Huckleberry Finn, Sheet Music Cover for Hess, et al. [1917], LOC Cover

How Huck Finn Changed the Way We Think About Childhood: The 130th Anniversary of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain published the iconic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 130 years ago this month (December 1884) and, in doing so, launched himself indisputably into the pantheon of great American authors.  Many remember his most famous novel, Huckleberry Finn, for its satire, wit, and portrayal of racism.  However, the novel also captured and anticipated profound changes in the way Americans viewed children and childhood in general.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Twain, born Samuel Clemens, is most often remembered for his unruly white hair, bushy mustache, and biting social critique.  His novels brought him international fame and wealth.  However, Twain’s life suffered many setbacks.  He survived three of his four children, including his only son, who died in infancy.  A lavish lifestyle and waning success left him near destitution later in life, although a speaking tour revived his finances.  Yet, Twain could never duplicate the success of Huckleberry Finn.

Few books have engendered such critical acclaim and condemnation.  Its use of vernacular language and racist terminology struck many readers as vulgar.  In 1885, the New York Times reprinted an article calling the novel “trashy and vicious” and Clemens “a genuine and powerful humorist, with a bitter vein of satire on the weaknesses of humanity which is sometimes wholesome, sometimes only grotesque, but in certain works degenerates into a gross trifling with every line of feeling.”  However, later reviewers, including literary heavyweights Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, celebrated the novel as the foundation of all great American literature.  One critic declared Huck “the American epic hero,” arguing that he manifests “the American soul through all the sultry climaxes of the Nineteenth Century.”

Tom Advises a Witch PieHuckleberry Finn is most often remembered for laying bare lingering racial problems in America.  On a quest for freedom, Jim, an escaped slave manages to find dignity, only to have it revoked by a corrupt social order.  The intractable rascal, Huck, overcomes his racism and assists Jim, but is ultimately unable to free his friend except by a stroke of luck.  Jim’s tortuous path to liberty serves as an allegory for the struggles of black Americans to attain true freedom after a failed Reconstruction—the period following the Civil War that brought constitutional amendments guaranteeing blacks freedom and voting rights, but ultimately neglected to protect them from the reinstitution of gross social inequality and violence.  The novel hit upon other emotional issues as well.

Since the 1830s, America and England were awash in sentimentalized orphan literature featuring waifs and street children who, although morally good, fell into desperate circumstances.  Preyed upon by unscrupulous fraudsters, these children found redemption once rescued by virtuous adults.  From Oliver Twist to Ragged Dick, countless stories fit this trope.  The transatlantic fascination with orphans stemmed, in part, from the prevalence of actual orphans.  Epidemic disease, poverty, and war took the lives of many parents.  Throughout the nineteenth century, twenty to thirty percent of children lost at least one parent.  For working class families, the loss of a father usually meant destitution.  As a result, many desperate families sent their children to orphanages or to live with other families.

Huckleberry Finn by EW Kemble [1884]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Huckleberry Finn by EW Kemble [1884]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
However, Twain’s masterpiece signaled a shifting awareness of how Americans understood childhood more broadly.  Until the later nineteenth century, novelists such as Charles Dickens portrayed children as delicate, vulnerable, and in need of adult protection.  Since prosperous families relied on income earned outside of the home, the domestic sphere functioned as a space sheltered from the influences of the adult world.  Birthrates also fell dramatically throughout the century as fewer middle class families depended on the labor of their children.  With fewer children, families dedicated greater time and resources toward bringing up their boys and girls, and parent-child relationships became more emotionally intense.  Consequently, by the middle of the century, most accepted childhood as an elongated stage of life in which children needed constant guidance, protection, and supervision.

Huckleberry Finn broke radically from this tradition.  Although a half-orphan, Huck was neither fragile nor innocent.  His independence and rascally behavior thrilled readers.  One 1876 review for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the Atlantic described Huck as a “worthless vagabond” but nonetheless “entirely delightful throughout.”  Huck’s world was defined by adventure and mischief.  These aspects of his character brought him into conflict with his appointed guardian, the Widow Douglass, and her sister, Miss Watson.  Unsurprisingly, Huck resisted their attempts to cultivate his manners.

“The Widow Douglass she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize [sic] me;” Huck lamented, “but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”

In rejecting the cultivation and regularity of domestic life, Huck mirrored the changing attitudes of many about the necessity of a sheltered childhood.  Huck spurned domestic life and his home in St. Petersburg for the raft.  Once on the river, he called the boat “home.”  With no small irony, Twain closed Huckleberry Finn the same way the story began, with Huck planning his escape because “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilze [sic] me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

By the later nineteenth century, many boys increasingly enjoyed the freedom to roam and associate with peers away from the supervision of adults.  Adults often tolerated this behavior in boys since competition and independence were thought to prepare male children for adulthood.  Huck’s experiences on the river no doubt exceeded those of most boys, and Twain, like most fathers at the time, refused to grant his own daughters anything approaching the freedom Huck prized.

Vacation Play Grounds
Vacation play grounds. Crotona Park by Jacob A. Riis [1901]
Building on a growing acceptance of boys’ independence, experts of the later nineteenth century stressed the importance of children’s exuberant unrestrained play.  Some, drawing from “energy theory,” argued that the proper maturation of children’s character required a periodic release of excess energy.  Beginning in the 1880s, social scientists applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to child development, claiming that children naturally progress from “animalistic” to “civilized” behavior as they grow older.  Instead of restrictive and adult-mediated play, experts tolerated unstructured play in young children and encouraged moderate guidance for older children.  America’s earliest urban playgrounds, which offered spaces for lightly-structured play, were built as Huckleberry Finn first rolled off the presses.  By the end of the century, the American playground movement moved into full tilt.  However, many remained concerned about society’s ability to best aid children.

Huck embodied an increasing concern for children in Huck’s situation.  Growing up the poor, inadequately educated, and orphaned child of a drunkard made him both an object of pity and fear.  For much of the century reformers expressed a desire to protect children from hardship and harmful influences.  However, by the 1870s, many viewed children of Huck’s circumstance and disposition as part of the dangerous classes.  Discovering a small fortune and finding a loving home did little to change his character.  As the century wore on, state governments moved to help children from abuse, neglect, poverty, and overwork.  Many states also established special courts to protect society from children by offering softer methods of reform and punishment.

The End. Yours Truly, Huck Finn by EW Kemble [1885]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The End. Yours Truly, Huck Finn by EW Kemble [1885]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
At the outset of writing Huckleberry Finn, Twain intended to map Huck’s transition to adulthood.  In 1875, Twain confided to a friend, “By & by I shall take a boy [Finn] of twelve & run him on through life (in the first person) but not Tom Sawyer—he would not be a good character for it.”  This never came to pass, and readers never learned of Huck’s adulthood.  Huck’s unending childhood placed him on the precipice of change.  Over the horizon stood what many informed Americans called the century of the child, during which concern for child welfare reached an unprecedented pitch.  Although Huckleberry Finn remained frozen in 1884, the text proved to be Twain’s unmitigated masterpiece and influential well beyond its time.