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America and the Chivalric

“Civilization” and Romance in Huckleberry Finn (1967). (1)

There was a power of style about her. It amounted to something being a raftsman on such a craft as that.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“There are few other books,” Lionel Trilling has rightly said about Huckleberry Finn, “which we can know so young and love so long.” (2) Such books, however, are liable to be dangerous for critics. As Leslie Fiedler has reported about something similar, they “shape us from childhood; we have no sense of first discovering them or having been once without them.” (3) When a critic cannot shake himself free enough of his childhood responses, he is in some peril of writing, like C.S. Lewis on Paradise Lost, as if the work he is discussing were virtually a piece of reporting. If in addition he assumes that anything that still feels so intensely meaningful to him must somehow be meaningful in a completely adult way, the work is indeed in for trouble.

Huckleberry Finn appears to have been the victim of both of these very understandable tricks of the mind.

Trilling himself, for instance, has pulled off the remarkable feat of writing about it without ever letting on that it is funny. Fiedler has acknowledged that “this thoroughly horrifying book, whose morality is rejection and whose ambiance is terror, is a funny book, at last somehow a child’s book after all; and the desperate story it tells is felt as joyous, an innocent experience.” (4)—but his emphasis is all on the horror and the moral complexities. And when one considers the commentaries of such critics as Henry Nash Smith, Kenneth S. Lynn, Tony Tanner, and Leo Marx, it is hard not to feel momentarily sympathetic towards mavericks like William Van O’Conner and Martin Green who have argued impatiently that the novel simply isn’t a great one at all.

It is a great one, of course—“one of the world’s great books, and one of the central documents of American culture,” as Trilling has said. (5) But it seems to me a very different book from the one that almost everyone has described in recent years.


What might be called the official account of Huckleberry Finn goes more or less as follows.

The novel is a poignant celebration of an innocence, a natural decency and simplicity, that has since become culturally impossible and that even in the novel is being constantly threatened by human beastliness and “civilized” constrictions and distortions.

“Civilization” assumes two antithetical forms in it—the blinkered, conscience-instilling, and ego-suppressing pieties of small-town rural America, and the grandiose, ego-inflating, and delusive European romanticism that manifests itself humorously in Tom Sawyer’s bookish and pedantic imitatings and far from humorously in the Southern chivalric code responsible for such atrocities as the Grangerford-Shepherdson butcheries and the gunning-down of the unarmed Boggs in the Arkansas village street.

The defects of both cultures are shown up under the clear-sighted gaze of a thirteen-year-old boy, especially with regard to the iniquitousness of the slavery on which Southern culture rests and which the upholders of “Christian” standards maintain in a perfect conviction of its naturalness.


In this account of it, the novel is a realistic one involving the interpenetration of two unambiguous realities—on the one hand, the consciousness of an unusually but not impossibly inventive and sensitive boy; on the other, the life of the Mississippi valley and its inhabitants, presented with a vividness that yields up more and more rewards the more knowledge of that society we bring to the novel. The account has been enriched as attention has shifted from the riparian civilization (as in Bernard De Voto), via the River (as in T.S.Eliot) to Huck himself as a moral figure and a richly symbolic refugee from civilization, and it has the merit of making the book appear a distinguished one in intelligible modern terms.

The only thing amiss with it is that, like Jim’s interesting interpretation of his “dream” while the raft is lost in the fog, it isn’t true.


To begin with, Huck himself as a creation is a great deal closer to Lemuel Gulliver than, say, to Emma Woodhouse, of whom in Trilling’s account he appears as a kind of freckle-faced poor relation. His voice from chapter to chapter is wonderfully persuasive, one of the most charming and fascinating first-person voices in fiction, and it describes a good many episodes with the effortless vividness that characterizes Gulliver’s account of his first awakening in Lilliput and that we find elsewhere in American fiction only in the greatest sea passages in Moby Dick and in a handful of other works.

But just as Gulliver cannot be assembled into a coherent character who steadily develops as one extraordinary experience follows another, and who is now, as he recalls them, consistently the product of that development, so Huck cannot be assembled in that way either.

To be sure, the fluctuations in his sophistication, moral perceptivity, and command of language aren’t as great as in Gulliver’s, but they are there, and to attempt to put together the Hucks of the St. Petersburg chapters, of most of the raft portions, of the Wilks episode, and of the Phelps’ plantation section is to wind up with an even more Frankensteinian creation than is necessary if the unfortunate heroine of The Turn of the Screw is to be made to fit with the madness-and-no-ghosts theory about that tale.

Yet when Martin Green objects impatiently (and somewhat excessively) that “The only constant, connecting reality is the writer. Not Huck himself. Huck sinks to being a mere recorder quite often, and occasionally disappears,” (6) we realize that of course this doesn’t matter. And the fact that it doesn’t matter, and that the weaknesses of the Wilks and Phelps sections (like those of Book Three of Gulliver) are not offensive in the way that the authorial manipulating of Satan in Paradise Lost is offensive, is a pointer to the kind of significance that we can legitimately find in the novel where Huck is concerned.


The reason why the inconsistencies in Satan are deplorable while those in Gulliver are beside the point is that a good deal is made to depend on the cumulative development of the former, whereas with Gulliver (except in Book Four) it is always upon the local response to this or that novelty and its demands that our eyes are meant to be focused. Gulliver’s own consciousness at every point is filled very largely with the present rather than with a desire to fit together what he sees and further a dominant purpose of his own.

Local reflections and generalizations occur, of course. But the pride-of-Lemuel-Gulliver kind of relating of them to each other seems to me possibly only by postulating, in a curiously old-fashioned way, a whole network of unconscious relationships that are simply not there on display in the vivid immediacies of the text itself.

And the same is true of the “Good Huck, Noble Huck!” moralizings of Trilling and the “Alas, Poor Huck!” empathizings of Fiedler. It is not that kind of significance that Huck can sustain, except momentarily, and in that sense Twain’s warning in his prefatory notice is very much to the point. (“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.”)

Moreover, a good deal more is involved here than merely that the tone of the narrative is so unworried and good-humored, so implicitly the tone of someone who has come through unscathed and who is not even giving the reader any hints of the “Little did I know!” variety along the way. A concern with the novel’s “blackness” or somberness results, it seems to me, from splitting off the life of the Mississippi from the manner in which Huck experiences it, and just as Huck’s character is not a naturalistic one, neither is that experience.

On the contrary, it is a romantic one, in ways that seem both cruder and more complex than has hitherto been allowed for. When Fiedler wonders how the book can “be at once so terrible and so comfortable to read,”(7) I think we can answer him easily enough.


In the opening account of Tom Sawyer’s gang, Twain beautifully captures the boyhood craving, as against the imposed orderliness and security of one’s community, for adventure, triumphant self-assertion, and a general reaching after the heroic—yet always with the comfortable certainty that nothing that one does in one’s play is in fact dangerous or irrevocable, and that one can re-emerge from it at any time to find things as they were before and oneself as approved of as ever. The essential irony is conveyed when Huck recalls how “I got into my old rags, and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable.” And if the boys are in imagination transcending the limitations of their particular society, it is in the name of society—the larger society of Tom’s “European” readings—that they are doing so.

I shall be taking up later the question of Huck’s relation to “Europe.” At the moment I want to point out how reading the book—at whatever age—can gratify very much the same kinds of desires that moved Tom and his cohorts. “The spirit of adventure in boyhood” may not be the “central theme” of Huckleberry Fin as John Erskins claims, (8) but it is as much a feature of the book as it is of Treasre Island, which came out the year before.

Fiedler has suggested that, as a hero, Huck, unlike Tom, is not adventurous at all but timid. But if this is so it is merely in the technical sense that he doesn’t seek out dangers or enjoy taking risks. Compared, say, with Dickens’ Pip or Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, his is a superbly unintimidated and resilient consciousness that gives way to despair only once, and then momentarily. And when we hold in mind the childhood novels of Dickens, or even, for that matter, Twain’s own The Prince and the Pauper (the year before Treasure Island), we see how soothing an adventure story his saga really is.


The landscape which Huck traverses is indeed one in which violences occur, but the perpetrators of them aren’t personally scary in his account of them. The killers overheard on the wreck talk at a level of brutality and credibility scarcely above that of villains in a boys’ serial. The Grangerford and Shepherdson families perpetrate atrocious violences upon each other, but the individuals whom we are shown are handsome, gracious, and admirable to the point of idealization. The Bricksville lynch-mob is homicidal in intention, but the individuals whom we see are merely contemptible, and no-one displays the murderous drunken energy that produced the eye-gouging, nose-and-ear-biting fights of the period.And Colonel Sherburn, while gunning down Boggs, is a dignified figure who, like the Shepherdsons, poses no threat to Huck himself.

Pap’s surprise appearance in Huck’s bedroom is the stuff of a child’s nightmares, of course. But Huck remarks that “right away, I see I warn’t scared of him worth bothering about,” and except for the night of the delirium tremens, being with him is a good deal more pleasurable than not. Pap isn’t Bill Sykes, or Tom Canty’s father, or Treasure Island’s Blind Pew. Though repulsive, he isn’t purposefully malevolent; most of his actions are amusing; and he is the worst figure that Huck encounters who constitutes a personal threat.

Thereafter when potential human antagonists are met head on by Huck they not only are overcome almost immediately but for the most part disclose unexpected and reassuring benevolence. And if the river itself furnishes its memorable shocks (“Raf’? Day ain’ no raf’ no mo’, she done broke loose en gone! En here we is!”). they are soon enough taken care of and are far outweighed by the benign fascination of the great waterway. (8a)


In sum, Huck’s progress through the ostensible perils of the trip downstream is very largely that of the superboy of Tom Sawyer’s imaginings. He is someone to whom adventures happen in an abundance to gratify any boy’s romantic cravings, and invariably says and does the right things to propitiate the natural and human dragons that menace him along the way. And in the end it is revealed that in relation to the one seemingly irresolvable problem, the fact of Jim’s slavehood, he has been safe from social disapproval all along—and, for that matter, not only safe but rich too. It is hardly surprising that Tom Sawyer at the Phelps’ plantation was getting all set to imitate Huck and “have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river.”

Nor does that exhaust the soothing aspects of the book.


That Huck’s voyage should be so almost universally pleasurable for readers points towards a fundamental duplicity in Twain’s handling of its central moral issue, the question of slavery. Those American librarians who banned the book were quire right in one respect. Huck is indeed throughout most of the book free of the nagging claims of the puritan ethic, the steady pressures of long-term plans, commitments, and decision-making. A prime reason for this, however, is that slaves and slavery are so presented in the book that they are not in fact issues at all.

The great set pieces with Jim and the claims of conscience are what they have been so widely admired for being, of course. But they are set pieces, and not common factors, at least if I am right in contending that Huck’s is not a single consciousness but a succession of units of consciousness more or less loosely related to each other by family resemblances.

And if Huck’s consciousness (or family of consciousnesses) is blissfully free elsewhere of the tensions that normally come when someone is violating a key taboo of his society, this is only possible because slavery has been so romanticized in most of the novel that the novel comes very close to being a validation of the conventional Southern image of it. For Huck (who even temporarily gets one of his own at the Grangerfords) the slaves are simply there as normal, contented, and amusingly naive and gullible parts of the landscape (e.g., “there was nigger boys in every tree, and bucks and wenches looking over every fence; and as soon as the mob would get nearby they would break and skaddle back out of reach”).

Nor is it merely that, as Carson Gibbs puts it, “Huck’a attitude towards niggers is standard—the attitude of the rich and the poor, or the prim and the disreputable, even of the niggers themselves.”) (9)


The plain fact is that Huck and we are not shown anything, apart from the two or three exchanges with Jim, to make his own attitude appear questionable. We not only hear of no instances of physical cruelty towards the slaves by their owners. The actual owners whom we observe are kindly people behaving in a normal, decent, master-to-servant fashion in their personal exchanges with them, a fashion thoroughly consistent with the conversation between young Joanna Wilks and Huck in his role as the King and Duke’s servant:

“How is servants treated in England? Do they treat ‘em better’n we treat our niggers?”

No! A servant ain’t nobody there. They treat them worse than dogs.”

“Don’t they give ‘em holidays, the way we do, Christmas and New Year’s week and Fourth of July?”

“O, just listen!” … Why … they never see a holiday from year’s end to year’s end; never go to the circus, nor to theatre, nor nigger shows, nor nowheres.”

“Nor church?”

“Nor church.”

Of the two episodes in which mental pain is inflicted during the course of the action, the sale of Jim by Miss Watson is done from need, and reluctantly, while that by the King and Duke at the Wilks’ household is done by scoundrels and generally deplored, with the girls and the niggers “hanging around each other’s necks” in paroxysms of tears. And replete with horrors though the phrase “selling down the river” was, Jim at the Phelps’ plantation is to all appearances so little perturbed by the prospect as to put up with the extravagances of Tom and Huck without any anxiety about the mounting risk of discovery and of the closing off for ever of his chance for freedom. When he remarks, “I never knowed b’fo, ‘t was so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner,” there is no indication that this is meant to be read ironically.

And in the casual and equally unironical reporting of Miss Watson’s remorseful setting free of Jim in her will, the stress falls, especially when the fact is revealed in the midst of the so very agreeable slave-owning Phelpses, merely on the wrongness of selling a slave down the river, and not on the absurdity and iniquity of one person’s “owning” another in the first place.


I am not, I hope it scarcely it needs saying, speaking of slavery as it actually existed, nor am I overlooking Twain’s treatment of it in the Huck-Jim exchanges, or elsewhere, especially in Pudd’nhead Wilson. And I can understand why Leo Marx, with his eye on the actual institution, should indignantly compare the Phelpses (and presumably, by implication, all the other owners in the novel) to “those solid German citizens we have heard about in our time who tried to maintain a similar gemütlich way of life within virtual earshot of Buchenwald.” (10)

But it is plain that in Pudd’nhead Wilson nine years later Twain was more concerned with using the institution in order to attack the stupidity, cruelty, and moral blindness involved in certain kinds of pigeonholing in general than with redoing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And in any case, to read one work in the light of another when dealing with such a fantastically uneven writer as Twain is so risky a business that it should probably be left alone altogether. After all, what usable bridge can be thrown over the artistic gulf between, say, Huckleberry Finn and those ponderous adolescent pessimisms that Twain was indulging himself in, the following year, in “The Character of Man”?

In any event, the facts of Huckleberry Finn when viewed in isolation seem to me to be as I have described them, and the reason why slavery is treated so differently in Pudd’nhead Wilson is also tolerably plain. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain’s energies are all bent towards attacking civilization. In Huckleberry Finn, whatever he may have consciously thought he was up to, they are bent towards celebrating it in ways that it will take the rest of this discussion to clarify.


That Twain started out to do something answering to the orthodox account of the novel is evident when we contemplate the stacking of the cards that goes on in the St. Petersburg section.

The narrow-minded restrictions of an old maid, the well-intentioned ineffectualities of her sister, the naïve, self-flattering, and justly defeated presumptions of one judge, the chicanery of another, the flamboyant yet pedantic inventings of a bookish boy—it is hardly surprising that when civilization comes at Huck in these forms the darkly numinous and irrational subculture of the slaves is the region most charged with imaginative life, and that when a demonic figure like Pap comes forward, society is powerless to protect Huck against him or counter his appeal.

Equally obviously, though, whatever Huck and Jim feel themselves to be doing in relation to civilization as thus presented, the novel confronts both Huck and us with progressively denser manifestations of civilization, and the actual matter of the novel is not an escape from civilization at all but a journey deeper and deeper into it.


Right at the outset of the journey downstream Miss Judith Loftus is a good deal more “there” as an individual than is the Widow Douglas, just as more of the equipment of everyday civilized living is there in the floating house than we see in the accounts of the Widow’s house and Pap’s cabin. And where communal activities and mutual aid are concerned, the same can be said of the rural lives and comings and goings described by Huck, and the sympathy or concern evoked from his listeners by his various roles, in contrast to what we see of St. Petersburg.

In the Grangerford household he is obviously faced with much more in the way of “higher” cultural manifestations than hitherto, and I shall be returning to the episode. There is, however, relatively a show-case distance to the household, in saying which I have in mind not only the catalogue-like description of the man-made objects in which cultural values are embodied, but also the strangeness of the Grangerfords for Huck himself, with their story-book beauties and rituals, their incomprehensible savage code, and their scrupulous exclusion of Huck himself from any involvement in the consequences of that code. The ideals that energize and order the household are not experienced by Huck from the inside.

With the arrival of the two con-men the Duke and King, however, he is confronted dynamically with a number of European conceptions variously invading, victimizing, stimulating, and being rejected by rural Amrican communities. I shall be returning to that point too. In the Wilks episode, furthermore, Huck himself is drawn in as a participant and a moral agent, making moral choices and altering the course of events in much the most complexly functioning community that we have seen so far.

And finally in the Phelps’ plantation section Huck is involved in the full texture of domestic living in a normal household, with its day-to-day demands, relationships with its neighborhood, and connections with more distant parts of the country. As Henry Nash Smith puts it, “The Phelps plantation … from the standpoint of georgraphy eleven hundred miles downstream from St Petersburg, is from the standpoint of Mark Twain’s imagination very near the starting-point of Huck’s and Jim’s journey.” (11)

In the course of the novel, we have been shown more and more of the texture of social living, and if we were asked to indicate that section of Huck’s experience that best conveys the feeling of living in society it is the end of the book and not the beginning that we would have to point to.


I suggest that the fundamental reason for this progression and for its not being a tragic or even a somber one is that what Twain had given himself up to in the novel was the celebration of precisely the kind of imaginative energy with which he was nominally at war when it manifested itself in “European” romanticism, and that, whatever his consciously judging mind may have told him, the energy was inseparable in his own creative imagination from the constructions of civilization, especially Southern civilization.

Richard Chase has spoken of the book’s “profoundest, more hidden, and most ambivalent exorcism—that of European culture itself.” (12) The greatness of the book is due in good part to the fact that the attempted exorcism was not only ambivalent but unsuccessful.


I have referred already to those aspects of Huckleberry Finn that make it one of the most glamorous of adventure novels, one that is all the more glamorous because, like Robinson Crusoe, it has such an air of being true—of demonstrating that wonderful things can still happen even though the seemingly indispensable “Have at you, you knave!” social machinery has gone from the world. And the Tom Sawyer sections of the novel make it plain that Twain’s war against cloak-and-rapier romanticism was that of someone who had steeped himself in it when young and could throw himself wholeheartedly into recreating that youthful experience of it.

But more than re-creations and transpositions are entailed. When James M. Cox points out that “all of Tom Sawyer’s world has been imported into the novel” and that “the substitution of Tom’s humour for Huck’s vision” in the Phelps’ plantation section “indicates that Mark Twain, though aware of the two sets of values, could not keep a proper balance between them because of his fascination with Tom Sawyer,” he is looking in the right direction but not looking far enough. Had he looked further he would not, I think, have asserted so confidently that “There is bitter irony in Huck’s assumption of Tom’s name [at the Phelpses] because the values of Tom Sawyer are so antithetical to the values of Huck Finn. … From Mark Twain’s point of view in this novel, Tom Sawyer civilization involves obedience, imitation, and is directly opposed to a dynamic and creative frontier imagination.” (13)

The truth is surely that just as the novel as a whole wouldn’t have been what it was without the novels of Scott, Dumas, and Co., so Huck’s “creative frontier imagination” would not have been what it was, at least in substantial stretches of the novel, without the educative influence of Tom Sawyer.


When one contemplates the self-satisfied scoring of points off Tom Sawyer that has been going on, and the related conversion of Huck into as good a boy as the Widow Douglas could have wished for, it is hard to resist feeling that the presiding deity in much of the discussion of the novel has been, not the river, but the spirit of goody-good brother Sid Sawyer. And when the episode of Huck’s boarding the wrecked steamboat is singled out as an Awful Warning against romanticism, (14) more is at stake than merely the respective claims of prudence and daring.

“’Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing?’,” Huck asks the reluctant Jim.

“Not for pie, he wouldn’t. He’d call it n adventure—that’s what he’d call it, and he’d land on that wreck if it was his last act. And wouldn’t he throw style into it?—wouldn’t he spread himself, nor nothing? Why you’d think it was Christopher C’lumbus discovering Kingdom-Come. I wish Tom Sawyer was here.”

The key word in that speech is surely “style,” and the conception is an absolutely central one. Tony Tanner, alone of the critics whom I have read, pounces on it, but only in order to draw attention to “the perverse folly of Tom’s ideal of ‘style’” and to the fact that “style” is the word which seems to explain “the nonsense in Tom’s head and the illogicalities and pointless cruelties in society at large.” The essential wrongness of this approach comes out in Tanner’s contention that “Tom—stuffed with style—thinks Huck has nothing to reflect with. But Huck reflects with something bigger than Tom or his society could understand: he reflects with the river, with nature.” (15)

It isn’t merely that we have Huck’s several tributes to Tom on account of his “style,” especially apropos of his escape from Pap’s cabin and his manipulating of the Wilks girls in their own interest. (“I felt very good; I judged that I had it done pretty neat—I reckoned Tom Sawyer couldn’t a done it no neater himself. Of course he would have throwed more style into it, but I couldn’t do that very handy, not having been brung up to it.”)

Even if we didn’t have those remarks as pointers, the inventiveness that Huck displays most of the time would plainly not have been what it was without the influence of Tom’s romance-derived imagination.

It is obvious, for instance, that the escape from Pap’s cabin, though undertaken in a strictly practical spirit, would not have assumed so tightly knit and masterly a form (it is eminently “stylish” in a way recalling the great escapes whose details bubble out of Tom’s mind at the Phelps’ plantation) if Huck’s sense of possibilities hadn’t been enlarged through being in Tom’s company. The same can be said of his benign manipulation at the Wilkses, and in general, I think, of the unhesitating deftness, the “Odysseus-like wit” as Sydney J. Krause has called it, (16) that he displays in his various role-playings.


It is true that there was a whole “native” tradition of American inventiveness, but the more one reflects on that epithet the more slippery it becomes, especially if we stick to what is shown in the novel. After all, the “natural” part of Huck’s own background consists essentially of Pap and the slaves.

The slave consciousness exhibited in the book, and to some extent assimilated by Huck, has its own kind of imaginative richness, but it is essentially that of victims or potential victims inhabiting a world of dark forces that they do what they can to propitiate. With Pap, on the other hand, the contours of whose mind receive further illumination in the description of Bricksville, we have a consciousness that owes its peculiarly repulsive force to an almost total lack of imaginative vitality. Untroubled by any sharp sense of possible consequences or images of fuller modes of existence against which to judge itself to its own disadvantage, it pursues its gratifications with animal directness, persistence, and shamelessness.

In neither Pap not the slaves, in other words, do we see anything resembling Huck’s kind of style.

Nor do we see it in the indigenous shrewdness displayed by the “big, iron-jawed” doctor at the Wilkses, by Mrs. Loftus when she catches Huck out in his female role, and by Huck himself at times, especially with regard to the claims of nobility by the King and Duke when they first arrive on the raft. Which brings me back to the ambivalence in Twain’s attempted exorcism of “Europe” that Chase spoke of.

The shrewdness I have just mentioned is obviously desirable where self-preservation is demanded, but it is essentially uncreative. And its manifestation in the novel consists almost entirely of one person’s seeing through the role of another. According to the stock account of the novel, this unillusioned gaze is wholly good, and is being celebrated the most obviously in Huck’s relationship to the Duke and King. Not only do the latter, in Kenneth S. Lynn’s words, “represent, as Pap did, the sordidness, the cynicism, and the anarchic cruelty that are inescapable in the world beyond the pale of Eden.” (17) They also richly exemplify the exploitation of American gullibility in the name of Europe, romance, and “culture.”

The facts of the matter, however, seem to me more complex and more interesting. (18) When Fiedler suggests that Huck’s compassion for the two rogues when they are tarred and feathered and ridden on a rail (a process amounting to torture) is obliquely pity for himself, the suggestion may be sentimental in its context but it points in the direction of an important truth.


The ease with which the Duke and King, in their larger chicaneries, take on such roles as those of reformed pirates and members of the English gentry is obvious enough. In their own private existence as we see it on the raft, however, the romantic role-playing continues in a way that suggests that their relationship to the romantic-exotic is more than the simple one of shrewd-eyed tricksters composedly manipulating a repertoire of masks for money-getting purposes. I am thinking especially of the Duke here.

There is, of course splendid comedy in the way in which, having begun the Duke business for practical purposes, he then becomes trapped by the King inside the rules of the game that he himself has laid down and inside which the two of them thereafter play so consistently in front of Huck and Jim. But I am not the only reader, I imagine, to whom it has occurred that the language of the Duke’s avowal is that of someone who would in fact very much like to be the exiled rightful heir to a dukedom. It is the sort of mournfully self-dignifying language of exile, I mean, that permeates too his dealings with the theatrical.

There is not only a wonderful comic disproportion between the claims of those showbills and what the audience will see. (“’But if Juliet’s such a young girl, Duke, my peeled head and my white whiskers is goin’ to look uncommon odd on her, maybe.’”) There is also a wild kind of poetry and even a sort of pathos, in that it is as if for their composer the idea of Mr Garrick, Mr Kean, and “the whole strength of the company,” in all its richly anachronistic splendor, (18a) were more real than the actualities of the coming performance, and as if he too were becoming momentarily one of the heroic servants of “the histrionic muse.” (19)

His gallimaufry Hamlet soliloquy may be preposterous, but its melancholy resonances can be heard in the Shakespearean-theatrical diction of his conversation on other occasions, and even, to judge from its title, in the poem of his own composing that he leaves set up in the printing office.(“Yes, crush, cold world, this aching heart.”) And however preposterous his notion of theatre in general may be, it doesn’t seem excessive to see him as being in part a romantic hero himself because of it—as being, I mean, in some measure self-consciously estranged from those around him by his sense of a larger and nobler reality which they cannot share. (19a)


That all four of the white protagonists—Huck and Tom, the Duke and the King—function in some strikingly similar ways in relation to “ordinary” people in the novel is a point that presumably doesn’t need much elaboration by now. With their restlessness, curiosity, inventiveness, alertness, purposeful role-playings, and manipulations, they are set sharply apart both from the respectable folk of St. Petersburg and the Wilks and Phelps communities and from drifters and idlers like Pap and the Bricksville whittlers and chewers. And if I have been reading the novel correctly, the chief factor that gives their activities their particular shapes is what can roughly be called “Europe.”

It is not, of course, a single clear concept that is shared by all of them. Indeed, in a sense it is not a concept at all. Rather, it is a cluster of heroic images of larger-than-life figures—noble outlaws, great actors, daring prison-breaking aristocrats—whose patterns of conduct have been assimilated into their own lives by way of books or conversations, even though their conscious relationships to those images may at times be cynically exploitative or outright dismissive. And this indebtedness seems to me the reverse of ironical, regardless of what Twain may have thought he was up to about Europe and romanticism. From the point of view of the richer life of the mind and its irrepressible cravings, the novel brilliantly demonstrates how mistaken is the attempt to draw any sharp line between realism, naturalness, and truth on the one hand and romanticism, artificiality, and (by implication) falsity on the other.

Just as the novel is not anti-romantic, so it is not anti-cultural either, and for the same reasons.


To sneer at what Leo Marx has called “the tawdry nature of the culture of the great valley,” (20) especially the “higher” cultural manifestations, is a temptation to be resisted, it seems to me. One can understand, of course, why V.S. Pritchett should have said that:

As Huck and old Jim drift down the Mississippi from one horrifying little town to the next and hear the voices of men quietly swearing to one another across the water; as they pass the time of day with the scroungers, rogues, and murderers, the lonely women, the frothing revivalists, the maundering boatmen and fantastic drunks of the river towns, we see the human wastage that is left in the wake of a great effort of the human will, the hopes frustrated, the idealism which has been whittled down to eccentricity and craft. These people are the price paid for building a new country. (21)

But if such a reaction is understandable—and a similar air of distaste in discernible in several of Twain’s American critics—it seems to me to result from overlooking not only the generosity but the subtlety of the book, and involves a celebration of gentility under the guise of celebrating freedom. The river, I suggest, is the great central symbol that it is, not by virtue of being purer and nicer than human society, especially frontier society, but because it is the greatest natural manifestation of energy in the American landscape—and because the flow of human energies is what the book is hymning. (21a)


Viewed from England or New England, the villagers and small-townspeople may “deserve” their exploitation by the representatively predatory Duke and King. (“Greenhorns, flatheads!”) Viewed in its actual context, on the other hand, their vulnerability to supposed or actual phrenologists, singing-geography teachers, revivalists, strolling players, European aristocrats, and the rest is a far from contemptible testimony to a craving for a broadening of mental horizons, an arousal and ordering of energies, an enlargement of being—in sum for precisely the things which are prerequisites for the establishment of civilization.

And the two areas of achieved order that we are shown the most intimately—the Grangerford and Phelps households—are far from contemptible. Leo Marx may feel indignant at the obliviousness of the Phelpses to the iniquity of slavery. But the household is a thoroughly decent and kindly one, and (pace Marx) no intended irony is apparent when Huck learns from Tom that “Jim told him Uncle Silas come in every day or two to pray with him, and Aunty Sally come in to see if he was comfortable and had plenty to eat, and both of them as kind as they could be.” Sophisticated modern eyes may discern a “queer mixture of arrogant show and pathetic provincialism” (Richard P Adams) in the Grangerford household and “a tawdry and faded effort at a high style” (Henry Nash Smith) (22) in its furnishing and decorations. But if we bear in mind the place and the period, the pervasive orderliness, harmoniousness, and general domestic decency are triumphs of civilization over a wilderness, and the lovingly assembled household treasures testify to more important things than bad taste.

Twain himself was a great deal more charitable to the Grangerfords than his critics, and we can see why. The true antithesis to this sort of household in the book is not the natural raft but the naturalness of Pap and the Arkansas loafers in squalid Bricksville, in whom form and order and decency have become lost altogether. (22a)


Whatever their limitations, moreover, the Grangerfords, like Huck, have been enabled through their own dealings with culture to live with a greater and more purposeful energy, and to impose themselves on existence, instead of being its victims. They choose their destinies. Alexander Cowie was pointing to a vital truth when he recalled “the fact, often lost sight of, that Mark Twain was first of all a Southerner.”(23). And to see how Twain’s admiration for certain virtues comes to a head in his presentation of the quintessential Southern figure of Colonel Sherburn is to understand why the novel should have started slackening off after the Bricksville section.


Were Sherburn’s appearance limited to the gunning-down of Boggs, there would be good grounds for the conventional reading of the novel with respect to Southern romanticism. Here, Twain would then appear to be saying, is what it all comes down to when you strip away the rituals and the glamour: cold-blooded pointless murder.

But of course that episode is only half the picture, and when we turn to the Colonel’s speech to the would-be lynch mob the picture changes. True, the logic of the speech is a trifle dizzying, particularly in view of the intrusively authorial tone, and we are liable to end up feeling that we are disturbingly close here to the law of the jungle. But the important thing is that the speech is that of a man coolly and bravely facing down a dangerous mob, and doing so while casually tossing them the assurance that they would be perfectly within their rights to lynch him. It is the speech of someone utterly sure of where he stands and what he is prepared to do, and in contrast to the mob, he too, like the culture of the Grangerfords, is far from contemptible.

If, therefore, we have seen one stripped-down aspect of the chivalric code in the ruthless killing of Boggs, we are seeing its converse now in the no less ruthless self-exposure of the Colonel without benefit of help from servants, intimations of retribution, or appeals to the chivalric code itself. Smith has interestingly observed that

Sherburn belongs to the series of characters in Mark Twain’s later work that have been called “transcendent” figures. Other examples are Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee; Pudd’nhead Wilson; and Satan in The Mysterious Stranger. They exhibit cerain common traits, more fully developed with the passage of time. They are isolated by their intellectual superiority to the community; they are contemptuous of mankind in general; and they have more than ordinary power. (24)

The admiration that Twain accords Sherburn may be ambivalent but, if so, the ambivalence lies in Southern culture as he has presented it, and in that presentation the strengths are inseparable from the weaknesses. (24a)


It is not surprising, therefore, that the momentum of Huckleberry Finn falters after the Bricksville section and that the centre of attention shifts away from Huck and the river. It is not even surprising that the treatment of the Phelps’ plantation should be so free of irony, especially about slavery. In terms of his essential themes there was nowhere left for Twain to go after Bricksville except back to the world of his childhood. Having affirmed so strongly the seemingly basic Southern values, he could not develop the Huck-and-Jim exchanges into a radical critique of an institution so intricately bound up with those values; and having given so deep an assent to civlization and culture he had nothing intense left with which to oppose even their duller manifestations. There is something fitting about the eventual disappearance even of his ironies about religion, as in Huck’s praise of Silas Phelps.

He was the innocentest, best old soul I ever see. But it warn’t surprising; because he warn’t only just a farmer, he was a preacher, too, and had a little one-horse log church down back of the plantation, which he built it himself at his own expense, for a church and school-house, and never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth t too. There was plenty other farmer-preachers like that, and done the same way, down South.

It is as if Twain’s creative intelligence, wiser than the intelligence of most of his critics, had acknowledged the fact that Huck’s untutored goodness, like all his other strengths, was itself a cultural creation. (25)


But I wish to end with an even more important way in which the Bricksville section is climactic.

Virtually everything of thematic significance in the novel is there in those three brilliant chapters, including as they do the Sherburn episode, the King and Duke’s gulling of the townspeople, Huck’s rationalistic yet half-admiring short history of “Henry the Eight,” and the closing account by Jim of his unintentional cruelty to his deaf daughter. And in reading a novel that works so much in terms of juxtapositions it is obviously necessary to hold all the thematic aspects in mind at once if we are not to oversimplify it.

But if there is one that deserves stressing above all the others, it is surely what finds such brilliant expression in the account of the circus, especially in the following lovely passage:

It was the splendidist sight that ever was, when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs, easy and comfortable—there must have been twenty of them—and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely. And then one by one they got up and stood, and went a-weaving around the ring so gentle and wavy and graceful, the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight, with their heads bobbing and skimming along away up there under the tent-roof, and every lady’s rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silk around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol.

It is art and life, truth and fiction, self-affirmation and social organization, “American” expertise and “European” culture all at once—creative human energy and skill displayed all the more unforgettably and meaningfully because of the highly artificial order that they have taken and their dazzling contrast with the “natural” life of the streets outside. (25a)

Furthermore, the thrill of the demonstration of unexpected human possibilities and transfigurations comes in part, as Huck’s reactions to the trick rider remind us, from a generous capacity for participating in make-believe and responding to the power of style:

But pretty soon he struggled up astraddle and grabbed the bridle, a-reeling this way and that; and the next minute he sprung up and dropped the bridle and stood! and the horse agoing like a house afire too. He just stood there, a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn’t ever drunk in his life—and then he begun to pull off his clothes and sling them. He shed them so thick they kind of clogged the air, and altogether he shed seventeen suits. And then, there he was, slim and handsome, and dressed the gaudiest and prettiest you ever saw, and he lit into that horse with his whip and made him fairly hum—and finally skipped off, and made his bow and danced off to the dressing room, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment.

It is in some such terms, I am convinced, that the greatness of Huckleberry Finn itself must be defended.



1. This article appeared in the Oxford Review in 1967 as “In Defence of Civilization: Huckleberry Finn.” It was reprinted as such in my The Name of Action: Critical Essays (Cambridge, 1984). I have inserted Roman-numeral dividers, broken up over-long paragraphs, and occasionally tweaked the phrasing to make it less clumsy. Some new notes inside square brackets have been added. I have not dropped or curtailed anything, or altered the argument in any way.

2. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (Garden City, NY, 1954), p.108.

3. Leslie A Fiedler, An End to Innocence (Boston, 1955), p. 589.

4. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (NY, 1960), p. 108.

5. Trilling, Liberal Imagination, p.108.

6. Martin Green, Re-Appraisals: Some Commonsense Readings in American Literature (London, 1963), p. 139.

7. Fiedler, Love and Death, p. 589.

8. John Erskine, The Delight of Great Books, Indianapolis, 1928), p.264.

8a. [Sometimes we’d have the whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window—and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. …

Once or twice of a night we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down on the river and look awful pretty; then she would turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her pow-wow shut off and leave the river still again; and by and by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the raft a bit, and after that you wouldn’t hear nothing for you couldn’t tell how long, except maybe frogs or something.]

9. Carson Gibb, “The Best Authorities,” College English, XXII (December 1960), p.179.

10.Leo Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” American Scholar, XXII (Autumn 1953), p.432.

11.Henry Nash Smith, introd. to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Boston, 1958), p. xi.

12.Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, NY, 1957), p. 146.

13.James M. Cox, “Remarks on the Sad Initiation of Huckleberry Finn,” Sewanee Review, LXII (1954), pp. 396, 405, 401.

14.Sydney J. Krause, “Twain and Scott: Experience Versus Adventure,” Modern Philology, LXII (February 1965), pp. 227-236.

15.Tony Tanner, The Reign of Wonder; Naivety and Reality in American Literature (Cambrige, 1965), pp. 156, 58, 166.

16.Krause, “Twain and Scott,” p. 230.

17. Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston, 1959), p. 226.

18.In view of the cursory treatment often accorded them, it seems worth recalling that the Duke and King occupy over a third of the book. R.W. Stallman may not really be exaggerating wildly when he claims that “without the Duke and Dauphin, Huckleberry Finn isn’t worth our attempts to see it as a great novel. “Huck Finn Again, College English, XVIII (May 1957), p. 426.

18a. [“Shakespeare Revival!!! Wonderful Attraction! For One Night Only! The world renowned tragedians, David Garrick the younger, of Drury Lane Theatre, London, and Edmund Kean the elder, of the Royal Haymarket Theatre, Whitechapel, Pudding Land, Piccadilly, London, and the Royal Continental Theatres, in their sublime Shaksperean Spectacle entitled The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet!!!”]

19. T.S. Eliot, I have since noticed with pleasure, remarks in passing of the Duke and King that their “fancies about themselves are akin to the kind of fancy that Tom Sawyer enjoys.” Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London, 1950), pp. ix-x.

19a.[The peripatetic and majestically impecunious Shakespearian actor Granville Thorndyke incarnated by Alan Mowbray in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine comes across as another thespian romantic. When Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday completes the “To be or not to be” soliloquy after Thorndyke falters in the low tavern full of Mexicans where the Clantons have detained him, we enter for the moment a new dimension of seriousness, both because of the “universal” words and because it is Holliday who has internalized them. The movie is unironical, too, about the “dad-blasted good dance” celebrating the dedication of the skeletal church, symbol of the ongoing civilizing of Tombstone.]

20. Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling and Huckleberry Finn,” p.432.

21.V.S. Pritchett, “Huckleberry Finn and the Cruelty of American Humour,” New Statesman (8 August 1941), p. 113.

21a.[In his Triumphant Democracy (1886), that bible of the new Napoleonic-imperial capitalism, Andrew Carnegie spoke of how the Mississippi, with its “outflow of over two million cubic feet per hour,” was

equal in bulk to all the rivers of Europe combined, exclusive of the Volga. It is equal to three Ganges, nine Rhônes, twenty-seven Seines, or eighty Tibers. “The mighty Tiber chafing with its flood,’ says the Master. How would he have described the Mississippi on the rampage after a spring flood, when it pours down its mighty volume of water and overflows the adjacent lowlands! Eighty Tibers in one!”

22.Richard P. Adams, “The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn,” Tulane Studies in English, VI (1956), p. 96; Smith, introd. p. xv.

22a. [The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn’t seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled-up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played-out tinware. … There was generly hogs in the garden, and people driving them out. …

There was empty dry-goods boxes under the awnings [of the stores], and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives, and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching—a mighty ornery lot. …

All the streets and lanes was just mud, they warn’t nothing else but mud—mud as black as tar, and nigh about a foot deep in some places; and two or three inches deep in All the places. The hogs loafed and grunted around, everywheres.

There couldn’t anything wake [the loafers] up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dog-fight—unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.]

23.Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel (NY 1948), p. 614.

24. Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain; the Development of a Writer (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 136.

24a.[Realistically, old Boggs would have been carrying a pistol—pistol, not revolver—, probably unloaded, as he galloped drunkenly up and down the village street and bragged of killing. Which would have made Sherburn’s line-drawing marginally more defensible, in a town knee-deep in low-lifes and seemingly without a sheriff. As it was, sometimes there are penalties for stupid machismo, like that of idiots who jump down into the pits of big cats in zoos. Everyone was trying to persuade Boggs to pack it in before the deadline, and he shook them all off, until it was too late. But the killing, with his 16-year-old daughter arriving too late, is still horrible.]

25.As Fiedler has pointed out, “having grown up on the edge of civilization, [Huck] has always known, even before his brief indoctrination by Miss Watson, the ethical principles of her world. No more free-thinker than savage, he has not only known, but, in an abstract way, believes in these codes.” Love and Death, p. 575.

25a. [“Circus” is a broad-spectrum term, of course. The atrocious cruelty that broke the spirit of big cats and stirred Jack London’s anger in Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917) continued the emblematic domination of the exotic “wild” in the Rome arenas. But it didn’t have to be present. Clint Eastwood’s shoestring traveling circus in Bronco Billy is a site of personal transformations and transcendences. And I still remember the young father and mother, their three kids and a few dogs, like Picasso’s Saltimbanques in basic costumes, who performed one night in the place of the Provencal hill village where we were summering, and how at one point the woman, suspended from a trapeze up among the overhanging leaves of a plane tree, became pure Chagall.]


© John Fraser


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