Journey to Freedom
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the American Civil War
by Christopher Dow
Soon after the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain began a sequel to the popular book, starring Tom’s friend, Huckleberry Finn. Commentators on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often point out that while Twain constructed the opening sequences early on, he eventually lost interest in the novel and put it aside. Apparently, it just wasn’t gelling for the author. Only when he again returned to the manuscript after a gap of many years did the characters and story fall into thematic place, allowing Twain to complete it and create an enduring and important piece of American literature.
What happened in the intervening time to bring Huck Finn into focus for Twain? The answer is tied to the meaning of Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River with escaped slave Jim. Both of them seek freedom, but their southward journey only takes them deeper into the land of servitude. So why would they travel in that direction to achieve freedom? Twain has purpose, here. While there is not a thorough one-to-one correspondence between events, the book can be viewed as a document of the momentous trauma through which Twain, like all Americans, has just lived: the War between the States.
The Civil War was a central issue of American writers during Reconstruction, and it was no different for Twain. A symbolic chronicle of the causes of, events leading up to, and physical collision between the North and South, Huckleberry Finn also examines the war as a conflict between states of being, between truthful adherence to the tenets that govern the United States and a hypocrisy that abuses and games the system for profit and power.
The opening chapters of the book lay out the major players in this strife. Besides Huck, there are Jim, Pap, Tom Sawyer, Judge Thatcher, and the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Each represents an aspect of society that is revealed through their characteristics and actions and through Huck’s interactions with them. Huck, however, as the narrator and focal point of the narration, is not an aspect. Rather, he is the American everyman dealing with those aspects—the protagonist young America in first person. These early chapters also lay out the idea of conflict between opposite frames of reference and opposite states of mind. On the one hand, there are the Widow Douglas and her spinster sister, Miss Watson, representatives of cultural stability enhanced by slow but definite social progress. They are the ones educating Huck by teaching him to read and otherwise “sivilizing” him with religion—the two great pillars of civilization. Significantly, both women are unmarried. Or rather, they are married to humankind as a whole rather than to individual men. Like nuns, theirs is a higher calling than personal attachment and fulfillment: the task of bringing order to society from within. For Huck, however, that society seems as restrictive as it is enlightening.
Ironically, the story with which Miss Watson tries to impress Huck of the need to earn an education and to live with and impart order is that of “Moses and the Bullrushers.” Huck on his raft is Moses in his basket, washed up among the bullrushers—the bushwhackers, bull artists, and those who would rush headlong like maddened bulls, all of whom destroy social and cultural order. From here on out, Huck encounters such people with great frequency. Equally ironic is that, although Huck hates having to learn to read and write, that skill becomes vital during his journey, and finally, it allows him to “author” this book.
At odds with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson is Huck’s father, Pap, who is cultural stagnation personified. Exhibiting the full range of negative human attributes, he is the lowest of the low in his town: a vicious, dirty, lying, drunken, lazy, thieving, poverty-stricken, and almost bestial scoundrel. Yet, because he is White, he still is qualified to possesses a slave. That slave is Huck. Pap takes all Huck’s money for his own. Then he absconds with Huck to a rude cabin in the wilderness across the border in another state. There, he imprisons Huck, keeping him locked up at night and forcing him to labor during the day without compensation under the threat of corporal punishment. This is metaphorically tantamount to taking African people—or anyone—from their homes, transporting them to a foreign land, housing them in slave shacks, and making them perform slave labor or face corporal punishment or death.
And the corporal punishment and threats of death are the same for Huck as for a Black slave. Pap beats him with sticks and whips and threatens him with a gun. The abuses Pap visits upon Huck form an almost verbatim inventory of the treatment of Black slaves by their White masters as recounted in abolitionist literature, particularly Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave. As Pap succinctly puts it, he was “boss of his son.” (p. 42)
Sometimes the brutality comes when Pap doesn’t think Huck has worked hard enough, but just as often, it happens when Huck asserts his rights as a free individual. Most of all, Pap does not want Huck to get an education—something he himself lacks—and he resents the little that Huck has picked up from the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson—mostly because it has made Huck “uppity.” Huck might be resistant to education, but despite complaining vociferously about it, he already understands the value in it—something Pap cannot conceive or perceive.
Even Pap’s name—synonymous with mushed-up food for infants, political patronage, and lacking solid value or substance—further expresses Pap’s representation as the Southern White man with his prevailing moral corruption in differentiating Blacks from Whites, enslaving them, and treating them as inferiors. Indeed, sick whiteness becomes a trope with regard to Pap. His narrow mindset and shallow, selfish, and ignorant reasoning mark his critique of the government as pure pablum. And while pap is white, it is not the pure white of goodness but an off-white that, like pablum, quickly sours and becomes sickly. Huck describes Pap thus: “There warn’t no color in his face where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make the body’s flesh crawl—a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white.” (p. 39)
And let’s not forget Huck’s name. The huckleberry is a common and widespread fruit native to North America. Even aside from the idea that Huck is the American everyman and thus representative of Americans, who are becoming common and widespread on the continent, the colors of the huckleberry are notable. It comes in three—red, black, and blue—which makes Huck’s name very possibly a play on red, white, and blue in the context of a book whose subject is slavery and whose method is reversal. In this context, White Huckleberry takes on the characteristics of the black huckleberry—the Black slave—since Huck is essentially Pap’s slave. This continues later on when Jim, in essence, becomes a father figure for Huck. Finn, of course, refers to the piscine nature of Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River as he swims with the currents of his time.
As the episode with Judge Thatcher shows, Pap is eloquent in his use of deceit and religion to subvert authority to his will so that he can continue his depredations on Huck—the American everyman who has become as much a slave to the slaveholding system as are the Black people who are held in bondage. (p. 42–44) From his title and position, Thatcher is obviously the law of the land, the rules that govern us as well as the administration of those rules. In that capacity, he should be critical of and watchful for acts that defy those laws and rules. However, he is so entrenched in the prevailing slaveholding culture that when Pap is brought before his court, he cannot help but abet Pap’s prevarications, depredations, and criminality despite his clear knowledge of Pap’s notoriously bad reputation. To do otherwise would be to deny—in a legal sense—that slavery was a valid concept—something the entrenched Southern culture would never tolerate and Judge Thatcher, as that culture’s arbiter, would never do.
Pap’s representation as the Southerner entrenched in a backward-looking, slaveholding, agrarian economy is solidified by his rant against the federal government.
Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him—a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do sutin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him….Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all….Says I, for two cents I’d leave the blamed country and never come anear it agin. (p. 49)
Pap’s mindset emerges more fully as his rant takes in the North, free blacks, and education, all of which are rolled into the image of a black man Pap once encountered. This black man lived in the North, was free, was a college professor, and even had the right to vote. Contained in this single image is Southern fear that Blacks might be equal to Whites—or even superior—endangering the core of White supremacy in economics, politics, and social prestige. More pointed is that Pap, as the prototypical Southern slave owner, takes the first formal step toward civil war. He says, “When they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote…I says I’ll never vote again.” (p. 49–50) By eschewing participation in national politics, the Southern slave owner gives notice of secession from the Union.
Huck, however, is of a new generation, and his personal experiences of being exploited by the same system that enslaves Black people have given him a new awareness of human injustice. So, when he meets up with Jim, who has decided to escape bondage, they quickly realize they both have the same goal: freedom from indentured servitude—freedom to live one’s life as one chooses, just as laid out in the founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To do that, they must, in the modern parlance, take the roles of mismatched buddies seeking to escape villains in a chase movie. Of course, like the heroes in chase movies, they cannot help but run straight into their enemies right before the end. That’s the nature of drama, and often life itself.
After the two of them join forces, they begin their sojourn together. It starts on dry land, but very soon, they must take to the water of the Mississippi River—the major artery of America’s heartland, the one mighty and irrevocable linkage between the North and South—to preserve themselves from capture. Their first craft is a flimsy skiff, but they soon create enough of a society together that they graduate to a solid raft with a wigwam shelter. As noted, their journey is ostensibly to seek freedom—Jim from slavery and Huck from the fetters of his society and civilization, represented on its extremes by Pap’s cultural stagnation and the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson’s cultural restrictions. But as noted before, if freedom is their literal purpose, the journey they take is illogical because the Mississippi River flows south. Every moment they remain on its currents ferries Jim deeper into slave country and Huck closer to New Orleans, the quintessential bastion of the very culture whose appurtenances and restrictions make Huck uncomfortable and where that culture is at its most overt and corrupt.
But Huck and Jim—the nation—can’t go to the freedom of the North without first moving against and confronting the slavery of the South. So, before the journey, proper, begins, Twain has to prepare the way thematically, which he does in the episode where Huck, dressed as a girl, converses with the woman in the house. These themes, which are played out time and again through the course of the novel, are outgrowths of the tensions surrounding the notions of identity and direction. The former questions who we are as a nation, and the second denotes conflict because, in choosing the direction the nation should take, it is impossible for its people to go in two directions at once. One cannot espouse personal freedom while enslaving others. And both identity and direction imply choice—making deliberate and thoughtful decisions about these critical matters.
One of the first bits of information Huck learns from the woman is that the people back home think he is dead—that Jim killed him and fled. On the eve of deep national conflict, the American everyman has lost his identity and even his former life, and it is because a slave has killed him—because slavery has killed the American Union. Even his name is now in question. Huck gives the woman one name, then another, then a third and fourth, none of which are his own. The American everyman, just like his country, is undergoing an identity crisis and has yet to figure out who he is. Further, Huck’s dressing as a girl lends him a dual sexuality. He is is not just everyman but everywoman, too. And this dual context also mirrors the idea of opposites contained within a single body.
Huck tells the woman he’s going to Goshen. In addition to being the name of a town in Missouri, Goshen is the Biblical name for an area of the Nile Delta in ancient Egypt. Further, in popular parlance, Goshen euphemistically refers to a sort of promised land, linking the name Goshen with the North and freedom. But if Huck intends to go to Goshen, the woman tells him, he’s going the wrong way. She lives in St. Petersburg, and Goshen is ten miles north. Huck has overshot his mark. He’s not headed toward Goshen but toward New Orleans, which is just about as far south as one can travel on the Mississippi River before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. But despite her warning that Huck seems to be going in the wrong direction, he and Jim resume their journey south as soon as he returns to the raft.
This episode might seem contradictory, but with it, Twain blatantly acknowledges that Huck and Jim’s journey south along the river is illogical. Freedom, like Goshen, is not where Huck and Jim are heading, at least not literally. Just the opposite. However, Twain sends them South for reasons of his own, and their journey has an internal logic that is not at odds with their purposes. On the raft, Huck and Jim form a microcosm of ideal American society, where Whites and Blacks are unified through living, working, and playing together. However, their journey also is symbolic of the journey of this American ideal, carried by the natural currents of historical imperative through America’s heartland, toward the inevitable physical confrontation over slavery, the antithesis of the concept of freedom espoused by Americans. This is why Twain sends his racial fugitives south, into the arms of their staunchest enemies. The mismatched buddies in the movies always must confront the chief villains in the climax.
But before Americans could confront slavery, they first had to become aware on a deeper level of the inherent wrongness of that institution and demonstrably acknowledge that it and racism are ethically and morally corrupt. Huck, as an American everyman, starts out with a view of Blacks and slavery that was conventional for his time. His first mention of Jim is his casual introduction of Jim as “Miss Watson’s big nigger,” (p. 22) but Huck isn’t being vicious or intentionally derogatory here. He’s simply reflecting the language and tenor of his times, unaware that the literal meaning of the words implies that Jim is somehow not fully human and has no identity beyond that of his color, owner, and large stature, which gives him a superior ability to perform manual labor. In fact, Huck could be describing any farm animal—“Miss Watson’s big horse.”
And the casualness of Huck’s words illustrates how deeply ingrained and normalized such attitudes were. For American everyman Huck, Blacks are less important than are Whites, and so Huck automatically and without reflection considers them inferior. His attitude isn’t surprising. It is the prevailing attitude of an American culture that thrived on slavery, which in turn required the dehumanization of Black slaves.
So, the novel’s first step is to rehumanize Black people for the White American everyman. For Huck, this occurs after he denies that he and Jim were separated in the fog, when he sees in Jim’s reaction employment of all his own positive qualities. First, Jim is intelligent. Once he sees the physical evidence of the trash littering the raft, he immediately deduces the truth behind Huck’s lie. Second, Jim demonstrates deep emotion in his sorrow at Huck’s loss and his concern for Huck’s well-being. “‘My heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what became er me en de raf.’” (p. 121) Third, Jim reveals his human dignity through his hurt at being deceived. “‘Trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.’” (p. 121) And fourth, Jim’s affront at Huck’s cruelty indicates ethical and moral depth of character.
Jim and his behavior are such a direct contrast with Huck’s major male role model, Pap, that he does not have to think long about Jim’s reaction and its implicit and explicit proof of Jim’s humanity before he “humble[s himself] to a nigger.” (p. 121) With this action, Huck and, symbolically, the average White American openly admits that his past behavior towards Blacks has been demeaning, dehumanizing, and just plain wrong.
From Huck’s new awareness of Jim’s inherent humanity emerges a realization that slavery is a profoundly corrupt evil, followed by the inevitable conclusion that Black people must be released from bondage. Thus, it is not long before Huck begins to actively work for emancipation. The very next people Huck and Jim encounter are two men looking for runaway slaves. Huck saves Jim by telling them that Jim, hidden in the wigwam on the raft, is his father. He further ensures their hasty departure by saying there is sickness on the raft. By calling Jim his father, Huck has, in one stroke, rejected his own racist, backward father/heritage and professed intimate kinship and a new future between Blacks and Whites. Further, he indicates that slavery is a virulent sickness that infects society. And on top of that, in protecting Jim by subterfuge and hiding him away, he uses the same means many White Americans were employing to abolish slavery and help runaway slaves escape North via the Underground Railroad.
But even before Huck comes to his awareness, there has been a strong signal that the dominance of the South’s former way of thinking is at an end and that the inevitable imperatives of cultural progress are destroying the Southern way of life. Right at the beginning of their river journey, Huck and Jim find a house floating on the swollen water. Just as the river represents the forces of cultural imperatives bearing the nation toward war, the house symbolizes personal lives and families, as well as social traditions, uprooted and carried away by the flood. Significantly, though Huck does not yet know it, this house contains Pap’s dead body. Huck’s roots in the old way of life, the old thought patterns and behaviors, are severed by the rising flood of conflict in the heartland, and by extension, so are those roots severed for all Americans.
Soon after the encounter with the house, Huck comes ashore in the midst of the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. While the surface level of the feud follows the ages-old outlines of clan or tribal warfare, the two families become stand-ins for the warriors of a new intertribal combat that was of significance during Reconstruction. In 1867, established farmers and landholders began an agrarian society called the Grange, whose immediate purpose was to protect established agrarian interests against incursions of other, newly arrived land users. These might be freed Blacks or immigrants—or even Yankees!—but the single major foe of the Grangers was the sheepherder, and bloody battles over pasturage were not uncommon. In the end, the sheepherders emerged victorious, with legal and moral rights to equal pasturage upheld.
So the range war, like the Civil War, was a fight for liberation and equality—and diversity. The significance, though, is not simply in the thematic similarity of the two conflicts, for there is a deeper level to this feud that has a direct bearing on America’s progress toward Civil War. Twain depicts the Grangerfords as Southern patricians. The head of the family is called the “Colonel,” an honorary title customary in the South. The Colonel wears white suits and a Panama hat, and he possesses considerable property and many slaves. All these elements typify him as the aristocratic Southern plantation owner.
While the representation of the Grangerfords as Southern slave holders is fairly obvious, what the Shepherdsons denote, besides being sheepherders, is less so. That they are the enemies of the Southern slaveholding Grangerfords provides the first hint that the Shepherdsons must represent the abolitionist movement. While this might not seem obvious at first glance, a closer look strengthens the supposition that the Shepherdsons are, in fact, not only leading their flocks to freedom but are abolitionists in the guise of the most famous abolitionist of all—John Brown.
Brown fathered twenty children and, so, was patriarch of a clan. And like the Shepherdsons, Brown was known for his violent attacks against his opponents. In 1855, he and five of his sons killed five pro-slavery men in Potawatomie, Kansas—the same number as that of the Grangerfords killed by the Shepherdsons in their final fight. Also, that fight takes place at a ferry crossing, further linking the Shepherdsons to Brown, who was hanged in 1859 following his aborted raid on the federal munitions dump at Harper’s Ferry. But the fact that clinches the relationship between the Shepherdsons and Brown is that immediately prior to his years as a violent abolitionist, Brown owned a sheep-raising and wool brokerage business.
The Potawatomie killings resulted from the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave territories the right to enter the Union as slave or free states. This was a major issue before the war because the act repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had made slavery illegal in newly admitted states. The South, a proponent of states’ rights principally because supporting that doctrine supposedly legitimized slaveholding, viewed the Missouri Compromise as a weakening of its political power. Instead, the South rallied around the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which asserted popular sovereignty, strengthening the South’s political position.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act was sponsored by Stephen A. Douglas, and though the South lauded the act, Douglas’s later antislavery, pro-Union stance destroyed his popularity there. A beaten man, he died, almost symbolically, on June 3, 1861, the same day as the first skirmish of the Civil War—the Battle of Philippi. And he, too, has his place in Huck’s tale in the form of Stephen Dowling Bots, Emmeline Grangerford’s poetic subject. Beyond the similarity in names is that Botts falls down a well and drowns—a fitting metaphor for Douglas, who could be said to have perished in a hole he’d dug for himself.
The states’ rights connection is reinforced by the presence in the Grangerford library of speeches by states’ rights advocate Henry Clay. Clay did, however, try to ameliorate the political difficulties caused by slavery and the states’ rights issue, and he predicted that bloody civil war would result from secession. Thus, the Grangerford–Shepherdson conflict is linked to both of the major causes of the Civil War: the abolitionist movement and the states’ rights issue.
Soon after leaving the Grangerfords, Huck falls under the control of two confidence men. The extensive tenure of these two hucksters aboard the raft also has significance in relation to the Civil War. The younger of the conmen says he is “the rightful Duke of Bridgewater,” (p. 163) and the older claims he is the “pore disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen,” (p. 164) the rightful heir to the throne of France. These two individuals portray European involvement in the Civil War, with the Duke personifying England and the King acting the part of France. Their names—Bridgewater and the Dolphin, as he is often termed—indicate their transatlantic nature, and their titles confer a counterfeit legitimacy. During the war, England and France provided aid to the Confederacy. Thus, the Duke and King ostensibly offer attachment to all the cultural, economic, and political benefits of Europe that aristocratic Southerners craved: culture in the form of theatrical drama; economics and kinship, represented by their offer to support the Wilks sisters in England; and politics, which comes both from their offer of implied protection for the Wilks and the political nature of the dramas they perform.
While aboard the raft, the two hucksters spend most of their time huddled in the wigwam, plotting means to fleece gullible townsfolk. England and France helped the Confederacy not out of ideological affinity but in a united effort to weaken America politically and economically and to profiteer from the South’s conflict with the North. This is why all the culture and supposed aid presented by the Duke and King is really just false pretense. The Duke’s bogus offer to support the Wilks sisters, both economically and politically—to make them English—is simply a sham to rob and weaken them in the name of false kinship. And instead of genuine high culture, the Duke and King foist off farcical dramatic adaptations that are culturally vapid and artistically hollow. Instead of bestowing value to the viewers, the counterfeit dramas are politically void and serve only to divest the Southerners not only of their money, but of their caution regarding such formidable international powerhouses as England and France. Amusingly, the dramas the King and Duke perform give a clue to the true nature of the performers, for all of them—Richard III, Hamlet, and even Romeo and Juliet—dramatize not only political intrigue and betrayal, but portray cultures in the throes of antagonisms, feuds, or open civil war.
Huck then discovers that the King has sold Jim, who is being held by the Phelps family. He goes to see what he can do, only to be mistaken for the Phelps’ nephew, Tom Sawyer, who is due to arrive for a visit. The real Tom soon shows up, and after Huck tells Tom that he plans to help Jim escape, he is dumbfounded that Tom agrees to help. “I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger-stealer!” (p. 285) Huck’s wonder is sparked by the fact that Tom, despite his frequent shenanigans, is an upstanding citizen. As Huck puts it, Tom “was respectable and well brung up…had a character to lose…was bright…, knowing;… and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame….” (p. 295)
The problem for Huck is that Tom is an avowed disciple of proper social form and political doctrine. Using romance and adventure literature as his behavioral bibles, Tom always strictly adheres to accepted cultural tenets. But not only does Tom help, he does so with such enthusiasm that he takes control of the enterprise, concocting elaborate plans based on literature—on fictions. Although these plans ostensibly create an aura of propriety around Jim’s liberation, their actual purpose in the context of the novel is to thwart and subvert authority by weaponizing the literary canon established by that authority in the first place. After all, if America’s founding documents—the rules by which our nation is supposedly governed and which we all tacitly agree to follow—proclaim that all men in America are equal, why is the Black man enslaved? Tom, however, is not really subverting authority, nor has he ever had any intention to do so. For Tom, liberating Jim is just a technical game, because he knows that there is a new authority: Miss Watson has already officially liberated Jim.
There is more going on here than two boys rescuing a Black man from a shed. The Phelps are at the southernmost tip of Huck and Jim’s voyage, close to New Orleans. Huck and Jim have journeyed here, passing through incidents and issues leading to the Civil War, and they now face the inevitable physical confrontation over Jim’s bondage, and, by extension, the bondage of all Black people in America. In this context, the Phelps represent the social norms, economic prerogatives, governmental authority, and military forces of the South. Not only do they keep the Black man—Jim—in bondage, they raise a rabble army of Southern farmers to prevent his liberation—the Army of the Confederacy. Amusingly, Tom’s obligatory letter of warning to the Phelps cautions that the force that intends to free Jim “will sneak down from northards, along the fence.” (p. 338) This is exactly what has already happened. Huck, the new abolitionist, has come from northwards, and when he first arrives at the Phelps’ farm, he actually sneaks around the fence before climbing it and approaching the house from the rear. The allusion here is to the army of the North, quietly amassing along the Mason–Dixon Line prior to the war.
If Huck is the new everyman abolitionist, Tom also has an alternate role in this drama. Because the Phelps believe that Huck is Tom, Tom assumes the false and very common but somewhat stately sounding name of William Thompson. This indicates that he is no longer the individual, Tom Sawyer. Instead, like Huck, he has taken a larger role that fits his general character as a staunch upholder of social structure: that of the federal government. On behalf of Huck, the common American, Tom is the one who takes charge of the mechanics of the war to free Jim. Tom is the general who possesses the arcane knowledge of strategy and tactics—learned with authority from books—and he engineers all the battles then leads his troops into the fray. And most importantly, he carries with him the official sanction enabling him to free the slaves with confidence. This is the Emancipation Proclamation, symbolized by Miss Watson, a representative of established order and cultural progress, setting Jim free.
Thus, Tom’s elaborately wrought plans become the tactics and strategies of the Civil War, all the battles of which occurred on Southern soil. General Tom and Private Huck engage in battles all over the symbolic South of the Phelps’ farm, leading armies of rodents, snakes, and bugs in a harassment of the Southern homeland. As the Union troops, they commandeer supplies from defeated Southerners in the form of clothes, food, tools, and the other items that Huck and Tom pilfer from the Phelps. The things they sneak into Jim’s cabin, such as the witch pie and the rats, are equivalent to the supplies, war materiel, and reinforcements delivered across Southern lines to replenish the Union army. And finally, Jim’s cryptic scrawls equate with coded military and spy communiqués.
At last the war ends, although in the process Tom, the Union, has been wounded. Only after he is restored to the Phelps, that is, after the North and South come together again as a single nation, is he made whole and well and able to wear the bullet that wounded him as a proud symbol that his efforts and pain have brought tangible rewards.
More important for the real protagonist of the story—a nation recovering from war—Jim, the Black American, is set free. He is allowed to travel where he wants, to take a wife of his own choosing, and to create a home life of substance and permanence to call his own. In sending Jim on his way, Tom, representative of the Union, presents him with $40, just as the federal government promised to give to each former slave forty acres and a mule.
Significantly, only after Jim has been freed does he tell Huck that Pap is dead. The Civil War, a war of liberation, must be won by the forces of equality before America can truly realize that the structure of the old slave culture has permanently shifted off its foundation and washed away. This fact is as liberating for Huck as it is for Jim, because Pap treated Huck, his own posterity, as property. The culture that enslaved Blacks also fettered White Americans with bonds of an inhumanity that would enslave the world. The success of the Civil War has lent a greater potential for freedom to all Americans.
So ends Huck and Jim’s journey—America’s journey—to freedom. American consciousness has gained awareness of the inherent humanity of Black people and reacted against the inhumanity of slavery. Secession, the abolitionist movement, the states’ rights issue, European involvement, and other elements have formed benchmarks along the way to war. Emancipation proclaimed, battles fought, and the Civil War won have resulted in freedom for the slaves and a re-formed Union between the North and South. The bonds of slavery and inequality have to be broken for the bonds of brotherhood to flourish.
In the end, Huck, the eager new post-war American everyman, adamantly proclaims his intention “to light out for the Territory.” (p. 366) He intends, like his namesake plant, to spread across the continent. Importantly, the end of slavery and the reaffirmed national unity allowed America to dispense with the political controversy surrounding the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas–Nebraska Act. This controversy, engendered by slavery and the states’ rights issue, had seriously hampered America’s potential to expand westward. Now, with these political impediments eliminated by the Civil War, America, personified by young Huck, can expand unhindered into the Western territories, where it can strive, in its rough-and-tumble way, toward maturity.
There are several contenders for the designation of the Great American Novel. Many great writers have vied and continue to vie to produce it. In vain. It already has been written. For my money, it isn’t possible to do better than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which so artfully and entertainingly charts one of the country’s most severe growing pains, resulting in contention, a messy divorce, and violence of brother against brother. And the result was an equally contentious reconciliation that introduced a whole new way of life to the United States. This is a book about America like no other.
Through the message of the novel, it would seem that Mark Twain was expressing hope for a healed Union and eventual true equality for all Americans. If nothing else, the war should have proved the futility of the South remaining as it always had been in the face of scientific and technological progress and a burgeoning nation eager to expand its boundaries. The South was defeated precisely because of a lack of technological advancement. The future was upon the country, and the future waits for no one. And as one moves into the future, one must, by necessity, change.
A century and a half have passed since Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and during that time, the United States has been set free to expand to its utmost. Yet the other issues that came to a head in the Civil War—identity and direction—remain undecided. And the conclusion of the Civil War, which should have allowed the notion and practice of freedom to come to full fruition, did not. Equality has not fully materialized, despite a century and a half of continued, if often subterranean, strife. Even the fact that many of those decades were fraught with major international conflicts over identity, direction, and freedom seems to have brought little awareness within our own society of the need to truly live by the tenets of equality and freedom we espouse. Simply stated, understanding of identity and direction brings equality and freedom. Advancements have been made, but they are only battles in a larger, ongoing—and seemingly never-ending—Civil War.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Centennial Facsimile Edition (Harper & Row Publishers, 1987).