The Critical Response to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

By Laurie Champion | Go to book overview

CRITICISM 1960-1985

A SOUND HEART AND A DEFORMED CONSCIENCE

HENRY NASH SMITH

Mark Twain worked on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at intervals over a period of seven years, from 1876 to 1883. During this time he wrote two considerable books ( A Tramp Abroad and The Prince and the Pauper), expanded "Old Times on the Mississippi" into Life on the Mississippi, and gathered various shorter pieces into three other volumes. But this is all essentially minor work. The main line of his development lies in the long preoccupation with the Matter of Hannibal and the Matter of the River that is recorded in "Old Times" and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and reaches a climax in his book about "Tom Sawyer's Comrade. Scene: The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty or Fifty Years Ago."

In writing Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain found a way to organize into a larger structure the insights that earlier humorists had recorded in their brief anecdotes. This technical accomplishment was of course inseparable from the process of discovering new meanings in his material. His development as a writer was a dialectic interplay in which the reach of his imagination imposed a constant strain on his technical resources, and innovations of method in turn opened up new vistas before his imagination.

The dialectic process is particularly striking in the gestation of Huckleberry Finn. The use of Huck as a narrative persona, with the consequent elimination of the author as an intruding presence in the story, resolved the difficulties about point of view and style that had been so conspicuous in the earlier books. But turning the story over to Huck brought into view previously unsuspected literary potentialities in the vernacular perspective, particularly the possibility of using vernacular speech for serious purposes and of transforming the vernacular narrator form a mere persona into a character with human depth. Mark Twain's response to the challenge made Huckleberry Finn the greatest of his books and one of the two or three acknowledged masterpieces of American literature. Yet this triumph created a new technical problem to which there was no solution; for what had begun as a comic story developed incipiently tragic implications contradicting the premises of comedy.

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