I’ve read this novel six or seven times, starting from when I was ten years old. Most recently I read the annotated version published in 1996 by Bloomsbury, based on the then recently discovered original manuscripts (ISBN 0747526427). Whole libraries have been written about this book, and I have nothing new to add, but like many on goodreads.com I can’t resist the chance to think back about my relationship with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The first time I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I was ten years old and I was a racist, owing to the influence of my mother and a good friend who had been raised in Alabama. I don’t remember that I thought much about this novel other than it being a terrific adventure story. Most of the bitter satire went right over my head, I’m sure.
Sometime around then I used the word ‘nigger’ while my father was in the room. He spun around and in a quiet voice told me that if I ever used that word in his presence again he would beat me. I believed him, though he had never beaten me (and never did); and I never did use that word again, in his presence or outside it. Because of that, or maybe because by then, the mid sixties, there was widespread recognition of the perniciousness of racism, I soon let go of my racist attitudes. And within a couple years I began to be exposed to political views very far removed from the right-wing views held by my parents. So by the time I read Huckleberry Finn the second time, when I was fourteen, it was a very different novel. I remember being appalled at the vicious and mean-spirited back-woods southerners in Twain’s account of small-town Arkansas Mississippi river towns. And I saw for the first time part of what Twain was getting at in his portrayal of Jim - a really decent man whose main hope in life was that he could be reunited with his family, and no longer have to be in bondage.
I read the novel again at intervals of a few years, and no doubt saw it a bit differently each time. But then I let 30 years pass before reading it this last time. Fortunately, the edition I read this time had been amended with passages and whole scenes that Twain had removed prior to publication, presumably to avoid being overly offensive to his reading audience. The newly included scenes show Twain at his satiric best, poking devastating fun at religious charlatans and pious dangerous busybodies.
One thing I had forgotten about this novel is the way in which Twain has Huck Finn repeatedly choose between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, where ‘right’ was the conventional slave-holding mentality of the day, and ‘wrong’ was doing the decent thing and helping a slave escape to freedom. This fits in with one of the general themes of the book: the dichotomy between mere ‘book learning’ and learning from grounded principles and experience. We see this most obviously when Tom Sawyer is in the story at the beginning and end. But it’s a constant theme whenever Huck and Jim talk about general matters - Huck nearly always starts out with things he’s been taught by the widow Douglas or at Sunday School, or picked up from Tom Sawyer, but in the end he’s forced to come around to Jim’s point of view - one based on common sense, observation, and basic decency.
I wasn’t as disappointed in the final sequence of the novel as I was previously. Sure, it’s a letdown after the rest of the novel, but I don’t know that the bitter and ironic mood of the novel could or should have been sustained to the end. There were multiple places in the final four chapters that made me laugh, mostly at Twain’s very colorful language.