Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 18. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 18. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) overshadows it; but that is nothing. Huckleberry Finn exceeds even Tom Sawyer almost as clearly as Tom Sawyer exceeds The Prince and the Pauper. Mark Twain had conceived the tale in 1876 as a sequel to the story of Tom. In the course of its long gestation he had revisited the Mississippi Valley and had published his superb commemoration of his own early life on the river. He wrote his second masterpiece of Mississippi fiction with a desire to express what in Tom Sawyer he had hardly attempted, what, indeed, came slowly into his possession, his sense of the half-barbaric charm and the romantic possibilities in that grey wilderness of moving water and the rough men who trafficked on it. He had given power to the earlier story by the representation of characters and incidents which are typical of the whole of American boyhood in rural communities in many parts of the country. He gave power to Huckleberry Finn by a selection of unusual characters and extraordinary incidents which are inseparably related to and illustrative of their special environment. He shifted heroes, displacing quick-witted, imaginative Tom by the village drunkard’s son, because Huck in his hard, nonchalant, adventurous adolescence is a more distinctive product of the frontier. He changed the narrator, letting Huck tell his own story, in order to invest the entire narrative in its native garb and colour. Huck perhaps exhibits now and then a little more humour and feeling for nature than a picaro is entitled to possess; but in the main his point of view is well maintained. His strange captivity in his father’s cabin, the great flight down the river, the mysteries of fog and night and current, the colloquy on King Sollermun, the superbly incidental narrative of the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, the appealing devotion and affectionateness of Nigger Jim, Huck’s case of conscience,—all are stamped with the peculiar comment of Huck’s earthy, callous, but not insensitive soul. The stuff and manner of the tale are unique, and it is as imperishably substantial as Robinson Crusoe, whether one admire it with Andrew Lang as “a nearly flawless gem of romance and humour” or with Professor Matthews as “a marvellously accurate portrayal of a whole civilization.”