Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2015 (342pp.$25).

In tandem with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as the oft acknowledged foundation of an authentic American literature emerging from a murky undergrowth of English romanticism and Gothic horror, common to popular fiction in the mid-eighteenth century. Each of these classic texts exhibits a polyglot argot drawn from Biblical language, a melting pot of “frontier” tongues, local slang, and the sometimes peculiar linguistic drama of emergent democracy (“Leaves”), whaling (“Moby Dick”) or southern slave culture (“Huck Finn”). All three are acknowledged by academics, critics and the general public as unusual documents, sometimes flawed by stylistic exuberance, but each exhibiting its author’s raw and sometimes spectacular vision nonetheless. Of the three, only Twain’s “masterpiece” continues as a controversial subject because of its use of a racial epithet that clearly demeans African-Americans, causes pain to many people in our country today, and because of its sometimes confused and stereotypical depiction of slaves. The teaching of “Huck Finn”, the publication of bowdlerized texts, the deletion of the “n” word from others, and the general debate about the contemporary value of the work has tasked teachers, School Boards and the Academy since public schools were integrated in the late 1950s.

Andrew Levy, Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, has written a new evaluation of Twain’s book about a boy who runs off down the Mississippi River with a slave name Jim, “lighting out for the territories”. Because Twain’s famous book sells tens of thousands of copies each year and is perhaps the most discussed, cussed, and taught American classic in public schools, such a task is bound to be daunting, presenting the cultural critic with a high bar to convincing us that Huck deserves to be understood anew. Fortunately, Levy brings off the task with delightful, exuberant, and witty skill. Arguing against the standard interpretation of “Huck Finn” as a boy’s adventure story or a serious novel about race relations in the Border States, Levy instead produces a more nuanced and “holistic” view of the book based on Twain’s own lifelong interest in popular culture, minstrelsy, education, juvenile delinquency and social violence. In short, Twain’s classic isn’t about slavery at all, but about “bad boys”, slaves as objects of “popular entertainment”, educational reform (an argument prominent in the mid 1850s), and the relation between parents and their children.

For starters, Levy evaluates the youth of Samuel Clements in Hannibal and finds all the themes of “Huck” present in the little river town. Here’s what happened to young Sam in Hannibal before he was all of twenty years old: He ran away from home without telling his mother and wrote travel letters from New York, where in seedy Manhattan bars he was the Western “innocent”…Over and over, the idea of costume and race appealed to him. He fell in love with New Orleans and the Mardi Gras, the parade of “men, grotesque, laughable costumes…giants, Indians, minstrels, monks, priests, clowns, birds, beasts, everything”, and insisted that America’s true heart lay in that carnival.

He also had a death wish. When measles swept into town (Hannibal), he snuck out one night and crawled into bed with the afflicted Will Bowen, his best friend…He loved the water, and by his recollection almost drowned eight or nine times.   Another time he dove off a riverboat to retrieve a lost hat, but swam so far downstream the town suspected he was dead, and began firing cannons over the water to coax his body to the surface. “People born to be hanged are safe in water,” his mother told him.He was a sleepwalker. He tried, at age nine, to sneak off on a riverboat. At fourteen, he got caught dancing naked by two anonymous girls as he rehearsed for his part as “bear” in a playlet to be performed at one of his older sister’s parties.  He loved smoking, role-playing, arguing, and getting people to defend what they, in other circumstances would decry…And along the way, Sam Clemens got a remarkable education on black culture and race relations in the years before the Civil War. He apparently watched his father’s autopsy through a keyhole. He watched a knife fight in which a “young California immigrant” took a bowie knife in the chest. While playing on a river island, his gang was terrified as the remains of an assassinated slave named Neriam Todd rose out of the water. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined a group of Missouri confederate marauders, then deserted and went West. These experiences and many more shaped the man who became Mark Twain. Each shows up in “Huck Finn”, forming the core cultural shape of the novel.

Much of Levy’s cultural analysis focuses on the debate raging in the 1840s about juvenile delinquency. Newspapers of the time were filled with stories of youth violence, parental neglect and child labor. Moreover, by the 1830s, “blackface” had become something new and cool, a form of potent popular culture that was simultaneously surreally revolutionary and deeply racist. Levy shows how Clements was a life-long devotee of minstrelsy and how the “popular art” of blackface seeped into Mark Twain’s book. “Huck Finn’s America” in this regard is a highly readable foray into the history of popular culture and commercial entertainment. It is easy to see where Twain got his penchant for “dialect”, tall tales, and exaggeration. Levy’s conclusion that “Huck” is about “bad boys”, parent-child relations, and race as “entertainment” does provide a new pivot around which to understand this American classic.

Explaining the “n” word is, however, another story. Levy seems as stumped as the rest of us about how to teach a great classic that is so demeaning to so many of our fellow citizens. He attempts to trace the academic arguments structuring so much of our response to this contemptible epithet, the response to it from the Civil Rights community, and his own reflections to these problems. As important as this dialogue is, the book sags through these sections.

Still and all, readers wanting to engage this American classic yet again can learn much about both Twain and America and bring “new eyes” to Huck and Jim.