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Old Manuscript Sheds New Light On Twain's Vision for Huck Finn


By Mark Twain

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Random House

418 pp., $25

Our fifth-grade teacher read aloud to us every day after lunch. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of the school day. Thus we were introduced to Tom Sawyer, his Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher, the Judge, and Tom's pal from the wrong side of the tracks, Huck Finn. Our teacher considered following "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" with "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but decided we were not yet old enough for it. In some ways, this was a pity, because Huck Finn's story, featuring a brilliant array of American dialects, begs to be read out loud. But our teacher may have been right about the novel's "mature themes."

As my classmates and I would discover in the years to come, "Huckleberry Finn" is one of those relatively rare books that is classified as too "adult" but in fact contains little if any sexually explicit material.

The topics it treats are far from childish. Young Huck is the son of an abusive, alcoholic, good-for-nothing father who ends up in a seedy brothel. Rafting down the Mississippi, Huck and his companion, the run-away slave Jim, encounter not the storybook pirates and villains who populate Tom Sawyer's hyperactive imagination, but shoddy, violent, foul-mouthed real-life con-men, braggarts, and thieves. Equally adult is Mark Twain's use of irony as he traces the boy's ability to make his own moral choices, learning to do what he's been taught to be wrong in order to save his friend Jim from being captured.

From the evidence of some manuscript passages that Twain chose to leave out of the published work, the author himself saw fit to tone down some elements of Huck's story. Incorporating materials from the recently discovered Twain manuscript, the new "comprehensive edition" from Random House includes four passages Twain deleted from the published edition in 1885: Jim's account of his encounter with a cadaver, which took place some years before and which he tells to entertain Huck; a long description of the boastful carrying-on of some raftsmen; and two passages satirizing revivalist meetings.

As Twain biographer Justin Kaplan remarks in his introduction to this edition, "It would be a mistake ... to assume that material Mark Twain decided to drop, although fresh and exciting in itself, necessarily represented a loss as far as the structure of the published novel is concerned. He was the best judge of his own work." It is nonetheless valuable to be able to see this material and to examine the other changes Twain made. Twain scholar Victor Doyno's notes aid in this process.

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Twain's changes fall into both of what might be viewed as the two main categories of textual alteration: improvements designed to bring the finished product closer to the author's conception, and changes made to render the finished product more acceptable to contemporary values.

Emendations of the first kind are interesting because they are a window into the artistic process: the hard work of revising and refining to get it right. Alterations of the second sort excite curiosity because readers want to discover the "authentic," uncensored version the author intended before being forced to cope with the demands of publishers or popular taste.

Readers of this comprehensive edition will be able to see how Twain worked to strengthen his characterizations, render the language more lifelike, and otherwise improve the book. They will also see how Twain slightly softened some of his satirical jabs against religious hypocrisy and racism - though only very slightly.

There is a widespread inclination to value an author's supposedly pristine first intentions over second thoughts presumed to be concessions to externally imposed contingencies.

But it is not always easy to distinguish emendations made for art's sake from those made for less exalted reasons.

Twain's deletions of the cadaver and raftsmen episodes made his novel the right length to be sold as a companion piece to "Tom Sawyer." But they also seem to serve to tighten the narrative and balance the novel's structure. Sometimes, artistic and commercial motives may coincide rather than conflict.

As Kaplan also observes in his introduction, Huck Finn has had more than his share of controversy. In Twain's time, the book was banned from some public libraries as vulgar, immoral, and irreligious: a bad example for youngsters.

More recently, Twain's use of the word "nigger" - a realistic reflection of how these uncouth Southern characters would have talked - threatens to distract readers from Twain's unmistakably antiracist message.

Reading "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," I was struck by its powerful and scathing satire of a home-grown brand of American ignorance, avarice, and bigotry still recognizable today - and by its subtly instructive portrait of Huck and Jim, a pair of wily American innocents who manage to stay one step ahead of the scoundrels and dimwits who threaten their quests for freedom and adulthood.

Perhaps our fifth-grade teacher was right in thinking that this American classic - if not for "adults only" - is best appreciated by readers with some degree of maturity and sophistication.

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