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Two Boys: Versions of Childhood in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By H. Daniel Peck

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, and the 125th anniversary of the American edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These twinned anniversaries invite of us to think about the author’s life in relation to his work and about the particular ways in which he built his fiction upon his own experience. A key part of that experience was his growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, during the period between 1839 and 1853. Among Twain’s full-length novels, the two that draw most directly from this period of his life are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These works found their settings and many of their characters in Hannibal, which in both novels is named St. Petersburg.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer provides a far more faithful description of Twain’s home town, and his experiences there, than does Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Tom Sawyer, St. Petersburg is, in every sense, the center of the narrative, which never strays very far from this setting, and returns to it emphatically at the conclusion. Huck Finn begins in St. Petersburg, and several of its important early scenes, such as Huck’s and Jim’s encounter on Jackson’s Island, take place in its orbit. But from this point forward, the narrative is driven by a perilous journey down the Mississippi River into the Deep South. The geographical distance from St. Petersburg established by this journey implies another kind of distance—the more filtered, ironic, and complex perspective of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, certainly Twain’s masterpiece.

* * *

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain’s first novel (the first he authored by himself)1, but it is hardly the work of an apprentice writer. By the time this book was published in 1876 Samuel L. Clemens was already well known by his penname Mark Twain, which he had adopted in 1863 while working as a reporter in Nevada. At the time of the novel’s publication, he was forty years old and beginning to live in an architect-designed home in Hartford, Connecticut. He had been married to his wife Olivia for six years, and two of his three daughters had been born.2

Up to this point, Twain had been known as a journalist, humorist, and social critic. His story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in 1865, had made him famous, and the lecture tours he had given in the United States and England in these years had been well received. His books The Innocents Abroad (1869), satirizing an American sightseeing tour of the Middle East that he covered for a newspaper, and Roughing It (1872), an account of the far west based on his own experiences there, were great successes. Both works were first published in subscription form, and they quickly advanced Twain’s reputation as a popular writer. His publication in 1873 of The Gilded Age, a book co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner dramatizing the excesses of the post-Civil War period, confirmed his place as a leading social critic.

Indeed, the America reflected in The Gilded Age—an America of greed, corruption, and materialism—may have driven Twain back imaginatively to what seemed to him a simpler time—to “those old simple days,” as he refers to them at the conclusion of Tom Sawyer.3 The first significant sign of such a return in his publications was his nostalgic essay “Old Times on the Mississippi,” which appeared in 1875.4 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published the following year, belongs to this return to antebellum America, and, of course, to Hannibal. That the author was able to draw upon his deepest reserves of childhood imagination in this work certainly accounts for much of its appeal. A decade after its publication, he referred to the novel as a “hymn” to a forgotten era, and while this characterization oversimplifies The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it also points to key aspects of its composition and literary character.5

Twain’s renaming of Hannibal as St. Petersburg suggests, as John C. Gerber has said, St. Peter’s place, or heaven.6 But heaven, as Twain depicts it, is a real place. Many of the sites and topographical features are identifiable. Cardiff Hill, so important in the novel as a site for children’s games such as Robin Hood, is Holliday’s Hill of Hannibal. Jackson’s Island, the scene of the boys’ life as “pirates,” is recognizable as Glasscock’s Island. And McDougal’s Cave, so central to the closing movement of the novel, has a real life reference in McDowell’s cave. Human structures, like Aunt Polly’s house, as well as the schoolhouse and the church, were similarly modeled after identifiable buildings in Hannibal.

The autobiographical origins of the novel are also evident in the characters. In the preface, Twain says that “Huck Finn is drawn from life” (primarily, according to the author, from a childhood friend named Tom Blankenship), and “Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew.”7 Schoolmates John Briggs and Will Bowen probably were two of the three boys after whom Tom was modeled, and a good bet for the third is young Sam Clemens himself. Many of Tom’s qualities resemble Twain’s descriptions of his young self, and several of Tom’s experiences—such as being forced by Aunt Polly to take the Pain-Killer and sitz baths—reflect the author’s own. Aunt Polly herself has several characteristics that link her to Sam Clemens’s mother Jane Clemens. And scholars have found Hannibal counterparts for many of the other characters, including Becky Thatcher, Joe Harper, and Ben Rogers, as well as the widow Douglas and the town’s minister, schoolteacher, and doctor.

But these reference points in the local history of Hannibal are just the surface aspects of the novel’s autobiographical dimension. In 1890, Twain reported to his friend Brander Matthews that the writing of Tom Sawyer had been accompanied for him by a series of vivid memories from his youth in rural Missouri. These memories, Twain said, became a force in the composition of the novel as he “harvested” them, and brought them into his developing narrative.8 Indeed, the highly episodic character of the novel suggests a stringing together of remembrances. Some of the book’s most evocative scenes clearly draw their power from childhood, which Twain filters through a vision of youth and nature reminiscent of Rousseau or even Wordsworth. For example, chapter sixteen, set on Jackson’s Island, begins with Tom, Joe, and Huck in a scene of summer reverie:

After breakfast they went whooping and prancing out on the bar, and chased each other round and round, shedding clothes as they went, until they were naked, and then continued the frolic far away up the shoal water of the bar, against the stiff current, which latter tripped their legs from under them from time to time and greatly increased the fun. And now and then they stooped in a group and splashed water in each other’s faces with their palms, gradually approaching each other with averted faces to avoid the strangling sprays, and finally gripping and struggling till the best man ducked his neighbor, and then they all went under in a tangle of white legs and arms, and came up blowing, sputtering, laughing, and gasping for breath at one and the same time.9

Twain’s whole career, up to this point, had been characterized by his ability to turn scenes of romantic sensibility abruptly into burlesque. He follows this pattern at many points in Tom Sawyer, but not here. Instead, he allows the moment to stand, unqualified and undiminished. There is perhaps no better instance in the novel of its sources in childhood reverie. The episode testifies to the fact that Mark Twain discovered childhood, during the writing of Tom Sawyer, as a particularly rich source of imaginative power. But the novel is not simply a paean to youth. Many elements of Twain’s earlier satirical works enter Tom Sawyer, and, in addition to being a children’s story, this is also a novel of social criticism, in which the credulity, ignorance, hypocrisy, and class consciousness of an American rural community are exposed.

Twain’s agent for exposing the shortcomings of St. Petersburg’s adult population is of course Tom, who consistently subverts the social order. His release during the church service of the pinch-bug whose bite sends the poodle “sailing up the aisle”10 is a literal disruption of that order, and his hilarious (to the reader) volunteering of David and Goliath as the first two disciples makes a mockery of bible study. Tom disorders the society of St. Petersburg most dramatically by craftily organizing the public ridicule of one of its most austere members. The “severe” schoolmaster, whose wig is lifted from him—exposing his “gilded” head—in Chapter 21, comes in for an uproarious put-down. This chapter is a good example of the way in which Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain are twinned protagonists, for here the narrator joins Tom in the fun. He cannot resist an extended authorial send-up of mid-nineteenth-century sentimentality, as expressed in the declamatory “compositions” performed by St. Petersburg’s young people on Examination Evening:

A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of “fine language”; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brain-racking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification.11

One can sense Samuel Clemens himself “squirming” over “the glaring insincerity of these sermons.”12

Mark Twain never decided whether The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a book for children or adults, and the book’s divided agenda results in an uneven, episodic, and anecdotal narrative very much in need of some unifying presence.13 That presence is, of course, Tom Sawyer himself. To say that Tom dominates this book is an understatement; he is the principle actor and the stage-manager of the novel, and the theatrical metaphor applies in several respects. The form of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a series of individualized, and often self-contained, scenes has its counterpart in Tom’s own theatricality. Life is a drama to him, and he has peopled it with figures and adventures from romantic literature and legend. That he often has the references wrong only adds to the fun, and does not make his imagination any less literary. Tom does everything by the “book,” which is to say that he gives a literary overlay to virtually every activity in which he engages—from his romance with Becky to his direction of games such as Robin Hood.

In all these ways, Tom’s gift for language—the way he spins a world into being and sustains it according to his “rules”—helps to hold this otherwise unruly narrative together. But it also holds Tom together. Without this distinctive aspect of his character, we would be left with an exceedingly unfocused view of him. His undeterminable age is but one aspect of the indefiniteness of his rendering by Twain. For example, Tom’s identity as an orphan is a fact begging for explanation, yet none is ever offered. And, as numerous commentators have observed, we never learn what Tom looks like; our visualization of him depends altogether on the work of generations of illustrators, who have fancied him variously in his breeches and floppy hat.

If we as readers depend on Tom’s verbal gifts for our sense of his identity, he himself needs them to negotiate the social structure of St. Petersburg, because the actual power in this book is overwhelmingly on the side of the adults. For Tom and his friends, the most onerous adults in the community are those, like the schoolmaster, with institutional authority, because their power over children has been officially sanctioned by society. And characteristically they use their power against the children, as the schoolmaster’s whipping of Tom in chapter twenty illustrates.

While the community has many objectionable qualities for Tom and his friends, however, he is always drawn back to it. His opposition to the community, in fact, forms his relation to that community, and, ironically, binds him to it. When Tom, Huck, and Joe camp on Jackson’s Island, Joe soon becomes homesick, and even Huck begins to long for the familiarity of his sugar hogshead. Tom alone appears to hold out for a pirate’s life, yet, under the cover of darkness and unknown to Huck and Joe, he makes a return to Aunt Polly’s house, where (we learn only later) he attempts to leave her a signal that he is safe. This nighttime journey can serve to symbolize Tom’s attachment to community and home, and this attachment has its climactic dramatization in the boys’ surprise appearance at their own funeral. The members of the community, so glad and relieved at the boys’ return that they don’t mind being duped, give Tom exactly the kind of tumultuous approbation he most desires. This was, the narrator tells us, “the proudest moment of [Tom’s] life.”14 As many commentators have observed, Tom’s “rebirth” in this scene is figured specifically as a rebirth into society.

Tom’s need for community approbation qualifies his status as a rebel. His subversive acts must always be seen within the context of his larger identification with the established order, an identification that Judge Thatcher acknowledges when he predicts for Tom enrollment in the National Military Academy and later in “the best law school in the country.”15 There is nothing in Tom’s actions that ever approaches the authentic subversiveness of Huck’s decision, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to “go to hell” for trying to steal a black man, Jim, out of slavery. Unlike Huck, Tom is fundamentally a “good” boy, which is to say a boy acculturated to society’s norms, though he acts out his goodness in “bad” ways. It is telling that in the novel’s closing scene, Tom persuades Huck (through trickery) to return to the home of the widow Douglas and to live under her civilizing influence. Tom’s heart is, in his own words, “close to home,”16 just as the novel Tom Sawyer is close to the home of Samuel Clemens.

* * *

During the summer of 1876 when Twain was preparing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for publication, he began writing a sequel to the novel. A year earlier, he had projected this new book to his friend William Dean Howells, saying that it would “take a boy of twelve & run him through life (in the first person) but not Tom Sawyer—he would not be a good character for it.”17 Even at this early stage, Twain understood that Tom wasn’t right for the kind of story he wanted to tell, and already he had a first-person narration in mind. But Twain could not have anticipated, at this point, the vast implications of giving the novel’s voice over to Huckleberry Finn, who, as it turned out in the actual composition of the work, had a mind of his own.

One senses these implications in the novel’s first words: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”18 This early reference to Twain’s truth-telling in Tom Sawyer can be understood, in part, as confirming the author’s fidelity to his own experience in the earlier novel. But now, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Twain has turned over his story-telling to someone else, a naïve narrator—who in fact never moves beyond childhood, and who will tell the truth in a very different sense.

Even so, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is securely anchored in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is to say in the experience of Samuel Clemens. For the first eleven chapters—an entire movement of the narrative—it dwells in and around St. Petersburg, and involves mostly the same characters who populated the earlier novel. Tom himself has a large role in these early chapters, as he leads the boys in a game of robbers. Indeed, Huck Finn begins right where Tom Sawyer had left off, with Huck rendering his own account of the transition between narratives: “Now the way that the book winds up, is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich;” “[t]he Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me.”19

If the novel’s first phrase, “You don’t know about me,” can be said to capture the voice of the book, the following passage, a few paragraphs later, can be said to capture its narrative development: “[B]ut it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my old rags, and my sugar hogshead again, and was free and satisfied.”20 The essential motion of this scene, from a condition of stasis to one of motion outward and away, anticipates Huck’s fateful voyage down the Mississippi, to regions distant from St. Petersburg/Hannibal.

But, paradoxically, Huck’s eventual departure from this community brings into focus an aspect of Twain’s childhood in Hannibal that was largely excluded from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and that is the presence of chattel slavery. This presence is first made vivid in chapter eight of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck, who has staged his own death to escape the violence of his drunken father, “Pap,” and then fled to Jackson’s Island, discovers that there is someone else on the island—the runaway slave Jim. As we saw earlier in our consideration of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jackson’s Island in that novel had been the scene of idyllic boyhood play, a scene derived from one important aspect of Twain’s childhood experience in Hannibal. Now, in the new novel, the island becomes the setting for another, more troubling dimension of the author’s youthful experience, one that it took him many years to assimilate, understand, and express. That the composition of Huckleberry Finn was characterized by stops and starts (including a hiatus of more than three years), and took Twain the better part of a decade to complete, suggests the complexity of this process, and also points to a different kind of autobiographical impulse than the one that informs The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

By most accounts, the presence of slavery as a part of Twain’s childhood experience had gone largely unremarked by him until the 1870s. What prompted him to revisit this part of his youth may relate, as Shelley Fisher Fishkin has speculated, to his growing awareness in this period of the appalling failure of Reconstruction to protect southern Blacks from intimidation and violence. This failure became the focus of much social commentary in 1876, the centennial year of the Declaration of Independence, and, poignantly, the year that the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was begun.21

To consider such sources for Huckleberry Finn in Twain’s maturity, during the postbellum era, suggests that the novel is informed by a greater range of experience across time than was the retrospective and nostalgic Tom Sawyer. Another such source, according to Fishkin, was Twain’s encounter in 1871 or 1872 with a ten-year-old black child named Jimmy (Twain described the encounter in a piece for the New York Times in 1874), whose remarkable power of speech and riveting presence may have deeply influenced the author’s development of the Huck Finn character. The idea that Huck’s persona was created through a mixture of black and white voices is one that novelist Ralph Ellison anticipated in his now famous essay of 1970, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks”:

The spoken idiom of Negro Americans . . . its flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction, and metaphors, as projected in Negro American folklore, were absorbed by the creators of our great nineteenth-century literature even when the majority of blacks were still enslaved. Mark Twain celebrated it in the prose of Huckleberry Finn, without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it.22

Ellison’s final phrase adds a rich dimension to the singular reputation Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had from the beginning of the twentieth century. Ernest Hemingway’s famous remark, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’,” is but one of many judgments establishing the book’s breath-taking originality, an originality that has often been linked to Twain’s brilliant deployment and authentication, in the novel, of American colloquial language.23

That language, particularly as expressed in Huck’s first-person narration, is one of the things that lifts the novel above its predecessor Tom Sawyer, in which Twain’s own sometimes condescending voice controls the narrative. One of his great achievements in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was to have sustained Huck’s distinctive voice almost without interruption through the whole course of the narrative, thereby putting himself inside the consciousness of this “other” boy—a boy very different from young Sam Clemens, and from Tom Sawyer too. Tom’s theatricality has a correspondence in Mark Twain’s own theatrical life; his triumphs as a public speaker, and his penchant for wearing white suits come to mind. This “other” boy would have none of that. While Huck is in awe of Tom’s literary imagination and flamboyance, he is himself relentlessly practical; as he says in chapter two regarding one of Tom’s exotic games, “I couldn’t see no profit in it.”24 To be sure, Huck is inventive, especially in his artful lies that repeatedly extricate him and Jim from trouble (such as his cleverly implying to the slave-hunters that his companion on the raft has small-pox); his inventions always address present, and often, threatening realities.

These differences between the two boys suggest how the books Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, despite their similar titles, dramatize very different kinds of “adventures.” Tom’s adventures are often the products of his own rich imagination. Huck’s adventures, on the other hand, involve a series of evasions from the real-life dangers of a pervasively violent culture, vividly dramatized, for example, by the bloody and fatal Grangerford-Shepherdson feud. There is no scene in Tom Sawyer remotely like the one in Huck Finn where Huck’s friend Buck Grangerford dies: “When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”25

Recent scholarship has determined that Twain set his manuscript aside, in August or September of 1876, just at the point that Huck asked Buck what a feud is.26 Earlier, it had been believed that the subsequent long hiatus in the composition of the novel began when the raft is smashed by a steamboat, and this understanding led to a theory, proposed by numerous literary critics over the years, that Twain had in effect smashed the novel in frustration. That is, he realized that there was no way that he could reconcile the book’s humor—some of the richest in American literature—with the potentially tragic implications of its narrative development. In this view, once Twain had determined that Huck and Jim, lost in the fog, would miss their turnoff up the Ohio River, at Cairo, Illinois, toward a free state, he found himself committed to a story that, barring utterly implausible plot developments, could not end happily.

Ascertaining that Twain actually set his manuscript aside later in the story than the steamboat crash modifies this view, though, as we will see, it does not fully reconcile the issues that earlier critics raised. It is true, nevertheless, that Twain had several other projects competing with his composition of Huck Finn in the 1870s, and other practical reasons too can be found for his abandoning his manuscript in the late summer of 1876. When Twain resumed work on the book in 1880, he completed the Grangerford-Shepherdson episode with the death of Buck in what was to become chapter eighteen, and at the very end of that chapter reunited Huck and Jim and their raft (all of them separated from one another by the steamboat crash), carrying them further downriver in what, by then, had become an alternating pattern of raft scenes and scenes set on the shore. The symbolic interplay of raft and shore is best expressed by Huck himself, as he and Jim, leaving the scene of the deadly feud, “shove off for the big water”27:

I never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then we hung up our signal lantern, and judged that we was free and safe once more. . . . I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel might free and easy and comfortable on a raft.28

The novel’s contrapuntal movement between the river, associated with freedom and beauty, and the shore, characterized by corruption and violence, carries Huck and Jim farther southward into a new series of “adventures.” These further adventures are dominated by two confidence men, the Duke and the King, who commandeer the raft and whose exploits and schemes reveal the gullibility of people living along the shore. It is in this section of the novel that Twain momentarily allows Huck’s first-person narration to slip, when the author’s anger toward antebellum southern culture boils over into Colonel Sherburn’s speech to the mob: “Your newspapers call you a brave people, so much that you think you are braver than any other people—whereas you’re just as brave, and no braver. Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark—and it’s just what they would do.”29

For the most part, however, Twain sustains Huck’s voice in this section of the novel, centrally for the purpose of dramatizing Huck’s growing awareness of Jim’s full humanity. One key scene in which we witness this process is in chapter 23, when Huck awakens to find Jim looking forlorn, “his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself”; “[h]e was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.”30

This movement of Huck Finn concludes with the Duke and the King selling Jim back into slavery (for forty dollars) on the Phelps plantation, which becomes the setting of the novel’s final ten chapters. Here arrives possibly the book’s greatest moment, when Huck, whose conscience has been socialized by a racist society, faces a terrible choice—whether or not to try to free Jim from captivity. He resolves the crisis by writing a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where to find her runaway slave:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray, now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking; thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me—so I could go on sleeping; and see him how he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.”31

This passage dramatizes one of the great turning points in American fiction. Yet, Twain provides nowhere to turn. His naïve child-narrator has no awareness of the integrity of his decision, and no way of transcending his childhood to obtain some kind of moral hold on the decision. The only person in the novel with the wisdom and experience to guide Huck to awareness is Jim, who is absent from the scene, and who, in any case, is about to have his stature greatly diminished by the author. This diminishment is occasioned, in the very next chapter, by the surprise return of Tom Sawyer.

The final ten chapters of Huck Finn are dominated by Tom, and by the ornate scheme—based on The Count of Monte Cristo—he devises to free Jim from captivity. Tom alone knows that Jim already has been freed, by Miss Watson on her deathbed (exactly the kind of implausible plot development that the novel now required if tragedy were to be averted), and that everything has become a game, a game bookending Tom’s game of robbers with which the book began. Jim, so fully humanized in earlier parts of Huck Finn, here becomes the object of humor (readers clearly are meant to laugh at him rather than with him now), a brand of humor derived from minstrel shows.

Generations of critics and scholars have found the ending of Huck Finn disappointing, and I think there is no good answer to their objections. It’s true that in this closing section of the novel Twain manages, in isolated passages, to attack through sharp irony the violent racism of the antebellum south. In one such episode, Aunt Sally, on the Phelps plantation, responds to one of Huck’s inventive lies, asking him about a steamboat accident:

“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”32

There is no question, however, that in this final section of the novel Twain lost the beautifully integrated mixture of lyricism, moral seriousness, and humor that had sustained its great odyssey. Perhaps this loss was inevitable, as the river that had structured and supported this odyssey ran its course, running aground, as it were, at the Phelps plantation. Hemingway felt that everything past this point in the novel is “cheating,” and endless commentary in our time has debated what Twain shouldhave done with his conclusion; some have even rewritten the ending for him.33

Contemporary discussions of the failure of the ending of Huckleberry Finn echo early twentieth-century discussions of Twain’s own failure. In 1920, just a decade after his death, Van Wyck Brooks argued influentially that Twain had been defeated by a meager, post-Puritan American culture that insufficiently nourished his genius. A decade later, Bernard DeVoto responded with an equally influential argument for Twain’s greatness, an argument based on the novelist’s quintessentially American background in folkloric and vernacular traditions. Where Brooks saw Huckleberry Finn, whose greatness he acknowledged, as a unique exception to Twain’s larger failure, DeVoto saw the novel as the epitome of Twain’s career, and as a work that had an integral relation to the body of his work. Varying assessments of Twain’s larger career continue to this day, but no one in our time doubts that he changed the course of American fiction, and that he did so with a book called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.34

* * *

Between the publication of Huck Finn in 1885 and the end of Twain’s life in 1910, he produced several more works of fiction, including complex narratives such as Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1899), and The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899). These works dramatize Twain’s increasingly dark view of life and his deepening conviction that human beings were trapped, by habit and intractable social norms, in an eternal and indeed predetermined cycle of self-destruction. Certainly, there are signs of this dark view in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A river, after all, can be understood as a symbol of freedom or as a symbol of inevitability, and in Huck Finn both of these understandings are powerfully present.

Childhood, I think, is what preserves the buoyancy of this novel and saves it from cynicism, and it is useful to remember, as we saw earlier, that Twain discovered childhood in the writing of another boy’s story. For all its biting social criticism, Tom Sawyer is essentially a gathering of the author’s childhood memories, and it can be linked indirectly to a form of autobiography called memoir. Huck Finn, on the other hand, is related to a different kind of autobiographical writing, which is to say American testamentary writing going back to early Puritan diaries and sermons. Works like these establish a tradition of witnessing and of truth-telling, and insist that truth inheres only in one’s own primary experience. Mark Twain was sometimes contemptuous of New England Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose heyday had come and gone by the time he became a famous author. But Huck Finn’s reliance on the impulses of his own good heart may remind us of what Emerson called self-reliance, and his determination (“I’ll go to hell”) to act upon those impulses may remind us Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau.

I hope that these associations, which proceed from my own adventures in American literature, do not seem too far-fetched. In graduate school several decades ago, I almost wrote a dissertation on Mark Twain but then left him behind for other adventures that led to Thoreau. This occasion of celebrating Mark Twain’s life and works reminds me of the qualities of American literature that drew me to its study in the first place.


  1. Twain had earlier co-authored, with Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (1873), a fictional social critique of the post-Civil War era in America.
  2. Twain’s Hartford home, which he moved into in 1873 when the structure was still unfinished, was designed by Edward T. Potter. Twain and his family lived in this house from this point until 1891. His marriage to Olivia Langdon, of Elmira, New York, took place in 1870, and his daughters Susy and Clara were born, respectively, in 1872 and 1874.
  3. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, edited by John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 232.
  4. This work was later included in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883).
  5. In a letter of 1887, Twain wrote, “Tom Sawyer is simply a hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air” (Mark Twain’s Letters, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper & Bros., 1917), 477.
  6. “Foreword” to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. xiii.
  7. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 33.
  8. The word “harvested” is Matthews’, but it appears to describe accurately the process that Twain was recounting to him. See Brander Matthews, The Tocsin of Revolt and Other Essays (New York: Scribners, 1922), p. 265. In 1870, just after Twain’s marriage, he had an exchange of letters with a childhood friend, Will Bowen, to whom he wrote: “The fountains of my great deep are broken up & I have rained reminiscences for four & twenty hours.” Many of these “reminiscences,” as Charles A. Norton has pointed out, can be found reconfigured as episodes of Tom Sawyer, and they clearly were a generative force in the novel’s composition. See Charles A. Norton, Writing Tom Sawyer: The Adventures of a Classic(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1983), 49-51.
  9. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 131.
  10. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 69.
  11. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 160.
  12. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 160.
  13. Writing to Howells about Tom Sawyer in June of 1876, Twain said, “there is no plot to the thing” (Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and Williams D. Howells, 1872-1910, 2 volumes; edited by Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960]), 1, 87-88.
  14. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 107.
  15. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 215.
  16. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, 224.
  17. Letter from Twain to Howells, 5 July 1875, as quoted in “Introduction” to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (2003), 666.
  18. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, illustrated by E.W. Kemble and John Harley; edited by Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo, with Walter Blair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 1.
  19. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1.
  20. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1.
  21. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 70.
  22. Ellison, as quoted in Fishkin, 128-29; published originally in Time, 6 April 1970.
  23. Hemingway made this remark in Green Hills of Africa, published in 1934.
  24. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 14.
  25. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 154.
  26. “Introduction,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 682.
  27. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 154.
  28. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 155.
  29. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 190.
  30. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 201.
  31. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 269-271.
  32. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 279.
  33. One such rewriting of the novel’s conclusion is John Seelye’s The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (University of Illinois Press, 1987).
  34. Van Wyck Brooks, The Ordeal of Mark Twain (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1920); Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain’s America (New York: Little, Brown, 1932).