How to Read Huck Finn: A Q&A with the Expert

Mark Twain/Image: CC/Wikipedia
Mark Twain/Image: CC/Wikipedia

We all know the story of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, right? A rough-and-tumble rascal gets into all kinds of adventures on the Mississippi River with his new bestie, a runaway slave named Jim. The ugly bigoted language can be tough to modern ears, but Twain’s masterpiece is ultimately about racial progress (right?), which is why it endures. Huck Finn is a bonafide classic, a literary benchmark in the annals of American exceptionalism.

Except, what if we’ve all been reading it wrong?

You better back that raft up and read Andrew Levy’s provocative Huck Finn’s America, which takes on the conventional wisdom of what the book is all about. Impeccably researched -- there are 125 pages of endnotes and source listings -- Levy’s book will make you reconsider everything you know, or were taught in sophomore English, about Twain’s most enduring work. For starters, how about the idea that race isn’t the central theme of the book? Here’s an excerpt to get the paddlewheel in your head a-turnin’.

If Levy’s book sounds up your alley, but you haven’t read Huck Finn in a while, I recommend it. (I know I missed out on some of the deeper insights because I couldn’t recall plot points and lesser characters.) Levy spoke with Signature about the complexities of children, the n-word debate, nineteenth-century Xboxes, and the original Slim Shady.

Signature: Tell me a little bit about your writing career, which is intriguing because it seems from the outset that all three of your books are very different styles.

ANDREW LEVY: Yes, I don't think of myself as a very good curator of my own career ... I should probably stick to one thing. But I teach at a small university, and cover a few different fields. It feels natural to me, though I know it doesn't always look that way from the outside.

SIG: What role has Mark Twain played in your life? Was Huck Finn a huge influence on you as a kid?

AL: Actually, I didn't become a fan until my mid-twenties. I liked Huck Finn as a kid, but I liked a lot of books I read. I'd say that Huck Finn has had a larger influence on my adulthood than my childhood. I love the book's respect for who, and what, respectable culture considers low and marginal, and Twain's obvious affection for what Huck calls a "barrel of odds and ends," for a world where things mix up and go better because they’re mixed. Twain's love of contrast and surprise. And his acuity, his refusal to buy the same cow over and over (I'm paraphrasing Junot Diaz here), and his outrage that others will. And finally, his historical vision, his capaciousness. I think there are times we can look down at him, the way we always look down at people from the past, but I also think there are ways we haven't yet caught up with him.

As I grew older I also grew less satisfied that the book could be viewed as a moral exemplar, that it could, or wanted to be, treated with such unquestioning goodwill. The late Sacvan Bercovitch had a great line about Huck Finn. Roughly, he said the book doesn't tell you how to live a moral life, but it can get you to a place where you can see what a moral life might look like, and then the rest is up to you. When I was younger, I loved the voice of the book, and the humor, but I love it even more now because it’s a challenge.

SIG: I think I get it, but I'll ask you to handle the heavy lifting. Please explain your basic thesis about how Huck Finn is being misread in modern times.

AL: We’ve tended to regard it as a lighthearted book about children with no political agenda, and a serious, if controversial book about race. But we got this backward -- or close to backward. We treat Huck Finn as if it is about how childhood used to be innocent, when in fact childhood was as complicated then as it is now; we often teach it as a book about racial progress (or, oppositely, claim that it is foundationally racist), when it is a sly, conflicted fable about how America sometimes moves backward or sideways on racial matters. And these two mistakes are really twins of one mistake: Both signify that we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles. In fact, Huck Finn is a roadmap to our dedicated amnesia on this matter -- maybe the roadmap. We mask its true self because we don't want to acknowledge it; but we keep it around because its echoes speak to us through the mask anyway.

I was really driven by the idea that American history and culture remain unfinished, that we think everything that can be said about a celebrated artifact has been said.

SIG: What was the researching and writing process like? It must have taken years amassing all the material and culling it down, no?

AL: Yes, twenty years, off and on. And still going. Twain is not like other historical subjects: He still releases new material, even a century after his death, and people still revere him, fight about him, write about him. He refuses to stand still, so you really can't "finish" a book about him. You can only stop.

I spent a lot of times in libraries. I can still smell those old newspapers in the Library of Congress because it really gets up in you. I bought my own microfilm machine on eBay, so I could work at home and still be with my family. And more than my other books, I kept a live back-and-forth with my own students, put my ideas to their scrutiny, tried to answer to their vision of what makes Huck Finn meaningful. Not what they received from me, but what they saw themselves. I footnoted their work. I hope I did them justice.

SIG: Can you please explain what you mean by Huck Finn being "'echoic, not progressive,'" which is an astute phrase for the American need to have our historical stories always moving forward instead of sideways or backward.

AL: The last sentence of HF, famously, is "I been there before." Huck finishes where he started. The plot doesn't exactly advance. Events repeat in slightly transmuted forms, or echo. (Even names echo: There's a Huck, a Buck, and then another Buck.) Twain was quite a history buff, and his writings abound with moments where he finds the sins of one generation or one nation reproduced in another, or future dystopic fantasies where the past repeats. He was particularly astute at recognizing "patterns," as Ishmael Reed has written. A prophet's sensibility.

SIG: The convolutions of childhood, the way kids are treated as either devils or angels, is as relevant today as in Twain's time, but you think these complexities as laid out in Huck Finn are often whitewashed in favor of it being told as a rollicking adventure story, correct?

AL: Yes, absolutely. At the very least, there's some image imprinted on Americans that Huck Finn is about a time when childhood was "innocent" and "freer." But Huck's childhood is complicated, fluid. Twain is actually providing an incredibly rich and complex -- and still relevant -- portrait of childhood. He was a great listener and very empathic. He was a parent, too, and I think the book really shines in that regard.

SIG: Speaking of whitewashing, I'd never noticed as a kid what a dick Tom Sawyer is ... Pretending to torture Jim with snakes? Jerk.

AL: No argument there. Later in life, Twain called Teddy Roosevelt the "Tom Sawyer of the political world." It was not a compliment.

SIG: You also make it clear how violent boyhood was in Twain's time, and how violent Huck Finn is. It wasn't The Waltons was it?

AL: Twain described witnessing a shockingly large number of murders, maimings, and accidental deaths when he was a child. It's hard to know if he's totally telling the truth, but it would almost be more interesting if he was exaggerating to make some point. And Huck Finn? There are thirteen corpses in that book, by the usual count.

But this was somewhat culturally and regionally specific. In many ways, Twain was accurately describing how children lived in frontier towns in the mid-nineteenth century. There are journals from the time, eyewitness reports, that seem to support this. Children trapped working in factories or plantations, or children in the newly ascendant American middle-class with leisure time and toys, were having different kinds of childhoods.

SIG: Another aspect of Twain's time that you hammer home is the role of the minstrel show. What role did they play in the author's life and in society at large?

AL: Yes, a complicated and conflicted point, to be sure. The minstrel show was a much larger -- and more resilient -- component of American pop culture than most modern Americans appreciate, or want to think about. And Huck Finn, in a way that we still don't really account for, is besotted with nineteenth-century pop culture. There are minstrel show routines in the book -- some of which Twain performed on tour -- and the plot even bears some similarity to the three-part structure of a minstrel show. A lot of the "nonsense" in Huck Finn -- the muddled Shakespeare, the cross-dressing -- those were minstrel show staples too. They also turned up in other pop genres, but created different kinds of social noise based upon where and how they were performed.

In part, Twain is trying to revive, in Huck Finn, some of the excitement he felt when, as a child, he became infatuated with African-American culture, as he saw it in the stories and speech of slaves. And some of the excitement he felt when he saw his first minstrel show, which he reflected about for decades after. That's what the book is basically about: a white teen identifying with black culture and political aspiration, and what happens then. We can say Twain identified with minstrelsy because he never stopped believing that black culture was his property to do with as he wished. We can also say that he found minstrelsy to be the only public outlet in American culture for his belief that race was a joke, a social construct. That belief is a key component of what made him so modern when it came to race matters.