*** American literary characters: Huckleberry Finn

Costumes of American Literary Characters: Huckleberry Finn

Figure 1.--Aunt Polly tried her best to culture Huck. Religion was part of it, but a religion at laest in the Sooth, that taught that not only was there nothing wrong with slavery, but that it was sanctioned in the Bible. In the North, churches were at the heart of the Abolitionist Movement.

Mark Twain's saga of the pre-Civil War American boyhood is one of the classic's of American literature. It is as close as you can get to the American epic. Despite its current controversiality, it is arguably the most powerful anti-slavery novel ever written. The book was a sequal to Twain's imensely popular Tom Sawyer and was published in 18??). It was, however, a very different book. Twain arrgues powefully for the esential humanity of Black Americans. Strangely the book is often a target of Black groups demanding it be removed from school libaries and required reading lists. The book is set in the 1840s and uses realistic dialog of the day. Huckleberry's characteridtiv bare feet and rough clothes are a realistic look at how the average boy in pre-Civil War America dressed.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of Mark Twain's most loved, most influential, and most controversial books. It was banned from the Concord Public Library in 1885, the year of its publication, and Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn have been in the American Library Association's lists of the ten most frequently challenged authors and books throughout the 1990s. But in 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

The Author

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known under his pseudonym, Mark Twain, was born in 1835 into a slave-holding family. His family moved to Hanibal, Missouri. He received a public school education in Hanibal, but did not like school or studying. He recalls visiting his uncle's plantation as a boy. There a slave who he called Uncle Daniel who tell him fascinating stories. Uncle Damiel was the inspiration for the slave Jim that featured so prominently in Twain's two most famous works.

After his father's death he was apprecticed to a printer. He later wrote for his brother's newspaper, the Hanibal Journal. He later piloted river boats until the Civil War (1861-65) closed off river traffic. He briefly served as a Confederate volunter, but mpved to Nevada to escape the war. He began writing for a Nevada newspaper and adopted the pernname, Mark Twain--which was a measure of depth use by Mississpi River pilots. He moved to San Francisco in 1864 and begame part of a group of noted writers, including Brete Hart. The publication in 1865 by the New York Satutday Press of the The celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County, brought him national recognition as an author.

He traveled abroad and lectured. He described his travels in Innocets Abroad. pblished in 1869. He showed a lack of reverence for certain aspects of European culture that usually impresses American tourists. He mairred Olivia L. Langdon in 1870 and settled in Connecticut. She was to be a great influence on him and his work. Much of his best wor was written after he mairred Olivia through 1889. Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 and the Prince and the Pauper in 1882. After publishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, his last major work was A Connecticut Yankee in King Author's Court. His subsequent worked lacked the freshness of his most prodyctive period, but The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. published in 1894, is a favoite of mine. It starkly shows the absurity of racial bias. Clemens died in 1910.

The Book

Twain officially published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in England and America in December, 1884. Various chapters of the book appeared in periodicals as was the common practice in the 19th century

The Writing

The story of Huck Finn will probably stand as the best of Mark Twain's purely fictional writings. A sequel to Tom Sawyer, it is greater than its predecessor; greater artistically, though perhaps with less immediate interest for the juvenile reader. In fact, the books are so different that they are not to be compared--wherein lies the success of the later one. Sequels are dangerous things when the story is continuous, but in Huckleberry Finn the story is a new one, wholly different in environment, atmosphere, purpose, character, everything.

Twain began writing a boy's adventure book like his successful Tom Sawyer, he ended by writing an American epic, perhaps the most compeling enditement of slavery ever written.

The Story

The tale of describes Huck and the slave, Jim. drifting down the mighty Mississippi on a raft. When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins, the main character, Huck Finn, possessed a large amount money. This causes his delinquent lifestyle to change drastically. Huck gets an education, and a home to live in with a caring elderly woman (the widow). One would think that Huck would be satisfied. He wasn't - he wanted his own lifestyle back. Huck's drunkard father (Pap), who had previously left him, was also not pleased with Huck's lifestyle. He didn't feel that his son should have it better than he. He tries to get a hold of the money for his own uses, but fails. He procedes to lock Huck up in his cabin on the outskirts of town. Huck then stages his kidnapping and subsequent killing, and takes a canoe across to Jackson's Island in the Mississippi River. There he comes across a runaway slave, Jim, and the two decide to leave the area - Huck to avoid his father, and Jim to escape a false charge of murder. The rest of the story follows their adventures as the travel down the Mississippi River towards freedom.

The central crisis of the book is Huck's quandry. His whole expeience has to regard slavery as right a proper. Teachers and preachers tell him so, at least on the rare occasions he is dragged into schools and church. In Huck's Haniabal, no one was regarded with more contempt than an abolistionist. Aunt Polly owns Jim and yet Huck is assisting a run away slave who he learns to regard as an honest and goodly person, every bit as human as himself. Huck is convinced he is going to Hell because he is helping Jim to escape.

Hanibal, Missouri

The book begins in Hanibal, Missouri, picturesqly set on the Mississippi Ricer. The town which views itself as "America's home town". Haibal is set deep in the mid-west hearland, near America's center. Today Hanibal celebrates Tom Sawyer at an annual festival. Huck is featured in the celebrations, but as a character in Tom Sawyer. Hanibul descretly forgerts Twain's sequal. The reason is simple. Huck Finn does not celebrate the sacrine white picket fence of Tom Sawyer's Hanibal, but rather the Hanibal that was a slave trading center. Twain recalls seeing a group of slaves in Hanibal, waiting to be sold to plantations down the Misissipi. They were the most dejected group of people he had ever seen.


The book, cross-secting the various primitive aspects of human existence, constitutes one of the most impressive examples of picaresque fiction in any language. It has been ranked greater than Gil Blas, greater even than Don Quixote; certainly it is more convincing, more human, than either of these tales. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, "It is a book I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again tomorrow."

Twain's work is characterized by broad irreverent humor, realism. love of democracy, and hatred of sham and oppression. He was a voice of social protest t a tgime when America kife was in the grip of the conventionalism, bigotry, and Phiilitinism of the era of industrial expansion following the Civil War. His work represented the eqaltarian spirit of the unconventional West, marked the end of the domination of American literature by New England writers. Twain became renowned as the first noted American humorist. His claim to fame as an author, however, rest on his books that deliniated life on the Mississippi during the mid-19th century. His masterpiece is geneally considered to be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as it not only brilliantly describes mid-19th century America, but the enduring central dilema of American democracy.

Clothing Styles


The Adventures of Hukleberry Finn has been controversial since the day it was published. According to the Boston Evening Transcript, the people who advocated banning the novel from the Concord Public Library thought it was "rough, coarse and inelegant,... the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people." The critiscms are endles and usually trivial, for example, using "sweat" rather than "perspiration" or described a boy who constantly itched and scratched. The book was banned in many towns for being "rough, course and inelegant". More recently the use of the hateful term "nigger" throughout the book has understandably distressed Afro-Americans. It is interesting that one ofvthe most telling and insightful books on American slavery continues to be one of the most banned books in the country.

Contemprary Reviews

Contemporary journals debated the merits of Huckleberry Finn.


One insightful contemprary review was published in the The Hartford Courant, February 20, 1885, p. 2:

In his latest story, Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade), by Mark Twain, Mr. Clemens has made a very distinct literary advance over Tom Sawyer, as an interpreter of human nature and a contributor to our stock of original pictures of American life. Still adhering to his plan of narrating the adventures of boys, with a primeval and Robin Hood freshness, he has broadened his canvas and given us a picture of a people, of a geographical region, of a life that is new in the world. The scene of his romance is the Mississippi river. Mr. Clemens has written of this river before specifically, but he has not before presented it to the imagination so distinctly nor so powerfully. Huck Finn's voyage down the Mississippi with the run away nigger Jim, and with occasionally other companions, is an adventure fascinating in itself as any of the classic outlaw stories, but in order that the reader may know what the author has done for him, let him notice the impression left on his mind of this lawless, mysterious, wonderful Mississippi, when he has closed the book. But it is not alone the river that is indelibly impressed upon the mind, the life that went up and down it and went on along its banks are projected with extraordinary power. Incidentally, and with a true artistic instinct, the villages, the cabins, the people of this river become startlingly real. The beauty of this is that it is apparently done without effort. Huck floating down the river happens to see these things and to encounter the people and the characters that made the river famous forty years ago--that is all. They do not have the air of being invented, but of being found. And the dialects of the people, white and black--what a study are they; and yet nobody talks for the sake of exhibiting a dialect. It is not necessary to believe the surprising adventures that Huck engages in, but no one will have a moment's doubt of the reality of the country and the people he meets.

Huckleberry Finn
Figure 2.--This was the illustration on the cover piece of the first edition of the book.

Another thing to be marked in the story is its dramatic power. Take the story of the Southern Vendetta--a marvelous piece of work in a purely literary point of view--and the episode of the duke and the king, with its pictures of Mississippi communities, both of which our readers probably saw in the Century magazine. They are equaled in dramatic force by nothing recently in literature.

We are not in this notice telling the story or quoting from a book that nearly everybody is sure to read, but it is proper to say that Mr. Clemens strikes in a very amusing way certain psychological problems. What, for instance, in the case of Huck, the son of the town drunkard, perverted from the time of his birth, is conscience, and how does it work? Most amusing is the struggle Huck has with his conscience in regard to slavery. His conscience tells him, the way it has been instructed, that to help the runaway, nigger Jim to escape--to aid in stealing the property of Miss Watson, who has never injured him, is an enormous offense that will no doubt carry him to the bad place; but his affection for Jim finally induces him to violate his conscience and risk eternal punishment in helping Jim to escape. The whole study of Huck's moral nature is as serious as it is amusing, his confusion of wrong as right and his abnormal mendacity, traceable to his training from infancy, is a singular contribution to the investigation of human nature.

These contradictions, however, do not interfere with the fun of the story, which has all the comicality, all the odd way of looking at life, all the whimsical turns of thought and expression that have given the author his wide fame and made him sui generis. The story is so interesting so full of life and dramatic force, that the reader will be carried along irresistibly, and the time he loses in laughing he will make up in diligence to hurry along and find out how things come out.

The book is a small quarto, handsomely printed and bound, and illustrated by 174 drawings which enter fully into the spirit of the book, and really help to set forth the characters. (Published by Charles L. Webster & Co.: New York. Sold by subscription only.)


One contemprary review was published in theSan Francisco Evening Bulletin March 14, 1885, p. 1.

Mark Twain long since learned the art of writing for the market. His recent books have the character of commercial ventures. He probably estimates in advance his profits. His books are not sold to any great extent over the counters of booksellers, but are circulated by subscription agents. Lately Mark Twain, it is reported, has become the silent partner in a publishing house, the imprint of which is on the present volume. Those who read "Tom Sawyer" and like it will probably read "Huckleberry Finn," and like it in a less degree. No book has been put on the market with more advertising. When Mark Twain represented "Tom Sawyer" as getting a job of free white-washing done by his cronies, because there was fun in it, and only just enough to go around, he disclosed his own tactics in the matter of free advertising. When it was given out that some one had tampered with the engravings in the printing office, in a mysterious way, that accounted for the delay in bringing out the book, it secured at the same time many thousand dollars' worth of free advertising. Then the Century gave the enterprise a lift by publishing a chapter of the book in advance, which, while an advertisement, was still a readable article. "Huckleberry Finn" has been introduced to the world as it were with the blare of trumpets. It comes also with this warning: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." So then there is neither motive, moral, nor plot. But there still remain one hundred and seventy-four wood cuts, which, according to the view of the author, ought to be liberally peppered through the volume. Many of the designs are drawn with spirit, and are all executed well enough for the plan of the book.

Huck and JIm
Figure 3.--Huck's adventures with Jim on the Mississippi are an alegory of white America's need to accept the country's newly freed slaves. As far as we know, this is the first bi-racial friendship in American literae=ry history.

The tone of the volume is indicated in the opening paragraphs: You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of 'Tom Sawyer,' " but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was "Aunt Polly" or the widow, or maybe "Mary." "Aunt Polly"--Tom's "Aunt Polly," she is--and "Mary," and the "widow Douglas," is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book; with stretchers, as I said before.

The author starts out by telling his juvenile readers that there are some lies in his book--that most people lie, and that it is not very bad after all. Of course the warning is timely that persons attempting to seek a moral in the story should be banished. Now the way the book winds up is this: "Tom" and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got $6,000 a piece--all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, "Judge Thatcher," he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round--more than a body could tell what to do with. The "widow Douglas," she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; 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 could stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But "Tom Sawyer," he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

It is an amusing story if such scrap-work can be called a story. The author rarely fails when he sets out to tickle the ribs of young or old. There is so little genuine wit in the world, that the little must be made to go a great way. Mark Twain has the genuine vein; it nearly pinches out here and there, and in many places it is hardly an inch wide by miners' measurement. The funny book will always be read in this world of dryness and dearth. Many fastidious people hide their scruples, because they want to be amused. Comedy pays better than tragedy. The author contrives to puncture a great many shams. His satire in this respect, even when he declares that it is aimless, is directed with a purpose. Whether young people who read this volume will be the better for it will be an open question. Here is another paragraph where the warning not to seek for a moral might be applicable:

Every night, now I used to slip ashore, towards 10 o'clock, at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents' worth of meal, or bacon, or other stuff to eat, and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn't roosting comfortable, and took him along. Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. I never see pap when he didn't want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway.

The author turns his knowledge of Western dialects to account. Mississippi river scenes and associations are always available. The art of book-making from Twain's point of view is well illustrated here. He is alive always to the fact that young people will not read a dull book. He never makes a dull one. There is very little of literary art in the story. It is a string of incidents ingeniously fastened together. The spice of juvenile wickedness and dare-deviltry give a zest to the book. "Huckleberry Finn" is, in a restricted sense, a typical character. Yet the type is not altogether desirable, nor is it one that most parents who want a future of promise for their young folks would select without some hesitation. The trouble with "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" is not that they are too good for this world; even as the world goes, they are not good enough. Beyond the recognition that there is a great deal of "fun," as boys would put the case, it must also be admitted that not a little of the "assisted wit" is of the more dreary sort, as if the author was subjected to a pretty hard strain at times to work his facetious vein. The book is attractive enough to command commercial success, and that, it may be supposed, was the inspiring motive in its production. Charles L. Webster & Co., publishers, New York. For sale by the Occidental Publishing Company, sole agents.


E.W. Kemble was a budding cartoonist on the Daily Graphic in 1881 when that paper was the only illustrated daily in New York. Newspapers had not begun to publish pictures, and Thomas Nast reigned supreme as the master cartoonist of the country. Harper's Weekly turned up its dignified nose at this little upstart of a paper, and Leslie's Weekly sneered at its impudence. It was in the 1880s that the daily newspapers began to use pictures. While contributing to another illustrated journal, Life, Kemble drew a small picture of a little boy being stung by a bee. Mark Twain had completed the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn and had set up a relative, Charles L. Webster, in the publishing business. Casting about for an illustrator, Mark Twain happened to see this picture. It had action and expression, and bore a strong resemblance to his mental conception of Huck Finn. Kemble was sent for and immediately got in touch with Webster. The manuscript was handed him and the fee asked for--$2,000-- was graciously allowed.

Kemble had begun drawing professionally 2 years before this date, and was now at the ripe old age of 23. The first step was to get a model. The story called for a variety of characters, old and young, male and female. In the neighborhood, he came across a youngster, Cort Morris by name, who tallied with his idea of Huck. "He was a bit tall for the ideal boy, but I could jam him down a few pegs in my drawing and use him for the other characters." Kemble recalls,

I had a large room in the top of our house which I used as a studio. Here I collected my props for the work. I spent the forenoon completing the drawing, using "Huck" as soon as he was released from school. He was always grinning, and one side of his cheek was usually well padded with a "sour ball" or a huge wad of molasses taffy. Throwing his wool cap and muslin-covered schoolbooks on a lounge, he would ask what was wanted at this session. I would designate the character. "We will do the old woman who spots Huck as he is trying to pass for a girl." Donning an old sunbonnet and slipping awkwardly into a faded skirt, Cort would squat on a low splint-bottomed chair and become the most woebegone female imaginable. Forthwith he would relieve his extended cheek of its burden of taffy with a mighty gulp. I would make a simple outline sketch on yellow toned paper and then take a rest, during which Cort would pop a "cocoanut strip" into his grinning mouth.

He used his young model for every character in the story--man, woman and child. Jim the Negro seemed to please him the most. He would jam his little black wool cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon talk all the while he was posing. Grown to manhood, "Huck" is now a sturdy citizen of Philadelphia, connected with an established business house. This Negro Jim, drawn from a white schoolboy, with face unblackened, started something in his artistic career. Several advance chapters of "Huckleberry Finn" were published in the Century Magazine, then under the able editorship of Richard Watson Gilder and a select staff of assistants. The picture caught the fancy of Mr. Gilder and W. Lewis Frazer, the art director. Kemble was asked to call and exhibit my wares. He went to Life and borrowed a few originals, but not one picture contained a Negro type. He had seen blacks in the city, but "he was a different bird from the plantation product, both in carriage and dress". Kemble recalls, looking back on his career, "It all seems so strange to him now, that a single subject, a Negro, drawn from a pose given me by a lanky white schoolboy, should have started me on a career that has lasted for 45 years, especially as I had no more desire to specialize in that subject than I had in the Chinaman or the Malay pirate."

Years later Kemble sat beside Mark Twain at a luncheon in the home of Mrs. Clarence Mackay. He had not seen him in all the intervening years. His face bore no trace of the siege he had been through when the firm of Charles L. Webster went bankrupt and he began his lecture tour, paying back every dollar of the indebtedness. They fell to talking of the past--its writers and illustrators. Abbey had never been equaled, he contended. His delightful drawings for Herrick's " Poems," for "She Stoops to Conquer" and "The Quiet Life" stamped him as a master of his craft. Frost stood alone in his humor. There were Smedley, Reinhart and Remington, a little group of shining lights undimmed by time. They spoke of Huck Finn and Kemble told him of his model and of the various uses to which I had put him. Twain seemed greatly amused.

Kimble noted in 1929 that Huckleberry Finn was filmed and the director, the lamented William Desmond Taylor, who was mysteriously murdered in Hollywood soon after the picture was released, took a copy of the original edition and made his characters fit Kimble's drawings. Kimble recalls, "I had not seen the book in years, and as my characters appeared on the screen, resembling my types so faithfully, even as to pose, my mind ran back to the lanky boy who posed for me and the pride I had felt in doing my first book."


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Created: October 17, 1998
Last updated: October 17, 1998