Been There, Done That
An essay about Mark Twain’s criticism of Romantic ideas in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain warns that “You can’t depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.”(Mark Twain) Twain believes that a lack of creativity and imagination limits one’s ability to reason. He argues that this is especially true of nineteenth century Romantics, who are plagued by their dependence on tradition and a lack of original subject matter. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain criticizes the Romantic ideas and values of Southern society. He accuses romantics of overvaluing tradition and criticizes romantic obsession with morbidity.
Twain believes that Romantics place too much emphasis on the way things have been done in the past. He demonstrates this through the character Tom Sawyer, who embodies the ideas and beliefs of Romanticism. When Tom forms his gang, he refuses to listen to any criticism of his plans. When people do question his ideas, he justifies them by saying, ”Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up?”(9) Tom refuses to stray from what other people have done. He never actually gives any good reasons for why his plan will work, he simply justifies it through saying that it’s been done before. Twain criticizes Romantics of letting their reliance on tradition limit their ability to come up with a practical plan. This is evident when he refutes Huck’s grievances with his plans to free Jim. Tom is attempting to come up with a way to give Jim a rope ladder. When Huck explains that Jim has no use for a rope ladder, Tom rolls his eyes, saying,”He’s got to have a rope ladder, they all do [...] Huck, you don’t ever seem to want to do anything that’s regular, you want to be starting something fresh all the time.”(240) Tom’s reasoning for needing a rope ladder is simply that “[the authorities] all do”. Twain makes it clear that this does not change the fact that Jim doesn’t need a rope ladder, especially since the initial plan was to dig Jim out. Through this exchange, Twain emphasizes that sticking to conventional approaches does not guarantee success. Also, Tom criticizes Huck for wanting to “start something fresh”, rather than following the normal way of doing things. Twain utilizes irony to emphasize that Romantics frown upon innovation and ingenuity. Huck’s ideas, while not conventional, work much better than Tom’s; however, Tom criticizes Huck for straying from the traditional approach.
Twain also criticizes Romantic dependence on tradition through the Grangerfords, a wealthy aristocratic family Huck spends time with after he is separated from Jim. The Grangerfords’ lives revolve around a feud with the Sheperdsons that has been going on for years. When Buck Grangerford tries to kill a Sheperdson, however, Huck is confused as to why Buck would want him dead. Buck explains that “[the Sheperdson] never done nothing to [him]” and that he only wanted to kill him “on account of the feud.”(107) Buck does not really understand why the feud continues, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even have a good understanding of how it started, he only knows that “there was trouble about somethin’, and then a lawsuit to settle it; and the suit went aginst one of the men, and so he up and shot the man that won the suit.”(108) The Grangerfords only continue the feud because they’ve never known anything different. They are unwilling to cast off the tradition despite the fact that it has been wholly illogical. Twain argues that Romantics are so bound to tradition that they cannot come up with a reasonable plan. The logical thing for the Grangerfords to do would be to attempt to end the fighting; however, this never crosses their minds because they are so caught up in the age old feud. Like Tom Sawyer, the Grangerfords do not allow themselves to think beyond tradition; Tom never strays from the books,...
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