On Huck Finn and E.B. White

I don’t normally post my academic writting online in the full-flesh because I like to think of my academic and personal writing as seperate. But I am very proud of this paper and wanted to share it here. I have been experimenting with weaving metaphors through my writing–see if you can find it!

Jessica Dickinson Goodman
Scott Sandage
26 September 2008

Mark Twain Mines Both Gems and Dirt in Huckleberry Finn

E. B. White writes about the “deep vein of melancholy” which humorists mine for their writing. (White). Mark Twain, as an American humorist, refines material of that vein into great humor in Huckleberry Finn, but also produces purposefully flawed gems. In this paper I will analyze three such flawed stones: when Huck declares he would rather live with Pap than the widow, when we discover that the family who cruelly bought Jim from the Duke is Tom Sawyer’s kin, and when Huck decides to go along with Tom in delaying Jim’s escape. In these scenes Mark Twain undercuts easy summary with complex reality—he does this to preach and teach about the deep flaws within Huck’s society.

Huck’s relationship to Pap frustrates a simple progressive narrative of Huck’s development and so Pap himself is important to an investigation of Twain’s complex vision. Pap is a seriously flawed stone but also a funny one. When Pap lies to new judge, when he rants about the government, his is funny. Pap’s worst traits tie into Twain’s larger critique of Huck’s society: he is racist, violent and a liar (Clemens, 34, 35, 28). But by making such a disreputable character funny, Twain can mask his critique of Pap’s culture in humor. Also, when we find that Huck prefer Pap’s company to the widow’s, Twain forces us to see Pap in two lights. Pap is a bad man but also, in a way, a free man. He is unrestricted by tight clothes, schedules, rules of speech and proper conduct—and Huck wants to live with him. By complicating our interpretation of Pap (who, without Huck, would simply be an ugly man) Twain undercuts a simple condemnation of him and forces consider him in a larger social context.

Huck’s interest in living with Pap, who is an abusive racist con-man, seems a step backward in his development. Of his time with Pap, Huck says: “It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study […] I didn’t see how I’d ever got to like it so well at the widow’s […]” (Clemens, 30). Given what we know of Pap’s treatment of Huck, this passage should be shocking. That Huck would value his freedom so highly as to continue living with Pap to preserve it is a point well enforced by Pap’s moral ugliness. Mark Twain uses Huck’s attachment to living with Pap in two ways: to ground Huck’s character as an imperfect human boy and to complicate our appraisal of what Pap represents.

Because these next two flawed cuts are placed near the end of the novel, I believe Twain is challenging our assumptions about the progress Huck has made during his time on the river. He is drawing attention to the continued imperfections of Huck’s society and undercutting an easy interpretation of his growth.

Huck is righteously angry when he finds out Jim has been sold as a slave—but his anger wilts to complacency when he discovers the family who bought Jim is Tom Sawyer’s kin. When he finds the King has sold Jim he thinks:

After all this long journey, and after all we’d done for them scoundrels, here was it all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars.” (Clemens, 268)

But when he arrives at the Phelps’s farm to find they are Tom’s relatives, his opinions change. Even before he starts playing with Tom rather than freeing Jim, Huck discovers that the man who keeps Jim locked in a shed is kind and his wife is loving. Like with Pap, the Twain complicates our condemnation of the Phelps’s as the cruel slave-owners by showing them treating Huck well. Not only does Huck’s opinion change about the Phelps’s, the readers may as well. Again, like with Pap, our “emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into opposite realm” in this case, from disgust into sympathy (White). Thus does Twain force us to consider the complexities of slavery in Huck’s society.

When Tom and Huck pair up to make rescuing Jim into  an “adventure”, Twain preaches and teaches that Huck and his world are flawed even after his journey down the river. When Huck is sucked into living by his society’s racial values by Tom our understanding of his growth is a character is challenged. True, Huck tries to hasten Tom’s plans to free Jim—but he never steps outside of Tom’s narrative box to argue for Jim’s release. Huck acts like an average, peer-pressured thirteen-year-old boy. In Tom Sawyer Twain has honed material from E.B. White’s “vein of melancholy” to represent the casual racism, violence and mendacity of Huck’s society.

Simple summaries of Huckleberry Finn often ignore the dirt Twain mines from his vein of melancholy and focus on the gems—declaring the plot a simple progressive meta-narrative. But it is in those small flawed scenes that the story’s humorous mask slips and shows us the sad reality beneath. His commentary of liars’ roles in society is cloaked in funny costumes and absurd accents; his parody of racist values is delivered in drunken rants; his critique of violence comes from the mouth of a murderer. Mark Twain displays the flaws of Huck’s society to preach and teach the continued gritty reality of Huck’s world, defying simple interpretation.


Clemens, Samuel. The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn. The Complete Works of Mark
Twain. mtwain.com. 26 Sept. 2008 <http://www.mtwain.com/
White, E. B. “Some Remarks on Humor.” Unit 1. 26 Sept. 2008

Inspirational Quote:

Robert Benchley – “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.”

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