I wrote this more than 20 years ago, for David Hartwell’s critical review zine The New York Review of Science Fiction. I looked it up in connection with a new novel I have begun, tentatively, but almost certainly not permanently, entitled Sweet Home, and thought it might be worth reprinting.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Possibly the greatest American novel ever written.

Most of us would argue that science fiction has some special merits denied to most kinds of literature — for instance, its didactic ability to educate, or at least to motivate the desire to be educated, in science, its prophylactic qualities against future shock (if you read enough science fiction hardly anything ever takes you by surprise); its capacity for objective insights into the human condition — what Harlow Shapley called “The View from a Distant Starand so on. Arthur C. Clarke once put it very well when he was asked why he wrote science fiction; he said, “Because no other literature concerns itself with reality.” I’m not sure what “reality” Arthur was talking about, but it is sure that the biggest reality confronting all of us today is change — rapid and widespread change — and science fiction is a literature of change.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

    Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain

However, it has recently come to me that there is another way in which science fiction has assets not shared by “mainstream” literature. What led me to think this was a period of reading a lot of Mark Twain, and considering some of the critical assessments of his work.

At first glance, it may seem improbable that the work of this man who died sixteen years before the first science-fiction magazine was published, and never wrote any of the stuff himself (let’s not get into some of his near-misses, like The Mysterious Stranger and Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, or that precursor of any number of L. Sprague de Camp novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), has much to do with the subject. But I think it does, and to show what I mean, let’s consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Everybody says Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s greatest work. A fair number of people (of whom I’m one) would even contend that it may well be the greatest American novel ever written. Nevertheless, almost everyone, myself included, feels that the climax of the book does not do justice to what has gone before.

If you haven’t reread Huckleberry Finn in the past four or five years you ought to do it now. It is one of the few books that can be read first at the age of ten, and then again every year or so for the rest of your life, finding new pleasures in it every time. The Duke’s attempt to reconstruct Hamlet’s soliloquy gets funnier the better you know the original. Huck’s relationship to his father, the numb acquiescence of the villagers in the Grangerford-Shepperton feud and its slaughter of the otherwise innocent members of both clans, the abortive lynching — above all, the nature of slavery, as given flesh in Jim — all these things become richer and more insightful as the reader does. The book is a boldly far-reaching triumph, that’s what it is, and any writer who doesn’t envy it is simply himself numbed into complacent ignorance.

But then at the last, when eighty per cent of the book has been a marvel, Tom Sawyer reappears on the Phelps plantation and concocts a lunatic humbug scheme to “free” the slave Jim, who, as Tom well knows, has in fact been freed already by testament of his late owner.

There are some funny, farcical bits in that ending. There are even a few touching ones. Nevertheless. The conclusion of the novel is an affront. Twain has touched our hearts with common human reality; then he pisses it all away in ten chapters of baggy-pants burlesque in which everyone behaves like a fool. There is only one word to describe the last one-fifth of Huckleberry Finn, and that word is dumb.

Surprisingly, T.S. Eliot liked the ending. His opinions can’t be dismissed as the affected blind spots of an effete Harvard graduate and adoptive Briton, either; Eliot certainly left his origins as far behind him as he could, but he was Missouri-born, and the Mississippi River had to be almost as daunting an icon in his childhood experience as in Twain’s. Eliot, in fact, selected that river as the central metaphor of Huckleberry Finn. The Mississippi represents the world and the stream of time. Floating down the river, like life, is a one-way trip. You can’t go back; you can only experience what fate has for you at each stage as you pass along. And, said Eliot admiringly, Twain’s masterstroke in the novel is that its end recapitulates its beginning; in both sections Tom Sawyer dominates and the narrative is farcical. This makes the novel symmetrical, and thus — said Eliot, the poet of form — formally satisfying.

Then Eliot went on to add that, anyway, nobody has ever been able to think of a better way to end the book, and besides the last paragraph — spoken by Huck after all the problems have been solved and Jim is free — redeems it all.

This is the last paragraph:

“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me an’ civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Eliot said that isn’t only good, it is “the only possible concluding sentence.” Well, it is and it isn’t.

One objection is factual. We know that Huck said he was going to light out for the territory. But we also know that what he did was to return to St. Petersburg, because Mr. Twain told us that himself in his two later stories, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.

Possibly Twain had other plans for Huck. Actually, we know that at a later time he began the writing of a quite different sequel to Huckleberry Finn. The new work was to be entitled Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and would in fact take Huck out to the territory — sort of. But Twain gave it up. That book was never finished and never published, while the other two survive.

At least, they survive on a few library shelves, if not in the minds of most academics. It is interesting to note that, in all the critical comments on the ending of Huckleberry Finn, there is hardly a line that suggests the critic even knows of the existence of the two later novels. They are simply ignored.

To be sure, there is every reason to ignore them, because they are very bad books. Likely enough when Twain’s ill-planned business ventures went bust he hacked out these two very dreary potboilers for quick pay; I would not like to believe that he thought they were good. Nevertheless they do exist, and they do say what they say about Huck’s later exploits, and what they say has no more to do with Huck’s stated intentions — or with the central human issues of Huckleberry Finn, namely freedom and morality — than do the chapters on the Phelps plantation.

Perhaps there is no dramatic conclusion, built-in or sequel, available to Mark Twain which would do his novel justice. That is pretty much what one critic, Leo Marx, says:

“It is surely reasonable to ask that the conclusion provide a plausible outcome to the quest [for freedom]. Yet freedom in the ecstatic sense that Huck and Jim knew it aboard the raft was hardly to be had in the Mississippi Valley in the 1840s or, for that matter, in any other known human society. A satisfactory ending would inevitably cause the reader some frustration.”

And the reason for this, Marx says, is that Twain was trying to do the impossible. Fiction, and the critics who feed on it, can deal with such questions only on an individual basis, while what Twain was discussing was social morality.

* * *

All that, I think, is quite true — up to a point.

Twain was certainly concerned about social morality, especially the false morality of the society he grew up in. His beloved wife Livia is reputed to have prevented him from speaking out as freely as he would have liked on such subjects, for fear of scandal, but Twain’s works are full of denunciations of hypocrisy, cruelty, dishonesty and general moral blindness on the part of the church, state, “solid citizens” and every other putative exemplar of righteousness. A Connecticut Yankee, Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc, The Mysterious Stranger, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg — they all carry the same message. An occasional individual, especially an immature one like Huck, may be pure, but those who lead society are corrupt, hypocritical or, at best, merely feeble-minded. Of course, Twain was not the only writer to have so poor a view of social morality, though I would argue he is perhaps the greatest. Others might propose Voltaire, in for example Candide. Or Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels. But Twain tried something harder than either of those authors dared. Voltaire and Swift allowed themselves fantastic farce; Twain reported on reality. If he carried his reportage to an extreme, as in The Gilded Age, it was nevertheless only exaggeration, not outright fantasy. What was harder, he gave us characters who were human enough to bring us sometimes close to tears. No rational person can really care what happened to Cunegonde or the Laputans; they aren’t real. But no one can read Huckleberry Finn without desiring very much that Huck and Jim should somehow find their heart’s desire.

It is exactly this touching humanity of the boy and the slave that makes the last ten chapters of the novel ring so false. Twain would not have failed so badly there if he had not succeeded so wonderfully in the middle. If Swift and Voltaire saved themselves such a debacle, it was because they never reached so high.

* * *

E. M. Forster once had something to say about the endings of novels.

“In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.”

It is true that conventions exist which impose this “revenge.” They are classically based; it was Aristotle who said that a comedy must end with a wedding, tragedy with a doom for the hero brought about because of his own nobility (and Twain said almost the same at the end of Tom Sawyer, when he told us that novels are supposed to end with either a wedding or a funeral.)

Twain, though, was a writer who transcended conventions. He was the one who converted the novel from the high-blown oratory of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott to the easy, limpid colloquialism of Huckleberry Finn. When Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” it was that he was talking about. I don’t mean (and Hemingway didn’t either mean) the backwoods Missouri dialects or the quaint figures of speech. What Twain did was reconcile written English with spoken, and everyone after him learned. (Even James Joyce was influenced by Twain, although it is doubtful that Twain would have recognized the affinities — and certain that Livia would have been dismayed by them.)

Ending Huckleberry Finn was a sore trial for Mark Twain. He gave up on the incomplete manuscript at least twice, put it away for varying periods because he didn’t know where to go with it next. Then he completed it in a quick burst of energy. Why? How? One can only speculate. He did revisit the Mississippi River just before its completion; likely that was a stimulus to his glands. And around then (I conjecture) he saw a “plotty” way out — not a good one, but a possible one — and set down all that nonsense about the recapture and mock rescue of Jim before he could change his mind.

I wish he had had a better inspiration. I wish that Twain, who had already shattered one confining convention, had found a way to break through the conventions of symmetry and plot. I even think I know a place in his novel where it would have been profitable for him to look for it, and that is in what I call The Law of the Raft.

* * *

See, I disagree with T. S. Eliot. I think the central metaphor of Huckleberry Finn is not the Mississippi River itself, but instead the raft that floats on it. That raft is the Great Good Place. While Huck and Jim are on it they are not only safe but free. Even when they are invaded by the no-good petty villains who call themselves the Duke and the Dauphin it remains their home and their refuge, because it is a microcosm of the perfect society — theirs and, I think. Twain’s own

What is that perfect society? Huck tells us explicitly:

What you want above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind toward the others.

How wonderful! It is the ideal, right now, of Messrs. Bush and Gorbachev, not to mention the Pope, the Irish assassins (on both sides), the anti-nuclear activists, the pro-Lifers and the pro-Choicers, the Communists and the anti-Communists, the Gay Rights supporters and the Moral Majority … and, for that matter, I am willing to bet, of you.

Of course, we don’t manage to put our dreams into practice. We can’t. We each have our own ways of attaining the Law of the Raft and, as those ways are frequently in conflict, our only strategy for achieving Utopia is to persuade, force or terrorize everyone else into thinking (or at least behaving) as we do. So we build nuclear missiles, or bomb pubs and movie theaters, or set fire to clinics, or get laws passed to make others conform to what we think is right. And if those stratagems don’t work, we tend to drift into thoughts of revenge.

But there is no room on a raft for either compulsion or revenge.

At the beginning of Huck and Jim’s voyage they don’t need either. It’s just the two of them, floating blissfully downstream, smoking their pipes and dangling their feet blissfully in the water and catching a catfish now and then. The idyll isn’t threatened. But when it is, when they are invaded by the loathsome Duke and Dauphin, how do they respond? Not with force or revenge. They deal with the intrusion with tolerance. They do their best to follow the Law of the Raft, to make the scoundrels satisfied, or as satisfied as it is in their capacities to be, so that everyone on the raft can “feel right and kind toward the others.”

* * *

Huckleberry Finn has a message, and that is it. The message is: we should all play nicely together.

The reason the ending is so “dead” is not merely because of the exigencies of the plot. It is because Twain was expressing a moral imperative in his novel, and he turned his back on it at the end because he could not see a moral ending to the story. Slavery was still there; the sweet and gentle Phelpses and Aunt Sallys lived by the labor of slaves. The Law of the Raft could not extend past the raft itself.

We know that Twain, like H. G. Wells, turned bitter toward the end of his life. Probably in both cases the reason was that their yearning humanitarian souls could see no great, moral resolution to the problems of the world.

But Wells didn’t bind himself by the rules of symmetry. Wells wrote a kind of novel that could, at least in its own pages, transcend the real world’s limitations. He wrote science fiction.

He wrote, for instance, In the Days of the Comet. Wells’ description of the squalor and stink of the lives of poor people in late Victorian England is as savage and accurate as anything Twain had to say about Missouri. But the rules of science fiction are not the same as those of “mainstream.” The science-fiction rules allowed Wells to end his story with the Law of the Raft made universal; along came Wells’s comet, and the gases of its tail made everyone satisfied and feeling right and kind to the others.

What is wrong with the ending of Huckleberry Finn, at root, is that it is a “happy ending” and thus a fraud. Jim might be freed, but he was still black and penniless, and his wife and child were still in slavery. If any “mainstream” novel tackles the question of social morals, it can’t have a happy ending that is not fraudulent.

But science fiction can, because it is a literature of change. And wonderfully, now and then, it does.


  1. wishnevsky says:

    I must disagree. I just re read Finn, and saw something i am sure Twain intended, that everybody misses. Tom Sawyer is the only villain in the book. Jim is the only mature good adult, everybody else is an idiot or worse. The Duke and Dauphin are drunken grafters, but not evil. The Phelps’s are slave owners, but ineffective, and very poor. They own more slaves than spoons, for example. Fools.

    Tam Sawyer is a psychopath and a sociopath. He knows Jim is Free, and hides that knowledge for his own amusement. Think of how wicked that is. In Tom Sawyer, he pretends to have died, just to play a trick on the village. Wicked.

    Read Twains Essay on Sir Walter Scott’s responsibility for the Civil War, look at Connecticut Yankee again and rethink your essay.

    I just wrote a 90,000 word exercise on Huck Finn after the Civil War, just for fun, to explore these issues. I am, btw, published for History, but not for fiction

  2. bruce says:

    ‘baggy pants burlesque in which everyone behaves like a fool. . . Jim might be freed, but he is still black and penniless, and his wife and child were still in slavery.’

    The Civil War, and Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and Affirmative Action Crow Jimming after, in short. Twain saw it all happen, he fought on both sides (if you count getting lost as fighting) and he knew it was all going to happen again, and again, and again. That’s why Huck Finn is the Great American Novel, because it has this horrible ritual of goat-fucking comic cruelty and stupid evil at the end, after the great good time on the raft. That’s what all the English majors said when I was in high school, anyway.

  3. Ken James says:

    While wishnevsky and bruce’s interpretations are both compelling, it’s still the case that the *tone* is off in that conclusion. It doesn’t feel “organic” with the rest of the novel — so even if either w. or b.’s interpretations correlated with Twain’s intentions, in both cases the execution is still botched. It might be interesting to speculate about how either w. or b,’s notions about the meaning of the ending might have been made to square, tonally and also thematically, with all the other action in the novel. Which takes us back into the realm of science fiction: alternative literary history.

  4. wishnevsky says:

    I’m just saying that Twain was a better writer than any of his critics, more in tune with his time, and wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I can easily ignore “Detective” and “Abroad” those are just silly, perhaps written for his children. “Among the Indians” might have resolved the issues, but he never wrote that book.

    I think Twain was writing when he could see the South hamstring itself with opposition to Black freedom but there was nothing to be done. I go back the the Sir Walter Scott essay. The point was that the South embraced a fantasy so strongly that it nearly destroyed itself.

    Likewise, Tom Sawyer id ruled by his fantasy, he tries to make the world conform to his much loved books. Huck is a realist. He always gets by.

    Look at the hero of “Gilded Age” and his “Tennessee Land” and Col. Sellers in the same book with all his schemes. Twain saw people like that every day. They are still with us. Tom takes advantage of Jim and Huck, sucks them into his fantasy life. That’s not comedy, that’s tragedy. At the end of Huck Finn, Finn has not yet realized he has been made a fool of. Would he ever? No telling.

  5. houseboatonstyx says:

    I hated Tom’s prank (Jim could have got hurt!) but loved the very ending, when the will freeing Jim was revealed.

    Yes, it was a fantasy deux ex machina ending. Which gives the message, that fantasy WAS the only happy ending possible — given the continuing legality of slavery.

    Or — that by the law of the raft, the whole national question could have been settled peacefully, by some sort of orderly phasing out of slavery.

  6. urGeek says:

    Since Huck has been at least first among equals … or shares the honor with Kim … on my perennial list for a half-century, I feel some qualifications to comment here. Twain wrote what he knew … he didn’t always like it but he wrote truth and, coincidentally, has earned himself a place on blacklists ever since.

    The last part of Huck, after the river, is perhaps out of tone with the riparian journey but is still a part of the journey. If it had been a simple “Jim’s free now”, it would have been a smashing anticlimax and quite out of character for Tom (whose imagination and character were Twain’s).

    Incidental note: Tom Blankenship, who was the model for Huck, did indeed “light out for the territory ahead of the rest”, settling in the west where he became a judge … perhaps the only fitting ending for the role model for one we see as the best and finest.

  7. Kirk says:

    I take issue with your portrayal of Twain as a humanist. People change. Perhaps he was when he wrote ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Before that, he wrote ‘Innocents Abroad’, which was full of American arrogance and Protestant superiority. This is the kind of non-critical thinking that made it easy for the politicians to recruit young men for war, in particular the wars of empire that would come after the Civil War, and through the 20th century. After ‘Finn’, he wrote ‘A Connecticut Yankee’, where he gleefully mowed down English knights with machine gun fire. I would say Twain is a mixed bag.
    With regard to your own politics, you claim to be liberal, yet seem to support the war in Afghanistan. I’m curious if you have seen the move ‘Redacted’, watched the films of John Pilger, or heard of ‘Democracy Now!’.

  8. houseboatonstyx says:

    Twain’s in good company, having a section in his book which the critics say doesn’t fit. Tom Bombadil, the Piper at the gate of dawn, and Father Christmas in Narnia.

    Drat, there’s another I’ve forgotten. But the one thing that sticks out of the box — shows that the whole story is in a larger box than we thought.

    (Hope this goes up with less than half a dozen captchas.)

  9. Bruce says:

    I’ll have to go back and re-read Huck. Based on your synopsis I take a different view of the ending: it sounds like Twain is reiterating that Jim was made a free man by his maker and only civilization can rob anyone (Huck as well as Jim) of their freedom. Part and parcel of the main theme of the book and “symmetric” as Eliot describes.

  10. JRB says:

    A more honest and realistic ending might have been that Jim was never freed and simply returned to his previous status as a slave. Might even have worked, but would probably have killed a lot of the joy we get from the tale and alienated much of his younger audience. By making this a sequel to ‘Sawyer’ (and what else could it be?) MK placed limits on what he could do. It’s amazing he managed to cram so much subversion into a book aimed at least in part at kids as he did.
    ‘Among the Indians’ had to be abandoned due to those same audience expectations, as the story as it stood was leading inevitably into the subject of rape.
    Rather liked ‘Abroad’, fwiw, but agree that ‘Detective’ was dire stuff.

  11. Jim Janney says:

    And even in Twain’s time, the Mississippi wasn’t what it used to be, after the Army Corp of Engineers had its way with it.

  12. bruce says:

    Those guns in the ‘1812 Overture’ don’t belong in any standard orchestra. And Faulkner wasn’t going to solve the American dilemma- why’d he ruin a good hunting yarn by stuffing that interminable race crap into ‘The Bear’? He spoiled the whole tone of the story. You can learn a lot from a good hunting story- ‘sometimes the dog has to go after the bear just to prove he’s the dog’

  13. wishnevsky says:

    Not to get too metaphorical, but, there is an early scene where Huck and Jim miss the Ohio River in a fog, and lose Jim’s chance for freedom going up the Ohio. I think it was Huck’s fault. (?) So then they are inexorably carried down river, deeper and deeper into the Slavery and stupidity, much as the Nation was carried down into the Civil War.

    It’s all about fantasy and reality.. There is a passage about the fog making things so unreal, isn’t there?

    But here is my exercise. If posting this is considered rude, please forgive. I’m not really “an author”


    I think this is the free version, if not it is on there some place. Obviously an unsaleable book, im not even trying to find a publisher.

  14. Andy Baird says:

    It’s interesting that nobody here has mentioned Greg Matthews’ 1985 book “The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”:


    This ambitious work by a young Australian is very much the spiritual heir to “Huck and Tom Among the Indians”… but it’s much more outspoken in its satire of contemporary society. For example, Huck’s adventures with a combined traveling gospel show and mobile whorehouse are among the passages that Livy would certainly never have permitted Mark Twain to publish in his lifetime.

    “Further Adventures” is funny, suspenseful, moving and all in all a damn good read. I think Twain would have liked it. Matthews doesn’t *quite* nail the regional dialects–something for which Twain was a stickler–but one can overlook that minor flaw and just enjoy a tale well told.