Anchored in the middle of James Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966) is a statement which, if true, reduces virtually all of the criticism on Huckleberry Finn to rubble:
[The] moment, when Huck says “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” is characteristically the moment we fatally approve, and approve morally. But it is with equal fatality the moment at which Huck’s identity is most precariously threatened. In the very act of choosing to go to hell he has surrendered to the notion of a principle of right and wrong. He has forsaken the world of pleasure to make a moral choice. Precisely here is where Huck is about to negate himself—where, with an act of positive virtue, he actually commits himself to play the role of Tom Sawyer which he has to assume in the closing section of the book. To commit oneself to the idea, the morality of freeing Jim, is to become Tom Sawyer.
This provocative (which of course means perverse) reading must be answered, not because it is eccentric, but because it unhinges the moral structure which has been assumed by the book’s defenders and detractors alike. Having spent their ammunition on the border war of the ending, most 20th-century critics take for granted the proposition that the “go to hell” passage in Chapter 31 is the moral center of the book, and that Huck makes the right choice. Much of the large library of Huckleberry Finn criticism is a series of footnotes to the view first expressed by Joel Chandler Harris: “there is not in our fictive literature a more wholesome book than ‘Huckleberry Finn’. . . . We are taught [by it] the lesson of honesty, justice, and mercy.” The critics who have testified to Huck’s moral victory need not be listed—their name is legion. Henry Nash Smith, whose Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (1962) is the best of the many books on Mark Twain, can be taken as representative: “The account of Huck’s mental struggle in [Chapter 31] is the emotional climax of the story. . . . The most obvious of Mark Twain’s discoveries on the deeper levels of Huck’s psyche is the boy’s capacity for love. The quality of the emotion is defined in action by his decision to sacrifice himself for Jim.” Because this view is often assumed rather than developed, and not always developed in the light of the evidence of the text, the best way to respond to Professor Cox’s disturbing pronouncement is first to make as persuasive a case as possible for the moral integrity of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and then to suggest its inadequacy.
The novel exhibits three patterns of evidence concerning Huck’s moral enlightenment. The first, and most celebrated, is developmental. In a series of episodes Huck gradually comes to recognize that Jim is a human being whose blackness dissolves, whose chains fall away, under the transforming power of friendship. Huck doesn’t learn easily. Soon after he meets him on Jackson’s Island, Huck plays a trick on Jim by coiling a dead rattlesnake on his blanket, “thinking there’d be some fun when Jim found him there.” When Jim is bitten, Huck’s reaction centers on himself rather than on Jim: “That all comes of my being such a fool as to not remember that wherever you leave a dead snake its mate always comes there and curls around it. . . . Then I slid out quiet and throwed the snakes clear away amongst the bushes; for I warn’t going to let Jim find out it was all my fault, not if I could help it.” And while Jim is suffering, Huck is unconcerned enough to debate the relative potency of rattlesnake bites and Pap’s whiskey.
His next trick comes after they have been separated in the fog. Huck, for a time, persuades a sleepy Jim that the episode was a dream. When Jim finally sees the debris on the raft and untangles its meaning, he lectures the white boy for the first and last time:
En when I wake up en fine you back agin’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed.
Huck accepts this lesson, humbles himself to Jim, and resolves to give up playing tricks on his friend. His resolve is tested immediately, and it holds. When two armed men in a skiff, searching for runaway blacks, challenge him on the river—”Is your man white or black?”—Huck responds with “He’s white” and uncorks one of his Homeric lies to prevent the men from checking.
Jim is out of sight in the Grangerford chapters; and he is subdued, roped, and painted blue during the siege of the raft by the king and the duke. But Huck’s newly won insight holds firm. He recognizes Jim’s humanity and tells us that “he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” This compassion arms Huck for his most difficult battle. When Jim is sold by the king to Silas Phelps, Huck is forced to review the companionship established during their rafting journey and choose between his love for Jim and his duty to report a runaway slave.”It was a close place,” thinks Huck, in his steamboat vernacular, but he churns through with the courage and resolution of Horace Bixby running a dangerous channel at night. Huck rejects duty, religion, society, and his conscience, and chooses Jim by destroying the letter to Miss Watson and deciding to steal Jim out of slavery once more: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” After this moral crisis the novel, engineered by Tom Sawyer, takes its notorious downhill slide. Although he is powerless to stem Tom’s evasion, Huck remains true to his friendship and to his opinion of Jim. When Jim refuses to go further until Tom’s wound is treated, even though it will resuit in recapture, Huck summarizes the essential lesson of his adventures: “I knowed he was white inside.”
The development of Huck’s awareness of Jim’s humanity provides satisfying narrative and moral continuity, but it apparently fails to harmonize with a second pattern of evidence. Many passages throughout the novel, and especially after Huck has presumably learned his lesson in Chapter 31, give us pause. Huck tells us that Jim’s ignorance proves “you can’t learn a nigger to argue.” He is appalled by Jim’s freedom fever as they near the clear waters of the Ohio, and by his talk of stealing his children out of slavery, if necessary.
It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.” Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.
“Well,” Huck says, when the king and the duke stage their lost-brother routine, “if ever I struck anything like it, I’m a nigger.” Mistaken for Tom Sawyer late in the novel, Huck invents a steamboat disaster to explain his delayed appearance to Aunt Sally:
“We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
And at the end of the book Huck is relieved to discover that Jim had been free during the escapades on Silas Phelps’ farm, so no blame can be attached to Tom as an abolitionist: “I couldn’t ever understand, before, until that minute and that talk, how he could help a body set a nigger free, with his bringing-up.” All this suggests that Huck somehow hasn’t totally learned his lesson, that his knowledge about Jim is incomplete, that the smooth flow of moral development contains more rough water than first appeared.
These two contradictory patterns are further complicated by a third. A number of passages suggest that Huck has no need of moral development, that he has an instinctive compassion for Jim from the beginning. In Chapter 2, Tom Sawyer suggests that they “tie Jim [who is asleep] to the tree for fun.” Huck’s reply is instantaneous: “But I said no; he might wake and make a disturbance, and then they’d find out I warn’t in.” Huck’s reply may be straightforward and thus show more concern for himself than Jim, but it may also be a lie to protect Jim and to dodge Tom’s ridicule. Twice in the chapter Tom wants to trick Jim, and both times Huck refuses. When they meet on Jackson’s Island, Huck quickly recovers from the “fan-tods” of finding his refuge inhabited: “I bet I was glad to see him. . . . I was ever so glad to see Jim.” And Jim easily (and permanently, it turns out) extracts a promise from Huck not to tell on him: “I said I wouldn’t, and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun I will. People would call me a low down Ablitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell.” Huck’s gift of friendship, offered instinctively and immediately and never withdrawn, generates a striking shift in pronouns in his cry of warning when Huck discovers that Mr. Loftus is hunting Jim for the reward money: “”Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose. They’re after us!”“
These three patterns—moral development, moral backsliding, moral stasis—complicate but do not contradict the lesson of honesty, justice, and mercy first recognized by Joel Chandler Harris. They fit together in a plausible whole as Mark Twain suggested in his 1895 notebook entry about “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.” Huck Finn does have a sound heart which beats steadily throughout the novel. In the first chapters and the last (although he fails to divert Tom Sawyer’s tricks on Jim which bracket the novel) and in the rafting adventures between, Huck consistently, inevitably it seems, chooses the path of compassion. But there is development. As he comes to know Jim better, his sympathy, respect, and comradeship all deepen. “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim” (Chapter 2) becomes simply “Jim” as Huck discovers that this particular nigger is a man like any other man, a friend unlike any other friend. But Huck is unable to generalize from his experience. He has no insights into the Negro question. He never renounces slavery. The disquieting negatives that appear throughout—the clichés about learning a nigger to argue or giving him an inch; the cylinder-head manslaughter—are the products of Huck’s diseased conscience, caught from a corrupt society, but they do not intrude in his relationship with Jim. Huck’s age of innocence is below the age of abstraction, and the reader is left to draw the conclusion. Huck has made a friend; the reader castigates the society which defines such a friendship as illegal and immoral. Huck never defeats his deformed conscience—it is we who do that—he simply ignores it in relation to Jim.
So go the moral adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They are so satisfying, so wholesome, so perfect, that they invite suspicion. Nevertheless, the book’s morality is not a “sell,” as James Cox suggests. It is not a subtle trap, a confidence game, designed for naive readers. The moral theme of Huckleberry Finn was created by Mark Twain at a time—1876 to 1883— when he was in full command of his talent; and it indicates precisely the way he understood his book ten years later. But we can make a distinction between Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and ours, between the author’s achievement in 1885 and the revisionist view that his later writings offer. Why didn’t Mark Twain write another Huckleberry Finn? This question is not answered merely by assigning the book to the incomparable Everest reserved for Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost. The reason Mark Twain never wrote another Huckleberry Finn is that it became impossible for him to believe in his hero.
Mark Twain’s writings contain an unceasing procession of moral idiots. One of the earliest is “Mamie Grant, the Child-Missionary,” the heroine of a story composed during the summer of 1868 as the author relaxed on a three-week steamship journey from San Francisco to New York. Mamie is a nineyear-old devotee of Sunday school literature, an enthusiast of the “comfort & joy of true religion,” whose relentless piety extends even to the breakfast table of her unregenerated aunt:
“No, auntie, I cannot, I dare not eat batter-cakes while your precious soul is in peril.”
Mamie spends a visit with her aunt and uncle answering their doorbell and astonishing all callers with a barrage of holy advice and wholesome tracts (“Fire & Brimstone, or the Sinner’s Last Gasp”; “The Doomed Drunkard or the Wages of Sin”; “The Blasphemous Sailor Awfully Rebuked”). Having driven the census-taker, the newspaper boy, her uncle’s debtor, and the mortgage collector from the house, Mamie contemplates her “noble work today. I may yet see my poor little name in a beautiful Sunday School book, & maybe T. S. Arthur may write it.” Her uncle has a different view of the efficacy of Mamie’s missionary work:
“Alas, we are ruined. My newspaper is stopped, & I am posted on its bulletin board as a delinquent. The tax-collecting census-taker has set his black mark opposite my name. Martin, who should have returned the thousand dollars he borrowed has not come, & Phillips, in consequence, has foreclosed the mortgage, & we are homeless!”
Mamie Grant’s good works are carried on in the manuscript fragments by Bolivar (“Autobiography of a Damned Fool”), and they have their counterparts throughout the published works. Mark Twain amuses himself constantly and his readers occasionally by stuffing moral platitudes in the mouths of the passengers on board the Columbia (Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown) and the Quaker City (The Innocents Abroad). Pious fools abound in his books. Some of the morality-mouthing characters are hypocrites, like Sid Sawyer and Miss Watson. Others are merely stupid, like Mr. Walters, the Sunday school superintendent in Torn Sawyer. Sometimes the narrator is the straight man; sometimes he delivers the punchline. The game always is deflation, but it is Sunday school style rather than Sunday school morality that is the target. Mark Twain’s early “Story of the Good Little Boy” perfectly defines the genre. Young Jacob Blivens, like the blonde heroine of the Occidental’s composite novel in Roughing It, is “virtuous to the verge of eccentricity”:
He always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were; and he always learned his book, and never was late at Sabbath-school. He would not play hookey . . . he wouldn’t lie . . . and he was so honest that he was simply ridiculous. The curious ways that Jacob had, surpassed everything. He wouldn’t play marbles on Sunday, he wouldn’t rob birds’ nests, he wouldn’t give hot pennies to organ-grinders’ monkeys.
Instead, Jacob reads Sunday school books and resolves to emulate their heroes. The strategy of the tale is conveyed by Mark Twain’s original title—”The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper.” Jacob’s adventures invariably come to grief. He admonishes a boy not to steal apples and is rewarded with a broken arm. He befriends a lame dog and is bitten. He attempts to warn some youngsters about the dangers of Sunday sailing and nearly drowns. And his career of misfired benevolence abruptly ends when he interferes with a group of boys “in the old iron foundry fixing up a little joke on fourteen or fifteen dogs, which they had tied together in long procession, and were going to ornament with empty nitroglycerine cans made fast to their tails.” Jacob explodes “through the roof and soar[s] away toward the sun, with the fragments of those fifteen dogs stringing after him like the tail of a kite. . . . Although the bulk of him came down all right in a tree-top in an adjoining county, the rest of him was apportioned around among four townships. . . . You never saw a boy scattered so.”
The fun of “The Good Little Boy” lies in its satire of the lesson of morality rewarded in the Sabbatical literature that made the Front Room of the 1870’s, as George Ade put it, a ponderous Mausoleum. But morality itself is not under attack, as a companion story demonstrates. Mark Twain arrives at the same satire from the other side of the street in the “Story of the Bad Little Boy.” Jim, the bad boy, steals, lies, gets the widow’s son in trouble, abuses animals, strikes his little sister, gets drunk and thrown into jail.”And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the legislature.” The two stories attack not the moral but the providential universe—at least that 19th-century version which demanded proof in this world. Virtue, Mark Twain insists, is not always rewarded; evil is not always punished.
Huck Finn superficially resembles bad Jim, but he is firmly in the camp of Jacob Blivens, a cousin to what Anne T. Trensky has called “The Saintly Child in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction” (in Prospects, 1975). Ms. Trensky doesn’t consider Huck, but her formulation is suggestive: “We see the basic pattern for hundreds of stories that were the favorite reading of nineteenth-century America—the confrontation between an innocent child and a corrupt society. . . . [The saintly children often] are bereft of one or both parents. . . . The sign of inner grace is a supernatural beauty, marked either by pale skin and golden curls or by a spiritual glow that transforms otherwise plain features. The children frequently suffer hardship and pain, but are ultimately rescued by protective adults, the conversion of their persecutors, or early death.” Huck’s curls are grimed by Mississippi mud, and he is translated to the Indian Territory rather than heaven, but the glow of his inner virtue makes him a bedfellow—however incongruously gritty and uncombed—with Ilbrahim, little Eva, Baby Rue, and Elsie Dinsmore. Ms. Trensky’s two categories—the child born pure and the child initially imperfect—remind us of Leslie Fiedler’s Good Good Boy and Good Bad Boy, which he uses to differentiate Sid Sawyer and Tom in Love and Death in the American Novel. Huck’s badness is more vivid than Tom’s, and his goodness is organized by an entirely different code, but Huck, too, is a good bad boy.
Huck steals and lies and abuses grammar, but his thefts are inevitably excusable and his lies are always benevolent. If Tom Sawyer were to suggest the hot penny trick, Huck would probably argue for keeping the penny themselves, for there warn’t no use in giving it to a monkey who didn’t know how to spend it. If there were sisters to be slapped or dogs to be tortured, Huck would undoubtedly slide out and try to turn the focus in a harmless direction. It is his naive but compassionate eye which reports to us the shock of the slapping of Elizabeth, the deaf-mute, and the squalid brutality of the loafers in Bricksville: “There couldn’t anything wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dog-fight—unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.”
Huck Finn and Jacob Blivens differ mainly in the matter of baths and verb tenses, and of course in ability. But it is Jacob’s incompetence that we laugh at, not his intention. Both characters are curious in ways that surpass everything, virtuous to the point of eccentricity. Jacob’s pattern of disinterested benevolence to boys and dogs is mirrored by Huck’s seemingly motiveless benignity, not just to Jim, but to everyone he encounters: the widow Douglas (she “looked so sorry that I thought I would behave a while if I could”); the murderers on board the Walter Scott (“I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix”); the Grangerfords (“I liked all that family, dead ones and all, and warn’t going to let anything come between us”); Mary Jane Wilks (“It made my eyes water a little, to remember her crying there all by herself in the night”); the king and the duke (“I was sorry for them poor pitful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more”); Aunt Sally (“I wished I could do something for her, but I couldn’t, only to swear that I wouldn’t never do nothing to grieve her any more”); and the community in general (“We made up our minds they [the king and the duke] was going to break into somebody’s house or store, or was going into the counterfeit-money business, or something. So then we . . . made up an agreement that we wouldn’t have nothing in the world to do with such actions”). Huck provides the reader with an entertaining description of the Widow Douglas’ religion (“ ‘spiritual gifts’ . . . was too many for me”) and her sister’s exhortation to prayer (“I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks”), but in spite of his protests, his much proclaimed rebellion, Huck’s code is precisely that of the Widow: “She told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.”
The difference between Huck Finn and Jacob Blivens, just as that between Scotty Briggs and the minister in Roughing It, is one of style rather than substance. Like the Sunday school literature Mark Twain satirized all his life, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents a hero whose moral triumph soars on gratuitous wings. The story succeeds because we, like Mark Twain, wish to believe in the ethical ideal Huck represents, and because the saccharine piety associated with that ideal in third-rate literature is so effectively diluted by Huck’s scruffy exterior, his venial sins, his Concord Library-defying vernacular, his ability to transmit a vision—both comic and tragic—which explodes stupidity and cruelty and hypocrisy. But Mark Twain’s book has at its center an angel in homespun. The most realistic of our realists has created a hero who is a gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering moral idealist.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like all great books, is about the complexities of human experience. These complexities arise from Huck’s confrontation with Mississippi Valley civilization, but they are located largely outside Huck’s character. This is the price Mark Twain pays for Huck’s innocence, for his worldly unworldliness. The difficulty with Huck is not that he carries a heavy moral burden, but that he carries it so lightly. His goodness is innate, instinctive, natural. He is a Rousseauan noble savage born free of the chains of civilization, a Lockean natural man nursed in principles of justice and charity that derive from the state of nature, a Wordsworthian blessed child trailing clouds of glory from God (or, in Lionel Trilling’s version, waves of goodness from the river-god). Huck, like Uncle Tom in Augustine St. Clare’s shrewd phrase, is a “moral miracle.” He reminds us of Bret Harte’s good-natured drunken cowboys, self-denying gamblers, and heart-of-gold prostitutes. The comparison would gravel Mark Twain, who, after their friendship had dissolved, denounced Harte as dishonest:”[His] pathetics, imitated from Dickens, used to be a godsend to the farmers of two hemispheres on account of the freshets of tears they compelled. He said to me once with a cynical chuckle that he thought he had mastered the art of pumping up the tear of sensibility.” The two authors are separated by the gulf of genius as well as that of rancor, but Mark Twain’s later writing suggests that Huck Finn is as impossible, or at least as unlikely, as pumped up, as Sandy, John Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and the other greathearted riders of the Slumgullion Stage, magnanimous denizens of Poker Flat, Red Gulch, and Roaring Camp.
Mark Twain lived for a quarter century after the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He spent much of this period wrestling with three related issues that he never managed to pin down—the responsibility of the individual to the community, the origin of ethics, free will and determinism. The more he pondered these issues the more it appeared that human beings were accidents of necessity locked in a trap of response that served only the self. In his forays into W. E. H. Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne he discovered two theories of morality:
One of them is generally described as the stoical, the intuitive, the independent or the sentimental; the other as the epicurean, the inductive, the utilitarian, or the selfish. The moralists of the former school, to state their opinions in the broadest form, believe that we have a natural power of perceiving that some qualities, such as benevolence, chastity, or veracity, are better than others. . . . The moralist of the opposite school denies that we have any such natural perception. He maintains that we have by nature absolutely no knowledge of merit and demerit . . . [that] a desire to obtain happiness and to avoid pain is the only possible motive to action. The reason, and the only reason, why we should perform virtuous actions, or in other words, seek the good of others, is that on the whole such a course will bring us the greatest amount of happiness.
In spite of Lecky’s bias toward the intuitive, Mark Twain chose, with increasing vehemence, the utilitarian. Huck represents both points of view. In small matters he is our archpragmatist: “Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots, ” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery” and we would go to the cave and pow-wow over what we had done and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.” But in large affairs of conduct he is an exemplar of the stoical, the intuitive, the independent, the sentimental. Thus Huck Finn is essentially out of harmony with the drift of his author’s convictions. Mark Twain wrote in the margin of Lecky’s History that “all moral perceptions are acquired by the influences around us,” but that doctrine applied to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contradicts the notion of a sound heart, uncorrupted by society, on which Huck’s character is built. Huck has been to two schools—Pap, and Mississippi Valley society at large. He could not have learned his morality from his father (“Every time he got money he got drunk; and every time he got drunk he raised Cain around town; and every time he raised Cain he got jailed. He was just suited—this kind of thing was right in his line”) or from a society in which every institution endorses slavery (“they fetched the niggers in and had prayers”); a society whose worst elements enjoy “putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him”; a society whose best members “run along the [river] bank shooting at [the boys] and singing out, “kill them, kill them!”” Huck’s opposition to these influences governs the book. How he could have reached beyond his environment and come to his unprecedented ethical purity is more than even Mark Twain finally could understand.
Increasingly unable to account for his hero, the author could not support an intuitive theory of morality in his writings after 1885. The difficulties of interpretation in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) rest precisely on the moral ambiguity of Hank Morgan. His conduct careens wildly from melodramatic sympathy (“down came the lash and flicked a flake of skin from her naked shoulder. It stung me as if I had been hit instead”) to comic sadism (“during the next fifteen minutes we stood under a steady drizzle of microscopic fragments of knights and hardware and horse-flesh”), making the entire book, like a telephone in Camelot, “a fantastic conjunction of opposites and irreconcilables.” The bleakness of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) stems from the lack of the steady moral beacon that illuminates Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even Wilson and Roxy—intelligent, decent, sympathetic—are trained by the society of Dawson’s Landing to accept inhumanity as the normal condition of human affairs. All the characters, black and white, good and evil, must finally dance to the book’s refrain (repeated 22 times): sold down the river in slavery. The man that corrupted Hadleyburg has an easy task: Hadleyburg corrupts itself. The harmless old couple, Mary and Edward Richards, are relentlessly destroyed by the forces of greed and hypocrisy. There is no moral center, no countercurrent, no voice of protest. Mark Twain’s double vision in the early works has hardened to a single vision in the late, and with the loss of duality we suffer a loss of humor. Huck is resurrected to tell more tales in Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), but these ghostly imitations are appalling failures. No sequels to a great work were ever flatter, more insipid, more disappointing. The conventional explanation is that Mark Twain was grinding out uninspired potboilers in the midst of personal and financial chaos in a frenzied attempt to pay his creditors. Yet the books fail even as potboilers, and they are inferior to other works written at the same time. The biographical explanations are valid enough, but it is also true that Huck’s lifelessness in these late stories results from the fact that he had died in his author’s hands. Huck in his own book was free, free as his Hannibal prototype Tom Blankenship, who “was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community,” free to choose the path of virtue. By the late 1890’s Mark Twain was uncertain about both free will and virtue.
He never gave up entirely on the possibility of human goodness—Theodore Fisher opposes a sound heart to Satan’s artillery in The Mysterious Stranger—but he never found a satisfactory theoretical source. Mark Twain described his reading of Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will as a “three day’s tear with a drunken lunatic.” In addition, he seemed to find the practice of virtue and the evidence of providence diminishing on every hand. Personal disasters obviously influenced his writing, but to these overtrumpeted events we need to add the political, economic, and social disasters that for Mark Twain made up fin de siecle history. The author’s personal and public writings in his later years poignantly detail the deaths of Susy and Jean and the crash of his business affairs, but they also strike out at imperialism in the Philippines, colonialism in China, mass murder in the Belgian Congo, the Boer war, lynching, religious hypocrisy, corporate profiteering, tariff manipulation, the “constitutional monarchy” of Theodore Roosevelt, and the “teaching of Jay Could” (“people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it”). The list is endless, taxing even Mark Twain’s voracious appetite for satire and entangling him in a dilemma that he had earlier described to Howells: “Of course a man can’t write successful satire except he be in a calm judicial good-humor. . . . In truth I don’t ever seem to be in a good enough humor with ANYthing to satirize it; no, I want to stand up before it & curse it, & foam at the mouth—or take a club & pound it to rags & pulp”. Adventures of Huckelberry Finn was conceived in an adolescent America whose problems, substantial as they seemed at the time, were dwarfed in the 1890’s by the agonies of maturity: indusrtialism apparently rum amuck and generating class warfare; international power achieved so quickly and so effortlessly that it led to buccaneering adventures in imperialism and exploitation; booming cities crowded with foreigners; American life rerouted by a lust for technology and the worship of a new trinity of size, speed, success. By the end of the century, Mark Twain found the philosophical questioning that made Huck’s morality an anachronism buttressed by every newspaper:
I have been reading the morning paper. I do it every knowing that I shall find in it the usual depravities and basenesses & hypocrisies & cruelties that make up Civilization, & cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race.
The [London] correspondent mentions a few of our American events of the past twelvemonth, such as the limitless rottenness of our great insurance companies, where theft has been carried on by our most distinguished commercial men as a profession; the exposures of conscienceless graft, colossal graft, in great municipalities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other large cities; the recent exposure of millionfold graft in the great Pennsylvania Railway system—with minor uncoverings of commercial swindles from one end of the United States to the other; and finally today’s lurid exposure, by Upton Sinclair, of the most titanic and death-dealing swindle of them all, the Beef Trust. . . . Europe is beginning to wonder if there is really an honest male human creature left in the United States.
Unsettled in philosophy, stunned by history, Mark Twain demonstrates in his later career a decreasing faith in Huck Finn—his Jacob Blivens in wolfs clothing. But even in 1885 there were premonitions, implicit in the closing chapters of the novel. With the possible exception of the wafer-sun in The Red Badge of Courage, the ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the best roasted chestnut in American literature. The ending is everything that has been said about it: Jim is debased and Huck is suppressed, the meaning of the rafting journey is lost, social criticism is reduced to a parody of romanticism, and it is too long. On the other hand the book has to end, the shore has to win, Tom is the rightful hero of Mississippi Valley society; Jim’s debasement and Buck’s suppression are precisely what the whole novel is about. The debate, like the Mississippi, flows on forever, but the debaters agree on one point—the last ten chapters do lower the vision of humanity, of moral possibility, attempted in the earlier sections. Perhaps these last chapters, with their lack of resolution and their reduction of Huck to the ineffective fool that he is in Tom Sawyer Abroad, represent as early as 1885 a half-buried uneasiness on Mark Twain’s part about Huck’s effortlessly achieved virtue and about the power of morality itself. The novel fails to achieve the rounded closure of Bleak House or The Rise of Silas Lapham, because even though Mark Twain created a spotless moral hero he was reluctant to let his hero triumph. His reluctance created a less neat but more complex novel, for our doubts about Huck Finn are doubts about ourselves, and they will continue to haunt us as they did Mark Twain.