Never the Twain for public consumption

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

June 7, 1996

The central importance that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has for American cultural identity is confirmed by the media response that the book continues to provoke. In British culture, only Shakespeare's work has comparable status. If a few brief and previously unknown episodes omitted from the original published versions of Middlemarch or Great Expectations were found, I doubt whether they would receive a great deal of public attention. However, "Jim and the Dead Man", a short unpublished sequence from the original handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn (discovered in 1990 in a Los Angeles attic) was recently given a prominent position in the New Yorker magazine, and accompanied by the response of five contemporary American writers reminding how Twain had "changed American literature irrevocably" with his novel (Bobbie Ann Mason); how its "enchanting central figures", Huck and Jim, still "remain symbols of our own racial confusion" (William Styron).

Now this episode is reprinted in the "only comprehensive" version of Huckleberry Finn as one of the four "significant segments" originally intended for inclusion in the book but left out "for various reasons" from the final published version. These segments - one of which is the already well-known "raftsmen's passage" which Twain transferred with (very) slight alterations to Life on the Mississippi - are here returned to "their intended narrative places" but set off from the original published version of the novel within scotch rules (double grey lines). The book then concludes with a 50-page addendum. This has a critical commentary on the changes Twain made to his manuscript both in the process of composition and as he cut and changed material prior to final publication. It also gives the manuscript version of three passages that vary significantly from those appearing in the first edition to allow "further insight into Twain's editorial and aesthetic decisions".

A number of questions are raised by these procedures. First, if Twain had his reasons for omitting passages from his novel, then why put them back again? Further, the examples given in the addendum of other manuscript passages that differ from the published text make one ask why these too have not been "reinstated". The uncomfortable nature of the editorial decisions made are implied both by the use of scotch rules - thus the reinserted passages are both part and not part of the novel text - and by Kaplan's introduction where he says that: "It would be a mistake . . . to assume that the material Mark Twain decided to drop . . . necessarily represented a loss as far as the structure of the published novel is concerned. In the long run he was the best judge of his own work."

This is, in other words, no definitive edition, and I suspect that when the Mark Twain Project comes to publish its revised edition of Huckleberry Finn, all the "new" material given here (save the "raftsmen's passage") will be relegated to appendices. That is not to say these rediscovered passages are uninteresting. The sequence about Jim and the dead man is one of the few episodes where, temporarily freed from Huck's controlling narrative voice, Jim starts to tell something of his own past. This brief narrative works as a type of comic ghost story as Jim, slave to a student doctor, is ordered to go and "warm up a dead man" to make the job of dissection easier. As Jim props up the naked body on a table and stoops between its "cocked" legs, candle in hand, so the body (which has already seemed to show signs of life) comes down on him, the cold legs straddling his neck. There are ways in which this passage connects to the figurative and aesthetic patternings of the published novel. The idea of symbolic exchange introduced here, for instance, is one that will later come to define Huck and Jim's relationship, as Huck's escape from the constrictions and rigidities of the dominant social order is linked to the (life-giving) warmth and intimacy he finds with Jim. The novel's concern with death and rebirth, and its tonal juxtapositions (the deadly serious discovery of Pap Finn's naked corpse is shortly to follow this scene) are both reinforced too. But there are obvious reasons why Twain should have dropped it. The grotesque and thinly disguised sexual nature of the comedy, and the status of the scene as a retrospective narrative with the break this means in the novel's sense of dramatic immediacy - must both strongly have dictated such a decision.

The two other "new" sequences printed (if we except the "raftsmen's passage") are brief in terms of new content. One concerns the "gospil-work" the king has done in the past. The other is an extended version of the camp-meeting scene, with (among other details) a "fat nigger woman" joining in the mutual embracing that takes place, despite the attempts of the other (white) church members on the "mourner's bench" to "fend her off". Doyno suggests that the force of Twain's satire about racism and religious hypocrisy may here have gone beyond his first audience's limits, and so the scene was dropped. This may, in fact, have had more to do with its transgression of racial/sexual boundaries, and perhaps, too, with Twain's awareness of the closeness of his details to the original Simon Suggs story, "The Captain Attends a Camp Meeting", on which he was drawing. Certainly, though, the ironic connection between the metaphorical language of religion the preacher uses ("sister, one more shake and your chains is broke") and the novel's racial theme is sharply realised here.

All those interested in Huckleberry Finn will find value in this book. It illustrates how careful Twain was in the revisions he made to his work and allows us to see something of how the final version of the published text took shape. Claims that the initial manuscript version is "darker" and "more satirical" than the published text may, though, be overstated. Doyno's contextual and critical notes are generally both helpful and astute, though he does at times tend to flesh out the details Twain describes into his own version of a fuller story: thus the wooden leg with the broken straps in the "House of Death" becomes a sign of a "presumably murdered amputee". But there is much to be disappointed with here, too. The book's "new" passages are brief. The facsimile pages given, and the notes on revisions made, rather whet the appetite than satisfy it. What we have seems rather a stage in a process - the publication of the entire handwritten manuscript and critical commentary on it - than an authoritative edition of the novel. The claim to comprehensiveness on the book's title page may lead many readers to expect otherwise.

Peter Messent is reader in modern American literature, University of Nottingham.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Comprehensive Edition

Author - Mark Twain, Introduction by Justin Kaplan, Foreword and Addendum by Victor Doyno
ISBN - 0 7475 2642 7
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £15.99
Pages - 418

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs