The Nation, for whatever reason, did not review Huckleberry Finn when it was first published, though it otherwise paid close attention to Twain’s life and career. This appreciation of “Huck at 100” (August 31, 1985) was written by the influential American Studies scholar Leo Marx, author of The Machine in the Garden (1964).
Ever since it was published, exactly one hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a target of moral disapproval. Many of the novel’s first reviewers found it disturbing and offensive. They called it, among other things, vulgar, inelegant, ungrammatical, coarse, irreverent, semi-obscene, trashy and vicious…. What shall we make of this unusual controversy?….
The explanation should begin, I think, with a decisive though perhaps insufficiently appreciated fact: the racial attitudes to which this novel lends overt expression are not Mark Twain’s, they are those of an ignorant adolescent boy….
In accounting for the ability of readers to arrive at radically opposed conclusions about the racial attitudes embodied in this novel, the importance of the first-person narrative method cannot be exaggerated. Every word, every thought, every perception, emanates from Huck or, in passages where other characters speak, is reported by him—filtered through his mind. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a tour de force of sustained impersonation.
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