Twain Publishes

Publication of Mark Twain’s literary masterwork, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, marked a watershed in American literary history by introducing the rhythms of realistic American colloquial speech to fiction. During the twenty-first century, the book remains one of the most controversial and most widely read and studied works in American literature.

Summary of Event

In 1876, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, wrote to his friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells that he was working on a sequel to his recently completed novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The (Twain) (1876). The protagonist of his new novel was to be Tom Sawyer’s friend, Huckleberry Finn. Twain completed about a third of this new novel in 1876, stopped work on the manuscript for a few years, resumed writing in 1879 only to put the manuscript aside again, and finally completed the book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1884. The novel was published in England in December, 1884, and the first American edition appeared in February, 1885. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
Twain, Mark
[p]Twain, Mark;Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
[kw]Twain Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885)
[kw]Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain (Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885)
[kw]Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain Publishes (Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885)
[kw]Huckleberry Finn, Twain Publishes Adventures of (Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
Twain, Mark
[p]Twain, Mark;Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
[g]United States;Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885: Twain Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[5420]
[g]Great Britain;Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885: Twain Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[5420]
[c]Literature;Dec., 1884-Feb., 1885: Twain Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[5420]
Howells, William Dean

Huckleberry Finn was very different from Tom Sawyer, which featured an omniscient narrator, as it was narrated by Huck himself in the coarse homespun dialect of an unschooled Missouri boy. Featuring a murder mystery and buried treasure, Tom Sawyer was a humorous boys’ adventure story. By contrast, Huckleberry Finn grappled with one of America’s most troubling moral issues, slavery. Set around the mid-1840’s, Huckleberry Finn centers on the relationship between Huck, who has run away from his abusive father, Pap Finn, and Jim, a runaway slave. The two fugitives meet on an island in the Mississippi River, find a raft, and head downriver toward Cairo, Illinois, where they plan to sell the raft, buy passage on a steamboat, and head upstream on the Ohio River into the free states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, they drift past Cairo on a foggy night and head ever deeper into slave territory. Along the way, they experience a series of both humorous and harrowing adventures. Throughout the journey, Huck wrestles with his conscience, trying to decide whether to report Jim as a fugitive slave or to assist him in his quest for freedom. Eventually, Huck recognizes Jim’s humanity and decides to help him gain his freedom, even if it means that he himself will go to hell.

Frontispiece of the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain objected to an earlier version by illustrator Edward Kemble because he thought it made Huck look “too Irishy.”

(Library of Congress)

Many early reviews of Huckleberry Finn were positive. Reviewers praised the authenticity of Huck Finn’s voice, Twain’s ability to capture the culture of Mississippi River communities, and the book’s biting humor. Like Twain’s earlier books—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi (1883)—Huckleberry Finn sold well. The novel’s first printing, which contained illustrations by E. W. Kemble Kemble, E. W. , was set for 30,000 copies. However, shortly after the book’s publication, it ran into trouble. In March, 1885, the trustees of the Concord, Massachusetts Massachusetts;censorship in , public library Libraries;censorship in
Censorship;and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] decided to exclude Huckleberry Finn from the library’s collection. The trustees cited as reasons the book’s coarse humor, the unsuitable behavior of many of its characters, and Huck’s ungrammatical diction. Some educators considered Huck a poor role model for American youngsters: Huck smokes, cuts school, can barely read, and speaks ungrammatically. Other libraries followed Concord’s example, but Twain himself appeared to be unfazed by this form of criticism. He claimed that library bans would result in the sale of an additional 25,000 copies of his novel.

Huckleberry Finn solidified Twain’s reputation as a major American writer. After its publication, he became more popular than ever on the lecture circuit, entertaining audiences with his caustic humor in both the United States and abroad. Twain published several more popular books after Huckleberry Finn, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). None of these books, however, generated as much discussion or controversy as Twain’s novel about the abused boy and the runaway slave drifting down the Mississippi River aboard a raft.

Discussion of and debate over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its author’s place in American literary history continued long after Twain’s death in 1910. In 1920, Van Wyck Brooks Brooks, Van Wyck published the first major critical study of Twain’s work, The Ordeal of Mark Twain (revised in 1933), to which Bernard DeVoto DeVoto, Bernard responded in 1932 with Mark Twain’s America. A decade later, DeVoto followed with Mark Twain at Work (1942). Both Brooks and DeVoto treated Twain as a major American writer. During the middle of the twentieth century, two of the era’s most influential literary figures, Lionel Trilling Trilling, Lionel and T. S. Eliot Eliot, T. S. , praised Huckleberry Finn as Twain’s masterpiece and one of America’s greatest novels. Trilling included an essay on Huckleberry Finn in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950) with the title “The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn.”

Despite such distinguished praise, Twain’s most famous novel has always had its detractors. The final chapters of the novel—in which Huckleberry Finn meets Tom Sawyer on the Arkansas farm of Tom’s aunt and uncle—have troubled both critics and readers alike. In Green Hills of Africa (1935), Ernest Hemingway Hemingway, Ernest wrote,

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

The final chapters, built upon the unlikely coincidence of Jim’s becoming a captive on the farm of Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle just as Tom is about to visit the farm, feature farcical comedy and an implausible plan, designed by Tom, to free Jim. At the end of the novel, Twain provides a deus ex machina resolution to the two main problems of the novel that troubles some readers. Tom Sawyer announces that Jim was set free in his owner’s will, and Jim reveals that Huck’s father, Pap, is dead.

A zealous critique of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by African American educators and critics began in 1957, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People determined that Twain’s novel was racially offensive. This argument centers on Twain’s use of the word “nigger,” which appears more than two hundred times in the novel, as well as his characterization of Jim. Huck consistently uses “nigger” to describe Jim and other slaves. In some episodes, Jim appears shrewd and asserts his manhood by demanding respect from Huck; in others—particularly in the final chapters—Jim appears passive, subservient, and unintelligent—a stereotype of the bumbling plantation slave. This racial critique of Huckleberry Finn has continued into the twenty-first century. Some American high schools have banned Huckleberry Finn from the classroom and library for its treatment of slavery and race.


Despite the criticisms that it has endured, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most widely read and studied American novels. More than fifteen million copies of the book, in countless editions, have been sold around the world. It is included in literary anthologies and widely covered in American high school and college literature courses. Although Huckleberry Finn has always generated criticism, it has also achieved the status of classic American novel. Twain is credited with grappling honestly with America’s most serious moral issues, slavery and race, and with bringing to the American novel, through Huck’s voice, the rhythms of realistic American colloquial speech. Twain is considered the literary ancestor of Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, and many other American writers who capture the American vernacular in their fiction.

In 1984, the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was duly noted and extensively celebrated by American literary scholars, libraries, and universities. In December, 1984, novelist Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman reviewed Huckleberry Finn in The New York Times Book Review as if it were an exciting new novel. The 1985 centennial of the first American edition of Huckleberry Finn was marked by the opening of a successful Broadway musical based on it, Big River, which won seven Tony Awards. A National Endowment for the Humanities-funded film adaptation of Huckleberry Finn was aired on public television in 1986. Moreover, American writers continue to write Huckleberry Finn books. In 1970, John Seelye published The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; a novel by Greg Matthews titled The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared in 1983; and Nancy Rawles’s My Jim, a novel narrated by Jim’s wife, appeared in 2005. Saul Bellow’s Bellow, Saul 1949 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, features a Huck Finn-like protagonist in Chicago during the Great Depression. These literary efforts testify to the endurance of Twain’s 1884 masterpiece.

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Van Wyck. The Ordeal of Mark Twain. Rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1933. First published in 1920, this first important study of Mark Twain’s writing was revised by Brooks after Bernard DeVoto published Mark Twain’s America in 1932.
  • Chadwick-Joshua, Jocelyn. The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in “Huckleberry Finn.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. A black scholar’s defense of Huckleberry Finn as an antiracist satire that presents Jim as a strong and vital force in the novel.
  • Doyno, Victor. Writing Huck Finn: Twain’s Creative Process. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Detailed discussion of Twain’s writing process that examines every phase of his famous novel’s creation.
  • Kaplan, Justin. Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of “Huckleberry Finn.” Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985. Centennial anniversary pamphlet by the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966). Discusses the ongoing controversies surrounding Twain’s novel.
  • Leonard, James S., Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on “Huckleberry Finn.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Collection of essays on Huckleberry Finn by African American scholars who examine the novel from a variety of perspectives.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Greatly expanded edition of the author’s Mark Twain A to Z (1995), with more than forty thousand words of material on Huckleberry Finn, including a detailed synopsis and a new critique of the novel.
  • Sattelmeyer, Robert, and J. Donald Crowley, ed. One Hundred Years of “Huckleberry Finn”: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Another centennial anniversary consideration of Huckleberry Finn with twenty-four essays about the novel’s place in American culture.
  • Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Edited by Thomas Cooley. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. This edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Huckleberry Finn is the first to use an authoritative text prepared by the editors of the Mark Twain Project. However, the project itself later published an even more authoritative text in 2001, after drawing on a previously unavailable portion of Twain’s original manuscript. The Norton edition also contains Kemble’s original illustrations, early reviews, critical essays, a bibliography, and a chronology.

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Twain, Mark
[p]Twain, Mark;Adventures of Huckleberry Finn