protestantism still gave a great emphasis to the Christian community, even if the communal ties of Protestantism were (and are) a good deal weaker than the concepts of individual freedom considered above (perhaps it’s no accident that radical Protestantism is so closely associated with the movement of individuals in the Frontier--of all the faiths we have considered it is clearly the best suited to the lonely itinerant individual).
The Romantic freedom hailed by European poets and thinkers at the end of the eighteenth century, and the freedom explored by Nietzsche is clearly a freedom for heroic individualism. But here again it is freedom with a purpose: to imaginatively create one’s own life. It is a commitment to something supremely difficult (as Nietzsche insists), because it requires not only enormous imaginative power but a great deal of courage, demanding, as it does, a spurning of inherited communal values for people who live in the midst of that community. Unlike the Americans, in other words, the European Romantic cannot just get up and move. The communities are everywhere, and are much more powerful and inescapable than on the Mississippi. And Nature belongs to somebody.
The freedom celebrated by Huck Finn, however, is of a different kind. It is not freedom to do anything special; it is far more freedom from the need to get involved with anything associated with the traditional human community. It is uninformed by allegiance to any complex system of belief or by any commitment to creativity. It is freedom for everyman, and includes the freedom not to have to think about how or why one is acting this way. It is an invitation to a vision of the good life as something in which it is always better to be in motion that to arrive anywhere, whether that destination is a geographical place, an intellectual belief, or even a human relationship. “I’m watching the parade of liberty,” sings Bob Dylan, “but as long as I love you I’m not free.” It is the most infectious brand of freedom, not only because it is easy, but, more importantly, because in North America it is available--there’s a highway out of every town and it goes on for thousands of miles. The road to the west coast goes on forever.
What makes Huckleberry Finn much more complex than simply an evocation of this new form of freedom, however, is the existence in the novel of a different view of freedom, namely, the freedom not to have to live as a slave. This complicates everything, because Jim’s lack of freedom is a social problem, requiring a social solution. And so the novel forces on us the need to evaluate the connection between what Huck represents as the good life for human beings and what Jim represents, the reality of slavery. And so embarrassing questions arise: Is Huck’s freedom paid for by Jim’s slavery? How will those like Jim every be truly free if people like Huck, their intimate friends, simply walk away from the problem? What would Huck have done about Jim if he hadn’t personally liked him? And so on.
In other words, for me the novel raises (but does not solve) the paradox that is peculiarly American: How can a society so committed to freedom also endorse such slavery and racism? How can a society maintain the dream of freedom and celebrate itself as the home of the free, when so many of its citizens for so long have been slaves and are still the victims of discrimination and hatred and the others subscribe to a faith in personal liberty not to address social problems?. How does the reality of slavery square with the commitment to freedom? Maybe it’s not surprising that Hollywood produced a film of Huckleberry Finn in which Jim was not present.
Well, it doesn’t. But a novel like this can really help to paper over the cracks of the paradox. I’m not sure whether Twain meant to expose the paradox of racism or to paper it over. Whatever his intentions, the invention of the American Adam helps to reconcile readers to a social problem, by suggesting explicitly or implicitly that slavery, no matter how vile, unfair, and degrading it may be, is not something which I need to address as a social issue in my life’s project, because freedom requires me to remain aloof from such commitments, unless by chance I happen to become involved on a personal level (say, through friendship). Since my life takes place on the road, I don’t have time to stop to clear up complex social messes in communities along the way.
That’s why Huck Finn can confront the face of slavery directly (as he does in the false auction arranged by the king) and can really feel moved by the sight of the intense distress of black families being broken up, without ever being troubled by a social thought. His sympathy is real enough--but he is never moved to reflect upon or to act in any way that indicates his personal response will ever go in any political or even social direction.
I think the existence of figures like Huck Finn has really helped to make America what it is, has shaped, that is, much of the political dynamics of the country (to say nothing of the popular culture, in things like transportation styles, rock ‘n’ roll music, clothing, films, and so on). What surprises many European observers of America is the extent to which the minorities who suffer from the social problems have bought into this vision of the good life as well, have sought, that is, ways in which they, too, can hit the road, rather than seeking more radical political alternatives which might seek to address a social problem by insisting on a social-political action.
In feminism, for example, there has in recent years been something of an argument over the position taken by some artists that the best way to address the inherent male chauvinism of Huck Finn Road Warrior figures is to show that women can do that as well, that there is, in other words, an American Eve. Hence we get films like Thelma and Louise and singers like Joan Jett and gunslingers like Sharon Stone. To those who think the problem may well be with the very legend itself, that characteristic solution seems self-defeating. The problems of slavery of any sort will never be solved by slaves dreaming of turning themselves into isolatos always in motion, on the road.
However, I don’t want to end my lecture today without paying tribute to this wonderful novel and to the enticing vision of life it conveys. Yes, it’s a first-class read, and, yes, Huck Finn is a marvelous character. I’m still young enough (barely) and, well, naive enough to respond to the call of the open road as an answer to the complexities of social and moral experience. And I understand very well why so many ageing baby-boomers are cashing in their RRSP’s to buy Harleys--it’s the spirit of the place.