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"Daniel P. B. Smith" <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 7 Jul 2022 12:28:27 -0400
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I just reread _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ after a gap of perhaps forty years. I’m no scholar, hope this is appropriate for the group. 

I am fascinated by the problems of trying to see through _two_ cultural filters—Twain writing in the 1880s, nostalgically, about life in the 1840s and possibly telling some “stretchers” for comic or entertainment effect, and seeing through the eyes of Huckleberry Finn.

1) Huck, the Duke, and the Dauphin visit a small town on the banks of the Mississippi, apparently middle class, and the bed is “a feather-bed” on top of a “straw-tick,” I suppose corresponding to modern mattress and inner-spring. Is that in fact a normal middle-class bed for the era? What would Mark Twain have slept on in his house in Hartford? Vermin are not mentioned, do we assume that the presence of vermin in bedding was too normal to mention, or were they kept under control by frequent replacement of the bedding?

2) "Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family…. every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it…” Is that how Mark Twain himself dressed?

3) He mentions firing a cannon over a lake in hope of making drowned bodies come to the surface. Was this a common idea in those days? Could it possibly have worked?

How about the custom of “put[ting] quicksilver in loaves of bread and float[ing] them off, because they always go right to the drownded carcass and stop there?” Was that a widespread belief? Was “quicksilver" an easy thing to find in small towns in those days, what was it used for, and where did it come from?

How would anybody possibly get the idea of “quicksilver" doing that? What could have been the origin of such a belief? 

4) As I read it, Huck completely accepts the idea of enslaved people as legitimate property. Do you think Twain was satirizing and exaggerating slightly by the consistent way this idea is conveyed, e.g. "The old gentleman owned a lot of farms and over a hundred [enslaved people]?” In any case, I think all readers sense that Twain completely accepted the Abolitionist view that enslaved people are human and that slavery is an abomination, and expects his readers to agree. Twain seems to think that the 1885 reader will rejoice Huck’s decision not to inform on Jim; the reader is supposed to feel that Huck was doing the right thing, and was wrong in thinking he was doing the wrong thing.

Twain sidesteps the full working out of this idea by the unlikely plot trickery in the extended part of the book in which Huck and Tom Sawyer “free” Jim. Jim has actually already been freed, and Tom Sawyer knows it, but not Huck or Jim. The fact that Jim is free is hinted at so strongly and so often that the reader probably guesses it. So, the book’s point of view is that Jim was enslaved, slavery is wrong, Jim ought to be free… but the issue of actually stealing property is only teased, not performed. 

The book was published in 1885, twenty years after the Civil War. Was Mark Twain taking risks in assuming this point of view? Was the end of slavery widely accepted as a fait accompli in 1885, or were contemporary southern US readers hostile and critical of the book?

5) Isn’t Huck a lot older than he appears in the original illustrations for the book? He looks about nine years old to me, but he is “thirteen or fourteen” and his ability to make complicated plans involving adult behavior seem consistent with an even older age.