IN HUCK FINN’S AMERICA: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster), Butler University professor Andrew Levy examines America’s cultural landscape in the mid-1880s, when the book was published, and takes a close look at Twain and the factors that influenced his writing (minstrelsy and fatherhood, to name two). Levy comes to some surprising conclusions about the American classic—namely, that more than 100 years of conventional wisdom about how Huckleberry Finn addresses issues of race and childhood may be wrong.
Twain worked on Huckleberry Finn, of and on, for more than a decade. Why did it take him so long to pull it together?
In part, that was his way of writing— he’d say his “tank” was empty, and he’d have to wait until it filled again. In part, he had mixed feelings about Huck Finn—he once told a friend he thought he should throw it in the fire. And, in part, Huck Finn required a certain kind of inspiration. And that inspiration came and went.
You write that Huck Finn is not a light-hearted book for boys, and that many critics have missed Twain’s real message.
The “serious” debate about Huck Finn, since the end of World War II, has been concerning its message on race. When we talk about Huck Finn as a children’s book, on the other hand, we treat it like a lark, a celebration of innocent childhood. But if you go back to the 1880s, you see almost the opposite. People focused on what Twain was saying about children and to them. Virtually no one talked about its message on race, and those few who did saw it as humorous. African-American newspapers—and there were a lot of them—seemed to ignore it entirely, as did most Southern newspapers.
There was fevered talk about the need to reform “bad boys” in the 1880s. How did the issue of child-raising influence Twain?
Twain took the stereotypes of “bad boys” of his time and scattered them into Huck—and Tom Sawyer, too. Huck was the truant, the tobacco addict, the thief; Tom was the middle-class boy whose brain was addled by reading too many cheap novels (the Victorian equivalent of video games). But Twain undercut the stereotypes, too—Huck is nonviolent, the victim of abuse from adults. It was as if Twain was saying that the adult instinct to “reform” children was part of the problem, and not a small part.
How much does Huck’s “thinly veiled contempt” for parents, teachers and society reflect Twain’s own need to tweak Victorian attitudes?
A lot. But sometimes Huck was a mouthpiece, too, for what Twain imagined children thought. And sometimes Huck was the butt of the joke, and Jim, the slave escaping throughout the book, is the refection of Twain’s own attitudes.
Why did Twain write about children for two decades?
Twain wrote all his great books about children—Huck, Tom Sawyer, Prince and the Pauper and others—when he and his wife, Olivia, were raising their own three daughters. It’s not the only reason he focused on children, but like most parents he was deeply absorbed in the lives of his children. Unlike most parents, he was also a great writer with an extraordinary memory and ear for language.
You assert that Twain incorporated some of his daughters’ traits in Huck and Tom Sawyer. Can you give an example or two?
He kept records of how his daughters spoke and thought, and much of that flows into Huck Finn. He loved their unconventional spelling and grammar, and we see this respect for nonstandard English in Huck’s voice. He liked the unconventional ways they prayed, and that shows up all over Huck, too.
You also stress that minstrelsy— white actors speaking their mind through a kind of veil, with mixed messages—is the key to understanding Huckleberry Finn.
There are complete scenes in Huck Finn that are homages to the minstrel shows of Twain’s youth and were designed for stage performance. Anyone familiar with the theater of the time would recognize a lot of other components, too—from parts of Jim’s character to the structure of the book itself. But there’s something in the sensibility of the book about how many white Americans use identification with black culture and political aspiration as a means of self-expression. Tom uses Jim as a plaything for the last third of the book, creating a pantomime of freeing him, even though Jim is actually free the whole time, and Tom knows it. Huck is more complicated—he’d like to break the cycle, but is fairly locked into it.
So you think people have misinterpreted the light and serious parts of the book?
Yes. We read the parts of the book that contain 19th-century “comedy” about race without the cultural or political context needed to understand the jokes or barbs they contain. And we struggle, too, with the idea that the book was written by someone deeply frustrated with how American children are raised.
But these mistakes are flip sides of the same coin: Both make it seem like we are moving forward when we are not. It is in the burlesque that much of Twain’s moral satire lies: that race is a put-on, that patterns of incarceration, economic inequality and culture theft are constructed, and even treated like a joke. Inversely, as long as we think the book is about a time when childhood is innocent, we obscure the fact that the issues Huck faces are remarkably familiar, persistent parts of the patterns that define how we think about childrearing and education.
Twain’s subtle satire has been lost on many interpreters, academics and civil rights activists. Is that a bad thing?
I think so. It’s a great book. A lot of very smart, caring teachers have done great things with it. And a lot of independent readers have loved it, with no agenda or, intuitively, the right agenda. Twain saved letters from kids who loved it, who felt it spoke to them in a special way.
That said, once it became an “official” American artifact, it actually became a less valuable book. For a long time, people taught Huck Finn as “Huck frees Jim,” as if Huck’s vow to free Jim makes a difference. But it doesn’t. And mistaking a book about how symbolic acts of empathy don’t make a better democracy for its opposite is a huge mistake, especially when you’re dealing with a book that has been taught by the tens of millions, and named by politician after politician as an important influence.
On children, it seems ironic that a book that celebrates truancy, and endorses the idea that children can educate themselves, should become a mandatory text in American classrooms. It suggests a real ambivalence about how we raise our children, one we might explore more closely.
You mention Twain’s “guilt.” Did he feel guilty about not challenging racism and slavery more directly?
Twain’s word, not mine—he blamed himself for everything. He called himself a fraud, an ass, a buffoon, a coward. He held back a lot of his writings to be released after his death. It’s a brilliant marketing technique that has allowed him to hit number 1 on the bestseller list 100 years after his death, but also the clearest possible signal that a huge gap sometimes existed between what he was willing to tell an audience and what he really thought. But he was honest about it. And there were many times where he did act and speak with political courage—and interestingly, we don’t seem to remember those times that well. He was the leading anti-imperialist in the country in the 1900s—Teddy Roosevelt once threatened—joking, one hopes—to skin him alive.
Many people at the time called the book “trashy” and “immoral.” You say it wasn’t trashy enough.
It wasn’t trashy enough to sell a lot of copies. It sold well. But, for instance, Peck’s Bad Boy, published only a short time before, sold many more. A couple of reviewers even claimed that Twain had given the book too much morality, and too much plot, to really attract young readers.
Twain himself was complicated and a bit messy, wasn’t he?
He was a man of amazing creativity, energy, vision, heart. And amazing anger, hypocrisy and self-doubt. But, again, I’m not saying anything about him that he didn’t say himself. I think we tend to smooth him out a bit.
Huck Finn, you write, is not about progress but about history coming round. That was the racial situation in the 1880s, wasn’t it, with the failure of Reconstruction?
Yes. He begins writing Huck Finn at a point where Reconstruction promised the possibility of major steps forward for racial and economic justice. But he completes it as Jim Crow segregation shifts into place. And he introduces it to American audiences, literally, as rumors circulate of the possible reintroduction of slavery after the 1884 election. And this backsliding is represented in the book, especially in its closing chapters. It’s hard to tell whether Twain is in control of the message, whether he was absorbing the spirit of the times or lamenting it. Probably both.
Is this idea of unchanging attitudes and stereotypes—about race and children, social illusions—what you mean by saying that Huckleberry Finn is “the book about American forgetfulness”?
Yes. The book is about how we produce repetition and call it progress. Everything comes around, and no one learns anything. Characters almost seem to unlearn things. “I been there before”—that’s the book’s last line. And no one ends a book with a line like that without sending a message.
The Huck Finn–like character is ingrained in our culture. Is the heroine of The Hunger Games Huck Finn reconceived?
Maybe not explicitly, but yes: She’s half-orphaned, like Huck, comfortable in nature, shrewd but scared, a reluctant but formidable agent of change. In fact, Huck Finn’s shadow is all over the current vogue in young adult fiction— and film and television. The “authentic” young person’s voice, the mix of adult wisdom and youthful inexperience, the boredom and restlessness, the absent parents, the war with adult institutions, the awkward torques between tragedy and comedy. Not just Hunger Games, not just Harry Potter: Everything from Home Alone and Diary of a Wimpy Kid to half the shows on Nickelodeon. Huck is the template.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.