At first glance, a non-literary expert appreciates the creation of a well-written novel, such as, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, it is not easy to understand the main reason for its popularity since the late 19th century. Consider for a fact that there had been several best-selling books that really affected the way people understand and perceive literary works since the decade of the 1990s, but in a time span of only two decades or less, these one time literary masterworks are almost forgotten. The same thing cannot be said of some of Twain's masterpieces, especially the one that regaled readers with the adventures of a boy named Huckleberry. Without a doubt, old and new generation of readers were attracted to the story of Huckleberry Finn. It is manifested in the way the story was carried by the familiar storyline based on the backdrop of young mind's fantasies, especially the imagined perfection of what a real childhood should be in the minds of the readers.
The uninitiated reader picks up Mark Twain's novel for the very first time, and an overview of the book cover, illustrated by a young boy about to jump or frolic in a river, and it is easy for him or her to make the mistake that one is holding a children's book. For those who had no personal background regarding the literary works of Mr. Twain will undoubtedly make the same assumption, that this one is a book that was written for the enjoyment of grade-school children. However, a few paragraphs down into the first chapter, it becomes obvious that this novel was written by a sophisticated writer, hoping that his readers will somehow appreciate how he created a seemingly simple plot about a boy's adventure, but interwoven into the same matrix is a rather complicated set of messages that when taken together is a social commentary about America, its people, and their way of life. One can make the argument that in an indirect manner Mark Twain reveals the root causes of the social forces that shaped America, and in a brilliant manner he was able to show the good and the bad side of American life. Those who supported equality within the United States of America will see the beauty of the storyline, especially in the way the author demonstrated the prudence of tolerance and the importance of not judging people by the color of their skin or their respective economic status. This is manifested in Cassandra Smith's article when she pointed out that Twain used the words Nigger and Slave interchangeably and in different context. Upon closer examination, one can find how Twain, through his characters wanted the readers to have a high regard for the former slaves. In addition, O'Loughlin pointed out that Huckleberry Finn was able to overcome the overt racism that was prevalent in the society that he lived.
The genius of Mark Twain however is not seen immediately through the utilization of highfalutin words, or through an overly-complicated plot that requires a couple of re-reading or a brain surgeon's intelligence quotient to understand. The genius is found in the way he was able to hide his true intention, delivering it through an innocent package, as aforementioned, the seemingly innocent retelling of a young boy's quest for glory or misadventures, and therefore, adding to its allure. More importantly, the author did not only decide to use the backdrop of an ordinary activities of young boys at the height of their mischief, but also by embellishing the story with clever use of dialects and astute observations of the reality of life in the Mississippi area during the latter part of the 19th century. Timothy Peltason highlighted this fact when he touched upon the use of langauge in the novel. However, he went further by saying that the language used was to communicate a certain type of affection between the protagonist and the supporting characters in the story. In fact, the realism was a tremendous shock for many of Twain's contemporaries. According to a Boston transcript dated March 17, 1885, The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts made the declaration that it has excluded The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the said library. When researchers dug deeper, they uncovered statements like “the librarian and other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, course, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people”. It is interesting to note that in the introduction section of the novel, the author provided a clear explanation for the use of dialects, although, his message only implied the real purpose of adding a dose of realism to the narratives, this idea had to be understood by the readers by reading between the lines. It is also interesting to note that the seemingly educated people of Boston was slow to capture the essence of the book. Although, it is good to know that there were some type of machinations made to create a truly intelligent and timeless novel, it is not the use of clever or hidden messages that enabled this novel to transcend the impact of time and cultural differences, it is in the way the story was carried by the familiar storyline based on the backdrop of young mind's fantasies, especially the imagined perfection of what a real childhood should be in the minds of the readers.
The Yearning of the Readers
The novel does not announce itself as a self-help book or a narration of a mind expert offering his suggestion on how people can ease their pain. In other words, first time readers have very little expectation of the book outside the realm of entertainment. As mentioned earlier, the face value of the book is in the preconceived notion by the uninitiated reader that this was written to put children to sleep. Therefore, one can just imagine the impact of Twain's words when it began to connect with the hearts and minds of the readers. It is done of course in a subtle, manner, and it would have been perfectly normal for many fans of the book to go from one page to the next oblivious to the fact that the words in the novel was in a way working into their inner beings. At this point it would require a more refined introspection, and by doing, so one can make the realization that the book uncovers an oftentimes hidden yearning – the desire to experience a perfect childhood.
If the goal of the novel was to hit a nerve, focusing its literary power on the desire to experience fun and adventure, it is hard to imagine its sustained power on top of the all-time best-seller list. However, this is just one aspect of the storyline, the author also touched a million hearts when he made subtle references to repressed feelings and the desperation of many, the fruit of many failures to experience childhood glee, because of man-made rules and frankly speaking, a less than intelligent assumption of how life should be enjoyed or shared with others. Thus, when readers encountered Huckleberry Finn's veiled complaint: “She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the the old thing commenced again. The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time” . In this short passage, the author was able to compress into few words what generations of repressed children and teenagers are feeling when it comes to the ill-defined battle against conventions and other forms of man-made rules. In this short passage Twain was able to show the two sides of the issue: 1) children have these natural tendencies, and that it is harmful to suppress these inclinations and 2) conventions and rules and not bad, but there is a need for greater application of wisdom in order for both parties to enjoy the benefits of rules and even traditions.
As the reader follows the story of Huckleberry Finn, he or she will find several passages in which the lead character drops subtle apologies for his actions, and in some cases he will say outright that there was really nothing fundamentally wrong with rules. These are hints that the author drop here and there to remind the readers, and at the same time, in consideration with the critic's view, creating some sort of a disclaimer that the goal of the author was not to sow anarchy but to provide a realistic retelling of the yearning of a child's heart. If the elders of the community, especially those without a loving and personal connection with a problematic child or a foster child demand that their rules should be followed without question and without the benefit of alteration to suit different circumstances, then, it will just backfire. Thi is exemplified in the story of Huckleberry Finn, specifically when his father reentered his life and immediately assumed the role of a guardian, even if his son was not very happy with the fact that Pap, has took on the role of the parent once again even after a considerable time of absence. As a result, these man-made rules will destroy the child and will never provide the benefit of raising up a new generation of leaders. In other words, if one will read between the lines, the author supports the use of rules and other forms of conventions, however, the natural development of the child must be taken in serious consideration, and it is prudent to shape the rules to accommodate the needs of growing children.
Great novelists helps readers to free up the power of their imagination, and in this regard, Mark Twain is no exception. In this particular context, his novel serves three groups of people. The first group is comprised of those who had experienced the beauty and fun of being allowed to grow up in a way that a child should be. The second group is comprised of those who had limited access to the wonderful world of childhood, and although they are given the chance to enjoy the outdoors and leave the comfort and safety of their homes, they are also bothered by the constant restrictions that causes limitation on their movement and the chance to explore the wonderful world outside the four walls of the classroom or their confines of their homes. This group adapts to the situation by learning how to bend the rules and in a few occasions showing shades of rebellion. The third group is comprised of people that did not have the chance to experience the wonders of childhood like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer did in the course of their adventures.
For those who were fortunate enough to have loving parents who were not afraid to let go of their children and give them the freedom to experience self-discovery. One can also make the argument that these children have parents who understood the importance of physical activity, and not just the need to nurture the mind beyond the reading of books.
The second group are not as fortunate as the first one, but when they read the novel, they felt a certain kind of vindication. It is as if they have a feeling that finally somebody understood what they were doing when they sneaked out at night to join friends. Up to a certain extent they experience camaraderie with the characters in the book, and up to a certain extent they are comforted by the idea that finally somebody know what it was like when they were face-to-face with an angry parent, relative, or guardian, because of some infractions that they had committed, a small price they have to pay in order to transition from children to young adults. At the same time, those who bore the marks of shame and unjust punishment may feel a certain kind of release, especially those who suffered under the hands of a foster parent or a relative who had never shown affection to them. This group of individuals had a wonderful connection with their alter-ego on the pages, because Huckleberry Finn is an orphan just like them.
The third group is comprised of millions of once-upon-a time children or were still children when they first handled the pages of the said Mark Twain novel. They read the book differently from those who belonged to the first two groups. They read the book in a way that they are given passports or access to portal that enable them to escape to a different world. For many of them, the book allowed them to imagine the life they never had. Reading the book is more than an entertaining experience for them, because it seems to help them narrow the gaps in their own personal history.
One of the critical facet of the book is the way Mark Twain was able to capture in a small book the essence of a boy's heartfelt longing. When he described how Tom Sawyer decided to create a band of robbers, readers could not believe how they were able to relate to this story. Without a doubt, readers are not going to tell their parents or their families that at one point they secretly wanted to form a criminal syndicate or to join a group of gunslingers, however, this is the wonder of childhood when everything is fluid and flexible, and to the imagination everything is permitted as long as no one gets killed at the end. One can make the argument that this is perhaps the rationale for the early animated films that were created several decades ago wherein cartoon characters jumps out of buildings and they did not end up with broken bones and necks, but the dust themselves off and continue the play-making. This is the type of imaginative power that Mark Twain unleashes and explains the impact of his novel for old and new generation of fans.
The tremendous power of Huckleberry Finn is the way it opens up the heart of the readers to the healing power of the imagination, as it allowed them to experience something that they were unable to accomplish in real life. Think of the children that were raised in conservative homes, and the way they were restricted by man-made rules and traditions. It was a painful experience for them, and many of them were scarred for life because of that traumatic event when they were not allowed to play outdoors or to explore the world outside the confines of their homes. It is not an ordinary thing or something that adults oftentimes consider as unworthy of their time. If they allow themselves to see the pages the same way they feel when they were children, the book has a wonderful and unexplainable impact to them.
There are several reasons that would explain the sustained popularity and relevance of Twain's novel. From a scholarly point of view it is tremendously interesting to study his novel in order to get a glimpse of 19th century America. The fact that the novel was also a social commentary about equality, race, and other persistent social issues, the book becomes a legend in the eyes of many experts. However, there is one major reason that explains the consistent impact of the book and why it remains high in the top-seller list, it is a novel that helps readers negotiate the way they imagined a perfect childhood. It is the desire of many people to experience a perfect childhood, and for those who did, the novel is a celebration of a fruitful life. However, for those who did not experience the utter joy of childhood like Huck and Tom Sawyer did through their adventures, the novel provides some sort of healing balm, because for many readers it is enough to know that someone understood what they went through during those difficult moments in their lives.