Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at once a comic masterpiece and a serious exploration of what distinguishes the American character, above all, its love of freedom and independence. Although still widely read in its original book form, Huckleberry Finn has passed into the broader realm of American pop culture. It is endlessly recycled in film and television versions, often in Disneyfied adaptations that turn it into musical comedy. It has become the sort of book that is commonly described as "beloved." Despite its racist language, which often keeps it from being taught to young people in schools, it is often classified as a children's book.
Yet Huckleberry Finn is dark and deeply unnerving. It is filled with an unending parade of con artists, impostors, vigilantes, lynch mobs, and other practitioners of fraud and deception or cruelty and inhumanity. Wherever one turns, one finds murder or the threat of murder. At its most disturbing, Huckleberry Finn confronts the darkest blot on the land of the free—the crime of slavery. The book seems misanthropic, anticipating Twain's cynical vision in his later work, especially the Mysterious Stranger fragments. To varying degrees, he seems to be questioning conventional morality and religious faith in Huckleberry Finn. It seems to be the very opposite of a children's book as commonly understood.
All this leaves us with a paradox. In popular culture, Huckleberry Finn conjures up images of the fresh-faced All-American boy, played by cute child stars like Mickey Rooney, Ron Howard, or Elijah Wood. Yet in terms of the events and characters it portrays, the book has all the warmth and sweetness of a film noir. It seems like a cross between Johnny Appleseed and Dial M for Murder. For years I puzzled: how could such a classic story of America be so dark and misanthropic?
Fresh Starts, False Starts
I began to put the two sides of the book together when I came across this passage from V.S. Pritchett's essay "Huckleberry Finn and the Cruelty of American Humor," published in 1941 in New Statesman and Nation:
As Huck Finn and old Jim drift down the Mississippi from one horrifying little town to the next and hear the voices of men quietly swearing at each other across the waters; as they pass the time of day with scroungers, rogues, murderers, the lonely women, the frothing revivalists, the maundering boatmen and fantastic drunks of the river towns, we see the human wastage that is left in the wake of a great effort of the human will, the hopes frustrated, the idealism which has been whittled down to eccentricity and craft. These people are the price paid for building a new country.
Pritchett grasps how the bright and dark sides of Huckleberry Finn fit together. If you are going to give people freedom, you are going to have to live with how they misuse it. If a nation is dedicated to giving people fresh starts, a lot of them will make false starts. A country based on political idealism will end up with a lot of people cynically exploiting the idealists. Huckleberry Finn portrays both the American dream and its nightmarish underside. Even as it offers an enduring tribute to our longing for freedom, it reveals, as Pritchett suggests, that we may pay a great price for liberating the desires and ambitions of ordinary human beings.
Twain's book is thus a Tocquevillian comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of aristocracy and democracy as ways of life. Aristocracy offers a fixed social hierarchy, in which people are born into their stations in life. The different social ranks are readily identifiable by clear and fixed markers, such as clothing, speech patterns, and manners. The price the majority of people pay for living in an aristocracy is lack of freedom and social mobility. But the very rigidity of an aristocratic society brings a kind of psychological comfort. "Once a serf, always a serf" is the basic principle of aristocracy. Because individuals can do very little if anything about their place in an aristocracy, they need not torment themselves. Your social rank is not your fault and you know your place; what is more, everybody else does, too.
Democracy, by contrast, tears down aristocratic hierarchies, introducing freedom and social mobility and thereby liberating human energies. The American dream is that anybody can become president; people do not have to be born into positions of power. That is a wonderful prospect, but it also means that it is your own fault if you remain in a low station in life. Compared to aristocracy, then, democracy gives the vast majority of people reason to be dissatisfied with their current lot because they have genuine hopes of improving on it. Democratic individuals tend to crave more—more money, more power, more honor. That is what is good about democracy—it energizes human efforts. Freedom, especially in the marketplace, can be a powerful force for human betterment.
Land of the Free, Home of the Fake
Set free from aristocratic restraints people in a democracy are, however, beset by new fears and anxieties. They can no longer be sure of their status in life. The prospect of rising is inevitably accompanied by the possibility of falling. Moreover, the clear aristocratic markers of social standing dissolve. It becomes difficult to distinguish the genuinely self-made man from the con man. The respected entrepreneur you meet at a party may be Bill Gates, but he may just as well be Bernie Madoff (Twain portrays a primitive Ponzi scheme at the end of chapter 8 of Huckleberry Finn). Democracy's freedom and openness paradoxically make social identity less transparent. The democratic world is filled with impostors.
Confusion of identity is the keynote of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is always carrying on one masquerade or another. At one point he even tries to pass as a girl, though he cannot quite bring off that deception. He adopts so many false names in the course of his travels that he has a hard time remembering who he is claiming to be at any given moment. Amidst the Grangerford family, he suddenly finds himself at a loss for the alias he has been using: "I went to bed with Buck, and when I waked up in the morning, drat it all, I had forgot what my name was." When he comes to the Phelps farm, he realizes that he has been mistaken for a family relative, but he does not know which one. His problem becomes to "find out who I was." This is democratic America for Twain—you are not told who you are; you have to discover it.
Soon Huck learns that in the eyes of the Phelps family, he is none other than his old friend Tom Sawyer. Huck describes this discovery as "like being born again," and indeed "born again," with all its religious connotations, is a phrase we associate with America and its fresh-start spirit. Huckleberry Finn is all about "born again" Americans, a democratic people who are constantly inventing and re-inventing themselves. A Mississippi River pilot named Samuel Clemens reconfigured himself as a writer named Mark Twain, and the rest is literary history. Clemens was in fact one of the first to understand that in a democratic society a man might use the modern media to invent himself as a celebrity. In Twain's presentation, America is a land of disguises. As a runaway slave, Jim in particular must continually be kept under wraps. In a bizarre development—of whose irony Twain must have been aware—Jim ends up dressed in the theatrical costume of King Lear. One of the central motifs of Huckleberry Finn is the theatricality of democratic America. People are constantly playing roles in public, and changing their identities seems no more difficult than changing their costumes.
How is all this deception possible? In the case of Aunt Sally's mistaking Huck's identity, the answer is simple: although Tom Sawyer is her nephew, because she lives apart from him she does not know what he looks like. The America of Huckleberry Finn is a land of widely dispersed families, often families that have been forcibly broken up. This issue is central to Jim's story—he is worried about his family being divided up among several different owners, as happened all the time to slaves in the antebellum South. Huck's family is broken up, and so is Tom's. The social mobility of democratic America goes along with geographic, and sheer physical, mobility. As Pritchett writes: "movement, a sense of continual migration, is the history of America." Epitomized by Horace Greeley's famous injunction: "Go West, young man," America has set its population in perpetual motion. Huckleberry Finn is accordingly a picaresque tale, with its characters always on the go in their journey down the Mississippi. It is not just Jim who must keep moving to preserve his freedom. Character after character is seeking some kind of a fresh start that requires framing a new identity on the fly.
That is why nobody knows for sure anymore who anybody is in Huckleberry Finn. In the aristocratic world of the old regime in Europe, most people were immobile, tied to the land. That is what it meant to be a serf. When people live in small villages, everybody knows who everybody else is and imposture becomes impossible. The simple answer to the village impostor is: "You're not the duke; you're John the blacksmith." But Twain's America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor, a stranger in a strange land. This is perhaps the best example of how all the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest. Field's taglines—"Never give a sucker an even break" and "You can't cheat an honest man"—have a distinctively American ring to them. The country of George Washington—who could not tell a lie—is also the country of P.T. Barnum—who made a career of it.
A Sucker Born Again Every Minute
The most irrepressible impostors in Huckleberry Finn are the king and the duke. They succeed in their fraudulent behavior by always staying one step ahead of the lynch mob. As long as they keep moving from town to town, they can use the same old con game by finding new victims. In their shameless impostures, they represent the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise. When they first team up to defraud the public, they assess their range as impostors:
"What's your line—mainly?"
"Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there's a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture sometimes—oh, I do lots of things—most anything that comes handy, so it ain't work. What's your lay?"
"I've done considerble in the doctoring way in my time. Layin' on o' hands is my best holt—for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; an I k'n tell a future pretty good when I've got somebody along to find out the facts for me. Preachin's my line, too; and workin' camp-meetin's, and missionaryin around."
The range of this false expertise is indeed remarkable, as the king and the duke "master" science, technology, and medicine. We are struck by their commitment to pseudo-sciences, such as mesmerism and phrenology, but their careers are a good reminder that it has always been difficult to separate real science from pseudo-science in free-wheeling America. Americans are perennial optimists, believing firmly that with freedom comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes progress and improvement. With enough effort, any problem can be solved, and, in particular, any disease can be cured. That is why Americans are so susceptible to the siren song of the medicine man. Democratic America has led the world in the development of modern medicine, but for that very reason it has also produced more than its share of medical quacks. Free markets allow for a wide range of experiments in technology and medicine, but for every cure discovered, many false ones may be tried out. The hope of course is that the market will, over time, sort out the true cures from the false. The comeuppance eventually suffered by the king and the duke is proof that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. But still, their initial success as con men is a troubling by-product of the freedom America allows its citizens.
Another realm in which the king and the duke can exploit the American public's gullibility is religion. They have a temperance scam, in which they play upon the moral fervor of their spellbound audience in order to extract donations for the noble cause of teetotalism. Americans, as part of their democratic character, like to think the best of people. This is no doubt an admirable trait, but again, it makes them especially susceptible to con games. They love to hear stories of religious conversion, of criminals who discover the evil of their ways and confess their sins. That is why the king and the duke include preaching among their swindles. Their ability to exploit religion for financial gain is the dark side of the genuine power of evangelical movements in the United States.
With no established church in America, anybody can set himself up as a preacher. In the absence of any official form of validation, preaching must become self-validating and therefore rely on the preacher's charisma. Unable to count on a captive audience, preachers must create their own congregations. This makes for powerful preaching. What amounts to a free market in religion has energized American churches. Europeans, with their state churches, have long marveled at the religious vitality of America, above all, the periodic mass religious awakenings and the emergence of whole new sects, such as the Mormons. America has produced a remarkable number of religious leaders, but according to the logic of democracy that works throughout Huckleberry Finn, the United States has turned out many false prophets as well (and of course one person's religious leader is another's false prophet).
King for a Day
To come back to Pritchett's pregnant formulation—"These people are the price paid for building a new country"—we see Twain's central insight: the con man is the evil twin of the American hero, the entrepreneur, the self-made man, the rags-to-riches genius. Yet there is something peculiar about Twain's principal grifters. These products of democracy choose to impersonate aristocrats. One of them claims to be descended from the "eldest son of the Duke of Bridgewater" from England, and the other claims to be the French dauphin, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and thus rightfully Louis XVII. A further paradox of democracy is the widespread allure of faux aristocracy. Among the false starts, false cures, and false prophets in America are the false aristocrats. The United States has broken with European aristocracy, but it remains fascinated by it. Perhaps Americans are fascinated by aristocracy precisely because they have broken with it. Virtually from the moment Americans chose to split off from England, they fell into the grip of anglophilia, deriving much of their culture—their literature, music, painting, architecture—from English sources. The patriotic hymn to U.S. liberty, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," is sung to the tune of "God Save the King." American anglophilia has particularly focused on English aristocratic trappings, with images of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London at the center of the cult of all things English. The obsession with Princess Di was a recent reflection of this aristocratic bent. One got the impression that Americans felt deprived because they never had a royal princess of their own.
Twain dwells on the way Americans become suckers for anyone or anything that smacks of English aristocracy. Americans crave its trappings, the various forms of dress, speech patterns, and manners that give an aura of "class." Some Americans have cultivated phony English accents to make them seem elegant. The fox-and-hounds set among American upper-class society is another good example of this anglophilia. Americans are always trying to recapture something of the hierarchical character of aristocratic life. Aware of this potential problem, the framers had the wisdom in the Constitution to forbid titles of nobility in the U.S. But Americans keep seeking ways to get around the fact that genuine aristocracy is outlawed. They strive to re-create aristocracy on a democratic basis. That tendency is evident in the phenomenon of gentlemen's or ladies' clubs (often created on English models) and other social organizations with well-defined ranks. "Democratic aristocracies" have emerged in such fields as sports and entertainment, with titles like the Sultan of Swat and the King of Rock & Roll (not to mention the Duke of Earl). Somehow the Kennedys even got themselves identified with Camelot.
In Huckleberry Finn the king and the duke learn of a substantial inheritance in England, and in a classic con game pretend to be the two designated heirs in order to claim the money. Twain presents average Americans at their most gullible in this sequence. The poor imposture should be transparent to all; even Huck is able to see right through it. But the simple townsfolk grasp at any signs that they are dealing with a superior class of people from England, and the king and the duke prey upon their ignorance. Even when they betray their own ignorance by using the term "orgies" instead of "obsequies" to refer to the funeral ceremony, the would-be Englishmen are able to trade on snob appeal:
I say orgies, not because it's the common term, because it ain't—obsequies bein' the common term—but because orgies is the right term. Obsequies ain't used in England no more, now—it's gone out. We say orgies now, in England. Orgies is better, because it means the thing you're after, more exact. It's a word that's made up out'n the Greek orgo, outside, open, abroad; and the Hebrew jeesum, to plant, cover up; hence inter. So, you see, funeral orgies is an open or public funeral.
The fraudulent inheritance plot generates some of the funniest moments in the novel, but it has a serious significance. Twain suggests that America's whole inheritance from England is basically fraudulent, especially when it takes the form of superficial pretensions to aristocratic superiority.
Sham aristocracy is at the heart of Huckleberry Finn. In Twain's view, the antebellum South was characterized precisely by its false pretentions to aristocracy. Rich landowners in the South had tried to create a new species of inequality in the midst of democratic America. In the form of the Southern plantation, they sought to transpose the way of life of landed aristocrats in England to an American setting. Twain subjects the Southern aristocratic ideal to scrutiny in his portrait of the Grangerfords, whose family is at first presented as in many respects admirable. Huck initially looks up to Colonel Grangerford as a true "gentleman": "He was well-born, as the saying is, and that's worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town." Huck is impressed when he looks at his better in the form of Colonel Grangerford:
His hands was long and thin, and every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at.... He carried a mahogany cane with a silver head to it. There warn't no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn't ever loud. He was as kind as he could be—you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence.... He didn't ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners—everybody was always good mannered where he was.
This is the aristocratic ideal of Southern gentility and I believe that Twain genuinely admired it. Even Huck admires it. Colonel Grangerford is the opposite of Huck in every respect, partly because he has everything that Huck lacks. As a wealthy landowner, Grangerford can afford to live a life of noblesse oblige and set an example of elegant manners for his community.
But the emphasis in this passage is on Grangerford's appearance and the clothing he wears. Is the suggestion that his aristocratic character is something merely external, something just for show? Is his nobility just an aristocratic veneer? As we learn elsewhere in the book, democratic Huck likes to go naked along with Jim: "we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn't go much on clothes, nohow." For Huck, clothing is a matter of utility, not nobility; when he doesn't need clothing, he doesn't wear it. Twain raises the issue of whether clothes make the man in Huck's vision of the king's new raiment:
We had all bought store clothes where we stopped last; and now the king put his'n on.... The king's duds was all black, and he did look real swell and starchy. I never knowed how clothes could change a body before. Why, before, he looked like the orneriest old rip that ever was; but now, when he'd take off his new white beaver and make a bow and do a smile, he looked that grand and good and pious that you'd say he had walked right out of the ark, and maybe was old Leviticus himself.
We thus need to take another look at the Grangerfords: "Bob was the oldest, and Tom next. Tall, beautiful men with very broad shoulders and brown faces, and long black hair and black eyes. They dressed in white linen from head to foot, like the old gentleman, and wore broad Panama hats." Here the emphasis is almost exclusively on the external appearance of this aristocratic clan. And then we see what all this Southern gentility is based on: "Each person had their own nigger to wait on them.... My nigger had a monstrous easy time, because I warn't used to having anybody do anything for me.... The old gentleman owned a lot of farms, and over a hundred niggers." This aristocracy—this leisured class—is made possible only by slavery. Twain traces the darkest blot on America—the continuation of slavery in a democratic land—to the lingering allure of aristocracy. In Twain's view, it was all a masquerade, but tragically, Southerners proved willing to die for it.
Unmasking the Imposture
Thus for all Twain's awareness of the shortcomings of democratic life, he clearly is no partisan of aristocracy, a system he condemns as rooted in slavery (he makes the same point at length in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). In fact, he seems to suggest that democracy goes wrong precisely when it clings to aristocratic ideals and tries to recreate them, even at the cost of perpetuating slavery. He includes a conversation between Huck and Jim in which Huck criticizes a whole series of European monarchs for their bad behavior, including Charles II, Louis XIV, Louis XV, James II, Edward II, and Richard III. Henry VIII comes in for special criticism for the tyrannical way he treated the women in his life: "He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning." Huck is trying to explain to Jim that the real kings of Europe were far more evil than the false kings they have encountered in America:
That's the kind of a bug Henry was; and if we'd a had him along ‘stead of our kings, he'd a fooled that town a heap more than ourn done. I don't say that ourn is lambs, because they ain't, when you come right down to the cold facts; but they ain't nothing to that old ram, anyway. All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a might ornery lot. It's the way they're raised.
At least in democracy there is a chance of unmasking the imposture. The king and the duke are not really convincing in their aristocratic roles, largely because they were not born to them. As Huck explains to Jim, men born as kings make the most successful impostors. In Twain's view, aristocracy simply is fraud; it is all an illusion, based on mere externals, based on show, as again Huck explains to Jim: "I read considerable to Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister." For Twain, aristocracy is by its very nature imposture, some men claiming falsely that they are born to rule over others. But people bred to rule seem to do a better job of convincing others to accept their slavery. That is why, in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.