American Experience in Huck Finn Essay
American Experience in Huck Finn
“All modern American Literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.. ” claimed Ernest Hemingway, a American author and journalist. This quote represents the idea and perception of Huckleberry Finn as a defining moment in American Literature, a time when a new culture was being formed west of the Atlantic that had many different subjects and characteristics than that of the literature in Europe. What makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so original and such a representation of America is that whatever Huckleberry Finn, the character, is about or can be defined by, is what America was all about.
Through this complex character, Mark Twain was able to create a new American experience and show the reader all about it. The main characteristics of the American experience that Mark Twain represented through this character included a social commentary on the southern culture and its response to slavery and its general antebellum culture, the nature that defines America and how America defines its nature and the freedom from it, and the new anti-materialistic hero. The opening of the book deals with the most serious issue depicted; the idea of slavery and the response of the southerners to its injustices.
The majority of the American experience of slavery and its response are shown through the relationship between the main protagonist, Huck and his friend Jim. When Jim first approaches Huck to tell him that he has run away from his master Huck replies, “People would call me a low down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum- but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell.. ” (1379). In a time when it was illegal to aide slaves in their escape, Huck was just beginning to start his moral dilemma of his loyalties to the law, and his friendship with Jim.
This brings about a side note on the American experience of slavery that is not as developed as the response to slavery in Huck and that is: how does a person act and feel in a society in which they have friends that can become slaves. In many Abolitionist books and essays at the time, the reader was directed to feel for the slave as a man, as a brother. They used emotions to show the hardships of the slaves and play upon the guilt of the white American to end slavery. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain asked the reader to determine how they would act on slavery when they saw their friends under servitude.
This was a large issue because it brings out personal alliances with cultural alliances of the south. However, the main American experience Twain is trying to develop on slavery is not the personal relationship and whether or not slavery was a terrible issue, it was the southerners response to slavery. This is exemplified by two separate cases. The first is with slavery and Jim, and the second is with Huck’s abusive and drunken father who would “lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard” (1359). Both of these issues were just symbols of the southern distorted culture of the time.
A culture that could enslave a man, calls themselves good Christian men, and then falls asleep drunk. What is peculiar about this novel is not necessarily Twain’s feelings regarding the morality of this culture. It is fairly obvious that he disapproves of such and shows that it is a morally defunct society, but rather what makes this novel truly representative of the American experience is showing how even someone who is not morally corrupted acts upon it. Huck, who is shown through his helping of Jim and his friendship with Jim, clearly understands the injustice of slavery and the immoral acts his father does.
What does he do about it though? Does he seek to transform this southern society through work or a mini-revolution? No, he just simply moves along. This is the central irony of the book, and thus represented of one of the ironies of the American experience in the 19th century. Huck Finn chooses to leave intact this society that is clearly in need of change, and just simply leaves the place behind. It shows that he is against slavery and the ideals of the south and thus won’t live in it, but he also won’t change it. This was one of the most prominent experiences of America in the 19th century.
Many whites disagreed with slavery, but if it did not affect their lives, as they were not necessarily the culprit or the victim, they just went on living their lives. The most common feature of this novel is movement. While this was crucial in developing the irony that was the southern response to slavery, it is also important in itself. In this novel, the main characters are always going somewhere, leaving a place in which they didn’t like or had a bad experience, and moving on to the next. This sense of freedom from nature was feature that is distinctly American.
In the novel, the river was a central metaphor as it brought them food, their raft, but also gave them a means of transportation. The American experience of traveling for the sake of traveling and expanding yourself in nature is shown from their experiences with movement in the river. Huck Finn was a character who is always in motion, always free. This was seen by the fact that he did start out the trip trying to provide freedom for Jim up the river, but when they passed Cairo he did not stop. In fact, the new route would take them to New Orleans, a slave-trading capital of the south at the time (Johnson).
The freedom that nature provided Huck was seen by his depiction of the nights on the raft as “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars.. ” (1423). This freedom brings a release from the world of land, the towns where people were entrapped in a cycle of guns, alcohol, and racism. He does not see in moral meaning in nature like the transcendentalists of the time, rather it was an escape of the modern world, a place to have pleasant feelings. This freedom is an American experience. In just a purely physical sense, America has the opportunities for freedom.
Vast lands, ample rivers, defined seasons all allow the American to seek freedom from society. This is something that was not seen in Europe as you were subjected to just your own country’s land through language, cultural, and physical barriers. This idea of jumping on a raft and finding your freedom, both spiritually as in the case of Huck and physically in the case of Jim, is something that represents a true American experience. This myth of the open frontier continued in writing for decades to come, a myth that would allow the individual American to escape the rapidly growing urban centers that were developing an uneducated middle-class.
The last particularly American subject is the hero of the novel himself, Huck. Huck is envisioned as this romantic anti-society anti-inheritance hero. In coming-to-age novels of the time, many were determined to show the process the character mature, moving past their youthful selves and into a role of social acceptance of culture. Huck represents a new American subject, on who speaks as he wishes, and does as he wants. Because of his traveling lifestyle, Huck does not concern himself with inheritance or money for any matter.
What mattered most for Huck in the story was the materials that made the journey possible. He was not concerned with his social class, his need for a life with a wife, kids, and money. This metaphor represents the American Anti-materialistic culture that was forming, and thus Twain depicted it as such in his story. The sense of anti-conformity culture was the subject, a view that was depicted primarily by Huck. To combat the idea that Huck was just a child, and this is how he was supposed to act, Twain introduces two characters.
The Duke and Dauphin, con-artists who swindle people out of their money by performing productions represent the free nature, the anti-materialistic culture that Huck represents. While these two do act in order to obtain money, the goal of the money is not to obtain a higher social order, but to carry on in life. It supplies their thirst for fun. This was seen when after a heist, the Duke asks to count the money so that they can “take and give it to the girls” (1451). This shows that they went about their plan yes for the money, but the money was not an object that they desired; it is what it can be immediately used for that defines it.
This was against the European experience of inheritance and the desire to better oneself in a Victorian fashion, and represented an American subject. Huck finds out throughout the story and the encounters with the people in the towns, how to live in order to escape the social conformity, thus creating his own identity. This idea of putting your obligations to you self-creation and fun, and not to the creation of a self that is defined by community or cultural standards was an effective approach to an American subject.
In an extended metaphor, Huck Finn and his friends and acquaintances represent an American subject. Their reactions to slavery represent the blind eye and unwillingness to put about change in the southern culture of slavery and racism, a subject that would arguably represent the south to this day. At the same time, the river which took them away from their culture as opposed to fighting it, also represents the freedom of America, a subject Twain makes sure he repeats throughout the novel.
Lastly, the characters themselves represent a new age of anti-materialism, a staunch contrast to the European idea of self-betterment for the sake of culture and standing. In all, these metaphors all show a new American subject. Cited: Twain, Mark. “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. ” The Harper Single Volume American Literature. Ed. McQuade et al. New York: Longman. 1999. 1355-1522 Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 2 and 6.