Ben Shapiro’s Guide To Huckleberry Finn

The following is an excerpt from Ben Shapiro’s Third Thursday Book Club guide to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Starting at 8 PM ET tonight, Daily Wire members can take part in a live discussion with Ben where he’ll answer questions, share his Huck Finn cheat sheet, and break down all the most important themes and characters from the book. 

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often regarded as the Great American Novel – the single greatest expression of the American personality in literature. Huck himself is a uniquely American figure: brash yet insecure; entrepreneurial yet lazy; kind yet immoral. He’s a bundle of contradictions, a great enough character to hold an extraordinary variety of shades. But there is one virtue that characterizes both Huck and America above all else: a commitment to truth. Huck may be dishonest, but he’s no liar.

And because Huck is no liar, he is able to see a truth that those around him refuse to see: that Jim is not just a slave, not just a piece of property, not just a clown or a character in a farce. Huck sees that Jim is a human being, and that Jim deserves to be free. Because of that, we know that Huck deserves our love. And so does America.

A Short Biography 

Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. He had five older siblings; his father was a stern man who sought wealth in a variety of endeavors, none of them successful. But Twain’s mother was apparently a far livelier person, and Twain was close with her. When Twain was four years old, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a city located on the banks of the Mississippi River – the site of so much of Twain’s writing. In 1847, Twain’s father died. Throughout his childhood, Twain’s family would face abject poverty. 

Young Clemens stayed in school until the age of 12. Then he became an apprentice at the Hannibal Courier, moving to the Hannibal Western Union at the age of 15, working for his older brother Orion. In 1857, Twain began working as a pilot on a steamboat on the Mississippi, but the Civil War meant the end of such trade. He joined the Confederate Army for a brief period in 1861 but deserted. Instead, he went West, prospecting for gold in California. That venture fell through, and so he instead began reporting for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. It was there that Clemens began using the pseudonym Mark Twain, a steamboat term for marking the depth of the river.

In 1865, one of Twain’s short stories became a literary sensation. In 1869, he released The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue about his travels around the Mediterranean Sea. Then, in 1870, he married Olivia Langdon, a New York scion of a wealthy family. Twain and Livy lived in Buffalo, New York, and had four children. 

In 1876, Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He quickly began writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he didn’t publish it until 1884; by that point, he had written The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and Life on the Mississippi (1883). In 1885, Twain paid a broke Ulysses S. Grant to write his memoirs, perhaps the greatest presidential memoir of all time; the book sold more than 300,000 copies, but that didn’t stop Twain – a snakebitten businessman – from bankrupting the publishing house anyway.

Next, Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). By the time of his death, he was one of the most treasured Americans in public life. But his life was marred by personal tragedy: one of his sons died as a toddler, the couple lost a daughter at age 24 to spinal meningitis, and they lost a second daughter at 29 years old. His sole remaining child’s relationship with him was distant. In 1904, Livy died. On April 21, 1910, Twain followed. 

A Richly Comic Travelogue of The American South

Twain was a master of the travelogue – he wrote two bestselling travelogues during his lifetime. Huck Finn is the third, and the greatest; it is infused with his humor, his scathing commentary. And it takes on the place of Twain’s boyhood: the American South. Twain says in his 1876 preface to Tom Sawyer, “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life …. The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story.” Twain adds, “part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”

Twain’s view of the South is deeply skeptical. He sees in it brutal violence, cruelty, and the same sort of Gothic decay spotted by Edgar Allen Poe in his writings. Much of that was due to the innately corrupting character of slavery, as French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville had written in 1831: “[slavery] was the capital fact that was bound to exert an immense influence on the character, the laws, and the whole future of the South. Slavery … dishonors work; it introduces idleness into society, and with it, ignorance and haughtiness, poverty and luxury. It enervates the forces of the intellect and puts human activity to sleep. The influence of slavery, combined with the English character, explains the mores and social state of the South.” 

These themes run throughout Huck Finn. Twain investigates the almost-random violence of the American South; its obsession with status and class; its bizarre, contradictory relationship with religion; its acceptance of racism and slavery. Where Twain was an innocent abroad, traveling from Marseille to the Holy Land, Huck is an innocent at home – and yet he is a perennial foreigner. As a child, he is able to spot the falsities of the society in which he lives and to discover them in himself. And thanks to Huck’s innate virtue, his hatred of lies, his moral sensibility, he is able to rebel against those hypocrisies and evils. 

The Great Evil of Slavery

Huck Finn is, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird, the greatest American fictional repudiation of racism and slavery ever set in print. It is therefore highly ironic that the text has been bowdlerized and banned thanks to its use of the word “nigger,” which appears some 219 times in the text. The use of the n-word in the book is, of course, the point: America used to be a place where the n-word was freely bandied about. The complexities of the evolution of the n-word in American life – from a “neutral descriptor … quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people” to a full-on “unspeakable obscenity” is a fascinating element of a “larger cultural shift,” as black linguist John McWhorter points out. But in Huck Finn, the point isn’t to praise the use of the n-word, obviously – the book is a thorough and acidic repudiation of racism. As McWhorter writes, “isn’t showing the open use of the word in the past part of showing how far America has come? …. Black people want their kids to see the real Huckleberry Finn.”

The real Huck Finn is an anti-slavery masterwork. 

It represents a reworking of Twain’s childhood experiences with regard to slavery. Twain’s extended family had held slaves; in his childhood, he had heard stories told by a slave the children called “Uncle Dan’l.” In his autobiography, Twain writes of sitting in “Uncle Dan’l’s kitchen” between black and white children, “with the firelight playing on their faces and the shadows flickering upon the walls, clear back toward the cavernous gloom of the rear … and I can feel again the creepy joy which quivered through me when the time for the ghost story was reached …”

Twain had darker memories, too: he witnessed a slave killed with a piece of slag; he saw an Abolitionist nearly lynched; he witnessed “seeing a dozen black men and women, chained together, lying in a group on the pavement, waiting shipment to a Southern slave-market. They had the saddest faces I ever saw.” That experience finds its way into Huck Finn, too, when Huck witnesses the king and duke selling a family of slaves down the river: “I can’t ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other’s necks and crying; and I reckon I couldn’t a stood it all …”

Later on, when Twain got married, Livy took him up to her sister’s farm in upstate New York. One of the women living there was a freed slave, Mary Ann Cord. In 1874, Twain heard her story – she had been married, had seven children, watched her husband and children sold, and was finally reunited with one of her sons at the end of the Civil War. His dialect-written transcription of her life, titled “A True Story Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It,” was Twain’s first published piece in The Atlantic Monthly.

Jim has many of the same characteristics as Uncle Dan’l and Mary Ann Cord: he is a surrogate father to Huck, clever, often wise, self-reflective, tragic – and yet, in the characteristic full-bloodedness of Twain’s characters, ignorant and superstitious, prone to bouts of foolishness, and even at times cruel. It is clear that Jim’s shortcomings are not purely faults of his own; they’re outgrowths of the society in which he has been enslaved. 

Jim has inherent dignity. He believes in shibboleths – but so does Huck. “Jim knowed all kinds of signs,” Huck observes, impressed. “He said he knowed most everything.” What Jim knows most of all is the value of freedom: “I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I’s wuth eight hundr’d dollars.” 

But Jim also has practical knowledge. So Huck says, “he was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger.”

And Jim is the novel’s only true father. His story about beating his deaf and dumb daughter, not knowing her physical malady, is heartbreaking: “Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was pumb deef and dumb, Huck, plumb deef and dumb – en I’d ben a-treat’n her so!”

The sense of morality shared by Jim and Huck is the center of Huck Finn. They both live in the real world; both live based on a natural love for truth and a peculiar acceptance of what life brings. They live a moral in-between space – they aren’t criminals or crooks, but they also aren’t rule-obeying churchgoing types. “Pap always said it warn’t no harm to borrow things, if you was meaning to pay them back, sometime,” says Huck, “but the widow said it warn’t anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn’t borrow them anymore …”

Huck identifies with Jim because he, too, is an outcast from society, a foreigner in a land not his own. Huck’s father, Pap, is the most obviously racist character in the entire story: he rants openly about the supposed evils of the Missouri government, which won’t sell a free black man back into slavery until he’s been in the state for six months: “They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?” Pap is a murderous villain, a man who seizes his own son and tries to kill him; Huck has to escape from Pap and fake his own death in order to save his own life. 

But Jim is a surrogate father to Huck. At the beginning, Huck has no idea that Jim cares for him as a father should – and thus he has no reservations about playing a prank on him on the river. But then Jim disillusions him: “all you wuz thinkin’ ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed.” Huck writes, “It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back. It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.” Huck’s transition from normal Southern youth to abolitionist begins with the realization that Jim is a full person, not merely a tool to be used.

As soon as he realizes this, he recognizes that he is in conflict with an entire worldview drilled into him by the society of his youth. Huck begins to feel guilty about facilitating Jim’s dreams of freedom. When Jim tells him that he hopes to escape to freedom and then to purchase his wife and children, Huck responds, “It froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free …. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children – children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t done me no harm.” Obviously, Twain is laughing at this absurd perspective – Jim’s children are his own. But that’s the point, and Huck quickly realizes it: when he is confronted by slave-catchers who question him, he immediately lies on Jim’s behalf. He then adds that learning a morality that would have led him to give Jim up would have made him feel just as guilty as protecting Jim – so instead, he will follow his innate moral instinct. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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