The Critical Response to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

By Laurie Champion | Go to book overview

CRITICISM 1930-1959

HUCKLEBERRY FINN IS FIFTY YEARS OLD--YES; BUT IS HE RESPECTABLE?

ASA DON DICKINSON

Fifty years ago Mark Twain published his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. Well worthy of commemoration is this anniversary for oftener than any rival save The Scarlet Letter has his Odyssey of the Mississippi been hailed as the Great American novel.

The book was begun in 1876 at Quarry Farm near Elmira, N. Y., when the author was in the flower of his age and at the height of his literary productivity. But with half the story written he could only say, "I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have gone, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done." The time was not ripe; his inspiration failed entirely and the tale was put aside for years. The writing of The Prince and the Pauper and A Tramp Abroad engrossed him till 1880 when Huck once more unsuccessfully claimed his attention. It was a real steamboat voyage in 1882, preliminary to writing Life on the Mississippi, that brought Clemens's mind back to the glamorous river and revived in him the youthful enthusiasm of his pilot days.

In 1883 he resumed work on the old manuscript and now at last found himself writing with unexampled zest. In a letter to Howells ( August 22, 1883) he says, "I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn't name the number of days; I shouldn't believe it myself, and of course couldn't expect you to. I used to restrict myself to four or five hours a day and five days in the week, but this time I have wrought from breakfast to 5:15 P.M. six days in the week, and once or twice I smouched a Sunday when the boss wasn't looking. Nothing is half so good as literature hooked on Sunday, on the sly."

By the spring of 1884 the book was finished and Mark again wrote Howells: "My days are given to cursings, both loud and deep, for I am reading the Huck Finn proofs. They don't make a very great many mistakes, but those that do occur are of a nature to make a man swear his teeth loose."Howells offered to help with the proofs for the fun of reading the story. Clemens was equally astonished and delighted. "If you mean it, old man--if you are in earneast--pro-

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