A Review of Some Reviews of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain said that a Classic Book is one that everyone agrees is valuable, but no one ever reads. In 1984, Norman Mailer wrote a centennial essay on reviews of books we now call classic but were panned by the critics in their eras. In the OSHER Institute-University of Richmond classes,  I have taught this summer, one of the students asked how books get assigned to be classics. I responded that I don’t think anyone critic can assign a book to be a classic. One becomes an enduring and endearing book by surviving good and bad reviews and continuing to speak to readers for years after they have been written.

Such classics that have thrived for generations after being ripped apart or ignored in the immediate years after their publication include Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby and, not too surprisingly,  Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Norman Mailer argues that the current reverence of some of these rejected or ignored novels is a “sweeter tonic” for those bad reviews. Mailer’s 12/9/1984 New York Times Review concludes that “there was no great sense that a great American novel had landed on the literary world in 1885.”  He noted that The Springfield Republican judged it to be no worse than “a gross trifling with every fine feeling. . . . Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety,..”   The Boston Transcript wrote that ”other members of the Library Committee characterize the work as rough, coarse, and inelegant, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” The Concord Massachusetts public library in Massachusetts banned the book and called it the ”the veriest trash.” Not included in Mailer’s article, Louisa May Alcott, also of Concord Massachusetts and of Little Women Fame was disappointed that the book was not the kind of book that was worthy of Mark Twain.

Huck Smoking a Pipe
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Original Illustration by E.W Kemble (1884). University of Special Collections Library.

There are countless reasons that Huckleberry Finn was not accepted in 1884. The book was a skeptical look at American values and culture before the Civil War when patriotic representations of our country were more accepted.  Twain said the novel was set in a period about 4o years ago-which would have made it in about the 1840’s. Not many people, today, are proud of our stance toward slavery and slaves before they were emancipated. Huck Finn presented a view of history that has seldom been explored in history classrooms in grade schools or middle schools consisting of students that were the same age as Huck was in the novel.  It would have been difficult for readers in the 1880’s to support the ways that slaves were treated after Huck realized that Jim was a human being who was emotionally upset for being separated from his family. As if being a slave wasn’t enough, he was escaping on a raft down the Mississippi River, not because he was a slave, but because he believed his slave owner was going to separate him from his family and sell him to another slave owner. Jim’s goal was to escape to a free state (like Ohio) and earn enough money to buy his own freedom and later, the freedom of his wife and children. Probably, whether late-nineteenth-century readers were for or against slavery, they didn’t want to spend their time reading a novel reminding them of our countries sordid past. Huckleberry Finn would have also hit a number of nerves making it less popular in its day. It is critical of religious hypocrisy; it challenges the way that we educate our youth; it is skeptical of the way mobs make irrational decisions based on fake information (Pap’s “Guvment” talk and Colonel Sherborne’s anti-mob speech); and warns readers to be cautious of hucksters making grand claims (the Duke and the King). Perhaps nineteenth-century readers were not ready to take these concerns seriously and could not accept the same view of America that Twain saw. Today, Twain’s views on some of these issues seems very advanced and even prophetic

As the twentieth century progressed, many critics, readers, and scholars have accepted that Twain wrote a very realistic view of rural Southern American life in the nineteenth century. He was a skilled writer who had a keen eye to report on what he had experienced, after spending many years as a Mississippi River Boat Captain. Those experiences enabled him to capture life, dialects, and characters like those who existed in the early years of our country more clearly than any other work of its type. And besides, the journey that Huck and Jim make is a darn interesting tale. The sweeter tonic that Huck Finn has received is that it has never gone out of print in the twentieth or twenty-first century. It has consistently been seen on many best novel lists (PBS Newshour, The American Scholar, The New York Times, and The Guardian of London).  Both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway have argued that “All American Literature starts with Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway even takes it a step further by claiming that no American writer has produced a better book than Huck Finn. That assessment would have been made in the 1950’s. However, I still believe it’s true today!




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 ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.



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