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Huckleberry Finn

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) is commonly accounted the first great American novel. It was also one of the first novels ever written in the vernacular, or common speech, being told in the first person by the eponymous Huckleberry "Huck" Finn, best friend of Tom Sawyer (hero of three other Mark Twain books). The book was published for the first time on February 18, 1885.

- Mark Twain -
Many agree with what Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huck Finn."

The book is noted for its irreverent young protagonist, its colorful description of people and places along the Mississippi River, and its sober and often scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly racism, of the time.

Although the book has been popular with young readers since its publication, and taken as a sequel to the comparatively innocuous The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with no particular social message, it has also been the continued object of study by serious literary critics. It also has attracted criticism because of the 215 occurrences of the word nigger (see Controversy below).

Many white characters in the story are depicted as foolish, cruel or selfish, in contrast to the main black character, Jim, who is mostly depicted as smart and unselfish. The story is set before the American Civil War. Huck, as we know from Tom Sawyer is a loose-living young vagabond with no mother and a drunkard father. He teams up with Jim, a slave who is about to be sold down the river and separated from his wife and children, and they attempt to go north across the Ohio river to freedom. The book tells of their adventures.

"Family" is one of the most important themes in the book. The attempt by Huck's father to gain custody of him in order to steal the money Huck and Tom had found in the previous book precipitates his flight, staging his own murder to get away. One of the major plot devices in the book is Jim's hiding the death of Huck's father from him. As they two travel the river, Huck is frequently involved with families who attempt to adopt him.

Another theme is the life on the Mississippi River, alternately idyllic and threatening. In true picaresque fashion, Huck and Jim encounter all the varieties of humanity as they travel, murderers, thieves, confidence men, good people and hypocrites.

It is commonly said that the beginning and ending of the book, the parts in which Tom Sawyer appears as a character, detract from its overall impact. In literary terms, however, Tom serves to start the story off and to bring it to a conclusion. Tom's ridiculous schemes have the paradoxical effect of providing a framework of "reality" around the mythical river voyage.

Another theme is Huck's gradual acceptance of Jim as a man, a man better than any other in the book, strong, brave, generous, and wise.


Although the Concord, Massachusetts library banned the book because of its tawdry subject manner and the coarse, ignorant language in which it was narrated, the San Francisco Examiner came quickly to its defense:

"Running all through the book is the sharpest satire on the ante-bellum estimate of the slave. Huckleberry Finn, the son of a worthless, drunken, poor white, is troubled with many qualms of conscience because of the part he is taking in helping the negro to gain his freedom. This has been called exaggerated by some critics, but there is nothing truer in the book." [1] (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/huckfinn/sfchron2)

In the United States, occasional efforts have been made to restrict the reading of the book. At various times, it has been:

  • banned from the library in Concord, Massachusetts, shortly after publication
  • excluded from the juvenile sections of the Brooklyn Public library and other libraries
  • removed from reading lists due to alleged racism (e.g., in March of 1995 it was removed from the reading list of 10th grade English classes at National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, according to the Washington Post; a New Haven correspondent to Banned Books Online reports it has been removed from a public school program there as well.)
  • removed from school programs at the behest of groups maintaining that its frequent use of the word "nigger" implies that the book as a whole is racist, despite what defenders maintain is the overwhelmingly anti-racist plot of the book

The American Library Association[?] ranked Huckleberry Finn the fifth most frequently challenged (in the sense of attempting to ban) book in the United States during the 1990s.

References and external links

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