6 Reasons 'Huck Finn' Is Not The Dusty Old Classic You Think It Is

This is an undated photo of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen-name Mark Twain.  (AP Photo)
This is an undated photo of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen-name Mark Twain. (AP Photo)

If you read Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back in high school, you were not alone: A 1992 report showed that 70 percent of all public school students, and 76 percent of all parochial students, were assigned Twain's classic. Few critics' lists of the 'greatest American novels' fail to cite it; few reporters describing its influence fail to quote Hemingway's famous claim that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."

On the way to becoming a school staple and an American icon, however, Huck Finn, published in 1885, lost something in translation: its original wildness and weirdness, and much of its real message, which has more to say to contemporary America than you might expect:

1. It's not actually a light-hearted book about 'innocent' childhood:

A century of movies, cartoons, comic books, songs, and abridged editions have told Americans that Huck Finn is about how free and innocent childhood used to be. But there were gangs in Victorian America, school shootings, anxieties about children being exposed to violent pop culture. There were parents worried their kids studied too hard, stayed indoors too much, and never exercised. And Twain was writing about all that. For contemporary parents concerned about their children and decadent media, or their relationship to nature, or standardized education, Huck Finn isn't some throwback to a more innocent time -- it's a reminder that the same debates have been taking place for a century and more.

2. It's not actually a 'serious' book about race -- at least, not the one we think it is.

In American high schools and colleges, Huck Finn is taught as an important, if controversial, book about race. For some, it is an inspiring story about how blacks and whites work together to find freedom. For others, its use of racial slurs and stereotypes make it unteachable, if not unreadable.

If Huck Finn was a book about race, however, few in the nineteenth-century seemed to know it. Most contemporary reviews of the book ignored race entirely. No black newspaper -- and there were dozens in the U.S. in 1885 -- even reviewed it. If anything, Huck Finn is a sly, conflicted fable about how the country often moves sideways, even backwards, on racial equality. For modern readers concerned about inequality in arrest and incarceration rates, prison labor practices, and the retraction of civil rights for ex-prisoners, the last third of Huck Finn is a painful reminder that such patterns have been features of the justice system since the Civil War.

3. In truth, it's not exactly a book at all.
The Huck Finn we know is actually just the surviving vestige of a multimedia project, a century ahead of its time, and absolutely groundbreaking: "a new kind of entertainment," The Washington Post wrote. Akin to modern movie releases, Twain planned to release a "game" for children alongside Huck Finn. And he invented what might be regarded as the modern book tour to promote it. Or the modern rock tour, as he and author George Washington Cable traveled as the "Twins of Genius," and alongside readings from their books performed songs and stories they took from African-American sources, and performed with such Elvis-like verve that young women "blushed" and "fainted."

You can still see bits and pieces of these performances in the book: humor sketches written in homage to the minstrel shows of Twain's youth that point to modern banter comedy; music scenes where working class whites "pat juba" or dance "breakdowns" -- 19th-century equivalents of white hip-hop performers like Macklemore and Lewis or Iggy Azalea, both stealing and paying homage to black culture.

4. And if it is a book, it wasn't meant for the classroom.

If you could tell Twain that his book would sell over 20 million copies in the 20th century, he'd probably be delighted. But if you told him Huck Finn was mandatory reading in most American schools, he might remind you that he taught his own children to read in English by forbidding them to do so, making books a secret and coveted pleasure. Huck Finn was never meant to be a dusty classic palmed diffidently by teenagers between the hours of nine and three. But contemporary young adult fiction, everything from Harry Potter to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the books our children devour for pleasure, would be unthinkable without its innovations.

5. And while it might be a "boy's book," girls had more to do with it than most readers recognize.

Huck and Tom are widely regarded as archetypal American boys -- but they might have some real girls as inspiration. Twain and his wife Olivia raised three girls as he wrote Huck Finn. And Twain took careful notes about how they played, how they talked, how they worshipped, and all of this turns up in the pages of his greatest novel, making it a study of children in general, and not just a "boy's book."

6. And yes, it's a great American novel, but it's not just an "American novel."

Despite its status as an official American icon, Huck Finn has long been an "unofficial" player in both national and world politics, on all sides. Mussolini loved it; Bismarck kept a copy handy, as did the Czarina of Russia. Senator Joe McCarthy tried to have it banned, saying it portrayed the South unfavorably. The Kennedys disparagingly called LBJ "Huckleberry Capone." But freedom fighters throughout the world -- from the old Soviet bloc to the Far East -- were inspired by it, finding in Twain's portrait of antebellum America a disturbingly global vision of how totalitarian societies work -- and how to undermine them so they don't work as well.

Andrew Levy is the Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, and the author of Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece (Simon and Schuster).

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly omitted the word "percent" in the statistic "70 percent of all public school students [...] were assigned Twain's classic." The post has been updated to correct this.