Generations of readers, from young to old, have loved reading the spellbinding stories of Mark Twain, who Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have called the “father of American Literature. Twain wrote, “I love a good story, well-told, and that is why that I am, sometimes, forced to tell it myself.” Who can forget his memorable and iconic characters and plots? But, we may seldom think about the ingenious ways that he begins and ends his stories. For example, he concludes his most popular book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), by describing it as “chronicle of a boy,”further explaining that “it must stop here without being the history of a man.” Twain’s engaging beginnings and endings are craft tools, that he most skillfully used to draw readers into his story and then entice them to want to read more. In his Introduction, he notes that he expects his book will not just be of interest to youths: “Although my book is mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women, for part of my plan… has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves.” In my classes on Twain, simply by my bringing up this point has often inspired participants to share some of the carefree experiences of their childhoods. I still remember how my fifth-grade teacher read Tom Sawyer to us for the last 15 minutes of each day until it was finished. After hearing these stories, my friends played on the streets of Philadelphia by pretending to be Tom or Robin Hood of Sherwood Forrest. Every boy in my classroom had a crush on Becky Thatcher and those who were convinced they couldn’t snag her agreed to settle for Amy Lawrence. As Twain’s title suggests, his book is an adventure focusing on Tom Sawyer. However, it begins with important support from his partner, Huckleberry Finn, who is portrayed as an uneducated character who lives, literally and figuratively, at the fringes of society. As his book wraps up, Twain imagines that “Someday…it might seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones to see what sort of men and women they turned out to be.” That ending shows that the author had every intention of writing a sequel to Tom Sawyer and that he was hoping that he could lure readers into anxiously anticipating its publication.
But before he could complete that book, he worked as a journalist in the western states, traveled the world, published Life on the Mississippi (1882) and then another children’s book, The Prince and the Pauper (1883). However, during that period he never stopped working on the follow-up story. His biggest struggle was to figure out how to advance the two youths from carefree children to teenagers who were suddenly forced to make life and death decisions. Between 1884- 1885, almost ten years after the release of Tom Sawyer, Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His new book mostly emphasized the adventures of Huck and moved Sawyer to a secondary and almost superfluous role. Even in Tom Sawyer, there were strong indications that Huck was inching closer to mature behavior, while playful Tom refused to come to grips with adult responsibilities. As Tom Sawyer ends, it becomes more of Huck’s story, as his character undergoes radical transformations from an outcast who lived in the woods at the edges of society, to becoming a pre-teen who has made some heroic life-saving decisions. As a consequence of these deeds, he has been rewarded with unimaginable wealth. At the same time, he has been cajoled by Tom Sawyer and the Widow Douglas into becoming “sivilized.” Twain leaves it uncertain at the end of Tom Sawyer whether Huck would be able to adjust to becoming a fully respected member of society, but I always had my doubts.
Twain notes in the Introduction of Huckleberry Finn that the story took place in “The Mississippi Valley about Forty to Fifty Years Ago.” Huck opens up the tale, as a first person narrator, and speaks directly to us as if we were settin’ on his front porch and he was a-fondly recollecting and explaining what happin’ to him many years ago. This close and direct style of story-telling helps readers to transition easily from the first book to the one at hand. Speaking to us in a backwoods Missouri regional dialect, Huck opens up by reminding us what we already might know and what we are to expect in the upcoming story:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly… but with some stretchers… I never seen anybody but lied one time or another.”
Huck’s presentation is interesting because in telling about the author who created him, he draws Twain in as a character in the book. His new stories take place about one year after the conclusion of Tom Sawyer. We are told by the alternate narrator, Twain, that Huck is now about 13 years. However, Huck confidently re-takes the wheel as the main narrator by spinning it like this:
“Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece — all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher, he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round — more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.”
In my next Litchatte.com blog, I will write about how Huck’s character begins to transform from a child who believed almost everything that Tom Sawyer told him, into becoming a free-thinking young man who started to question the soundness of some of Tom’s most outrageous “stretchers.” Speaking of stretchers, Twain issues the following “NOTICE” in the Introduction of Huckleberry Finn:
“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.”
If Twain’s opening warning wasn’t interesting enough to get us started talking about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then I don’t what else could?
Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is a co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at email@example.com, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.