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Huckleberry Finn and his roots in minstrel shows

CULTURAL BIOGRAPHY

Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece

By Andrew Levy

Simon & Schuster

304 pages, $25

By Thomas J. Reigstad

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

In December 1884, Mark Twain and George Washington Cable performed their hugely popular joint lecture act in Buffalo for two nights before sold-out Concert Hall audiences at the southwest corner of Main and Edward streets. They had refined their “Twins of Genius” show in appearances in 20 other cities already, having launched the tour Nov. 5 in New Haven, Conn.

On Buffalo’s stage, Twain read advance sheets from his soon-to-be-released “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, namely the “King Sollermun” scene from chapter 14, in which the slave Jim argues against Solomon’s wisdom of proposing to slaughter a child. The passage reflects Jim’s high moral character and deep feelings toward children, family and duty.

During his Buffalo stay that December, Twain also crossed over to Fort Erie, Ont., probably accompanied by his old Buffalo friend Charles M. Underhill, to secure a British copyright for “Huck Finn“ and protect it from publishing pirates. After the second night’s show, Twain and Cable were treated to an elaborate reception at the Delaware Avenue mansion of industrialist Chelion M. Farrar, sponsored by the city’s elite Thursday Club. By all accounts, Twain was a cranky guest.

Less than a year later, Twain sent the (now priceless) handwritten manuscript of “Huck Finn” to a Buffalo lawyer, James Fraser Gluck, for the Young Men’s Association Library, the forerunner of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

None of these Buffalo anecdotes is cited in Andrew Levy’s “Huck Finn’s America.” However, Levy contends that a fresh appreciation of Twain’s classic novel should start with examining the Twins of Genius tour, over 103 performances in about 80 cities in 1884-1885.

Levy argues persuasively that “Huck Finn” is best understood by studying the times in which it was written. His literary historian approach suggests that the novel mirrors Twain’s keen interest in issues raging across 1880s America: the debate on how to raise and teach children, the rampant violence throughout society and the collapse of Reconstruction policies.

Furthermore, Levy writes that Twain’s childhood fascination with minstrel shows, a form of entertainment still flourishing after the Civil War, influenced Twain’s nostalgic elements in “Huck Finn.”

According to Levy, Twain’s reactions to victimization and violence of children, and the chaos of Reconstruction efforts, both dominating the headlines of his day, resulted in bad-boy delinquency and hucksterism trumping race as the major themes in the book.

Indeed, on the Twins of Genius lecture circuit, Cable – a progressive, liberal Southern author – read from his anti-slavery novels, whereas Twain seemed content to merely promote “Huck Finn,” and in minstrel fashion, “test the black voice behind a white face.”

In “Huck Finn’s America,” Levy occasionally references Victor Doyno’s term “echoistic” to describe the impressive resonance of the novel at the time of its publication and its continuing relevance across the subsequent 130 years. Doyno, retired English professor at the University at Buffalo and well-known Twain scholar, is cited often.

Several times, Levy footnotes Twain’s original manuscript as it appears in the landmark “Huckleberry Finn CD-ROM “(2003), produced by the Buffalo Library and edited by Doyno and Robert J. Bertholf, also of UB. Oddly, Levy does not acknowledge the wealth of primary historical documents written between 1775 and 1890, also available on the CD-ROM, that would support his case for reading Huck Finn within its historical context.

Levy describes how his laborious poring over 1880s newspapers on microfilm reading machines illuminated an America when Twain composed “Huck Finn” as a landscape flooded with accounts of murder, violence and war. He says Twain was particularly struck by stories about boys and violence.

Early reviewers of “Huck Finn” noticed Twain’s obsession. They wrote of the novel as “too violent a book about too bad a boy.” Contemporary critics also accused Twain of pandering to the trashy dime-novel tastes of young people, especially boys. They seldom mentioned the racial theme.

Twain’s creative impulses over seven years of “fits and starts” and the 1885 critical receptions of Huck Finn are well worth unearthing. In light of modern emphases on the race relations theme of the novel, Levy calls our misjudgment of Twain’s original intent “American forgetfulness.”

While Levy’s relatively newfound zeal for combing “ancient newspapers” for contemporary news tidbits comes across as vaguely naïve to literary sleuths who have been dipping into this treasure trove of research for decades, he makes a compelling case that Twain’s “true” message in Huck Finn is more about children than race.

As much as “Huck Finn’s America” focuses on the period in which “Huck Finn” was conceived, Levy believes that by aiming for adult and adolescent readers, tapping into the pop genre of dime-store books, being written from Huck’s point of view and describing children as victims who manage to successfully challenge authority, the novel speaks to today’s teen pop culture of neglected, alienated children.

Levy has steered the conversation of “Huck Finn” in a fresh, profitable direction, toward an intensive scrutiny of its roots. It is, however, just a well-documented beginning. As he admits, the documentation is almost as long as the book. But this feature is a plus for average readers and for scholars interested in excavating 1880s America themselves.

By putting America’s post–Civil War past under a microscope, this book demonstrates that today’s American controversies are nothing new. “Huck Finn” echoes across generations.

We should be glad that Twain hawked his book on American stages in 1884 and 1885. The Twins of Genius tour launched a national conversation that continues today in the form of eroding voter rights laws, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and even Daniel Handler’s offensive joke at the National Book Awards ceremony.

Levy’s work reminds us that a fresh reading of “Huck Finn” might be a key to teaching us that we should not repeat the past, that we are capable of stifling our saddest echoes.

Thomas J. Reigstad is an emeritus professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” (2013)