Stopping the Repetition of the Past: Musings of Antebellum America
Author Henry James has said that "it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” For over one hundred years slavery had crippled the African American people and aided the white man; however, when the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect it would become a slow catalyst of change that would take over a century for the Civil Rights Movement to be at its pinnacle. Racial limits would be pushed, lasting tension would arise. A great American novel of this time should depict the questionable change in racial demographics of the United States. Set before African American freedom, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain has been incessantly praised by authors and critics of all levels for pushing boundaries. It needs to be placed “in the context first of other American novels and then of world literature” (Smiley 1). Much like the American way of leaving the old country behind and immigrating to the United States, the novel’s loveable, young country boy of a narrator, Huckleberry Finn, pulls in readers of all kinds and feels the loneliness of being on his own travelling in the south, save for his runaway slave friend Jim. Along their adventures up and down the Mississippi River to free Jim, the reader follows Huck’s moral development, which is built up during different episodes in the story, but ultimately undone in the end. Although the “roundabout” nature of the end of the novel and Huck’s moral regression has rendered distaste, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deserves its place in the literary canon of American literature for its variable structure, good-natured narrator, and reflections of Antebellum America. In essence, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is its pitfall. Hemingway claims that if you read the novel, that “you must stop when Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end.” One must go to where Huck tells Tom of stealing Jim out of slavery, where it is evident that Tom withholds the knowledge that he knows that Jim has already been freed. “What! Why Jim is – ” he begins to say, but then stops talking before he reveals the facts (Twain 235). Tom Sawyer is “too fanciful, too extravagant,” making it clear that he is ultimately the ending’s drawback (Marx 10). It is clear that Tom Sawyer has begun planning his “adventure” almost immediately after finding out Jim was captured, and he takes advantage of his “best friend” Huck. According to James Pearl “the long and drawn out trick that Tom Sawyer plays on Jim makes the reader doubt if any real development has taken place” (2). After everything Huck does for Jim and the scrupulous opinions he forms, Tom comes back into the picture and pulls him back to his childish shenanigans. Huck allows his “so called friend” to take control of him, and the “follower” in him comes back out. He lets Tom boss him around and does all that he can to please him: “‘Oh, shucks, Huck Finn, if I was as ignorant as you I’d keep still – that’s what I’d do’” (Twain 248). Tom acts as another father figure to Huck: an additional lousy, bully like character. The natural growth of Huck and Jim’s friendship, the “pursuit of freedom and Huck’s gradual recognition of the slave’s humaneness – [are] rendered useless by the entrance of Tom Sawyer and his machinations to ‘free Jim’” (Peaches 15). Not only is Tom Sawyer unrealistic, but he is also charismatic and a natural leader, unfortunately in this case. At first, Huck questions Tom’s way of doing things “‘Confound it, it’s foolish, Tom,’” but later he becomes “Tom’s helpless accomplice, submissive and gullible” (Twain 250, Marx 12). Even Jim, “he couldn’t see no sense in the most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him” (Twain 256). “Huck is the passive observer,” who does not tell Tom what he is planning is wrong, and Jim is “the submissive sufferer of them, who does not fight back (Eliot 3). Tom adds unneeded agitation to a well written, historically reflecting novel. At the very end when Tom wakes up, he is asked why he would want to set a freed slave free and responds “‘Why, I wanted the adventure of it; and I’d ‘a’ waded neck-deep in blood to-goodness alive,’” behaving as an immature imp (Twain 292). After all that Tom and Huck put Jim through, some sort of reaction from Jim and a well-deserved outburst from Huck are expected; however, the actual response is quite the antithesis of what is expected. Huck still puts the menace on a pedestal, believing that “Tom Sawyer had done and took all that trouble and bother to set a free nigger free” (292). Jim does not even question Tom’s motives. When freed, Jim receives forty dollars from Tom, and the newly freed man claims in excitement “‘Dah, how, Huck, what I tell you…I tole you I ben rich wunst, en gwineter be rich ag’in, en it’s come true’” (294). While most of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not convincing, the ending surpasses the realm of improbability into ridiculousness. Leo Marx declares “the most obvious thing wrong with the ending, then, is the flimsy contrivance by which Clemens frees Jim,” which goes to say that although the ending is very humorous, it is quite agitating (9). This novel is a “masterpiece because it brings Western humor to perfection and yet transcends the narrow limit of it conventions. But the ending does not” (Marx 11). No matter how stirring the conclusion of the book is, there is still an insightful segment. During the “attempted” freeing of Jim, “Each shackle, chain, and discomfort applied by the boys to Jim makes Twain’s point that freeing a ‘free’ black man in the postbellum is protracted and difficult” (Godden, Mccay 11). Even after the Civil War ends and the Emancipation Proclamation is still in place, the actual “freedom” of African American men and women is not in attained. These oppressed people still live under the reign of a struggling, racially suppressive nation. A century after this period “freedom” is fought for again, yet won day by day. Just when the reader believes that some hope has arisen, Huck lights out for the territory just like he lights out from every other situation. Aunt Sally is “going to adopt [him] and sivilize [him] and [he] can’t stand it,” and that’s the end (Twain 296). No more to leave the reader thinking about how the narrator has developed immensely or how much struggle he has gone through, James Pearl has to “ask whether Huckleberry Finn goes in a line, or a circle” (1).
Almost as soon as the reader opens the novel, which Hemingway has noted that “There was nothing before…There has been nothing good since,” an explanatory written by Mark Twain is seen. It is written that “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect,” as well as the use of many more speech patterns that have “not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work: but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity” (Twain Explanatory). Right off the bat Twain establishes respectable ethos or credibility, which lays the framework of language in the novel. As its characters speak throughout the book, it is easy to differentiate between the varying dialects that are used. Jim is a prime example of Twain’s “pains-takingly” written dialect, “I tuck out en shin down de hill en ’spec to steal a skift ’long de sho’ some’ers ’bove de town, but dey wuz people a-stirren’ yit, so I hid…” (55). To the modern day reader this is difficult language to become adept to reading, but it is quote easy to see that it is exquisitely written. “Twain creates the impression of the American folk culture through his use of dialect and phonetic spelling, which mimics speech, rather than writing” (Pearl 1). Even though many of the adventures are improbable, the credibility of the characters in them are made more convincing by mimicking this “native tongue” The use of the word “nigger” in the novel creates a sense of fury in countless Americans. Henry Peaches mentions Fiedler when stating that the racial-slur “has the odious distinction of signifying all ‘the shame, the frustration, the rage, the fear’ that has been so much a part of the history of race relations in the United States” (Peaches 12). However, Peaches and Fiedler do not put into account the culture in which Huckleberry was raised. Twain “uses language to show that access to culture and education defines character” (Pearl 1). Huck was raised in the South during the 1800s, before the emancipation of slaves, so naturally he and many others in the novel would use the word without an afterthought. All of the negative racial undertones used by Huck are not simply the thoughts of a young boy, they are reflections of Twain. This is expressed during the King Solomon chapter, where Huck claims that Jim “had an uncommon level head, for a nigger” (Twain 86). As chapter fourteen unfolds, the question of equality of the American people comes into play. “The debate about the Americanness of Huckleberry Finn reveals the larger struggle to define American identity” (Pearl 1). This book came at a time after the slaves in the United States were freed, but it is based before that. It was a time when Americans needed to contemplate their country’s history, and define for themselves the difference between right and wrong. When Jim cannot seem to understand why French men and American men do not speak the same language, Twain is inferring that all men should be equal, merely because they are men. Whenever the mix of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River is mentioned, there is a sense of pressure and divided pride. Those who live on the Mississippi River feel their Southern pride, “The Child of Calamity…said there was nutritiousness in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to” (Twain 101). Although this quote seems very silly, it brings to light the foolish, yet very real northern and southern rivalry Northerners and Southerners had differing opinions about slavery and human rights, “they talked about how Ohio water didn’t like to mix with Mississippi water” (101). Richard Godden and Mary Mccay point out that “Twain locates this conversation very specifically… [that] the intersection is political as well as geographical” (10). Later on in chapter twenty-two Huck goes to another town where a lynch mob goes after Sherburn. Sherburn may have just shot a harmless drunkard, but his speech is eloquent. What comes out of the communicative man is an expression from Twain based upon Southern antics “‘Why, a man’s safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind – as long as it’s daylight and you’re not behind him…Why don’t your juries hang murderers…you’re afraid to back down – afraid you’ll be found out for what you are – cowards’” (Twain 162). Twain makes clear once more the way he feels about the south. This town, much like the south had “to be moving back, and back, and back,” it was still caught in its old ways, unjust and antiquated (156). Even Huck speaks to this “because the people that’s always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain’t done just right is always the very ones that ain’t the most anxious to pay for him when they’ve got their satisfaction out of him,” meaning that those who take advantage of others are raved up to use them but do not want to make an effort to pay the repurcusions of it (288). When Huck speaks “there is no exaggeration of grammar or spelling or speech, there is no sentence or phrase to destroy the illusion that these are Huck’s own words” (Eliot 3). The use of a child narrator in this scene is key. Humans have a predisposed inclination to care for young children, and these jaded, insightful words that come from Huck evoke a deeper sense in the reader. Coming from a child, these words have a stronger sense of meaning.
The language and sentence structure that Twain uses for his characters goes hand in hand with the often abnormal juxtaposition he often forms. One night his pap “was all tired out…[he] said he would rest a minute and then kill me” (Twain 41). This subtly included sentence adds immense effect The predominant use of simple sentence syntax which “allow(s) him to handle the surfaces of the world as they come at him, or to watch and record others doing likewise” (Godden, Mccay 12). There is neither judgment nor alarm in his tone. When Twain constructs sentences in this way it catches the reader off guard and creates a realization of the cruelty of the world that Huck has become so adjusted to. Choosing right from wrong seems impossible when the person that taught him to delineate right from wrong was a morally clouded father. This is exemplified again during the Grangerford episode when Huck starts out describing Colonel Grangerford, “He was kind as he could be…Everybody loved to have him around too; he was sunshine most always…” and then continues with the unexpected fact that “the old gentleman owned a lot of farms, and over a hundred niggers” (Twain 125, 126). This is ironic due to the contrast between Huck’s romanticized view of the lovely Colonel Grangerford and the reader’s understanding that the man inhumanely owns over a hundred beings. Huck has a basic, yet growing understanding of how slavery is cruel, but not enough to equate slave owners as unjust people. Then when the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons go to church with their guns “and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall,” Huck includes then that “It was pretty ornery preaching – all about brotherly love,” as if the situation was not ironic nor strange in any way (129). The juxtaposition included in this statement as well as the irony exemplifies Twain’s opinion of the ridiculousness of age old vendettas and family rivalries in the South. After everything they leave church with a “powerful lot to say about faith and the good works,” which exacerbates the foolishness of the feud, they speak of faith, but try to kill of their enemies every chance they get (129). Twain’s opinions are not kept out of his book, but are hidden in some cases. They have created such a lasting legacy for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The author’s opinions and a wide variety of characters enable the reader to have a wider viewpoint of the people in this period of history. Following the Sherburn incident, Huck goes to the circus. He does not transition whatsoever, “I could a staid (at Sherburn’s), if I’d a wanted to, but I didn’t want to. I went to the circus, and loafed around…” (162). This sudden change happens a few times throughout the novel to help illustrate the extent of Huck’s age and lack of capability to process life altering situations, such as the death of his dear friend Buck, which symbolizes the death of the boy’s childhood. He immediately goes back to the raft, “We said there warn’t no home like a raft,” and continues back on his adventures with Jim (134). This action “leaves room for endless variation and adventures, with the endless variation of America’s inhabitants” (Pearl 1). The reader is never really sure what to expect next in the novel, which leaves room for prediction. The seemingly random episodes are expertly crafted to show Huck’s moral development. America at the time is a big melting pot of different cultures, which come into play with shaping the narrator. Beginning in the first few pages of the novel, the reader gets their first taste of Huck as a narrator. He is goodhearted, and does not judge, which makes him an unbiased storyteller. Beginning with speaking about the author, Mark Twain, Huck says that “he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth” (Twain 13). Even when referring to his father who abuses him he does not see the wickedness in him, “but by and by pap got too handy with his hick’ry and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts” (37). By being an impartial narrator he allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections…He is the impassive observer: he does not interfere…he does not judge” (Eliot 2). T.S. Eliot is spot on when he says this. By being an “impassive observer”, the reader then takes Huck’s later moral development more seriously. During the Grangerford episode he learned that unique Emmeline Grangerford made poetry about people who had died and felt bad because no one wanted to make poetry about her once she died “so [he] tried to sweat out a verse or two [himself],” just because he felt that bad for a girl he had never met (Twain 124). This type of mature sincerity is uncommon among preadolescent boys. The development of Huck’s conscience comes a bit later in the novel, however the start of his moral growth begins before this. As soon as Huck and Jim meet again on the island Huck breaks norms of the time, and he chooses not to turn Jim in. “‘I said I wouldn’t [tell], and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun I will,” and he even claims that he does not care if “People call [him] a low down Abilitionist” (55). Although this scene is early in the novel it essentially sets the scene for the rest of the Huck’s progress, excluding the ending. Huck’s immediate reaction to help his newfound friend, whom he would be “incomplete without,” before he becomes well acquainted with him “is an unforgettable moment in the American experience,” and proves his heart is in the right place (Eliot 3, Marx). When he plays a mean, childish trick on Jim, who was once his slave, he apologizes “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger,” and even when he apologized he “warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards” (Twain 95). T.S. Eliot claims that “the pathos and dignity of a boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man” (4). Huck must reason for himself right versus wrong, and act as an adult, even though the role models he has had in his life have consisted of an alcoholic father and foster parents who try to “sivilize” him (13). This is where he realizes that he needs to do right from there on forward. He would not “do him no more mean tricks and [he] wouldn’t done that one if [he’d] a knowed it would make him feel that way” (95). “Huck learns that Jim has real feelings, recognizes humanity, and vows not to play any more tricks on him,” which is Huck’s first big step in moral development (Pearl 2). However, after this big step, when Jim and he came close to Cairo, Huck becomes nervous. He realizes what he is doing is “wrong” in society’s terms. It made him feel “all over trembly and feverish,” this is his conscience playing a role in his life decisions for once. Sacvan Bercovitch believes “Huck’s desire to fit in is underscored by his inability to do so…He believes in racism, class hierarchy, Southern aristocracy…,” which is completely inaccurate (14). Huck tries to believe in these things because society has forced him to believe in them, but he is questioning what he has been taught The situation “got to troubling [him] so [he] couldn’t rest,” then he “got to feeling so mean and so miserable [he] wished he was dead” (Twain 110). He “couldn’t get that out of [his] conscience, no how nor way” (110). Stealing “that poor old-woman[‘s]” slave “scorched [him] more and more” (110). Huck “has vision” for the first time in his life that society may not be right and decides that he would do whatever “come[s] handiest at the time,” and not what is necessarily “right” (Eliot 2, Twain 113). When contemplating turning his friend in, he “got to thinking over [their] trip down the river,” and that while they were floating along they talked and sang and laughed (222). This leads to Huck’s decision that he will “go to hell” if that is what it takes (223). Leo Marx believes that “this is the climactic moment in the ripening of his self-knowledge.” By stating he will go to Hell, Huck “has surrendered to the notion of a principle of right and wrong (Cox 190). His friend Jim is his father figure and “the power of Jim’s personality erodes the prejudices that Huck’s culture has instilled” (Peaches 14). When Henry Peaches states that Huck’s “attitudes extend no further than his love for Jim,” it is not necessarily true (13). Huck does love Jim, he has become “a surrogate father to Huck,” and he immediately agrees to help Jim as soon as he finds out on the island that Jim is a runaway (Peaches 16). He also claims that “there is no tangible reason to assume that the regard Huck acquires for Jim during his odyssey down the river is generalized to encompass all blacks” (Peaches 12, 13). Peaches is correct that there is no “tangible” evidence, but just because Huck saves Jim as opposed to some other runaway slave does not make his motives any less genuine. While the ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably is its drawback, the capricious structure and language, delightful narrator, and observations of prewar United States unquestionably give the novel its place in the literary canon of American literature. Once it is accepted that the last twelve chapters of the book are disappointing, it is easy to see the merit in the rest of the piece. Depicting the feelings of southern citizens and African Americans before the Civil War, it gives a glimpse into the past of a torn country. The legacy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will last for many years to come because of the profound impact that is had upon both America and other nations. Mark Twain’s writing has exposed the wrongdoing of slavery to the American people. By writing the novel after the Civil War, he has forced the country to look back in shame on the disturbing act of slavery and to fight for the cause of equality. It will live on because it is a book for everyone. Subtly including dark images with satire offers many interpretations, therefore giving a book that younger children can read and not see more than a story, and mature readers can look at with a deeper understanding. By looking into the past, one can help stop the repetition of heinous acts in the future.