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The American ClassicsA Personal Essay$

Denis Donoghue

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780300107814

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300107814.001.0001

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

(p.217) 6 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The American Classics

Denis Donoghue

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a reading of Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It explains that the character of Huck is tainted by the deformed conscience throughout the book, though not as continuously as Tom, who exemplifies it. It describes a reading of Twain as anthropological rather than moral, political, or social and suggests that there is better reason for reading the novel as pastoral.

Keywords:   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, Huck, deformed conscience, Tom, pastoral


I've mentioned that with American Renaissance (1941) Matthiessen established that America had a literature: specifically, that in the middle of the nineteenth century America for the first time produced a literature—and therefore a culture—to be acknowledged as such. Not that the country had lacked good writers till 1855; but they had not come together in their differences to make a declaration of literary and cultural independence. Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman made a literature, such that earlier and later American writers might be construed in relation to one or another of those four, as Henry James might be read in relation to Hawthorne, and Whitman and Thoreau in relation to Emerson. But Matthiessen did not claim that the books written by these writers amounted to a comprehensive literature or that the (p.218) culture they embodied was complete. It soon became common for scholars of American literature to speak of “the disunity of the American creative mind” and to offer terms for understanding that condition. “Viewed historically,” Philip Rahv said, “American writers appear to group themselves around polar types.” He called them paleface and redskin, and started with the contrast between James and Whitman, as between Melville and Mark Twain. “At one pole,” Rahv noted, “there is the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and of the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord.” The process of polarization was evidence of “a dichotomy between experience and consciousness—a dissociation between energy and sensibility, between conduct and theories of conduct, between life conceived as an opportunity and life conceived as a discipline”:

The paleface continually hankers after religious norms, tending toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar antiintellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.1

(p.219) Sociologically, the difference is between patricians and plebeians; rhetorically, it is a difference between writers who resort to symbolism and allegory and writers who incline to “a gross, riotous naturalism.” Rahv's palefaces are Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot. His redskins are Whitman, Mark Twain, Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, and Steinbeck. Rahv wondered whether or not history would make whole again what it had rent asunder. A complete human image required such unity. Meanwhile the fracture of American culture had to be understood. Rahv did not dispute Matthiessen's findings or the canon of American literature he proposed. It was a matter for other scholars to suggest additions or amendments to it, and to ponder the fragmenting of culture that persisted through particular acts of apprehension. The canon did not guarantee that the culture it embodied was coherent.

Among the possible additions to the canon there was the question of Cooper, about whom Matthiessen had little to say. If you were persuaded by D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, Cooper could not be omitted. Conrad praised him as a rare artist, a great storyteller. Yvor Winters took him seriously for even more reasons than those. Marius Bewley and Donald Davie argued that Cooper was an artist on the same level of achievement as Scott, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. I can only report my own experience of reading Cooper. My determination to respect the cultural significance of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook (p.220) barely enabled me to keep turning the pages of The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer. I found those books nearly unreadable, even in a mood of righteousness and duty. Mark Twain's “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses” seemed to me not a mere squib but an irrefutable essay in criticism. I felt relief when I was assured, at the beginning of The Prairie, that I was about to come to the end of the Leatherstocking tales. It was also a blessing to find Leslie Fiedler saying, in Love and Death in the American Novel, that “Cooper had, alas, all the qualifications for a great American writer except the simple ability to write.”2 Not that Mark Twain and Fiedler were the only critics to tell the truth about Cooper's style. Poe said of Cooper's Wyandotte; or, The Hutted Knoll that its most obvious faults “are those which appertain to the style, to the mere grammatical construction…. His sentences are arranged with an awkwardness so remarkable as to be matter of absolute astonishment, when we consider the education of the author, and his long and continual practice with the pen.”3 The prestige of Cooper as a major novelist is to be explained not by his literary power but by the need of American readers to feel that they have made their peace with the native Americans. As a novelist, Cooper seems to me not at all as good as Patrick O'Brian.

There was also the question of Mark Twain, another writer only occasionally mentioned in Matthiessen's book. He is usually considered the supreme exemplar of Midwest humor, but that claim is a minor one; it cannot exert much force in a comparison (p.221) with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman. Or he is praised for having brought the resources of casual, substandard, or “vernacular” speech to bear upon the complacency of the “genteel tradition.” That is a more formidable issue. But again it is equivocal. The genteel tradition has not been disabled. But in 1952 and again in 1955 F. R. Leavis made a far higher claim for Twain than one could have anticipated. So far as I know, the claim has not been much debated. Leavis's occasion in 1955 was his writing an introduction to Pudd'nhead Wilson. In 1952 it was the publication of Marius Bewley's The Complex Fate, for which Leavis provided an introduction, a disagreement, and a further comment. In that book Bewley maintained that the “school of literary appreciation which acclaims American literature simply because it is American has been represented by a strong body of critical opinion in the United States, and it has led to an insidious magnification of the frontier colloquial tradition in American literature.” That tradition, Bewley conceded, is one of some force, but “it is not the tradition embodied in America's four major novelists”—he meant Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James:

This frontier tradition has its own high points of achievement, but it represents the extreme isolationism of American literature, and it is fragmentary and misleading because it does not provide sufficient scope in itself to treat the largest problem that confronted the American artist in the nineteenth century, and which (p.222) still occupies him: the nature of his separateness, and the nature of his connection with European, and particularly with English, culture.4

Bewley was mainly concerned with Hawthorne and James, and he reserved for a later book, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel, what he had to say about Cooper and Melville. But Leavis, introducing The Complex Fate, pushed Bewley toward a degree of explicitness perhaps higher than he had bargained for when he invited Leavis to intervene on specific issues—local disagreements on What Maisie Knew and, briefly, “The Turn of the Screw.” Leavis argued that when the “frontier tradition” is made the source of a “truly American literature,” the idea derives “an illicit respectability from the aura of Mark Twain.” When it is exalted in that way, “what we have (it is enough to note) is the spirit of which it may be said that its essential definition of Americanness is given in the collocation of Whitman, Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Leavis dismissed those writers, and separated Mark Twain from them, insisting that the fellowship to which Twain truly belongs is that of Bewley's four, Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. When The Eccentric Design appeared in 1959, it became clear that Bewley had a higher appreciation of Fitzgerald than Leavis had, but the issue between them on that score was not joined. In his introduction to The Complex Fate Leavis asserted that in Fitzgerald's world “no vestige, and no suspicion, of any standard of maturity exists.” But he remarked, just as (p.223) strongly, “the portentous distance between Hemingway and Mark Twain.” The author of Huckleberry Finn “writes out of a full cultural heritage.” Compared with the idiom cultivated by Hemingway, “Huck's language, as he speaks it, it is hardly excessive to say, is Shakespearean in its range and subtlety”:

Mark Twain, of course, has made of the colloquial mode he took such pride in rendering accurately a convention of art and a literary medium. But in doing so he has achieved an inevitable naturalness; the achievement, in fact, is the creation of Huck himself, about whom, I imagine, it has rarely been complained that he is unconvincing. And in Huck, the embodiment of an ungenteel western vernacular, he has made a persona for the expression of a mature criticism of life—-mature and subtle by the standards of the great European literatures.5

It follows from those last phrases—in which the moral emphases of Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot are evident—that Twain, as the author of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, is brought into the tradition of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James and made to appear equal to them in moral and critical significance.

Bewley did not publish an essay on Twain, because “what there is to say positively of his achievement has been registered by T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling in their respective introductions and essays,” and because “he is not a writer who comes to terms easily with literary analysis.”6 This latter is a strange (p.224) reason for silence and may be thought to reflect either on Twain or on the poverty of literary analysis, especially as the merit that Leavis, Eliot, and Trilling emphasized in Twain was his invention of a new way of writing. Eliot went farthest in this direction: “Twain, at least in Huckleberry Finn, reveals himself to be one of those writers, of whom there are not a great many in any literature, who have discovered a new way of writing, valid not only for themselves but for others.” The consideration in that last phrase invited comparison of Twain, Eliot said, with Dryden and Swift as “one of those rare writers who have brought their language up to date, and in so doing, ‘purified the dialect of the tribe.’” The corresponding contrast was with Whitman and Hopkins, writers who found an idiom and a metric “perfectly suited for what they had to say” but “very doubtfully adaptable to what anyone else has to say.”7

The values embodied in Bewley's four major writers included not merely the characteristic American experience they confronted but the spirit in which they dealt with it:

“The new American experience” that Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James had dealt with had been, above all else, an inward thing: and it was inward, not with the professional curiosity of the Freudian, who came later, nor the impertinent inquisitiveness of the sociologist, but with the deeply humane recognition that the problems that tormented them as American artists (p.225) had first to be confronted in the solitude of their own souls. They were all great moralists, great critics in their art, and, in their own way, metaphysicians; and the reality they sought to explore was where the sociological novelists, the naturalists and the documentarians, could never follow them.8

It is not surprising, with this emphasis before us, that the American poet whom Bewley found especially to have cared for the “inward thing” in relation to the forces that threatened it was Wallace Stevens, and that the commitment of that care was a commitment to the postromantic or Coleridgean imagination. As Bewley put it in The Complex Fate:

It is in relation to his sense of the catastrophic fragmentariness of the contemporary world that [Stevens's] belief in the unifying power of the imagination has achieved such rare distinction. It cannot, in the nature of the case, offer a solution theoretically as complete as Eliot's Christianity, but it does offer a reality that sometimes seems to be almost the unbaptized blood-brother of Eliot's reality—and it is a reality that finds frequent, but by no means invariable, realization in the poetry itself.9

It will hardly be thought probable that Mark Twain's terms of reference and invocation coincide with Stevens's or with Bewley's. Twain's work has metaphysical implications, but he was not a (p.226) metaphysician in the resolute sense we associate with Stevens as the author of The Necessary Angel and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” But if we are to take Leavis and Bewley at their words, where Twain is in question, we see him attending, as Stevens did more formally, to the relation between imagination and reality, and to the prior enabling and unifying power he ascribed to the imagination. Without such a commitment, Twain could hardly be thought of in relation to the “inward thing” that Bewley finds so compelling in his four major novelists. But while the “inward thing” is clear in Stevens under the name of imagination, it is harder to specify in Twain. It seems to me that it is what he called, in one of his notebooks, not a creative capacity but “a sound heart,” and that reality as the opposing term is the concatenation of social forces that issued in what he called “a deformed conscience.”

In 1895, nearly twenty years after he began work on Huckleberry Finn, Twain described it as “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.” The defeat of such a conscience—if we can call it a conscience—is to be welcomed. “The conscience—that unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early & stick to it.”10 In another note Twain wrote of the conscience: “It is merely a thing; the creature of training; it is whatever one's mother and Bible and comrades and laws and system of government and habitat and heredities have made it. It is not a separate person, it has no originality, no independence.”11 The deformed conscience keeps going (p.227) by imitating what it finds in newspapers, gossip, and the common lore; and by projecting the fantasies that accompany those sources. The crudest thing a deformed conscience was ready to approve, in the characters in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the society they constituted, was slavery. “In those old slave-holding days the whole community”—Twain meant the white people—“was agreed as to one thing—the awful sacredness of slave property”:

To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave, or feed him or shelter him, or hide him or comfort him, in his troubles, his terrors, his despair, or hesitate to promptly betray him to the slave-catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, & carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away.12

The conscience that approved slavery, took it for granted and practiced it, was gradually defeated, first by the Civil War, then by a national and international zeitgeist that found the system of slavery morally repellent, and later (however haltingly) by the Supreme Court and legislation under the presidencies of (mainly) Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. But the racist prejudice that made the war and the legislation necessary has not ceased, it has merely become a consideration of class distinctions, in which middle-class and upper-class people of whatever color are socially acceptable, but people of lower class are not. In the short run, Huck defeated the deformed conscience or at least rejected (p.228) it in himself for friendship's sake, but he succumbed to one of its forms—which he found in Tom Sawyer—for most of the book. Informally, a sound heart is common decency, but that, too, has to be explained. Or else it is an innate capacity, differing not in kind but in degree between one person and another as a commonplace mind differs from genius. Twain explained how a conscience became deformed, but not how one acquired a sound heart under the same conditions.

In Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, to confine ourselves to the novels for which such a claim as Leavis's has been made, the deformed conscience enforces itself as the moral and social norm. It is enthralled by the theater of appearances, as the duel between Judge Driscoll and Luigi Capello in Pudd'nhead Wilson makes clear. When Roxana, in that novel, switches the infants Thomas and Chambers—one white, the other black—in their cradles, she starts a process by which the spurious “Thomas,” as he grows up, is accepted in Dawson's Landing for what he is not, and treated as if he were the true son of Percy Driscoll and his wife. In the end, the lawyer David Wilson exposes him for what he is, with the aid of the new science of fingerprinting. “Thomas” confesses to the murder of Judge Driscoll, and is pardoned only to be sold down the river. Chambers, the true heir, comes into his own, but—Twain will have nothing to do with a fairy-tale ending—he can't enjoy his riches, and the last we hear of him is that he is lost in all the scenes available to him:

(p.229) The real heir suddenly found himself rich and free, but in a most embarrassing situation. He could neither read nor write, and his speech was the basest dialect of the Negro quarter. His gait, his attitudes, his gestures, his bearing, his laugh—all were vulgar and uncouth; his manners were the manners of a slave. Money and fine clothes could not mend these defects or cover them up, they only made them the more glaring and the more pathetic. The poor fellow could not endure the terrors of the white man's parlour, and felt at home and at peace nowhere but in the kitchen. The family pew was a misery to him, yet he could nevermore enter into the solacing refuge of the “nigger gallery”—that was closed to him for good and all.13

The deformed conscience is continuously active in Tom Sawyer, who is a conformist despite his mischief and roguery. He is thoroughly at home in the society he seems to irritate. Tom is as susceptible to the melodramatic literature of derring-do and piracy he reads as Emma Bovary is to the romances of the day, but he is a mere gamester. He is not a threat to the social practices of Aunt Polly, Mr. Walters, the Widow Douglas, and Judge Thatcher. Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas are decent, neighborly people, but they feel no scruple about keeping the runaway slave Jim locked up in the hut by the ash hopper, fed on bread and water and loaded down with chains till he's claimed or sold. At the end of the book Tom (p.230) imposes his social amenity on Huck: “But, Huck, we can't let you into the gang if you ain't respectable, you know.” When Huck protests and asks Tom not to shut him out, Tom says: “Huck, I wouldn't want to and I don't want to, but what would people say? Why, they'd say, ‘Mph! Tom Sawyer's Gang! Pretty low characters in it!’ They'd mean you, Huck. You wouldn't like that, and I wouldn't.” Huck is so intimidated by Tom that he promises to go back to the Widow for at least a month and see if he can stand it, “if you'll let me b'long to the gang, Tom.”14 In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck meets Tom again, in chapter 33, Tom takes over the show and devises more and more elaborate contrivances to keep Jim locked up and to postpone his release. Many readers have been appalled by the part of the novel in which Tom and Huck engage in these tricks at Jim's expense. They think that these chapters turn into farce “the most serious motive in the novel, Jim's yearning for freedom.”15 Or they think, as Richard Poirier does, that after chapter 16 the book goes to pieces because Huck's voice becomes increasingly inaudible and the novel is no longer the autobiography of Huck Finn: “It must instead become a kind of documentation of why the consciousness of the hero cannot be developed in dramatic relations to any element of this society”:

What Mark Twain discovered at the point of his famous and prolonged difficulties after Chapter XV was that even his limited effort to create an environment alternative (p.231) to the shore had made his task impossible. He must, finally, “insert” Huck back into his customary environment. He must, in effect, destroy him. Huck as a character, created mostly in his soliloquies up through Chapter XV, is replaced by another figure, using the same name, but able to exist within the verbal world of the last two thirds of the novel, a world demonstrably less free than the verbal world or environment of the first third.16

But the question that Poirier raises without answering is: why could Twain not find a voice for the disenchanted phase of Huck's experience? The contrast between Huckleberry Finn and Emma, as Poirier describes it, is that Jane Austen found in the social world the values that enabled Emma to detect herself. Emma falls in with the theatricality of Frank Churchill and commits the self-regarding cruelty of her insult to Miss Bates. But under the guidance of Knightley, she convicts herself in the social terms in which she has erred. Mark Twain, apparently, could not imagine such terms, because they had already been appropriated by Tom Sawyer. This can only mean that the culture inhabited by Jane Austen was comprehensive—and therefore morally enabling—in a sense in which Mark Twain's, despite Leavis's praise of it, was not. Poirier argues that the stress on language, in the major American novels and poems, is explained by that predicament. It is only in language, not in the culture which sustains language, that freedom and the consciousness of freedom are to be achieved. Hence (p.232) the disjunction between experience and consciousness to which Rahv refers. But this does not explain why Twain, unlike Melville and Whitman, was unable to imagine such freedom for his hero even in a language that supposedly floats free of the environment that otherwise disfigures it.

Fiedler has endorsed the end of the book on the grounds that “the essential virtue of Huck and Jim is to endure whatever befalls them; and to them, moreover, there is nothing any more ridiculous about what Tom does than there is about what society inflicts on them every day.”17 But Huck and Jim don't see what Tom does as ridiculous; they can't separate themselves from the shenanigans to that extent. A better defense of these chapters is needed. Twain is showing, I think, how dogged the deformed conscience is and how persistent it is in what it does not even recognize as cruelty. The chapters are not tedious if we read them as evidence of how nearly this conscience comes to winning, in a society typified at its best by the Phelpses.

Huck is tainted by the deformed conscience throughout the book, though not as continuously as Tom, who exemplifies it. The deformed conscience accounts for Huck's practical jokes on Jim, and shadows his apologies for having played them. When Huck is cruel to Jim, it is because he is imitating Tom Sawyer. His desire to hurt Jim is not spontaneous, it is—as René Girard would say—mimetic, it is his desire to be Tom, to speak his language, to adopt his style. In chapter 16 his conscience starts up again and he thinks of turning Jim in:

(p.233) Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn't get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn't rest; I couldn't stay still in one place. It hadn't ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it staid with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame, because I didn't run Jim off from his rightful owner, but it warn't no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.”18

When Jim is caught and locked up in Silas Phelps's place and Huck hears of it, he thinks of sending word to Miss Watson to tell her where Jim is:

But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she'd be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she'd sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn't, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they'd make Jim feel it all the time, and so he'd feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn (p.234) helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked, and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.

The irony of this turns on the sense we have had of Huck up to this point—of his independence and “sound heart”—and now of his capitulation to a conscience socially defined and corrupt. His yielding to the opinion of “everybody” his considering that his action “would get around,” his respect for Miss Watson's property—“a poor old woman's nigger”—reduces for the time being the moral difference between Huck and Tom. Huck writes (p.235) the letter to Miss Watson—“Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.” The immediate effect on Huck of his writing the letter is a conviction of being saved: “I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray, now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking; thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” But then Huck starts recalling the happy scenes with Jim on the raft, Jim's “standing my watch on top of his'n,” Jim's pleasure when Huck came back out of the fog, “and how good he always was”:

And at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

“All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and he tears up the letter. The sound heart has won out over the deformed conscience, at least for now. Huck knows that the friendship he has enjoyed with Jim has a far stronger claim on him than the social conventions by which he is supposed to live. It wins out again when, in response to Tom's plan of going “for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, (p.236) over in the Territory, for a couple of weeks or two,” Huck decides to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” ahead of Tom and with no time limit set.19


The aim common to Leavis and Bewley was to rescue Twain from the company of naturalists—Rahv's redskins—to which literary historians regularly consigned him. Eliot's commentaries on Twain anticipated that aim, though they did not address it directly. Eliot was not concerned to see Twain keep better company, but the effect of the way in which he read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi was to move Twain closer to Joyce than to Dreiser. Eliot interpreted those books under the auspices of anthropology rather than of history, politics, or morality.

It is not clear when Eliot first read Twain. In his introduction to the Cresset Press printing of Huckleberry Finn (1950) he said that he did not read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in his childhood but “only a few years ago.” That suggests that he wrote “The Dry Salvages”—beginning in December 1940—without benefit of Twain and relying mainly on his memory of childhood years in St. Louis and boyhood vacations near Cape Ann. When he came to write about Twain, in 1950 and 1953, he went back to the themes and the vocabulary of “The Dry Salvages” and interpreted Twain's books in the light of that poem. It is likely that Trilling's introduction to Huckleberry Finn, published in 1948, helped to turn (p.237) Eliot in that direction. Eliot did not hold himself obliged to keep up to date on the scholarship of the topics he wrote about, but he was willing to read a few things if someone recommended them. When I had a meeting with him at the old office of Faber and Faber, 24 Russell Square, London, he asked me to suggest some books or essays he might find useful for the British Council booklet he had agreed to write on George Herbert. I sent him an essay by L. C. Knights and one by Kenneth Burke. When the booklet came out, it showed no sign that Eliot had found the essays worth thinking about. Maybe he didn't read them. But he may have read Trilling's essay on Huckleberry Finn and taken it seriously, and I think he did, if only because it was clearly inspired by “The Dry Salvages.” Quoting that poem, Trilling anticipates Eliot in his meditation on the river, the river god, and the nature of gods.

The origin of Eliot's essay on Huckleberry Finn is evidently the first lines of “The Dry Salvages”:

  • I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
  • Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
  • Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
  • Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
  • Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.20

In Eliot's essay, a comparison with Conrad keeps the tone of discursiveness going:

(p.238) Thus the River makes the book a great book. As with Conrad, we are continually reminded of the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of Man. Conrad remains always the European observer of the tropics, the white man's eye contemplating the Congo and its black gods. But Mark Twain is a native, and the River God is his God. It is as a native that he accepts the River God, and it is the subjection of Man that gives to Man his dignity. For without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting.21

This is a strange outburst. It is remarkable to find Eliot, in 1950—late in his Christian years—giving such significance to “some kind of God,” as if the particular kind made no difference. Something of the asperity of his essay on Baudelaire has intruded. It is as if Eliot were recalling his early years as a poet when the gods of anthropology—of The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance—were the only gods he thought of. This late meditation on Twain's river, the Mississippi, sent him back not only to the “strong brown god” of “The Dry Salvages” but to gods he had long since acknowledged if not prayed to. Not surprisingly, the moral of the meditation is “the subjection of man.” In “The Dry Salvages” there is reference to “the river with its cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops.” This can't be an allusion to the great scene in Huckleberry Finn—chapter 9—where Huck and Jim see a two-story derelict frame house floating down the river. They (p.239) board the house by the second story and Jim finds a dead man shot in the back. He throws some old rags over him, because he recognizes him and wants to prevent Huck from seeing that it is his father, Pap. The reference in “The Dry Salvages” can't be an allusion; besides, the cargo is a white man, not a dead Negro. But both references come from the same region of experience, which Eliot invoked again in “American Literature and the American Language,” referring to Twain's Mississippi as

not only the river known to those who voyage on it or live beside it, but the universal river of human life—more universal, indeed, than the Congo of Joseph Conrad…. For Twain's readers anywhere, the Mississippi is the river. There is in Twain, I think, a great unconscious depth, which gives to Huckleberry Finn this symbolic value: a symbolism all the more powerful for being uncalculated and unconscious.22

The main difference between the meditation on the river in “The Dry Salvages” and in Eliot's essay is that in the poem the river leads to the sea, but in the essay it is not considered as doing so:

  • The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
  • The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
  • Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
  • Its hints of earlier and other creation:
  • The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone.23

(p.240) In the essay, we hear little of the sea, even if it is all about us. We hear of the river, that with its strong, swift current it is the dictator to raft or steamboat:

It is a treacherous and capricious dictator. At one season, it may move sluggishly in a channel so narrow that, encountering it for the first time at that point, one can hardly believe that it has traveled already for hundreds of miles, and has yet many hundreds of miles to go; at another season, it may obliterate the low Illinois shore to a horizon of water, while in its bed it runs with a speed such that no man or beast can survive in it. At such times, it carries down human bodies, cattle and houses.24

It carries Huck and Jim, too, down the river and will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom.

I have described Eliot's reading of Twain as anthropological rather than moral, political, or social. To indicate what I mean, I'll quote part of Eliot's review of Ulysses, where he scolds Richard Aldington for getting the book wrong and draws Joyce away from the tradition of the realistic novel. Speaking of the myth, as Eliot calls it, the relation that Joyce maintains between the modern events of Ulysses—the events ascribed to June 16, 1904, in Dublin—and the main episodes in Homer's Odyssey, Eliot writes:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is (p.241) pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. It is a method for which the horoscope is auspicious. Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art, toward that order and form which Mr. Aldington so earnestly desires.25

The method adumbrated by Mr. Yeats was, I think, that of such a poem as “No Second Troy,” in which an unnamed modern woman—we may call her Maud Gonne—is juxtaposed in an unspecified relation to Helen of Troy. “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” The method is analogy, the putting of one thing beside another without a syntax that would make a relation between them specific. There is significance, but it is not designated.26 It is (p.242) the method of the double plot in Elizabethan drama, where two actions are brought together to make a third with some of the qualities of both. Eliot valued the method, it appears, because otherwise the thing focused upon is merely itself. It is the method he used when he put Tiresias in the position of foreseeing and foresuffering all in The Waste Land:

  • (And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
  • Enacted on this same divan or bed;
  • I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
  • And walked among the lowest of the dead.)27

Psychology, ethnology, and anthropology concurred to make this method possible because they permitted us to think of a thing not as impoverished by being merely what it is but as figuring in a pattern more comprehensive than itself. The penury of the thing is redeemed by the form, the pattern in which it plays a part. The sense of pattern in ourselves was one of Eliot's preoccupations, as in this passage on Marston's Sophonisba:

In spite of the tumultuousness of the action, and the ferocity and horror of certain parts of the play, there is an underlying serenity; and as we familiarize ourselves with the play we perceive a pattern behind the pattern into which the characters deliberately involve themselves; the kind of pattern which we perceive in our (p.243) own lives only at rare moments of inattention and detachment, drowsing in sunlight.28

That is where the gods come in, whether we call their intervention Fate or by some other name.

It is where the river flows, however capriciously, in Huckleberry Finn. It is also why Huck is, as Eliot calls him, “the spirit of the River.”29 He is not merely someone who goes down the Mississippi on a raft or a canoe or a steamboat and sometimes goes ashore for one reason or another. He partakes of the river in its divinity. What Eliot calls myth, in its bearing on Ulysses, is the story insofar as, starting by being merely a local story and without ceasing to be local, it becomes a story of life as such; it enacts and fulfills a pattern of life, universal and perennial. The mythical method, as Twain uses it, is a method by which one becomes all by analogical extension. The river makes this possible. In “The Dry Salvages” the sea adds to the mystery by abiding our question—why is there something rather than nothing?

This is obvious enough to anyone of a mythical, symbolic, or anthropological disposition. To anyone whose disposition is entirely social or political, it will appear obscurantist in not paying enough attention to characters and plots. Eliot paid attention to Huck and Jim, but only to the extent of seeing them in the anthropological perspective of the river god. “Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction,” Eliot says. But beyond that, Eliot tends to see the characters of fiction as emanations (p.244) of the anthropological perspective that supervises them rather than as characters or personalities in their own social right. His account of Ulysses has nothing to say of Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, or Molly Bloom. The mythical method sets up an overarching authority, such that local events are construed under its sign. Huck is a certain kind of consciousness, because the mythical authority that Eliot invokes is a greater degree of the same kind of consciousness. It follows that “Huck is passive and impassive, apparently always the victim of events; and yet, in his acceptance of his world and of what it does to him and others, he is more powerful than his world, because he is more aware than any other person in it.”30 Huck is lonely because he is an isolated consciousness, isolation being a condition of his being conscious at all. A reader whose axioms are entirely social and political will have none of this. Leo Marx refuses to think of Twain's Mississippi as anything but a river, water in motion, a means of transport. Eliot's talk of the river and the river god seems to Marx “an extravagant view of the function of the neutral agency of the river”:

Clemens had a knowledgeable respect for the Mississippi and, without sanctifying it, was able to provide excellent reasons for Huck's and Jim's intense relation with it. It is a source of food and beauty and terror and serenity of mind. But, above all, it provides motion; it is the means by which Huck and Jim move away from a menacing civilization. They return to the river to continue their (p.245) journey. The river cannot, does not, supply purpose. That purpose is a facet of their consciousness, and without the motive of escape from society, Huckleberry Finn would indeed “be only a sequence of adventures.”31

But Eliot did not claim that the river supplies purpose: the energy of the river, as of the river god, is not lavished on our welfare, it is indifferent to our purpose. Leo Marx is one of the forgetful people reflected upon in the first section of “The Dry Salvages”:

  • The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
  • By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,
  • Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
  • Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
  • By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.32

If Marx thinks this is mere mystification, there is no possibility of resolving the dispute. To Eliot, Twain's river is not “neutral.”


How, then, should one read Huckleberry Finn? “When we are considering poetry,” Eliot said, “we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing … [It] is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics, and no more is it religion or (p.246) an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words…. A poem, in some sense, has its own life.”33 The passage is qualified by “primarily” and “in some sense,” but in its general bearing it holds out against the inclination to treat a poem or a work of fiction as merely an instrument in the furtherance of the politics, religion, or morals it appears to recommend. The particular merit of Eliot's reading of Huckleberry Finn—and of Leavis's, too—is that it respects the work as a poem, a work of fiction, and discourages readers from thinking that it is primarily a tract or an editorial. We are urged to ask ourselves: what manner of thing is this book; what kind of fiction is it?

This question has become difficult to ask of Huckleberry Finn since Lionel Trilling published, in 1948, his introduction to it in the Rinehart College printing. Trilling praised the book as a nearly perfect work of literature and a work of cardinal significance in American culture. No wonder school principals looked at the book afresh and thought it must be suitable as a text in junior high schools. In the years of the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and protests against the war in Vietnam, it was thought necessary to have some books that held out the possibility of harmony between black people and white; better still, to have books that assured white people that they were already essentially in a right relation to black people and other minorities, even though there might still be local errors and confusions in practice. Within a few years of Trilling's introduction, Huckleberry (p.247) Finn, as Jonathan Arac has remarked, began to serve “a national and global political function as an icon of integration.” It became “a talisman of self-flattering American virtue.” Arac maintains that “the importance of this cultural work overrode the offense the book generated among many of its newly authorized, but also newly obligated, African American readers.”34 It seems to me that a reading of the book that stops at the point where it has been deemed to give offence—perhaps because Twain uses the word nigger 213 times in it—is inadequate. The book is not a parable. But Trilling bears some responsibility for making it available as a parable. In the scenes on the raft, he tells us, “the boy and the Negro slave form a family, a primitive community—and it is a community of saints.”35 That last phrase is regrettably memorable: neither Huck nor Jim is a saint, unless the word is given a special meaning to accommodate them. Trilling had in view, apparently, such a passage as this one, where Huck and Jim are dividing the watch between them during the storm, while the Duke and the King sleep in the wigwam:

I had the middle watch, you know, but I was pretty sleepy by that time, so Jim he said he would stand the first half of it for me; he was always mighty good, that way, Jim was. I crawled into the wigwam, but the king and the duke had their legs sprawled around so there warn't no show for me; so I laid outside—I didn't mind the rain, because it was warm, and the waves warn't (p.248) running so high, now. About two they come up again, though, and Jim was going to call me, but he changed his mind because he reckoned they warn't high enough yet to do any harm; but he was mistaken about that, for pretty soon all of a sudden along comes a regular ripper, and washed me overboard. It most killed Jim a-laughing. He was the easiest nigger to laugh that ever was, anyway.

I took the watch, and Jim he laid down and snored away; and by and by the storm let up for good and all; and the first cabin-light that showed, I rousted him out and we slid the raft into hiding-quarters for the day.36

Idyllic, yes, and more richly so because we are left to imagine the conversation in which Jim tells Huck that he had thought of waking him up but changed his mind. If only the rest of life could be like that, with laughter and consideration. Trilling seems to have celebrated the book for such perfection of possibility. Admittedly, he expressed a more nuanced sense of the book when he distinguished between the truth of Tom Sawyer and that of Huckleberry Finn: it is the difference between “truth of honesty” and “a more intense truth, fiercer and more complex.”37 I take this as the distinction between sincerity and authenticity, in Trilling's later terms. In any case, it was unwise of school authorities to nominate Huckleberry Finn as required reading. It was equally foolish of other authorities to ban it. In no other English-speaking country but the United States would the book be given such peremptory status.

(p.249) There is better reason for reading Huckleberry Finn as pastoral. In 1935 William Empson published Some Versions of Pastoral—the American title is English Pastoral Poetry—in which he studied various works of literature and drama to examine “the ways in which the pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple (in itself a great help to the concentration needed for poetry) and the resulting social ideas have been used in English literature.” It is a study of rich and poor, peasant and aristocrat, servant and master, the country and the city (though not quite in Raymond Williams's terms), and also a study of the counterrevolutionary claim that “life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so.” In pastoral, Empson says, “you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power.” This makes possible “a proper or beautiful relation between rich and poor.” Or a semblance of such a thing. Empson does not hold that this relation is the social truth of things, or even that it should be: he shows what the convention is doing, and leaves us to decide for or against the sense of life it implies. But he emphasizes at every point the conflicts and tensions that the convention strives to hold at bay. That is why Empson's versions of pastoral are especially sensitive to the forces that make the achievement of social felicity most difficult. Moving the issue to America, pastoral would imagine a tense relation between democracy and some rival value just as attractive in the author's (p.250) mind. Empson refers at one point to the shift of sentiment “from fool to rogue to child,” and his chapter on the Alice books is inspiring on that change.38 To read Huckleberry Finn again in Empson's context would not lead to nostalgia for the bad old good old days when slaves were slaves and people knew their places. But it would remove the simplicities of Cold War rhetoric and its current aftermath.


(1) . Philip Rahv, Image and Idea: Fourteen Essays on Literary Themes (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1949), pp. 1–2.

(2) . Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960), p. 186.

(3) . Edgar Allan Poe, Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism, edited by John Brooks Moore (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1926), p. 136.

(4) . Marius Bewley, The Complex Fate: Hawthorne, Henry James, and Some Other American Writers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), pp. 2–3.

(5) . F. R. Leavis, Introduction, The Complex Fate, pp. ix, xi.

(6) . Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p. 290.

(7) . T. S. Eliot, “American Literature and the American Language,” To Criticize the Critic, and Other Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), pp. 54, 53.

(8) . Bewley, The Eccentric Design, p. 292.

(9) . Bewley, The Complex Fate, p. 192.

(10) . Mark Twain, Notebook entry, in The Works of Mark Twain, vol. 8, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Walter Blair and Victor Fischer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 806–807.

(11) . Mark Twain, Mark Twain's Notebook, Prepared for Publication with Comments by Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1935) pp. 348–349.

(12) . Twain, Notebook entry, in Huckleberry Finn, p. 806.

(13) . Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, edited by Malcolm Bradbury (London: Penguin, 1986 reprint), p. 225.

(14) . Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, (New York: Penguin, 1986 reprint), pp. 219–220.

(15) . Leo Marx, The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 42.

(16) . Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 179, 189, 15–16.

(17) . Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, pp. 590–591.

(18) . Twain, Huckleberry Finn, pp. 123–124.

(19) . Ibid., pp. 268–269, 270–271, 362.

(20) . T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” in Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963), p. 191.

(21) . T. S. Eliot, Introduction to Huckleberry Finn, reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Thomas Cooley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999 reprint), p. 353.

(22) . Eliot, “American Literature and the American Language,” p. 54.

(23) . Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” p. 191.

(24) . Eliot, Introduction to Huckleberry Finn, p. 352.

(25) . T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” The Dial, November 1923; reprinted in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 177–178.

(26) . Cf. R. P. Blackmur, A Primer of Ignorance, edited by Joseph Frank (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967), p. 41.

(27) . Eliot, The Waste Land, Collected Poems, 1909–1962, p. 62.

(28) . T. S. Eliot, “John Marston,” in Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 232.

(29) . Eliot, Introduction to Huckleberry Finn, p. 353.

(30) . Ibid., pp. 349, 350.

(31) . Leo Marx, Pilot and the Passenger, p. 45.

(32) . Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” p. 191.

(33) . T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1960 reprint), pp. viii–x.

(34) . Jonathan Arac, “Huckleberry Finn” as Idol and Target (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), pp. 21, 62.

(35) . Lionel Trilling, “The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn,” reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, E. Hudson Long, and Thomas Cooley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 321.

(36) . Twain, Huckleberry Finn, p. 168.

(37) . Trilling, “The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn,” p. 319.

(38) . William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, second impression, 1950), pp. 23, 114, 196, 259.