When Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, few readers seem to have paid Mark Twain’s liberal use of the word “nigger” too much heed. Commentators appeared more concerned that the story was written in a low-born vernacular from a child’s point of view than whether a black man got his due. Some even thought that Jim, the runaway slave character from Twain’s episodic novel, was a little too likable.
Despite an immediate outpouring of praise and support from some quarters, the book also was panned from shore to shore. The New York World headlined its review: “Humor of a Very Low Order — Wit and Literary Ability Wasted on a Pitiable Exhibition of Irreverence and Vulgarity.” The San Francisco Examiner, though possibly biased since Twain had written for the Chronicle, carped that the work had “little to be said in its favor,” and is “very much in character as many of the author’s Pacific Coast sketches, in the utter absence of truth and being unlike anything that ever existed in the earth, above the earth, or in the waters under the earth.” Descriptions such as “pernicious,” “vulgar,” and “trash of the variest sort” were also thrown about, much to Twain’s dismay or bemusement, depending on his mood.
Reviewers generally chose the strategy of omission when it came to discussing the book’s prominent black character. “Jim was ignored as a character, for the most part,” Twain scholar Alan Gribben notes. “Reviewers just simply viewed it as an embarrassment that a black man was getting that much typeface. They chose to overlook it almost entirely, even though he takes up almost a third of the book.”
Almost a century and a quarter later, everything and yet nothing has changed. Ironically — and oh, how Twain loved irony — Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘s contemporary enemies are almost the exact cultural opposite of their 19th-century predecessors. Now the word “nigger” all but jumps off the pages and straight into the minutes of school board meetings. And where the book was once pioneering for its sympathetic if occasionally clichéd portrayal of a black character, modern criticism comes from N-word-averse readers or nonreaders offended at how stereotypical Jim’s character seems by modern standards. Today, Huckleberry Finn is controversial not because Jim is “too likable,” but because he comes across as an ignorant, superstitious Stepin Fetchit.
When Twain began writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in July of 1876, few would have guessed that it would become his most important work. His publishers wanted a light adventure story in the mold of his best-selling novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The author’s initial intention was to write a companion to that work, and yet he also wanted this one to be a little different. This story would be told by an “unreliable” narrator, someone who was omniscient but in no way authoritative — or as Huck would put it, “book-learned.” Twain selected Huck, a minor character from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom he had described as “idle, lawless, and vulgar.”
Huckleberry Finn does indeed begin like a sequel to Tom Sawyer, with both characters living under the roof of the Widow Douglas and getting into light-hearted scrapes. But as soon as Huck’s inebriated father shows up, the book’s stark realism becomes darker than anything in Tom Sawyer. Huck’s “Pap” kidnaps him and takes him to Illinois, where the father’s harsh beatings prompt the boy to fake his own death and escape down the Mississippi River. On his journey, Huck runs into the Widow Douglas’ escaped slave Jim, and the two become companions through even more adventures. Many a college paper has since been penned about how Huck and Jim’s flight downriver symbolizes freedom and man’s natural state in contrast to their compromised interactions with shore life, which stands for society.
Today, Huck Finn often is hailed as the Great American Novel. Yet it is also banned from more classrooms than any other major American book. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that all American literature stems from it, while school boards in cities as enlightened as San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Modesto have challenged or removed the book.
Perhaps its best-known contemporary critic is the writer Jane Smiley, who penned a caustic critique in Harper’s Magazine after an extended bed rest led her to pick up and read the novel. “I closed the cover stunned,” she wrote in the January 1996 issue. “Yes, stunned. Not, by any means, by the artistry of the book but by the notion that this is the novel all American literature grows out of, that this is a great novel, that this is even a serious novel.”
Few American novels have been studied as much as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s no surprise that a book so controversial and morally ambiguous would attract academic scrutiny. For years, scholars painstakingly compared Twain’s original text with the final published version, doing their best to discern which passages were changed by an editor and which Twain himself wrote. But scholars only had the second half of his manuscript to work from. Speculation was that the first half had been destroyed by a printer more than a century earlier. Twain himself had said in a letter that he couldn’t find the damned thing anywhere.
Then, in 1990, like a reanimated ghost from one of his stories, the missing manuscript suddenly turned up. As Twain himself might have put it, the report of its death was an exaggeration. And once the manuscript was found — in the proverbial attic trunk, no less — thus began the real “adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a saga in which lawyers, editors, UC Berkeley academics, and the manuscript’s finder all struggled for ownership.
All of which no doubt would have caused Samuel Clemens to chuckle. After all, he once said: “Whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.”
Who knows what prompted Barbara Gluck Testa to finally go through the steamer trunks she’d inherited from her grandfather three decades earlier, but in 1990 she climbed up to her attic and did just that. The trunks had been sent her way in 1961, but between raising a family and working full-time as a librarian she’d never found the time. As she sorted through the items, she came across a stack of paper wrapped in an old blue envelope labeled “MSS. of Huck Finn by Mark Twain.”
Anyone else might have been disinclined to believe that they could actually possess a manuscript from Samuel Clemens. But Testa knew her grandfather, an East Coast lawyer, had done business with the author. Armed with the document, the retired librarian called Sotheby’s auction house.
Jay Dillon took Testa’s call. As Sotheby’s assistant director of books and manuscripts, his main function was “business development,” which meant scoring as much good stuff for the auction house as he could. Now a private dealer in rare books, he is a peculiar mix of Wall Street and Oxford University, with a dedicated drive to procure and sell what he calls “objets” and pronounces the French way.
Dillon remembers getting the call from Testa, who didn’t sound particularly thrilled to have found an apparent Twain original. Dillon didn’t get too excited, either. At the time, he says, his 250-year-old firm received ten to twenty calls a day from people claiming to own everything from Christopher Columbus’ bones to pieces of the True Cross. But in spite of his innate skepticism, Dillon listened to his caller.
“I kept a straight face, which I think was one of my qualities in that position,” he says proudly. “Just because you get offered a piece of the Cross 999 times doesn’t mean that the thousandth time isn’t right.”
It turned out that Testa’s manuscript was genuine. Dillon recognized Twain’s handwriting immediately, and the fact that her grandfather had been in correspondence with the author clinched it. Dillon acted quickly.
“If I do say so myself, I charmed the owner into sending it to me in New York,” he says. Dillon insured the document “on the order of a million dollars,” and promptly sent an armored truck to Testa’s Hollywood home. “The Brink’s truck I thought was a nice touch,” he says. “It impressed Miss Testa how seriously we were taking the whole thing. It was my intention to excite her and dazzle her to imbue her with all the confidences that she could possibly have … because the last thing I wanted her to do was to pick up the phone and call Christie’s.”
Most Twain scholars had long ago given up on finding the missing portion of Twain’s manuscript. It was believed to have been destroyed shortly after the book’s original publication, and yet a certain aura still surrounded it. A mystery writer named Julie Smith had even penned a 1987 novel, Huckleberry Fiend, about its imagined rediscovery. Smith’s book happened to be set in Oakland and concerned its protagonist’s efforts to find the volume’s “rightful owner” after the manuscript was discovered in the closet of a dead stewardess.
In real life, the manuscript was found three years later in the attic of a live librarian and did indeed provoke a scramble to establish the work’s rightful owner. To whom did it rightfully belong? Was it Testa, the granddaughter of Twain’s attorney? Was it the New York library that already possessed the document’s second half? Or was it the University of California at Berkeley, which long ago had been bequeathed the rights to any “new” unearthed Twain material?
Cal’s Mark Twain Project is tucked into a far corner of the fourth floor of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The approach to the project leads through a quiet, slightly gloomy maze of offices. But once inside, visitors are quickly inundated with Sam Clemens’ only remaining “living” heir: his body of work — manuscripts, letters, photographs, and first editions. Books, photographs, and plaster busts line the walls, and on one bulletin board, a clipping from Elle magazine lists the “hot” people of 2001, the year of Ken Burns’ documentary on the author. Mark Twain was number ten on the list, just one notch below J-Lo. Twain’s image is just as recognizable as J-Lo, too, with his ice-cream-white suit, brushlike mustache, and shock of gray hair. He is wholly the same in each of the project’s many images of him, and yet also wholly different. In one, his features appear worried and lined; in another, he looks as he did as a child — intelligent, cute, and plenty mischievous.
Although Twain spent a fair amount of time in California, his work ended up at Cal entirely by chance. Because one of Twain?s editors had been a professor at Cal, Twain?s daughter Clara, his last living heir, bequeathed the collection to the university upon her death. Today, the university owns the rights to most of Twain’s work, including anything not yet discovered.
When people devote their lives to the study and adulation of an author, the thrill of finding even something as small as a dog-eared pamphlet can send feverish ripples through the literati. Gribben, a professor of English at Alabama’s Auburn University who did his thesis work at the Twain Project, recalls a story about when Twain’s copy of Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was found. Twain had used the book as a study guide for his own A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and the margins were filled with his notes. “To say it created a sensation would be putting it mildly,” Gribben recalls.
Finding the lost manuscript from Huck Finn created a far bigger sensation. Just as people who were alive in the early 1960s remember where they were when they first heard that Kennedy was shot, word of the lost manuscript’s recovery was the professional equivalent for Twain scholars of those shots fired from the grassy knoll.
Cal Twain scholar Victor Fischer was astounded to learn that the manuscript’s lost first half had been found. Although partly elated, he was also stunned by the news, having just spent eight long years toiling on what he thought would be the definitive Huck Finn. A colleague of Fischer’s joked that such a discovery was “one of the worst things that could happen to a scholar.”
Soon, other scholars shared Fischer’s odd mixture of elation and anxiety. Since no university was likely to pay the millions of dollars needed to secure the manuscript at its expected auction price, Twain scholars were terrified that it would be sold to the highest bidder and then resold, page by page, to rich collectors seeking to own a piece of the Great American Novel. Although Dillon says things like that happen only rarely, and regards such talk as pernicious rumors designed to keep collectible books out of the hands of the private sector, William Loos, then-curator of the Grosvenor Rare Book Room at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, believed the manuscript was in danger of being lost to academia. It was a scholar’s worst nightmare.
The Buffalo and Erie County Library and Twain Project swiftly moved to keep the manuscript out of private hands. For seventeen months, lawyers from all corners battled it out. Each party had a good argument. Testa’s family had possessed the manuscript for more than a century; the library already had the document’s second half; and Cal claimed the rights to any and all undiscovered Twain.
Ultimately, Cal produced the document that clinched the deal. Tucked among the Mark Twain Project’s thousands of letters to and from the author, Fischer came across this 1887 letter from lawyer James Fraser Gluck: “Please accept my thanks for forwarding the first part of the Mss. of ‘Finn.‘ … The whole can now be bound and placed on exhibition.” Gluck went on to inform Twain that the manuscript would be displayed in the Buffalo and Erie County Library.
The letter was proof that Twain himself intended for the manuscript’s two halves to remain together. Upon learning of this letter, Gluck’s granddaughter Testa indicated that she was amenable to negotiation. She and her sister issued a statement saying that they were “sympathetic to the possibility of reuniting the manuscript.” The case ended in an out-of-court settlement between the parties in which the rights would belong jointly to the Twain Project and Twain Foundation, the physical manuscript would rejoin its other half in Buffalo, and Testa would have five years to profit from any published version of the new text.
Testa’s assertion of those rights resulted in a 1996 Random House edition of Huckleberry Finn best compared to the director’s cut of a Hollywood movie. The volume included at least two new passages that had been left out of the original version: a scene known as the “raftsman passage,” which had already been published elsewhere; and a ghost story told by Jim, about a time he’d encountered some cadavers in a medical school morgue.
Now, seven years later, Cal’s Twain Project has published the very different results of its own study of the manuscript. Billed as “the authoritative text,” the project’s 1,164-page version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the wonk’s handbook to Huck — the Mark Twain G-Tome Project.
The first 362 pages are simply the intended published text of Huck Finn, with the addition of the raftsman’s passage, and complete with the original illustrations for the story. But that’s only a third of the overall volume. The rest is reference material, beginning with maps of the regions Twain wrote about, all the way down to a line-by-line dissection of the novel based on his working notes.
The Twain Project’s work sheds light on Twain’s process and intentions, and should finally put to rest the controversy that surrounds the book. But it probably won’t.
At the very beginning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain famously discouraged readers from scouring his work for deeper meaning: “NOTICE. 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.”
Readers have been looking for meaning ever since, perhaps precisely because Twain’s sarcastic warning actually served to clue in readers to the true breadth of his intentions.
To be a Twain scholar you have to have patience, an open mind, a sense of humor, and an unrelenting zeal for the author’s work. Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo of the Twain Project possess those traits. Each has spent more than thirty years studying every letter, note, and draft of Twain’s available work. The pair approach their work from a decidedly left-brain perspective. Although they probably have a better understanding of Huck Finn than almost any other scholars, they have little interest in deconstructing meaning from passages or exploring themes of the book. “We consciously try to avoid approaching the work from a literary-criticism angle or taking personal stances vis-à-vis Mark Twain’s points of view,” Salamo says. The work they do is far more scientific, an examination of all Twain’s work in a way that can only be described as obsessive. The phrase “going over it with a fine-tooth comb” doesn’t do it justice.
As coeditors of the new volume, along with the late Walter Blair, Fischer and Salamo’s intent was to explicate every single aspect of the book. History, culture, language, art, and Twain’s life all were taken into account. “If you have an interest in the social history of Huckleberry Finn’s time period, 1845 or so, Missouri, Mississippi River Valley, there’s info about that,” Salamo says. “If your interest is, ‘What was it like in 1885 when the book was published, and what was the reaction then?,’ it’s in here. If your interest is ‘How did Mark Twain write this book over a period of seven years, what did it take for him to create this?,’ that’s here.”
The smallest changes from draft to draft were analyzed. For instance:
“In the earliest manuscript pages (MS1a pages 1-446, written in 1876) Jim consistently uses “pretty” and “never” until page 372, where the new forms “putty” and “nuvver” are introduced. It is probable that Mark Twain’s decision here to “let Jim say “putty … and nuvver” dates from 1876 and the writing of page 372. … Besides the occurrence on MS1a page 372, Jim’s only other use of “nuvver” is on MS2 page 209, written in 1883, where it is canceled and replaced by “never.” During the final stages of revision, Mark Twain adopted “pooty” and “never” as Jim’s forms: all instances of “putty” and “nuvver” in MS1a and MS1b were superceded in his published text (see the emendations at 125.6, 125.8, 150.34, and 151.3).”
The editors then devote 79 pages to detailed explanatory notes about everything from the cover design to an explanation of Twain’s use of the word nigger: “During the time of Huck’s story, ‘nigger’ was a common colloquial term for a black person, used by whites and blacks to refer to slave or freeman.”
Twain’s use of such vernacular is at the heart of the criticism of Huck Finn. It not only has led to anger over his word usage, but to accusations that he churned out the book without much thought. One of Jane Smiley’s main arguments against Huck Finn seemed to be that Twain threw together the book in a slapdash manner. “The last twelve chapters are boring, a sure sign that an author has lost the battle between plot and theme and is just filling in the blanks,” she wrote.
Yet one need only open Cal’s new tome to learn just how much work went into the writing of Huck Finn. Twain wrote and rewrote, going back over each word to improve the phrasing and timbre of each line, working out the parlance of his youth in his head and then transferring it to paper. He wrote copious notes to himself about plot and character, and took great care to get things right.
To most Twain scholars, there has never really been any real question that Huck Finn is a subversive, humanistic book. They believe Twain wanted to say something about morality, slavery, and the power of societal norms.
Smiley famously quarreled that the book was not an “accurate” portrayal of slavery, especially since Jim gains freedom in the end. “No matter how often the critics place in context Huck’s use of the word ‘nigger,'” she writes, “they can never excuse or fully hide the deeper racism of the novel — the way Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don’t care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans.” Smiley was referring to the fact that Jim and Huck head deeper into the South, instead of up north and into freedom. “Twain really saw Jim as no more than Huck’s sidekick, homoerotic or otherwise,” she wrote. “All the claims that are routinely made for the book’s humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd.”
Twain scholars believe this argument is rebutted by a passage that never made it into the final version, a grisly if stereotypical ghost story involving Jim and a dead body. Victor Doyno, who teaches English at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo and wrote the introduction to the Random House Huck Finn, believes Twain’s original manuscript directly disproves the notion that Jim is subservient to Huck. “Jim is established as an authoritative character early on,” he says, referring to the way in which Twain’s original text clearly set up the slave as an authority figure. Huck frequently turned to Jim for guidance, and Jim answers with carefully considered responses that some call superstitious, but others, common sense. Huck asks Jim if he’s ever seen a dead body. Jim then tells a story about a time that he was in a medical school morgue and came face to face with a cadaver that seemed to move. At face value, the story is simply an episodic scene-setter like one of the tales from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But Doyno sees more. “Slaves revered the living, the dead, and the dead who are remembered,” he wrote in his introduction. He finds Jim’s answer “considerate and decent rather than mere superstition.”
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is quite possibly the most misunderstood American novel. The book’s ambiguity has long been its albatross. Jane Smiley viewed this as a major weakness, faulting Twain for moral failure. To replace Huck Finn in the canon of Great American Literature, she offered up instead Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — a story about a devout Christian slave who is sold away from his family to a brutal owner. But unlike Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so didactic and unambiguous it practically came with narration from the abolitionist John Brown.
Huckleberry Finn is certainly far from didactic. Twain didn’t come out directly and say that slavery is wrong, although supporters of the work believe this message is clearly implied. Twain himself said the book was about “a sound heart versus the ill-trained conscience” — a complicated idea based on the notion that society corrupts the true moral goodness within each of us. Throughout the book, Huck continually rails against the imagined “right” thing to do, which was usually what society would find acceptable. Most notably, while Huck’s understanding of the law told him that he should turn in Jim as a runaway slave, his own heart urged him not to.
“The book is about the ill-trained conscience,” Fischer says. “His father, Pap, is an almost madman racist; that’s what Huck’s been taught is right, the acceptance of slavery and the idea of the slave as property. The tension of the book is the collision in Huck’s mind between those lessons: his trained conscience, and a sound heart.”
It all comes down to a passage from chapter 16, wherein Huck deceives men looking for runaway slaves and thereby saves Jim:
“They went off, and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show — when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on,– s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up; would you feel better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad–I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.”
Based upon such seemingly ambiguous passages, it’s easy to see how casual readers might misunderstand Twain’s attitudes about slavery. Doyno points to Twain’s original manuscript as proof that the author consciously toned down a lot of his original language to make his story more subtly subversive and thus more likely to reach the general public. Doyno believes the author’s progressive ideas about equality are best glimpsed in a letter from Clemens to a young sculptor in Paris whom he was supporting. Clemens was then thinking about contributing money to another young student, a black man named Porter.
“I haven’t answered Porter, cannot answer him until I hear from you how he stands,” he wrote. “Tell me all you have heard against him, keep back nothing whatever. Also tell me what part of the evidence rests upon trustworthy authority, and what part of it doubtful. I want to know everything about him, good and bad; for if he is worthy of help I want to turn out and see what I can do for him; and if he is not, I want to at least act with caution. At the same time I must remember, and you must also remember, that on every sin which a colored man commits, the just white man must make a considerable discount, because of the colored man’s antecedents. The heirs of slavery cannot with any sort of justice, be required to be as clear and straight and upright as the heirs of ancient freedom. And besides, whenever a colored man commits an unright action, upon his head is the guilt of only about of tenth of it, and upon your heads and mine and the rest of the white race lies fairly and justly the other nine tenths of the guilt.”
That a 118-year-old book could still provoke such strong reactions is pretty remarkable. The reason Adventures of Huckleberry Finn touches a nerve is its honest and brash realism. Like any humorist, Twain dared to say what others weren’t saying; he was like the Shakespearean fool allowed to say the unsayable. In the 1880s, he wasn’t afraid to suggest that slaves were people, albeit in the now-stereotypical vernacular of the time — “nigger.”
For Fischer, the problem this book faces these days isn’t its message, but the changing nature of the English language. “Huck has been brought into this racist society, and the book contains what we would call ‘loaded,’ upsetting, hurtful language — ‘the N word.’ It’s the language, more than the intention of the book, that has been what has gotten it into trouble. … Society is still grappling with racism and class, and this book has become a catalyst.”
A famous contemporary author may have best summed up Twain’s attitude: “If you are a novelist and a citizen of a certain time, your only option for engaging is found in the social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of reality. If you have a view that these things aren’t timeless, I don’t see what you’re engaging with.”
That writer was Jane Smiley.