The Birth of the American Novel

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910)

It was as if by publishing Life on the Mississippi a year earlier, that Mark Twain had completed the research and self-examination necessary to prepare himself for his magnum opus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We call this his magnum opus because it made such an impression on Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner that they both proclaimed Twain as the father of the American novel.

We will critique Twain’s story in the light of a higher-than-normal state of awareness, that is to say, from within a more profound context. That means we will attribute to the author insights and meaning he was not aware of nor did he intend.

One of the characteristics of the Simple Reality worldview is that we see human beings as innately “good” but capable of self-destructive and so-called “bad” behaviors due to being essentially unconscious. Being unconscious means that humankind exists within a narrative that is not in alignment with the nature of reality. Nor do they have an identity that reflects their true nature. Because they do not know who they are or where they are, life goes badly for them as we are all aware even if we do not want to acknowledge that. In the language of Buddha’s First Nobel Truth—life is suffering. Samuel Clemens would, toward the end of his life, arrive at his own version of the First Noble Truth.

In addition to being contained in a contrasting story that sees the Universe as friendly and people as innately good, our experience is that each of us will naturally seek to transcend or “shift” from the old to the new narrative only if we listen to our own “still small voice within.” Few people do this; instead they remain caught up in the illusion that they are fundamentally flawed individuals living in a hostile Universe often ending up in despair. So it was with Mark Twain, but he did not start out that way as a young man in a small town on the Mississippi River.

Most of us start out as naïve young people seeking the meaning of life and the adventure that goes with that quest. We also begin unaware of the challenges that we will inevitably face. “Huck’s character reflects a point in Mark Twain’s development when he still believed man to be inherently good but saw social forces as corrupting influences which replaced, with the dictates of a socially determined ‘conscience,’ man’s intuitive sense of right and wrong. This theme is explicitly dramatized through Huck’s conflict with his conscience over whether or not to turn Jim in as a runaway slave. Huck, on the other hand, accepts without question what he has been taught by church and society about slavery, [which was that] aiding an escaped slave was clearly wrong both legally and morally.”[i]  Huck, of course lived in the South surrounded by that social and moral context.

Twain was right about people being inherently good but he did not understand why that was true. He did not understand that it was not “social forces” that explained either the “good” or “bad” behavior that he witnessed. Humanity is for the most part unaware of why we behave the way that we do. Without a detailed explanation, we will only cite as examples, some of the elements that we are unconscious of such as the shadow, the false self, neuroses, and complexes and all of these are functioning within the context of an illusory narrative that adds confusion to the human experience.

To construct a worldview composed of beliefs, attitudes and values that are not founded on Simple Reality principles means that the “story” will not hold up when confronted with the reality of one’s life experience. So Twain’s illusory idealism begins to erode over time. He would come to see the worldview of the South, especially the romanticism that lingered after the Civil War as the cause of the South’s defeat and its inability to move forward into the twentieth century. His own paradigm also began to crumble with the personal pain that gave the lie to a world that did not match his fantasy.

Huck’s desire to leave Hannibal was the universal desire we all have to find freedom from an environment that does not measure up to what our intuition tells us is possible. But to begin that search without a guide or a high degree of spiritual awareness will rarely succeed. “Rather than simply attacking an institution already legally dead, Twain uses the idea of slavery as a metaphor for all social bondage and injustice. Thus, Jim’s search for freedom, like Huck’s own need to escape is as much a metaphorical search for an ideal state of freedom as mere flight from slavery into free-state sanctuary.”[ii]   

The raft is the symbol of the simplicity, solitude and silence away from the unhealthy paradigm (society), a refuge that we all need in order to turn inward to find reality. We will find reality to the degree that we turn from away illusion. “Thus, it is largely irrelevant that Twain has Huck and Jim running deeper into the South rather than north toward free soil. Freedom exists neither in the North nor the South but in the ideal and idyllic world of the raft and river.”[iii] 

Slavery is a metaphor for universal unconsciousness and Jim as everyman seeking freedom which in Simple Reality consists of waking up into the present moment.

Attaining a higher state of consciousness would naturally lead to greater awareness of the nature of reality and the attendant outcome of compassion, that natural “goodness” that we have referred to earlier. “Jim and Huck can allow their natural bond of love to develop without regard for the question of race. It is here on the raft that Jim can become a surrogate father to Huck.”[iv]  This unusual relationship, which is against what Huck believes and was taught, is possible because Huck and Jim are contained in a different more “real” context on the raft which symbolizes a narrative more in harmony with the friendly Universe in which we are all, in fact, contained.

Twain is able to see two aspects of the illusion which characterize the old paradigm and which also energize his story. One, already mentioned is the romanticism that deludes the South, and the other is the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion. “The [latter] is easily illustrated by the irony of the Widow’s attempt to teach Huck religious principles while she persists in holding slaves.”[v]     

Why is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn considered such a great work of literature? Some would say it’s because it struggles with the causes of human suffering. And Mark Twain intuitively “felt” that despite all of the infirmities he saw in humanity there was something inexplicable that was present in each human being that was good. “Twain affirms that true humanity is of men rather than institutions and that everyone can be aristocrats in the kingdom of the heart.”[vi]  And indeed, that is the only kingdom there is, and it is present and available to each of us, including slaves.

The Birth of the American Novel

[i]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 8.     

[ii]     Ibid.  

[iii]    Ibid.   

[iv]    Ibid.   

[v]     Ibid.   

[vi]    Ibid.  


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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