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Audiobook Classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Updated on May 30, 2014

The Prime Directive

Writing a critical analysis about what is generally accepted as the penultimate “Great American Novel”, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, feels sort of like Tom Sawyer trying to figure out the most complicated method possible to free a slave: one way to ruin the whole operation is to overthink it. It’s titled as “The Adventures” because Twain’s overriding intent was to entertain, and if one goes scratching about for hidden meaning or even social criticism, I expect Twain might waggle his finger at them and say “that’s fine, make it as complicated as you like, but don’t forget to enjoy it.”

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

   By Order of the Author,

    Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance.”

Excerpt From: Mark Twain. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” iBooks.

Elijah "Frodo" Wood

This kid has created one of the best a-books I've ever heard!
This kid has created one of the best a-books I've ever heard!

An Audiobook Worth Talking About

Since I've already written a robust review of Elijah Wood's masterpiece performance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I suggest that you have a look at the spring edition of The Mill Valley Literary Review. To paraphrase, those familiar with the story can imagine all of the diverse characters, from Huck and Jim to Pap, The Duke, The King, Aunt Sally, Aunt Polly, Tom Sawyer, The Shacklefords and the Grangerfields, Silas Pratt etc. etc. the list goes on and on. Now imagine the challenge of making each character unique in timbre, tone, inflection, pitch, speed: you can imagine what Wood was up against. To say that he nailed each and every character would be an understatement. I imagine playing Huck in the Disney movie when he was just a babe helped too.

Another reason this rendition of Huckleberry Finn is so spot on is Wood's ability to capture Huck's youthful wonder with his own youthful voice. They are a perfect fit, and regardless of how many times you've read the novel, you can't go wrong listening to the audiobook. It is, indeed, a profound pleasure.

Yeah, But What's Huck Finn Really About?

Despite the author’s admonitions, critics from day one have sliced and diced and interpreted and divined and otherwise analyzed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as some sort of indictment of antebellum society and the rural South in general. But Twain, like Bob Dylan, can be inscrutably ironic and even catty about the intention of his work. Since he was a seasoned journalist accustomed to criticism by the time he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he may have been daring the critics to look for a motive, a moral, and a plot with his preface. At the same time he was encouraging readers to delight in Huck and Jim’s odyssey; to take in the twists and turns as they go from one wacky episode to the next; to laugh at the colorful characters and their antics and to marvel at the rural simplicity of life along the river in the 1830s.

Had The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn been written for a young audience, which many mistakenly assume that it was, such a “warning” wouldn’t have fit.

“… I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' & 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.” (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 5, 2011)

Perhaps by seeing life at that time through the eyes of an adolescent, Twain was trying to portray the most unbiased view of society that he possibly could, while also illustrating the racism and classism that had been woven into the culture since colonial times. Using the 14-year old narrator, Twain effectively puts the job of moralizing and passing value judgments in the hands of the reader and their discretion. However, as Twain himself points out, the story is really about:

“a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat".[9] Victor A. Doyno (1991). Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain's Creative Process. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Thus Twain admits to a “motive” for the story, and the notion of a “deformed conscience” battling with a “sound heart” implies that there is a moral: acts and deeds that come from the heart are better then decisions based on a conscience that has been deformed by an immoral society. It’s this battle between Huck’s innocent, naïve, uneducated, and relatively pure heart and a conscience deformed by the Southern socioeconomic model that makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the “Great American Novel” that it is.

Young Elijah starred in a Disney version...

Elijah's film version...

I don't recall seeing much hype for the 1993 Disney version of The Adventures of Huck Finn and had completely forgotten that Elijah Wood starred in the leading role when he was 12. I've read that director Stephen Sommers does a good job weaving in the "humane story" and that reviews were pretty favorable. And the trailer looks great!

Mark Twain

Imagine yourself... a mansion in the Connecticut woods, recalling your childhood on the Mississippi in Hannibal, Missouri, a slave state, and deciding to write a story about it. Between Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that's what Mark Twain did. By the time Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) wrote these American classics, the Civil War was over (Clemens and a cousin had enlisted as Confederates, then fled to Nevada), slavery abolished, and the country off to a new start. Of course Twain's biography and bibliography are the stuff of legend, but the process of recalling the very real facts of his younger days and fictionalizing it in the form of a novel is at the crux of what novelists do. Critics say there has probably never been a more "American" voice in American letters, and my guess is that they are right.

The Moral Issues and the Not-So Moral Issues

Huck's moral battle isn’t exactly the thematic glue that holds the story together; Twain doesn’t beat us over the head with Huck’s inner struggle on every page. In fact, there’s only a few passages in the entire novel that illustrate Huck’s moral conundrum:

“Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn't get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn't rest; I couldn't stay still in one place. It hadn't ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame, because I didn't run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn't no use, conscience up and says, every time, "But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could 'a' paddled ashore and told somebody." That was so—I couldn't get around that no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, "What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her[…]”

Excerpt From: Mark Twain. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” iBooks.

This is the voice of Huck’s deformed conscience. It’s probably safe to say that a child isn’t born with a conscience, unlike “heart”, an ineffable quality that is as much a part of a person as ears. Given Huck’s upbringing and experience – all 13 years of it – how could he be expected not to have a “deformed” conscience? Jim is Miss Watson’s property – according to Huck’s experience that’s all Jim could be in the state of Missouri: a slave. Yes, it’s racist but in Huck’s eyes, Jim is not a man, he’s a nigger. To Huck, white men and black niggers are two entirely different species. Thus when Huck is shocked by Jim’s intent to free his family as well, readers are apt to be equally shocked by Huck’s blatant racism.

“Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free state he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them.

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[…]”

Excerpt From: Mark Twain. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” iBooks.

This isn’t Twain being satirical, it’s Twain portraying a very real, ingrained and accepted attitude, not just to unique to the American south in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, but to every political or religious entity in history that has believed that they’re superior, believed in survival of the fittest, and thus believed in slavery: the Egyptians and the Jews, the Greeks and everybody else, the Romans and the Christians, the Christians and the Arabs, the Japanese and the Chinese, Europe and the Africans.

Anybody who objects to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the protagonist and every white character in the story is racist, doesn’t see the true hero in Huck, a boy who against his better judgment and his own deformed conscience puts his own life in danger to free a slave. Nor do they recognize that history has always had it’s slaves – Miguel Cervantes was a galley slave in Algeria for several years – or that bartering in people has been a part of the human existence from the beginning. Such folks may wish to rewrite history so that racism has never existed, but such a rewrite would not reflect human nature nor recognize that stereotyping people according to race is a natural trait. It doesn’t need to imply that different races are inferior to one another; it only suggests that it would be blind not to acknowledge the differences.

In other words, it would be correct to say that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, at least in part, about racism, but it would be incorrect to accuse the novel of being racist.

One of Twain’s more serious social commentaries in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has nothing to do with slavery and racism. It is Sherburn’s lecture on mob hysteria, most direct expressions of the author’s opinion. It occurs in an Arkansas town where a man named Boggs is continually harassing a man named Sherburn. They dual in the street and Sherburn shoots Boggs dead. The indignant crowd marches to Sherburne’s house with the intent of lynching him. Sherburn addresses the mob from his porch.

“The idea of you lynching anybody! It's amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man…Why, a man's safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—… The average man's a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man, all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot… 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.

…The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is—a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness. Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they'll bring their masks, and fetch a man along…

Excerpt From: Mark Twain. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” iBooks.

It would be easy to write this passage off as a satirical view of the Southern Rebel; a tongue in cheek depiction of a “true man”, who would never lynch someone by light of day and would always wear a mask. Perhaps Twain is explaining the attitude that led to the lynch mobs and KKK after the war. Or he may have been trying to honestly portray the general lawlessness of the area at that time, or a profile of the fearless Southerner. It may be a comment on the nature of leadership. It may be all of these things, but it is one of the few times when the reader gets the sense that there’s a direct message about mob rule and it’s inherent dangers. Huck doesn’t reflect on it, so it really sticks out in the general flow of the narrative as a “commercial” or something of the sort. If anything, it is consistent with Twain’s portrayal of a town populated with nothing but stupid, chaw-loving half-witted white idiots who are as worthless as a bump on a log.

The passage is also consistent with the sentiments behind the blood feud between the Shacklefords and the Grangerfields. I expect Twain’s readership in the 1880s and beyond found the barbaric behavior of the rural Southerners in the 1830s to be very entertaining and enlightening, especially after the Union invaded and taught the barbarians a lesson.

Hemingway and other critics has said that the novel should have ended with Jim’s capture by Silas Pratt, and have eliminated Tom and Huck’s identity swap, thereby leaving out Tom’s elaborate scheme to free Jim. I disagree, for if there’s one place where Twain’s satire is on full display, it’s in the description of Tom’s elaborate plans to free Jim.

“Well, if that ain't just like you, Huck Finn. You can get up the infant-schooliest ways of going at a thing. Why, hain't you ever read any books at all?—Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henri IV., nor none of them heroes? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that? No; the way all the best authorities does is to saw the bed-leg in two, and leave it just so, and swallow the sawdust, so it can't be found, and put some dirt and grease around the sawed place so the very keenest seneskal can't see no sign of its being sawed, and thinks the bed-leg is perfectly sound. Then, the night you're ready, fetch the leg a kick, down she goes; slip off your chain, and there you are. Nothing to do but hitch your rope ladder to the battlements, shin down it, break your leg in the moat—because a rope ladder is nineteen foot too short, you know—and there's your horses and your trusty vassles, and they scoop you up and fling you across a saddle, and away you go to[…]”

Excerpt From: Mark Twain. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” iBooks.

Throughout the planning of the escape, book-educated Tom wants to apply his learning to come up with the most “authorized” and complex plan, a plan that will go down in history with the great escapes of all time. Huck stands by dumbfounded by the absurdity of Tom’s ideas, questioning with deferential respect since Tom is educated and he is not. In the end when the ridiculous plan is executed Tom gets shot in the leg and nearly dies.

I can see why Hemingway and others find fault with the final arc of the narrative: Twain takes far too long building up to the escape, and it gets tedious. But the juxtaposition of Tom and Huck is Twain’s way of satirizing the educated classes while at the same time illustrating the difference between “heart” and “deformed conscience”, or as in Tom’s case, lack of any conscience whatsoever.

Tom has no interest in freeing a slave; Tom’s only interest is in executing an elaborate and hopefully famous escape, according to the traditions established by the authorities. It doesn’t matter much to Tom if the scheme works or not, or if the slave is freed or remains captive, so long as the attempt is memorable. Huck’s only motivation is to free Jim, but he goes along with Tom because he’s hypnotized by Tom’s clever gobbedlygook and supposed knowledge of the authorities.

In this way Twain illustrates how the “deformed conscience”, in the absence of “heart”, results in actions that lack sincerity and are therefore doomed. Tom’s escape scheme fails as a result of being over-analyzed, over-thought, over-executed and lacking the proper motivation. If it were Huck alone, they would have escaped with their characteristic stealth and been far down river before Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas had a clue.

While Twain’s plot twist in the final chapters of the story lack the constant movement of Huck and Jim’s odyssey down the river, they are suspenseful nonetheless, if only because we can’t help but wonder if Tom and Huck can pull it off. I also wonder why any critic would have wanted the story to end with Jim still in irons. I doubt the novel would have been nearly as popular if it ended on a hopeless, negative note. If anything, I believe Twain felt it important to end on a promising note, with Jim finally free and Huck making plans to strike out for Injun Territory. Leaving Jim in shackles and Huck suffocating with the Pratts would only reinforce the notion that there is ultimately no freedom after all. Fine for Hemingway, but not fitting for Twain.

Another observation that I think Mark Twain would have agreed with: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer before it, is intended to be heard by an adult audience. Whether read aloud or heard in the theater of the mind, the audience must be able to hear the dialect. If language is the primary filter between the senses and cognition, then Huck’s dialect – the fashion in which he tells his story – is the world as he sees it. Just looking at the dialect as words won’t work – the audience must hear it. In fact, unless the reader is fairly sophisticated and able to sound out the dialect so that it means something, I would encourage listening to an audiobook vs. attempting to read it. *

It’s common knowledge that Mark Twain’s adolescent years were not that different than the lives of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Twain knew the Mississippi , river life and the social systems that created the deformed conscience of the South. His own conscience was deformed: In 1862 Twain joined the Confederate Army for a brief period before heading to Virginia City and embarking on his writing career. While the Civil War raged in the South, Twain was shedding his deformed conscience in the West, where his experience with prejudice and racism directed toward Chinese railroad workers may have caused a crisis in his Southern sensibilities. Like an alcoholic or a drug addict that survives to tell his story, Mark Twain managed to overcome the racism, prejudice and stereotyping that he grew up with and reform his own conscience, eventually recovering from his own Southern-ness to become a “Connecticut Yankee” in Hartford, where he reflected upon his Missouri experiences on the Big Muddy and ultimately wrote the great American novel.

The trajectory of Twain’s life is strong testimony to the importance of “writing what you know” and using what you know as a platform for invention. As a journalist, Twain knew how to “report” in his fiction, using the basic tenet of “who, what, why, where and when” to build the narrative. This simple approach, to me, is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and one that I frequently forget to employ in my own fiction, trying to balance popular minimalist sensibilities with full disclosure.

But the best take-away from reading Huck Finn is the notion of the deformed conscience, and the diligence required to keep the conscience in line with the heart. No mean feat, but a worthwhile exercise. Who would have thought that reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would arouse such new-age sentiments?


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