Sean Fitzpatrick: This novel has no motive, no moral, and no plot—at least you won’t catch me attempting to find any lest I be prosecuted, banished, or shot. But even without these traditional literary elements, it is a masterpiece. The one thing I would dare apply to it is a theme, which I hope to propose here without getting hung, stabbed, or ridden on a rail.
Though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is full of pariahs and rapscallions, it is nevertheless a story about kings.
There never was a human being in the whole catalogue of conjured heroes from Homer to Hemingway quite as kingly as Huckleberry Finn. Huck has a royal poise, a calm, regal demeanor as he presides over his empire of dirt and muddy water. It is not the kingdom, remember, that makes the king—it is the inspired soul. Huck’s soul is perceptive and receptive enough to be a king’s; and at the same time, we see immediately that his soul resonates with our own on a deep, primal level. This is the very thing that reminds us that we—all of us, like Huck—are kings indeed. We are kings with Huckleberry Finn in the most elemental and existential sense for we are all inheritors of the earth, enlivened with a soul touched by heaven. We are all kings, for as Huck points out, “everything belongs to them,” and true it is, as Genesis attests.
This is one of the reasons why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is important for the common reader: it illustrates the kingship of the common man. Huck demonstrates what we all ought to know full well, but are often forgetful of—we are all empowered with the grace to observe, experience, and appreciate the riches of creation; and to reckon them true or false, right or wrong, lawful or unlawful. Such reckonings demand a type of wisdom—which wisdom Huck has if he has nothing else.
Wisdom is perhaps the first characteristic that comes to mind as proper to a king—the wisdom of Sollermun. Huckleberry Finn has a natural intelligence, which is very different from Tom Sawyer’s imagination. That is to say, Huck sees things as they are with a power that goes beyond mere sight—he has vision. As T. S. Eliot says of his fellow Missourian, “He sees the real world; and he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself.” Did ole King Sollermun do anything less with dat chile dat he ’uz gwyne to chop in two? Is there anyone amongst us today that could be so brave as to allow the world to settle itself?
According to the wisdom of this noble river-rat, there is little distinction between the prince and the pauper. “They just set around. Except maybe when there’s a war; then they go to the war. But other times they just lazy around…” Huck therefore claims the independence of both the loafer and the lord. “Kings is kings, and you got to make allowances.” He is aware of his surroundings like any street urchin but questions the values of his surroundings like any sovereign. He is a straight-faced observer of truth, enthroned on high, impervious to the wiles that seduce or the lies that corrupt. Huckleberry Finn beholds the world as the world, and acts accordingly. Can the same be said of us? Are we worthy successors of our crown who seem bent on remaking the world in our own image? There is nothing about Google, the man-made mind of God, which participates in the knowledge of our kingdom—or His.
King Huckleberry, on the other hand, knows his kingdom intimately, as any king should. He pulses with a love of the land and a worship of the waters. Nowhere else can you find a sunrise described with such admiration and attention as from his clumsy eloquence. Nowhere else can you learn the terror of a river than from one who fearlessly stems its whirling eddies with a corncob pipe between his teeth. He knows the smell of a late hour. He is the babe in the wood, Moses in the bulrush basket, out of whose mouth wisdom and praise are fashioned, and for whom the kingdom of heaven is reserved. All this is to say that Huckleberry Finn, like a good king, is a good steward, fulfilling a universal role of leadership and responsibility over the things God has made. Huck fearlessly and sometimes fiercely debates the natures of things with Jim, like a pair of new-made Adams deliberating on the first principles of existence, tossing ideologies back and forth between them like a ball. These two freely muse on the highest of human occupations and duties with an invincible innocence—occasionally interrupted by the flutter of a passing steamboat’s wheel. As kings ourselves, we ought not to shy away from such mysteries.
Huck’s majestic quality of witnessing the complexities of life and honestly turning them over in his mind bespeaks a type of ownership over them. He is the perfect blend of monarchical impassivity and childlike interest. If there is any element of tragedy (or comedy, for that matter) in this genre-defying tale, it is that the rafting philosopher kings are supremely unconscious of their sceptered sway. They oversee from the impenetrable fortress of youthful exactitude and rule by the laws written on the heart. This unconsciousness is a kingly charm, indeed; though a careless hand on the tiller can foster an unconscionable unconsciousness, which is the downfall of kings. Let us keep our eyes open, and remember that kings fuss with the parlyment as Huck does with a hogshead. ’Nuff said. Both, after all, are of equal importance in their respective eyes and want managing.
And Huckleberry’s eyes do not lie. He knows fraud when he sees it. A large part of his odyssey down the Mississippi involves two down-on-their-luck charlatans who brazenly pose themselves to the savvy youth as a king and a duke. Their thin pantomime is intended to overwhelm the victims of their freeloading; but Huck makes up his mind very quickly that they are low-down humbugs, and keeps it to himself. He is too dispassionate to interfere with such depredations—and too desirous to keep the peace in his domain. It is only when their scams go so far as to make a body ashamed of the human race that Huck interferes, invisibly meting our justice, and casts the riches they intended to steal beyond their grasp.
There is only so much hogwash that can be tolerated by the universe.
Samuel L. Clemens’ pen name is derived from a nautical cry: “By the mark twain!” signaled the depth of two fathoms—the shallowest depth that a steamboat could safely pilot in. Desiring to remain true to Twain’s strategy to navigate in waters just deep enough, I close this meditation on a book that is like a mighty, muddy river before I plumb depths beyond my sounding rope. I leave you with the question whether we as a people have strayed too far from the river. Have we lost the steward’s connection, and consequent affection, for this world that has been placed in our care? Have we betrayed our kingdom, our kingship, our King?
Jim and Huck examine the same question thus, with typical blunt honesty:
“Dey ain’ no kings here, is dey, Huck?”
In the turning of these pages, we may turn the tide.
Mitchell Kalpakgian: Huck Finn, boy eternal, does not like living in the home of Widow Douglas because she is always “pecking” at him and attempting to “sivilize” him, that is, imposing rules and regulations (“Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry,” “Don’t scrunch up like that,” “Set up straight”) . With uncomfortable new clothes to wear, “dismal regular” ways to govern his daily life, and bells to order his day, Huck finds domestic life with the Widow and her sister Miss Watson oppressive and unnatural: “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” Huck’s drunken father Pap also provides no real home for a boy. In an isolated cabin in the woods Pap locks Huck inside and poses a threat with his rifle. Huck does not even enjoy Tom Sawyer’s gang of robbers that pretends a Sunday school picnic is an adventure on the high seas: “all that stuff was only one of Tom Sawyer’s lies.” Searching for a home, Huck finally finds the good life on a raft with Jim floating down the Mississippi River as he leads the runaway slave to freedom in the North: “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.”
Jim’s life on the raft, however, does not bring him the perfect happiness or true peace that the serenity of the river on a clear night with the stars shining intimates. The evils Huck leaves behind on land—slavery, bigotry, avarice, hypocrisy, ignorance, and sentimentality—he encounters again on the water and in the small towns on the Mississippi. Even the brief interlude of pure enjoyment on the raft in the company of the best of friends (“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened”) is spoiled when two “rapscallions” come on board escaping from the law and treat Huck and Jim as their personal servants. These notorious confidence men, the Duke and the Dauphin, bring the contagion of evil on land to the world of the river as they dupe, cheat, lie, and exploit the gullibility of the fools they rob with their pose as Shakespearean actors, uncles from England, preachers, and magicians peddling patent medicines and fortune telling.
Although it appears that Huck is escaping from civilization and abandoning society in the name of personal freedom and for the sake of Jim’s liberty, Huck is always immersed in reality of the human condition and in touch with the nature of things. Evil is legion.While it appears that Huck is running from the evil that Pap poses when he demands Huck’s inheritance to spend on liquor, Huck only leaves the avarice of his father to encounter the greed of the Duke and the Dauphin. While it seems that Huck and Jim are leaving the land of slavery for the freedom of the Northern states, slave hunters abound on the Mississippi River to earn the reward for capturing a runaway slave. Although Huck parts from the danger that Pap’s violence poses, he encounters murderers and gamblers on the river that think nothing of killing a man or letting him drown on a sinking steamboat. Huck’s life on the raft, then, is not merely an escape from rules or respectability but an education into the heart of reality, into a world that always threatens to rob a person of his innocence and integrity. Despite the sordid evils that Huck encounters in his adventures, he never lets the sordidness and cruelty of evil distort his God-given, natural sense of right and wrong written on his heart and conscience. Twain’s American hero is one who lives in the world but not of it.
Nothing hardens Huck’s innocent heart or jades his sensitive conscience. He always recoils at the loathsomeness of evil he encounters and never accommodates himself to it… When he witnesses the Duke and Dauphin pretend they are uncles from England who have come to mourn their brother’s death and act as executors of the will, Huck responds, “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.” When he witnesses the feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons as they shoot at each other after attending church services, Huck is shocked to see Buck, a boy his age, the victim of the gunfire: “It made me so sick I almost fell out of the tree. I ain’t agoing to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that.” When Huck watches the frauds posing as uncles grieving over their “brother,” Huck’s reaction to gushing sentimentality is “I never seen anything so disgusting” as he observes “all that soul-butter and hogwash” and “humbuggy talky talk” filled with “tears and flapdoodle.” Huck’s boyish innocence, then, never compromises the meanings of good and evil, and he resists all the customs and laws of the day that blur the distinction between human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, and moral and immoral. As wise as a serpent but as gentle as a dove, Huck is never fooled by all the sham and pretense that surrounds him.
In a culture that legalizes slavery, buys and sells human beings as property or “chattel,” separates slaves from their spouses and children, rewards informants of any news leading to the arrest of runaway slaves, and punishes anyone with knowledge who does not give information, Huck remains pure of heart. Struggling with guilt because he is hiding a slave and not reporting the facts to authorities, Huck assumes that to disobey the law is to be unjust. Because he thinks he is stealing Miss Watson’s slave and violating one of the Ten Commandments, he suffers great guilt: “The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.” As he kneels to pray for the strength to do the right thing—write to Miss Watson and report the truth about her slave—Huck stops. He cannot violate his conscience and call evil good and good evil. Acknowledging his insincerity, Huck concludes, “You can’t pray a lie.” The conscience is inviolable.
Huck cannot pretend to be moral because he follows the law of the land but betrays his best friend. Forced to make this great existential decision between obeying the law and following his conscience, Huck deliberates between the consequences of going to hell or breaking the heart of a beloved friend: “and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day and in the night-time … and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing…. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I came back out of the fog … and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was.” Huck senses that morality transcends social laws, the customs of an age, and the opinions of average people ruled by self-interest and expediency. “All right, then I’ll go to hell,” Huck concludes as rips the letter to Miss Watson and commits himself to integrity, purity of heart, and love of neighbor—all countercultural in a society that elevates respectability above charity, that values money more than human life, and assumes that the opinions of mobs and crowds tower above the grandeur of the truth and the inviolability of conscience.