On this day in 1885,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s famous and infamous tale of the antebellum South, is first published. Though Twain himself saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of Southern life, including poverty, ignorance and hypocrisy.
At the novel’s heart is the journey of Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River on a raft. Jim flees his master as he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children, and Huck goes with him to help him get to Ohio and freedom. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colorful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.
The most striking part of the book is its satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish, and the naive Huck ends up questioning the hypocritical, unjust nature of society in general.
Aside from its highly controversial nature and its continuing popularity with young readers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been hailed by many serious literary critics as a masterpiece. No less a judge than Ernest Hemingway famously declared that the book marked the beginning of American literature: “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
More intriguing than Twain’s writings still, was his own life as celebrated humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer whom William Faulkner called “the Father of American Literature.” Clemens was apprenticed to a printer at age 13 and later worked for his older brother Orion, who established the Hannibal Journal. In 1857, the Keokuk Daily Post commissioned him to write a series of comic travel letters, but after writing five he decided to become a steamboat captain instead. He signed on as a pilot’s apprentice in 1857 and received his pilot’s license in 1859, when he was 23.
Clemens piloted on the Mississippi for two years, until the Civil War halted steamboat traffic; enlisting briefly in a Confederate volunteer regiment, Twain walked away after two weeks. During his time as a pilot, he picked up the term “Mark Twain,” a boatman’s call noting that the river was only two fathoms deep, the minimum depth for safe navigation. Clemens would adopt this personage as he headed for adventures west with Orion and tried his hand at mining and other notions before he returned to writing in 1861, finally halting at the Pacific in San Francisco.
In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was on this voyage that he met fellow passenger Charles Langdon, who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia. Twain later claimed to have fallen in love at first sight.
In 1870, Clemens married Olivia, the daughter of a wealthy New York coal merchant, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he continued to write travel accounts and lecture. Their family bore three daughters, and one son, Langdon, who perished from diphtheria. The Twains moved about frequently, living in various locales in both the US and Europe, and he remained faithfully married to Olivia for 34 years until her death in 1904.
Twain was born two weeks after Halley’s Comet’s closest approach in 1835; he said in 1909 “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” Twain indeed did depart at age 74, having witnessed and documented some of the most significant developments in American history, and numbering the likes of Frederick Douglass, Nikolai Tesla, Ulysses Grant and Helen Keller among his dear friends and colleagues.
And here our synopses running nearly as long as the source material mercifully endeth.