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ClassicsOnline Home » TWAIN, M: Huckleberry Finn (Abridged)
Ernest Hemingway said: ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.’ And T.S. Eliot proposed that the character of Huckleberry Finn is ‘one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other discoveries which man has made about himself.’ Huckleberry Finn is indeed the archtypal American novel which everyone has heard of, though probably not read.
Mark Twain started to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as ‘a kind of companion’ to his children’s book, Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is an account of a romantic thirteen-year-old who lives happily with his Aunt Polly in St Petersburg. Tom loves pranks and he likes to make adventures happen and happen in style. Mark Twain started to write Huckleberry Finn along these lines, as a sequel to Tom Sawyer. It was to be another boyhood romance. However, even in the first few chapters the seeds are sown for what was to become a much deeper novel, one which many people interpret as an expression of the American state of mind at the time (1876). This does not preclude the fact that the novel is a rattlingly good adventure story, loved by children. However, it has an extra dimension and is a book which can be read on many levels. It is an adventure story, a moralistic story and a story about freedom and integrity, not only of the individual but of the American people as a whole. It is a timeless book and in the same way that the great English classic The Wind in the Willows is read firstly by children then revisited by adults, so is Huckleberry Finn.
The essential story is simple enough. A boy of about thirteen or fourteen decides to run away from the cruelties of a drunken father and ‘sivilizing’ pressures of respectable St. Petersburg society. At the moment of escape, he falls in with Jim, Miss Watson’s runaway slave. Together they make their way down the Mississippi on a raft brought down on the ‘June rise’, travelling over a thousand miles to the Phelps’ plantation in Arkansas, where the novel has its ending. Gradually we realize that the Mississippi river represents freedom and the uncorrupted world. It is the world of truth and between each of Huck and Jim’s adventures, time is suspended. Lying on the raft, cooking fish, gazing up at the stars, life is simple and straightforward for them. However, Huck learns about his conscience. Should he or should he not give Jim up to the authorities? Hiding Jim is illegal, he knows that but Jim is his friend and the fact that he is black makes no difference to Huck. He already knows from experience how wrong it would be to treat Jim as a gullible second-class citizen. He learns through many an incident that he has feelings just as sensitive as his own.
At the end of the novel Huck is back in civilization with his old friend Tom Sawyer. But Huck has learnt a lot. Even before he ran off he was getting bored with Tom’s ‘Sunday school’ adventures and now he is at the Phelps’ plantation he knows that Tom’s extraordinary efforts to set Jim free the hard way, so that it looks good, is unnecessary. However, he goes along with it. For Tom, rescuing Jim from captivity is an exercise and a challenge that has to be undertaken in as romantic way as possible. Huck, on the other hand, just wants to set Jim free. He respects Tom Sawyer’s style but deep down he realizes that to him it is all a game. But Huck has thought a lot on his long river journey. He has grown to know Jim as a person, not just as a runaway slave, and it has become his considered opinion that he should be free to live in peace with his wife and children.
Huck had always kicked against captivity (life with Widow Douglas was claustro-phobic) but on the river he found a truth and simplicity.
The book ends, leaving the reader assuming that Huck will not return with Tom to St Petersburg but once more strike off on his own.
This edition has been abridged especially for the younger reader but remains romantic, funny and frightening. If your favourite episode has been omitted please forgive us. It is the aim of the editor to whet young people’s appetites by introducing them to the rhythms of Mark Twain’s magical language and his rich cast of characters so that they will want to hear more about him. That is when they should turn to the book.
Notes by Jan Fielden
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TWAIN, M: Huckleberry Finn (Abridged)