Michael McCooe – 19th Century: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Written by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first-published in 1884. Chronicling the tales of an eponymous child-hero, as he attempts to head through the Mississippi Valley with runaway slave Jim, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become a seminal American text.

Leaving Missouri

We meet Huckleberry Finn “forty or fifty years ago” in his home-town of St Petersburg, Missouri. After living with drunkard, abusive father Pap, Huck was placed under the guardianship of Widow Douglas and her strict sister Miss Watson, who attempted to introduce the boy to religion, to “civilise him.”

We were introduced to Huck in Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Here we saw how Huck and his middle class pal Sawyer amassed a considerable sum of cash. At the start of this novel, Huck expresses his dissatisfaction with civilised life to Tom, with both deciding to leave with their fortune. While escaping, they encounter Pap, who kidnaps Huck and whisks him away from St Petersburg.

Reuniting with Jim

Pap takes Huck to a cabin on the Illinois shoreline. Refusing to live with Pap, Huck fakes his death and flees to Jackson’s Island, reuniting with Miss Watson’s slave Jim, who has escaped. Jim is heading to Cairo, Illinois, to live as a freeman and buy his family’s freedom. Huck is conflicted over the ‘crime’ of helping a runaway slave but camps out on the Island with Jim, becoming friends with the former slave.

After flooding, the two find a raft on the Mississippi. They leave Jackson’s Island, after Huck learns that there’s a bounty on Jim’s head. They plan to take the raft up to the mouth of the Ohio River and catch a steamboat to the Free States. After sailing past St Louis, they miss the mouth of the Ohio River due to intense fog, encountering a group looking for stolen “property” i.e. slaves. Telling the men they have smallpox, Huck and Jim flee, only to be separated when the next night, a steamboat slams into their raft.

Running cons

Huck finds the home of the Grangerfords, a southern aristocrat family. While staying with the Grangerfords, Huck is caught up in their feud with the Shepherdsons, reuniting with Jim, who has fixed the raft, when he is caught up in a gun fight between the clans. Our heroes head downriver, meeting a pair of con artists who claim to be a displaced English Duke and long-lost heir to the French Throne.

The group continue together downriver, to the displeasure of Jim and Huck, who cannot tell the two white adult men to leave, with the aristocrats pulling various scams as they go. During one con, Huck attempts to expose the aristocrats, who are pretending to be the brothers of Peter Wilks, a man who recently died and bequeathed his fortune to said brothers. Huck and Jim fail to escape the aristocrats, who after running more cons commit an unforgivable act – they sell Jim to local farmers.

Phelps’ Farm

Leaving his misgivings behind, Huck resolves to rescue Jim. Huck heads to where Jim is being held, meeting a woman who calls him Tom, causing him to realise that Tom Sawyer’s Aunt and Uncle, Silas and Sally Phelps, have Jim. The Phelps’ mistake Huck for Tom, who is visiting soon and Huck goes along with it. Huck greets Tom when he arrives, convincing his friend to say he is his own younger brother Sid.

Huck and Tom spend ages preparing to free Jim. After ransacking the house, they release Jim and flee, only for Tom to be shot in the leg. The group return to the Phelps’ where Jim is re-enslaved only for Tom to reveal when he wakes up that it was all a game. Miss Watson died two months before, freeing Jim in her will and Tom intended to pay Jim for his troubles. After the dust settles, Aunt Sally offers to adopt Huck but our hero decides to head out West instead, to find more adventures.

Journey to acceptance

Huckleberry Finn is an archetypical, 19th Century ‘everyman.’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written after slavery ended in America, but set before and this shows. Throughout the novel, we see Huck go from an unthinking supporter of slavery, to one of the institution’s most ardent opponents, mirroring the journey to acceptance many Americans took throughout the Century.

You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.