The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Ernest Hemingway called it the one book from which "all modern American literature" came and declared "there has been nothing as good since." Narrated in the first person and published in 1884, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn describes the adventures of a teenaged boy after he escapes from his abusive, alcoholic father.

In addition to its vivid descriptions of people and places along the Mississippi River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has also been noted for its exploration of race and identity. In the 20th and 21st centuries, scholars have argued over whether it is a racist or anti-racist novel. The book's coarse language and controversial depictions of African Americans have led several schools and libraries to ban it from their shelves.

Regardless of the controversy, nobody can deny the profound influence The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had on American literary culture. It was one of the first American novels to be written entirely in a regional dialect, and since its publication, it has been adapted countless times for film, television, literature, and stage.

1. The character of Huckleberry Finn was based on Twain's childhood friend.

In the Autobiography of Mark Twain (2010)—published 100 years after Twain's death at his request—Twain reveals that the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn came from his childhood friend Tom Blankenship:

In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only real independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continually happy and was envied by all the rest of us.

2. Twain stopped writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for several years before finishing it.

Twain set Huckleberry Finn aside twice for periods of three years before returning to it with renewed interest. He explained in his autobiography that he would work faithfully on a book for as long as it would "write itself," but, he says, "the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations [...] I put it away and dropped it out of my mind."

3. Twain kept rewriting the opening line of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn is renowned for eschewing stuffy formalism in favor of casual speech, but its original draft didn't start out that way. In an attempt to lend his writing style a more authentic dialect, Twain changed the opening line "You will not know about me" to "You do not know about me" before finally arriving at "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'; but that ain't no matter."

4. A library in Massachusetts called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "trash."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was widely criticized after its publication in 1884 for its coarse language. The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, for instance, excluded Huckleberry Finn from its collection in 1885, calling it "the veriest trash" and "more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people."

5. The illustrator for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could only afford to pay one model to pose for all the characters.

The magazine illustrator, Edward Kemble, was a struggling artist whose work attracted the attention of Mark Twain. Kemble's one model was a teenage boy named Cort who wore costumes to represent the different characters. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain offers very few descriptive details about how the various characters look, so for the most part Kemble had to base his illustrations on his own preconceptions about how different kinds of people look.

Of Kemble's work, Twain noted:

This batch of pictures is most rattling good. They please me exceedingly.

6. Critics still argue whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist or anti-racist.

Some critics point to the novel's 220 uses of the "N-word" and claim that its black characters are represented in a stereotypical manner. One critic called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "the most grotesque racist trash ever written." Others have fiercely defended the novel, claiming it exposes the fallacies of racism. One of its defenders called it "the greatest anti-racist novel by an American writer."

7. A 1955 television adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn avoided the racism controversy by eliminating Jim.

In the 1950s race was considered so sensitive a subject for national television that producers at CBS decided to avoid the issue altogether by omitting Jim—and all mentions of slavery—from their television adaptation.

8. One parent sued a school district for assigning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the 14th most frequently banned or challenged book between 2000–09. It has been banned from several schools across America due to its frequent use of racial slurs and concerns that it perpetuates racism.

In 1998 one parent sued her child's school district, claiming that assigning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exacerbated an "already tense racial environment." In 2015 Friends' Central School in Philadelphia decided to keep the book in its library but not require students to study it, arguing "its negative impact on the community outweighed its literary benefits."

9. Emmeline Grangerford from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a parody of a real-life poet.

In the story, Grangerford is the deceased daughter of a family that takes Huck in after a steamboat hits his raft. At their house, Huck notices the many crayon drawings and poems that Emmeline had produced in tribute to dead neighbors.

Emmeline was based on Julia A. Moore, a 19th-century Michigan poet who was best known for writing notoriously bad poetry. Twain once said that she had "the touch that makes an intentionally humorous episode pathetic and an intentionally pathetic one funny."

10. Twain's wife edited his writing.

Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, married Olivia Langford in 1870. Olivia, who came from a wealthy, progressive family, introduced Twain to her feminist and abolitionist values. After their marriage, Olivia edited all of Twain's work, serving as a restrained foil to Twain's impulsive self. The author claims that he "never wrote a serious word in [his] life until [he] married Mrs. Clemens."

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