Huck Finn – When Great Books Were Fun

Review of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


Great books are great because of their depth and because of how they teach great truths about human life.  But because most great books are very old, they require the reader to do some heavy lifting to get to the good stuff.  You have to have a good set of notes to understand the historical context and the allusions of, say, Homer or Virgil.  The less timeless a book, the more work you have to do to extract meaning from it.  The worst—Erasumus’ Praise of Folly, anyone?—are nothing but heavy lifting, obscure passages, and dense prose.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885) is nothing like that.  Huckleberry Finn is enormously fun, easily accessible, and instantly rewarding.  The book shows an unschooled country boy’s moral growth in the midst of one of the most simply fun books I have ever read.  It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a stuffy old “great book” at all.

But it is a great book.  Twain famously prefaced the book with a warning that “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”  Twain was (as in all things) kidding.  Of course Huck Fin has a moral.  Through Huck Finn’s adventures and friendship with Jim, a runaway slave in the antebellum South, Twain condemns “civilized” society for failing to recognize the moral truths that simple ol’ Huck Finn comes to see about slavery and racism.  Jim is a real person, given depth and humanity, and he is recognized as such by Huck. This was shocking stuff in 1885; it is still affecting today, and we should never tire of being reminded that humanity comprises people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation on earth.

The brilliance of the book is that Twain doesn’t preach.  There are no abolitionists among the cast of characters; no one delivers a thundering monologue about the evils of slavery and racism.  Instead, we are given a heart-breakingly honest, rip-roaringly fun adventure story with a runaway slave as one of the main characters.

That’s not to say that Huck is an enlightened intellectual.  As an illiterate southern backwoods hick living in the 1840s, Huck is blatantly racist and racial slurs are riddled throughout the book.  This is at least intellectually honest and historically accurate; nothing is more dull than the Hollywood historical epics (e.g., Kingdom of Heaven, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai) in which the protagonist is a politically-correct western liberal.  Those kinds of stories simply use history as a backdrop against which the enlightened hero can strut about sanctimoniously.

Huckleberry Finn accurately shows the racism that pervaded the society in which it was set, complete with lots of racial slurs.  For decades, some people have used that as a reason to ban the book from public schools and keep it out of the hands of kids.  Instead, we should do the opposite.  There is something Orwellian about trying to prevent kids from being exposed to depictions of racism.  Critics of Huck Finn apparently believe that by preventing kids from seeing examples of racism, we will eliminate racism.  In other words, they think that racism comes from our environment, not our hearts.  If we adjust our environment enough, we eliminate all possible causes of racism.

Bunk.  Racism, like every sin, stems from the heart.  You could eliminate every depiction of racism in the entire culture, and some kids (and adults) will still make fun of other people for looking different.  That’s just (sinful) human nature.

A book like Huck Finn is priceless because, as a fun book, kids will actually read it; as a book that accurately depicts the racism that has so sadly and horribly marked much of our history, it provides an occasion for kids to look at it, examine it, and talk about it.  If you’re looking for good curriculum for your English class at school, you can’t ask for much more.

Huckleberry Fin is one of the greatest of the great books I have ever read.  It is joyous fun and profoundly deep.  The final lines—terse, compact, but powerful—are simply brilliant.  I wept.

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  • cifey

    It’s great to have a stretched version of antebellum Mississippi culture, but I don’t think I could teach the uncensored version in a public school setting.
    The minstrel show influence, though interesting is too strong in the portrayal of Jim.
    Even though he may not have had formal education a runaway slave would probably have had more sense then to play games with Huck and Tom especially after passing Cairo. Even after he is declared free it fails to follow up on his plans to reunite with his family. The book details some of the moral concerns in the south that may have existed at that time but makes no real moral antislavery stand or provides any thought about life in the US post slavery which would have been a major issue at the time the book was written.
    Something like Uncle Toms cabin might be a better choice in terms of teaching about that time in history and why slavery is bad.
    Huckelberry Finn is probably more useful as an advanced literary and cultural analysis but not as a rote example of anti slavery literature in the average highschool setting.