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The following review appeared 1 May 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has conjured intellectual and emotional reactions from countless readers since its 1885 publication. Books and articles about its themes, enduring yet changing relevancies, characters, and Mark Twain himself number in the hundreds, if not thousands, with no apparent end in sight. Given such an enormous number, some skeptics may conclude that nothing more meaningful can be said. But this is like a veteran steamboat pilot saying that the great Mississippi River's twelve to thirteen hundred miles are completely "learned." As this new collection of essays shows, this is not so.
There have been a number of collections of critical essays on Huckleberry Finn over the past fifty years. To name just a handful: Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Claude Simpson, ed. (1968); One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn, Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley, eds. (1985); The Critical Response to Huckleberry Finn, Laurie Champion, ed. (1991); and Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. (1992). Each generation of scholars brings something unique to the forefront for critical examination.
This new volume is the second in the Critical Insight series from Salem Press that R. Kent Rasmussen has edited. The series is a valued resource for academic libraries for its array of scholarly criticism on authors such as Emily Dickinson, Stephen King, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rasmussen's Critical Insights: Mark Twain was released in 2011.
This volume devoted to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes sections on "The Book and the Author," "Critical Contexts," and "Critical Readings." A great literary work is integral with its author's background and Rasmussen's own essay "On Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" demonstrates that the masterpiece could not have been written without the stunning life experiences of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was a world traveler and his writing is fueled from his unique lifelong powers of observation, his ear for vernacular language, and his ability to make different generations rage and laugh at our humanity.
The "Critical Contexts" section begins with veteran Mark Twain Papers editor Victor Fischer explaining the process of creating a critical edition of Huckleberry Finn under the extraordinary circumstances that included manuscript halves separated for more than a century, references to heavily revised typescripts now lost, unauthorized editorial interventions, and inadvertent errors. Given the proliferation of editions that appeared in Clemens's lifetime, how difficult was it to have this work rendered as he intended? It was extremely difficult. In "'Bessie' or 'Becky': Should We Care about Text?" Fischer discusses the resulting differences between Twain's original manuscripts and the printed editions over the decades which involve the "raft episode," carefully crafted dialects, even the definite article "The" in the book's title.
Kevin Mac Donnell brings his long experience as a rare book librarian and widely published bibliographer and scholar to measure "Huck's Reception during Three Centuries" with a broad perspective ranging from nineteenth-century reviewers to twentieth-first century critics, including African American readers. He draws upon contemporary letters written to Mark Twain and provides clarification on Louisa May Alcott's and Ernest Hemingway's thoughts on Huckleberry Finn. Mac Donnell is right on target stating that the book has "been taught, translated, abridged, and banned but never ignored" (p, 48).
Alan Gribben's gut-wrenching personal experience in attempting to get The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn back into classrooms where both were banned because of the word "nigger" is recounted in "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Expelled: Censorship and the Classroom." The pain of Gribben's many African American students in reading this racial slur and his seeing both works banned in many statewide integrated public school classrooms gave him the tremendous courage to prepare editions of Twain's two novels without the offensive racial slurs; they were intended as extremely logical and workable alternatives to halt against "generations of students being prevented from encountering Twain's masterpieces" (p. 68). Gribben recounts the backlash of widespread firestorms of unjustified personal and professional condemnations in and beyond our country that were completely dismissive and were inexcusably empty of intelligent reaction. Yet like Jim never abandoning the wounded Tom Sawyer, Gribben's achievement certainly "removes the last possible excuse for public schools not to include these works in their curricula again" (pp. 79-80).
Jocelyn Chadwick in "Huckleberry Finn vs. Uncle Tom's Cabin as Antislavery Novels" examines both novels as separately distinctive "examples of the social media of both their time and our own" (p. 82). She also clearly differs with novelist Jane Smiley's 1996 Harper's Magazine article "Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second thoughts on Mark Twain's 'Masterpiece'" contrasting Huckleberry Finn unfavorably to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Chadwick pointedly shows that despite Stowe's sincere effort to show slavery in a way to end it, her work still developed and maintained negative racial and cultural stereotypes that tragically continue to affect race relations today. Twain's "masterpiece" is far superior in exceeding traditional antislavery novels because he wrote for future as well as his contemporary audiences in consistently showing the unreasoning brutality of slavery while simultaneously showing free and enslaved black people as "conscious, thinking, reflective human beings--real individuals with voice and choice" (p. 82).
The "Critical Readings" section naturally begins with the importance of studying a literary work with a critical eye. Can Pap Finn be ignored? As Injun Joe said, "not exactly," thanks to Finn, a 2007 work of terrifying art by novelist Jon Clinch. "Animating the Unsaid: Between the Lines in Huckleberry Finn" explores his painting a singular novel that meshes with Twain's as well as giving logically imaginative and surprising answers to the concentric black holes surrounding Pap himself that were suggested by Twain but left unsaid. Clinch fills in the details using a four-part approach of limitation, naivete, shading, and concealment derived from choices made by Twain as he fitted the novel as a product of Huck's character and narration. Thanks to Clinch, Pap no longer "haunts the margins" of Huckleberry Finn, his unleashing of this true monster makes readers bond fully with Huck's fear . . . as well we should (p. 103).
Humorist scholar Tracy Wuster contributes "'How a body can see and don't see at the same time': Reading Humor in Huckleberry Finn" to illustrate how the work of humor raises our awareness of the book's cultural issues as well as making it "both clearer and more fun" (p. 113). His essay scrutinizes Twain's role as a humorist; his creation of humor using Huck Finn's vernacular narration in his descriptions and perceptions; how humor molds understandings of Huck's moral dilemmas and ways Twain might be satirizing racism and morality; and finally humor's comprehension of the book's unforgettably controversial ending.
John Davis's "The Reluctant Author: Huck Finn's Metafictional Partnership with Mark Twain" showcases the exclusive joint authorial roles between a boy doing double duty as creator and character and so apparently more than just ink on paper, and his maker who was invented by Sam Clemens. Building his arguments include Huck's slight displeasure with how Mr. Mark Twain told the story of Tom Sawyer; Twain's framing of the story with his "NOTICE" and "Explanatory" both given by "The Author" himself; allusions to real books and river terminology used by Huck that could only be known by Twain; and even Huck's ability to precisely "write" Colonel Sherburn's language demonstrate his metafictional connection with the "Author" who is doing the "listening."
In "Is Huckleberry Finn a Picaresque Novel?" Robert Evans lays an extensive foundation for why it can be so regarded. Leading picaresque authority Ulrich Wicks provides thirty-three characteristics of picaresque fiction and Evans comments on how each applies to the novel.
In "Identity Switching in Huckleberry Finn" Linda Morris discusses all of Huck's multiple identity switches along with those by other characters. She displays how Huck is the only character to change in innocence, but ironically that quality reveals his true "identity" of persuasive imagination and spontaneous cleverness.
According to Mark Twain, "The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way." Perhaps this thought segues into "'Pow-wows of cussing': Profanity and Euphemistic Variants in Huckleberry Finn" by Sarah Fredericks. She thoroughly categorizes and clarifies what was considered foul language in Twain's time and how he pressed propriety's boundaries in his writings without irrevocably offending delicate sensibilities. Remarkably, in Huckleberry Finn explicit profanity is nearly transparent and Huck and Jim's passionate expressions at key moments in their growing character become stronger.
Mark Twain believed that civilization is hypocrisies and cruelties, with the word itself suggesting a lie. Philip Bader explains in "Why Huck Finn Can't Stand Being Sivilized" that Huck cannot be blamed for wanting no part of communities and individuals that can bewilder and at times frighten his ingenuous disposition. With various examples, Bader further illustrates that for all the physical and mental abuses striking this homeless orphan, amazingly he does not react with violent cruelty to others. Ironically, Huck is not the vulgar and bad boy according to the so-called civilized society. He is far more respectable in his readers' eyes and won't be going to hell.
"'Huck Finn, He Hain't Got No Family': Home, Family, and Parenting in Huckleberry Finn" expresses John Bird's view that while Twain was enjoying all aspects of his family life, he was writing of a boy who has none of it but still aches for it. His cases in point include Huck's almost crying because he has no family as a requirement to join Tom Sawyer's Gang; and remarking that Uncle Silas "always is" a "mighty nice old man," suggesting that Huck did stay at the Phelps farm.
"'It's Tom Sawyer!' (No it ain't . . . it's Huck Finn!)" by Hugh Davis discusses how Tom and Huck are often simplified and confused icons in the eyes of readers due to the different shaping of popular culture in media adaptations, toys, and memorabilia. Among several proofs, Davis reminds us that of course Tom and Huck are quite distinct in origin and character depth, lest we forget who narrates Tom Sawyer and who narrates Huckleberry Finn.
This volume contains a chronology of Mark Twain's life and related events through year 2011, extensive bibliography of works cited and index. Previous collections of critical essays on Huckleberry Finn have provided a timeless snapshot of scholarly attitudes and viewpoints when they were published. This 2017 collection, with its outstanding array of scholars, editors, and educators contributing fresh voices and viewpoints further defines the depths of the river of Mark Twain's masterpiece.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: John Pascal is in his sixteenth year teaching ninth and eleventh grade English at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey. He is in his second year teaching a course he developed called Writings of Mark Twain. He holds a B.A. Cum Laude in English from Villanova University, an M.B.A. from Seton Hall University, and an M.A. in English from Montclair State University.