Mark Twain’s Mississippi Novels

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Please note: This post may contain “spoilers,” particularly for Huckleberry Finn.

Rereading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written 1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (written 1876-1885) as an adult reminds me just why I love Huckleberry Finn so much more. Tom Sawyer is a book I have always had fond memories of because of the clever adventures, the old American frontier setting on the near-to-me Mississippi River, and the creative personality of the rascal Tom Sawyer himself. But the satiric look at society in the companion novel, Huckleberry Finn, and the depth of inner conflict that Huck struggles with in that novel makes it a far more satisfying read as a whole.

The “Notice” in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn warns against finding meaning in it, and to me, it feels like Mark Twain’s challenge to the reader.

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

And yet, it is not a challenge to find a purpose in Huckleberry Finn. A reader doesn’t have to dig for it. For me, at least, life maxims fall in my lap as I read thirteen-year-old Huck’s witticisms and observations of society. As Huck struggles to simultaneously confront and reject pre-Civil War Southern “society,” he relies on the friendship of an escaped slave, Jim, who becomes a dear friend. He finds he must reject society’s illogical traditions, even if he’ll “go to hell” for it.

I took [the note that gave up Jim], and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t.  And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog. (Chapter 31)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is simply fantastically written. The dialogue of each person Huck meets is written in the dialect of his or her home town. Mark Twain is completely familiar with the attitudes of each of these different types of people, so it reads realistically. Or, rather, we have the perception of it being realistic, for it comes through the eyes of the thirteen-year-old Huckleberry Finn, who sees far beyond his years and education, and far more than he thinks he can see. He is a logical person in a completely illogical world.

The end of Huckleberry Finn, then, just drives me nuts. The illogical and romantic Tom Sawyer is determined to make Jim’s “rescue” from imprisonment exactly like the books he’s read, and it’s farcical and pointless, considering Tom knows Jim has been freed already. Each time I’ve read it (and my most recent read was no exception) I read with a severe impatience for the satisfying end. I want to throw Tom out of the window. I dread going through Tom’s ridiculous charade.

But such a charade is the point of the entire novel. All of society is a charade. Miss Watson’s religion and Jim’s superstition seem to be a charade. (Huck tries to understand both of them.) The violent Montague-Capulet-like family feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons was a charade. (The next generation tried to step away from the ridiculous traditions, as evidenced by the Romeo-and-Juliet elopement.) The Duke and the King perform a charade in order to secure Peter Wilks’ inheritance. Each setting fits in to the picture, and Huck’s growing awareness of the ridiculousness of society as a whole leads to his final conclusion: keep running.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before. (Chapter the last)

Despite Tom Sawyer’s comparative lack of depth, it’s still a satisfying read. Tom the romantic isn’t as frustrating in this book. It is okay that he’s a romantic seeking for adventure, for it’s an adventure story, written for children. Because it is written in third person, Twain doesn’t seem to get into Tom’s thoughts quite as much. But as Tom tricks his friends into white washing the fence, as he pines his new love (Becky Thatcher), as he and Becky suffer in the cave, I find myself wishing I was my son, still young enough that someday these stories will be new and fresh and exciting. I look forward to introducing him to Tom Sawyer’s antics.

Much less well-known is Mark Twain’s tale of Pudd’nhead Wilson (published in 1894), which I’d never read before I found it in my volume of Twain’s Mississippi writings (published by Library of America).  Pudd’nhead Wilson felt inferior in terms of development and organization. Had Twain access to a computer for some editing, he could have produced another masterpiece. There are inconsistencies in the characters, and the focus is not cohesive. Yet, as another account of a small, pre-Civil War, Southern town, Twain produced yet another amusing satire of race relations.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, two boys, one the light-skinned child of a slave woman and the other a child of the slave’s wealthy master, are born on the same day. When the blond children are subsequently switched in their cradles, the “black” boy is raised as a white child while the white boy is raised a slave. Twain seemed on the cusp of something great in that premise, but the remainder of the novel gets jumbled up in confusion. Twain can’t seem to focus on either Pudd’nhead Wilson, who is a clever and intriguing character, or the slave mother’s relationship to her son-turned-master.  When Twain focuses on the blacks in the story, he tends toward stereotype. Although the novel is, I believe, meant to be as much a satire as are the other Twain novels I read, this novel seems less satiric and more discriminatory. For example, the slave-raised-as-master is a riotous unintelligent ruffian, while the white-boy-raised-as-slave is depicted as docile and good-natured, albeit not educated.

Although the novel lacks cohesion and the racial stereotypes bother me, I still enjoyed Twain’s clever aphorisms as they shine through the satire of society, and the ending is ridiculous and satisfying. But nothing about the characters, the setting, and the satire in Pudd’nhead Wilson are as memorable as that in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It’s simply not the same caliber.

Reviewed on September 8, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • For some reason, Mark Twain and I just don’t get along. I think it’s probably to do with his use of dialect, or I just find his sense of humor abrasive or something. I tried to reread Huck Finn last summer, because I didn’t even remember it from high school, and only made it thirty pages in before I said forget it. In 2007, my book club was reading Connecticut Yankee, and I actually decided to buy plane tickets to Chicago to go to my brother’s graduation rather than to have to read that book and moderate my group that month. I wish we got along, but sadly, it’s probably never going to happen.

    • Amanda, ah, there was someone in my book group who didn’t come because she couldn’t stand it. It goes to show (1) you aren’t alone and (2) there are classics for everyone, as I love Huck Finn!

  • I never read any of Twain’s works when I was a child but I did read Huck Finn for the first time a few years ago and I LOVED it. I thought it was so touching and smart and TRUE. I thought the humor and satire was wonderful and I think there are so many lessons to be found in its pages.

    Never read Tom Sawyer in part because I heard it’s less insightful than Huck Finn, but I’m sure I’ll try it at some point. I’ve also got a copy of Twain’s essays from when he worked on the Mississippi and I think they’ll be really illuminating as well.

  • It’s been a long time since I read any of these, but I do remember the Twain bio I read talking about how uneven his output was – he was really kind of a mediocre novelist with a few flashes of brilliance (which is still more than most of us can say, I suppose). I remember the biographer talking about how a lot of his stuff was finished in a hurry to make ends meet or pay the bills, although I don’t remember the specifics about Puddnhead Wilson…anyway, thanks for the reminder of Tom & Huck. I have so many fond memories of these books!

    • Emily, that’s exactly why he wrote Puddnhead Wilson — he had tons of bills, he’d lost lots of money in a bad investment, and he needed something QUICK. I’ve enjoyed most of the Twain I’ve read, but I believe that assessment — that he was mediocre. Huck Finn, I believe, was brilliant, but then he did spend ten years tweaking it….

  • HF has long been a favorite of mine, although I am due for a re-read. Hubby gave me a nice Twain set for a present a few years back, so I have good intentions of reading through it, including Pudd’nhead Wilson.

    Sorry I haven’t been visiting in a while. I think I somehow dropped you from my reader, so you haven’t been showing up on my blog roll. I will go and fix that now. I’ll also follow you on twitter now that I have succumbed.

  • I went through a Mark Twain phase a few years back and read just about everything I could get my hands on. Although Huck Finn is my favourite I must admit that I enjoyed them all for their humour.

    I think a lot of authors have had the experience of having to dash off a book to keep their debtors at bay, including Agatha Christie.

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