For the past nine years, I have worked as an educator in one capacity or another. Over that time period, I can think of few books that have challenged the way in which I teach, but Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece by Andrew Levy forced me to re-think everything I thought I knew about one of America’s most iconic (and controversial) novels.
As a student, I was taught to regard Twain’s work as a commentary on race, spending countless hours deciphering Twain’s messages about racism, discussing his use of the word “nigger,” and contemplating how all of this fit into modern society. The little time spent on evaluating Huck, as a character, was more a critique of Twain’s linguistic choices rather than the development of his protagonist. As a teacher, I have echoed the tradition in which I was taught, perhaps spending more time analyzing Twain’s use of the Mississippi River or debating why Huck Finn is every bit as much an adult novel as a children’s novel; nevertheless I failed to go beyond that or even consider there was a reason to look any further—arrogantly assuming I knew best.
For that reason, Levy’s work’s resonates with me on a much deeper level than anticipated. In Huck Finn’s America, Levy argues that over the last hundred years readers and educators have misinterpreted Twain’s intentions by exploring the novel as a work primarily about the controversy surrounding race relations in America rather than the conversation about the appropriate manner in which to rear children.
Levy does not negate the cultural implication about race presented in Huck Finn rather he argues that Twain’s novel was “at best, only partly built for a multiracial audience.” While educating the reader about Twain’s transformation from juvenile racist to adult semi-abolitionist, he simultaneously develops a case regarding the audience Twain was writing for by focusing on Twain’s love of minstrelsy, noting Twain’s use of it in the novel as well as the irony that the nation embraced Huck Finn as a book about racial integration just as minstrelsy disappeared from American culture. Furthermore, Levy suggests Twain’s use of the word “nigger” also proves Twain’s intended audience was white Americans. According to Levy, Twain never expected or intended for Huck to be a conversation starter or a parable on race relations.
Instead Levy suggests Twain was taken by the ongoing conversations about boys in America—a conversation that is still very active, which Levy addresses solidly—and wrote Huck as a character who was the “problem” child each of the conversations centered: he was poor, he was abused, he was uninterested in education. Yet despite these things, Twain shows the reader how a child, who would be medicated for ADD/ADHD in present society, has goodness in him, even if it is likely he will never become interested in school and may never desire to work hard to become successful by societal standards.
While Levy does outstanding work, marching the reader through Twain’s history and the America in which he lived as well as exploring Twain’s tour “Twins of Genius” in great depth, the one place I felt Levy left me wanting more was in the final chapter. Levy makes a strong case for how and why Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel about youth that is applicable today and echoed today in works such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, yet I found the teacher and avid reader in me wishing Levy had spent more time making these connections more palpable, more applicable.
With that said, Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece is worth devouring for anyone who wants a better understanding of what Twain might have been trying to accomplish with his masterpiece.
Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece
Simon & Schuster, 2014.