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The Influence of "Huckleberry Finn" on Young Adult Literature

Hemingway once wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since" (28). Of course, there have been those who disagree. In an 1885 New York World review, Joseph Pulitzer called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "cheap and pernicious stuff” with a "wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy" as the protagonist. At the same time, The San Francisco Evening Bulletin called the story’s influence on children "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." While Hemingway’s praise overlooks the value of other literature through the centuries into modern times, the fact that Huckleberry Finn remains a pillar of Young Adult (YA) literature more than 130 years after its publication at least partially justifies Hemingway’s enthusiasm for the novel. Looking outside the publishing realm, Jonathan Arac points out that there is a “long tradition of using Huckleberry Finn as the basis for statements proclaiming what is truly American” (18). Within publishing, not only has Twain’s exemplary novel been influential in YA literature’s history, where its influence stems from a level of craft found infrequently in the work of Twain’s contemporaries, but that level of craft has done much to advance the genre as a whole.

Several components of Huckleberry Finn are precursors to what have become the mainstays of modern YA Literature. Andrew Levy, Butler University Professor, notes “Huck Finn’s shadow is all over the current vogue in young adult fiction.” He further asserts, “Not just Hunger Games, not just Harry Potter: Everything from Home Alone and Diary of a Wimpy Kid to half the shows on Nickelodeon. Huck is the template” (Ernsberger 28).

First, Huck Finn is narrated in the first-person point of view (POV), which has become the go-to POV for modern YA literature because it increases relatability with the narrator and allows the reader to more readily suspend disbelief in fantastic or melodramatic situations common to the genre. The overwrought teen emotion of Hinton’s The Outsiders, which the author cites as a contributing factor in its success, may have been less acceptable outside the first-hand account of Ponyboy. The science-fiction elements of The Hunger Games Trilogy might not have been as believable if not described by the story’s trustworthy narrator, Katniss Everdeen. First-person POV not only allows the narrator to speak in an authentic, colloquial style, attractive to young readers, but also allows the reader to “hear” the narrator and pick up nuances of character through word choices that reflect attitudes and social class. When we read Huck’s charming yet repetitive opening lines, we learn more about him than we could in pages of exposition:
You don’t know about 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 a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was 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 some stretchers, as I said before. (2)
Within this choice of POV, Twain’s novel was revolutionary in its use of dialect. When other writers imitated European literature, Twain wrote as Americans actually spoke. American English was vivid and emotional, and Twain’s decision to utilize it changed how future YA authors, along with authors in other genres, wrote.

As a second area of influence, Huckleberry Finn contains themes to which adolescent readers may relate. Huck embarks on a journey where he meets a variety of characters who give the story the spice of life, an attraction for adolescents who may be bored with their lives or have other reasons to seek escape. Many young readers also relate to Huck’s experiences with absent parents and as a victim of abuse. Other elements of Huckleberry Finn further comprise the go-to themes in modern YA literature: friendship, adventure, rebellion against adult institutions and authority, and the evergreen coming-of-age story. Many of these themes are present in The Hunger Games and The Outsiders, but the list goes on. Would Lorraine and John have met Angelo Pignati in Zindel’s The Pigman if they hadn’t been bored with their lives? Would they have cultivated that relationship if they had not had the autonomy and emotional need caused by absent parents? What modern YA classic does not include some level of rebellion against adult institutions? The list of coming-of-age stories includes many classics from Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery), through To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Alexie) and beyond. Each of these themes are easily traced back to Twain’s Huck Finn.

Incidentally, Twain’s novel was by no means the first of the Bildungsroman genre. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and the works of Jane Austen (published 1811-15 and posthumously in 1818 and 1871), readily come to mind. However, these earlier novels debuted when publishers were marketing books to instruct and improve the morals of the nation’s youth. Huck Finn appears to mock such well-meaning efforts, and did not represent Twain’s first attempt to do so. Twenty years earlier, Twain wrote his “Advice for Good Little Boys” in Youth’s Companion Magazine: “You ought never to take anything that don’t belong to you – if you can’t carry it off.” According to Levy, the 1880s audience “focused on what Twain was saying about children and to them,” but “Twain was saying that the adult instinct to ‘reform’ children was part of the problem” and was “deeply frustrated with how American children are raised” (Ernsberger 27).

Further contributing to the relatability of Huckleberry Finn, and another practice common to later YA authors, Twain drew from his own experiences growing up. Huck and Jim discuss that “ole King Sollermun” had a million wives. Jim says a million wives would be excessive, and that the king’s judgment in the case of the two quarreling women makes sense because any man “dat’s got ‘bout five million chillen ‘round de house” would just “as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’,” and Huck realizes Jim has “an uncommon head” for an ignorant man. Andrew Levy notes exchanges such as these are derived from the minstrel shows Twain had seen as a young Missouri boy (Ernsberger 28). Twain based his characters on real or real-to-life Americans of the period. In his autobiography, Twain recounts that he drew his protagonist Huck from a real-life childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, who “was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” Such autobiographical elements are present in later YA works like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders.

However, one area of influence commonly attributed to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may not have been Twain’s intention in writing the book. The YA problem novel is a term first used in the late 1960s referring to works such as The Outsiders and The Pigman, as well as the earlier Newbery Award Winner It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville. A subgenre that focuses on the negative aspects of the format was later seen in books like Go Ask Alice (by Anonymous, now attributed to the book’s editor, Beatrice Sparks) and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. What many modern readers see as the novel’s greatest moment of “psychological subtlety and moral insight” (Pell 8) went unnoticed by critics and downplayed by Twain himself. It takes place when Huck decides to further deprive Widow Douglas of her property, the slave Jim whom Huck earlier helped escape, and decides, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” Huck’s decision is bold, and today’s readers cheer him for it, but we are later disappointed when Huck agrees to participate in a needless, convoluted, and outright cruel plot to recapture Jim so the two boys can help him escape more dramatically.

Levy observes, Huck "swore to go to hell for Jim, but can't stand up to Tom Sawyer" (139), but evidence supports the idea that Twain did not see his creation as a problem novel. When Huckleberry Finn appeared on the scene, critics seemed to ignore the story’s attitudes about race; their attentions fell to Twain’s “raw, unsentimental and unsettling view of boyhood” (Pell 8). Andrew Levy writes, "Virtually no surviving review of the book, and there are dozens, talks about the novel as if it were bringing anything new to the story of black and white in America" (154). The few references to the story’s exploration of racial reconciliation thought it funny. The Hartford Courant found "the struggle Huck has with his conscience over slavery" to be "most amusing." Apparently, Twain found Huck's worries comical, too and loved the ending that disappoints so many readers today. During a promotional tour, he called those passages "the biggest card I've got in my whole repertoire." All this is strong evidence, Levy argues, that we have deluded ourselves into considering the novel a heartwarming story of racial harmony--when in fact it is something much more complicated (Pell 8). Be that as it may, D. H. Lawrence warns in Studies in Classic American Literature to, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it" (2). So, although Twain and his contemporaries may not have seen Huckleberry Finn for this aspect of its social commentary, generations of readers have placed the book alongside its contemporaries that purposefully address racial inequality, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Whatever Twain’s aims may or may not have been, Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most influential American novels, whether considered YA or otherwise. It has left its stamp on countless hearts and minds and left a legacy that YA literature still capitalizes upon today. As much as the novel has its admirers, it is not without detractors who criticize everything from its language to its morals to its ending, but perhaps Twain said it best himself within the text of this immortal story, “That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.” Whatever its strengths or weaknesses may be, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn will remain a cornerstone of American literature and Americana because “There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Works Cited:

  • Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
  • Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. Beatrice Sparks, Ed.. New York: Prentice Hall, 1971.
  • Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847.
  • Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847.
  • Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games Trilogy. New York: Scholastic, 2008-10.
  • Ernsberger, Richard,Jr. "Andrew Levy: Have we Misread Huckleberry Finn?" American History 04 2015: 26-8.
  • Hemingway, Earnest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1935.
  • Hinton, S. E.. The Outsiders. New York: Viking Press, 1967.
  • Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking, 1923. 2.
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
  • Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
  • Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1908.
  • Neville, Emily Cheney. It’s Like This, Cat. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • Pell, Alan C. "REVIEW --- Books: A Masterpiece on its Maiden Voyage." Wall Street Journal Feb 21 2015, Eastern edition ed. C.8.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Public Doman, 1852.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Public Domain, 1885.
  • Zindel, Paul. The Pigman. New York: Harper Trophy, 1968.

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