University of Toronto
Department of English

ENG359Y: American Literature, 1880-1960 (L0101)

Instructor: M. Cuddy-Keane

Early Reception History: Mark Twain

For one thing, the skill with which the character of Huck Finn is maintained is marvellous. We see everything through his eyes--and they are his eyes and not a pair of Mark Twain's spectacles. And the comments on what he sees are his comments--the comments of an ignorant, superstitious, sharp, healthy boy, brought up as Huck Finn had been brought up; they are not speeches put into his mouth by the author. One of the most artistic things in the book--and that Mark Twain is a literary artist of a very high order all who have considered his later writings critically cannot but confess--one of the most artistic things in Huckleberry Finn is the sober self-restraint with which Mr. Clemens lets Huck Finn set down, without any comment at all, scenes which would have afforded the ordinary writer matter for endless moral and political and sociological disputation. We refer particularly to the account of the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, and of the shooting of Boggs by Colonel Sherburn.

Brander Matthews, Saturday Review, 31 January, 1885: 153.


[Mark Twain] 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.

San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 14 March, 1885.


The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.

The Boston Evening Transcript, 17 March 1885.


The Concord public library committee deserves well of the public by their action in banishing Mark Twain's new book, "Huckleberry Finn," on the ground that it is trashy and vicious. It is time that this influential pseudonym should cease to carry into homes and libraries unworthy productions. Mr. Clemens is 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 of his works degenerates into a gross trifling with every fine feeling. The trouble with Mr. Clemens is that he has no reliable sense of propriety. . . . [The Huckleberry Finn stories] are no better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population. Mr. Clemens has made them smarter, for he has an inexhaustible fund of "quips and cranks and wanton wiles," and his literary skill is, of course, superior; but their moral level is low, and their perusal cannot be anything less than harmful.

Springfield Republican, March 1885.


The action of the Concord Public Library in excluding Mark Twain's new book, "Huckleberry Finn," on the ground that it is flippant and irreverent, is absurd. The managers of this library evidently look on this book as written for boys, whereas we venture to say that upon nine boys out of ten much of the humor, as well as the pathos, would be lost. . . . When the boy under 16 reads a book he wants adventure and plenty of it. He doesn't want any moral thrown in or even implied; the elaborate jokes worked out with so much art, which are Mark Twain's specialty, are wasted upon him. . . . Take the whole latter part of the book, which is given up to the ludicrous attempt to free the negro, Jim, from this imprisonment on the Arkansas plantation. This is a well-sustained travesty of the escapes of great criminals, and can only be fully appreciated by one who has read what it ridicules. Running all through the book is the sharpest satire on the ante-bellum estimate of the slave. Huckleberry Finn, the son of a worthless, drunken, poor white, is troubled with many qualms of conscience because of the part he is taking in helping the negro to gain his freedom. This has been called exaggerated by some critics, but there is nothing truer in the book. The same may be said of the ghastly feud between the Shepperdsons and the Grangerfords, which is described with so much dramatic force. The latter depicts a phase of Southern life which the advance in civilization has had no power to alter. The telegraphic reports of periodical affrays in the South and Southwest show that the medieval blood-feud is still in force there and receives the countenance of the best society.
These are only a few instances which go to show that this is not a boy's book and does not fall under the head of flippant worthless literature.

San Francisco Chronicle, 29 March 29,1885.

What is inimitable [in Huckleberry Finn], however, is the reflection of the whole varied series of adventures in the mind of the young scapegrace of a hero. His undying fertility of invention, his courage, his manliness in every trial, are an incarnation of the better side of the ruffianism that is one result of the independence of Americans, just as hypocrisy is one result of the English respect for civilization. . . . The best instance is perhaps to be found in the account of the feud between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords, which is described only as it would appear to a semi-civilized boy of fourteen, without the slightest condemnation or surprise,--either of which would be bad art,--and yet nothing more vivid can be imagined. That is the way that a story is best told, by telling it, and letting it go to the reader unaccompanied by sign-posts or directions how he shall understand it, and profit by it. Life teaches its lessons by implication, not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life and not an excuse for instruction.

Thomas Sergeant Perry, Century Magazine, 30 May, 1885: 171-72.

IT has been granted to me during the last few days to study a soaring human boy face to face. The abstract "my nephew" of whom I occasionally speak in passing has become the concrete "Guy, don't do this," or, " Guy, don't do that." . . .
Guy is an atom of humanity, tottering on the brink of his eleventh birthday. . . .
BUT my chief surprise has been his keen and appreciative enjoyment of Huckleberry Finn. I gave it to him to quiet him, and he was soon deep in it. This evening he has insisted on reading aloud to me the whole of that inimitable passage which relates how the two old frauds, the King and the Duke of Bridgewater, pretended to be the brothers of Mr. Peter Wilks, deceased. At every other sentence the boy had to stop, convulsed with laughter, and, mind you, he laughed in the right way and at the right things. This is no mere piece of knockabout clowning such as one supposes would appeal to a small boy, but a bit of the most genuine and incisive humour ever printed. I am, therefore, forced to the conclusion--still assuming GUY to be typical--that the sense of humour amongst nephews of a tender age has become far keener and juster than it used to be. . . .
THEN for simple, unforced pathos you have the runaway nigger, Jim, one of the finest and purest gentlemen in all literature. And for tragedy, can anything be more moving and terrible than the last stand of the Grangerfords, or the death of Boggs, with its sequel in Colonel Sherburn's imperturbable defiance of the cowardly mob, who propose to lynch him? But I have not space to dwell on all the great points of this Homeric book--for Homeric it is in the true sense, as no other English book is, that I know of.
So I (and my nephew) send this message of goodwill across the sea to our friend MARK TWAIN, at a time when messages of goodwill and friendship are sorely needed.

"Roundabout Readings: On Nephews--and 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Punch, 4 January, 1896: 4-5.