1: Introduction


Set Text: Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1885)

Seminar Preparation

Topic 1: Course Expectations [See ELE ]

Topic 2: Framework: “Myths” of Childhood

In Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz identifies a number of “myths” that he believes have “occluded public thinking about the history of American childhood.”

  • “The myth of a carefree childhood”.
  • “The myth of the home as a haven and bastion of stability in an ever changing world”.
  • The myth that “childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity and gender”.
  • The myth that the “United States is particularly child-friendly”(and one could expand on this to include Britain and The West in general).
  • “[The] myth of progress, and its inverse, the myth of decline. There is a tendency to conceive of the history of childhood as a story of steps forward over time: of parental engagement replacing emotional distance, of scientific enlightenment superseding superstition and misguided moralism. This progressivism is sometimes seen in reverse, namely that childhood is disappearing: that children are growing up too quickly and losing their innocence, playfulness, and malleability.” (2-3)
  1. In what way[s] do you think these myths inform your understanding of childhood?
  2. To what extent do you think Twain’s Huckleberry Finn might be promoting all or some of these myths?
  3. To what extent do you think Twain might be critiquing these myths?

Lecture Part I: Introduction: Module Outline & Rationale

1. Constructing the American Child

The underlying theoretical principle of this module is that our understanding of childhood is determined by broad historical and cultural myths (cf. Barthes’ Mythologies).  The first four weeks of the module investigates the principle myths, as well as giving a broad historical 19th century framework.

The idea of childhood as a “construction” was introduced by Philippe Ariés in the 1960s, and has dominated studies of children’s culture, literature, and the representation of childhood ever since. (Only recently being challenged by the rise of Neo-Darwinism and new essentialism.) As you can see from the short conclusion to his Centuries of Childhood (on ELE), Ariés argued that childhood was an “invention” of the European enlightenment that brought with it an escalating sense of childhood as a period of life that was radically different to adulthood:  idealized, in need of  special treatment, and – most importantly for his study – increasingly socially cordoned off from adult life.

Models of Childhood

James et al (Theorizing Childhood on ELE) identify the principle constructions of childhood that remained dominant through the nineteenth-century, and indeed still inform our “common sense” understanding of childhood. These “Presociological” Models of Childhood include:

1. The Evil Child: (Puritanism. C16th-17th)

James et al refer to Hobbes, but for our purposes the principle influence, as we shall see in week 2,  lies with John Calvin’s notion of “original sin” and “infant  damnation,” this doctrine assumed the child to be evil unless trained into the ways of God. James et al refer to it as a notion belonging to “the dustbin of history,” yet they also acknowledge its continued prevalence in social discourse: in horror films like The Exorcist, books like Lord of the Flies, and so on. We shall see it re-emerge at various points on this module, especially in James’s The Turn of the Screw. But we might also note its prevalence during moments when children fail to mesh with certain expectations/ideals. For example, the invention of “delinquency” within the social discourse of childhood in the late 19thC; or, more recently, the 1993 murder of James Bulger by John Venables and Robert Thompson, which saw them dubbed “evil” children; but also whenever concern is expressed at the destruction of childhood (See for example Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood 1982)

However, as we shall see, for the Puritans, the anxiety about children being innately evil, when combined with high mortality rates, brought with it a strong social and emotional investment in child-rearing and education, and a particular interest in the spiritually precious evangelical child, which sowed the seeds of the more idealised notion of the child more readily associated with Romanticism.

2. The Immanent Child (Enlightenment/Romanticism late C17th-18th)

James et al place this at 3, but I would reverse it to some degree, as its emergence in the work of John Locke represented the first counterpoint to The Evil Child. His Some Thoughts on Education (1693) proposed that the child was not born into sin, but rather entered the world as a kind of blank slate (tabla rasa). The idea of the child’s innate malleability is central to most educational methods. We shall see it most strongly in the essay of Horace Mann in week 3, and to some degree in Hawthorne, where it also meshes with an anxiety about The Evil Child; creating in his work an at times tense dichotomy of the childhood. (This idea of the child’s malleability is also related to a later category mentioned by James et al: The Schooled Child. Discussed by figures such as Michael Foucault, but also Roland Barthes, and Louis Althusser.)

3. The Innocent Child. (Romanticism. C18th-19th)

In Europe, the notion of the Innocent Child is mainly associated with Jean Jacques Rousseau (i.e. Emile 1792), but for our purposes the more important figure is the late eighteenth-century mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. In Britain Swedenborg was a significant influence on the English Romantic poets (especially William Blake). His work was well known in the US in the early nineteenth-century, where his ideas were taken up within the sudden flurry of evangelical and utopian sects and communes (esp 1830s). We will see his influence in Emerson and Alcott, and to a small degree in Hawthorne.

(Note: James et al have a fourth category, the naturally developing child that they associate with the early C20th child psychologist Jean Piaget, which arguably revives models #2 & #3, but does so with a new emphasis on the scientific observation of the child.)

Part II: Childhood and Reform

Having established some of the principle models of childhood, from weeks 5 we look at some of the uses (and abuses) of the figure of the child in social reform movements. Beginning with an examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s use of the Innocent Child in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850) as a means of harnessing sentiment against chattel slavery of African-Americans (an issue that also resonates through Huck Finn); we then consider how models of childhood informed the increased middle-class expectation that children adhere to strict gender norms with the rise of children’s literature more proper in the 1860s; and finally close with an examination of the “Child Saving” movement of the 1870s-80s, focusing on the ambivalence it describes for the more complex reality of children’s lives.

Part III Child Study

The last four weeks of the module will open up the debate into The Child Study movement, which developed between Europe and America, and which formally introduced child psychology as a field of academic study in the 1880s. (James Sully in the UK; G Stanley Hall in the US).  As well as being a psychologist, Hall was influenced by new evolutionary theory (i.e. Darwin, but also Herbert Spencer), which also began to be more widely circulated in the US in these decades.

Psychology and evolutionism yield two further models of childhood that inform this section of the module (one of which is mentioned by James et al in a later chapter are: 1) The child as/and the unconscious  and 2) The child as primitive man – the latter of which also has an important baring on ideas of race and representation in ante-bellum America. Week 8 on Henry James’s What Maisie Knew will introduce this new idea of the child’s developing consciousness (Hall was a student of Henry’s brother, the philosopher and  psychologist William James). Week 9 will pick up on the them of evolutionism in relation to the rise of the Boy Scouts and Native American politics. Week 10 will engage with psychoanalysis, and week 11 will conclude the module by looking at an example of a child writer.

Lecture Part II: Huckleberry Finn

In 1934 Earnest Hemingway argued that:  “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. […] it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” (22) One of Twain’s most popular books at the time, a bestseller; on its first release it achieved some notoriety on when it was banned by the Concord Public Library (Massachusetts), for being – in Twain’s own words – “trash and suitable only for the slums” (cited in Stone  130). The library objected to its lack of literary merit: comparing it to the cheap “dime store”  novels that had been in circulation through the century. By the mid twentieth-century, however, the novel had achieved canonical status. Indeed, Jonathan Arac describes this process as one of “hypercannonisation.” In the 1980s, the issue of censorship raised its head again: but this time not because of its literary merit, but  – as I have outlined in my sample position piece – because what many feel to be a racist book was now being taught as a compulsory text in American high schools.

Historical Context: The American Civil War and Ante-Bellum Race Politics

Huckleberry Finn is set in the American South of the 1850s, over a decade before the start of the American Civil War (1861-65). That is, it is set at the height of the system of African slavery upon which the economy in the Southern states depended (mainly for cotton). However, Twain began writing it in 1874, and then finally completed it for publication in 1885. It is, therefore, even for it’s time, as much of an historical novel. (It would be akin say, now, to a writer publishing a novel this week that was set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s, ten years before communism collapsed in 1991 – and its seeming oblivion to the cataclysm of civil war and abolition of slaver brings with it a parallel oddity to this hypothetical text making no allusion to the collapse of the USSR.) What makes this focus all the more peculiar is that it partially works to the form of the abolitionist novel, which we shall see again through Stowe in Week 5.

Twain was twenty-six years old at the start of the Civil War, and fifty when Huck Finn was published. The war had brought an abrupt halt to his work as a River Pilot on the Mississippi River. (His name “Mark Twain” alludes to this time – a river cry meaning “deep and true.” His real name was Samuel Longhorn Clemens)  Not long after the war he met and then married a Northern woman, Olivia Langdon (1870), who introduced him to her circle of abolitionists and political progressives  – including the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Despite his brief sojourn as a confederate during the war, Twain is therefore better known for being more publicly supporting Abraham Lincoln and the emancipation of slaves, and for opposing racism.

The impact of the Civil War on the US economy in the “ante-bellum” years was profound. The northern states were undergoing an unprecedented economic boom. Indeed, Twain and his friend Charles Dudley Warner co-authored a novel of 1873 that coined the term for the times: The Gilded Age.  The Gilded Age marked a period of high prosperity and industrial expansion for the nation as a whole. It saw the rise of giant business magnates (such as Andrew Carnegie in steel, banker J P Morgan, oilman John D Rockefeller, etc who operated in a highly unregulated market and hence earned the collective name of “Robber Barons”); that witnessed a massive industrial and technological expansion across the US: the railroad infrastructure (built by Chinese and Irish immigrants),  the appearance of the telegraph, and so on.; and which all saw the US, financially and politically, move increasingly to the centre of the world stage.

In contrast to the opulence of the North in the 1880s and 90s, “Reconstruction” in the wake of the Civil War in the Old South had left it dominated by agriculture, mainly smallholdings run through the system of  sharecropping, with a large and disenfranchised population of ex-slaves and poor whites. Although chattel slavery proper may have been abolished after the Civil War, the government failed to adequately address the issue of some four million freed slaves hitting the so-called “free” labour market. The issue was compounded by increased racial hostility to African-Americans throughout the South: yielding a set of discriminatory legal and social practices in the South known as the “Jim Crow Laws.” While congress made some attempts to establish anti-discrimination laws, these tended to be reactive to Southern discriminatory practices than proactive.  For example, between 1865-66 “black codes” were introduced across the South to limit the rights of African-Americans. These were repealed by the 1866 Civil Rights Act granting African American’s full citizenship. The South responded with the first manifestation of The Klu Klux Clan (1868), which was squashed by a further Civil Rights Act of 1871 (it revived again 1915). Yet another turning point occurred when a third Civil Rights act of 1875, prohibiting discrimination in “public accommodation,” was found to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1883 – not two years before Huck Finn was published. This move paved the way for a rash of discriminatory practise in schools, public transport, for housing and accommodation, and in leisure and sport. They also impacted negatively on voting rights as well as the criminalizing of miscegenation. Customary “Jim Crow” social practices exceeded actual laws, virtually isolating black from white communities.  Individual laws were increasingly challenged from 1915, but were not wholly repealed until the 1964/65 Civil Rights Acts.

Commenting on this historical context for the publication of Huck Finn, rather than the historical setting, and thinking specifically of the novels closing chapters, Toni Morrison has argued : “The nation, as well as Tom Sawyer, was deferring Jim’s freedom in agonising play.” (Morrison, 283)

Huck Finn as the Archetypal American Child

Twain’s interest in boyhood was not his alone. Indeed, the last decades of the 19th century witnessed something of a flowering of a sub-genre that became known as “The Boy Book,” which emerged in the US in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Some of these, such as Horatio Alger’s best-selling Ragged Dick stories (first published in 1866) characterised the boy as the industrious, self-reliant, democratic, working-class boy-done-good: pulling himself up by his own bootstraps with good humour and hard work. Yet, the more prevalent form, were the “Bad Boy Books,” which romanticized the child rebelling against social constraints. Kidd notes that Twain forms part of a cannon of writers beginning with Thomas Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy in 1869. Indeed, he list over fifteen others: including one by Twain’s friend Charles Dudley Warner, Being a Boy (1877); as well as others by major writers of the day such as William Dean Howells (A Boy’s Town, 1877).

Kidd notes that the Bad Boy Book “defined itself against advice writing and domestic fiction,”  declaring “its independence from all things feminine” (52) Critics, such as Marcia Ann Jacobson, who see this as an important stage in the development of children’s literature as a genre in the US, argue that this emphasis on the distinct proto-typical masculinity of boys reflects the increased tendency to police gender roles for boy and girls, and to define a kind of crisis of masculinity in the face of industrialisation and national expansion  (As we shall see in week 6, Alger’s counterpart would be Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women – also published in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. (1868-69)

As with the British Romantic poets Blake and Wordsworth, and indeed in the industrial novels of Dickens: the child, with his affinity for nature, represented a pastoral counterpart to the intolerable industrial landscape. In the American context, the bad boy also figured as an expression of the restrictions of civilisation, and the desire to go back to simpler, if cruder, existence. As Albert Stone has argued:  “In the huge brown stream [of the Mississippi] Twain found an appropriate representation for his growing sense …. Of an environment that surrounds, threatens, and ultimately stifles  the freedom of boyhood.” (144) Leslie Fiedler, writing at the same time as Stone in 1960, this fascination for the figure of the bad boy represented the emergence of a uniquely American, archetype, whom he named The Good Bad Boy. “The Good Bad Boy is, of course, America’s vision of itself, crude and unruly in its beginnings, but endowed by his creator with an intuitive sense of what is right.” (268) It was Huck Finn specifically that he had in mind. (Indeed, in an earlier article of 1948, he had argued that both it and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick –  and you may no doubt be surprised to hear this about the latter– are essentially children’s books!)

Fiedler’s argument is informed by a theory, proposed in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which was responding to a statement issued by the Superintendent of the Census declaring that the frontier had effectively closed in 1880 (i.e. five years before the publication of Huckleberry Finn).

“Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment. …  The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. … It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. … He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe… The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.” (n.page)

From this perspective, Huck’s expressed wish, at the end of the novel, to  “light out to the territories” is consequently to re-experience this process of Americanization from crude beginnings. His story, from this perspective, is also one of transformation through a kind of regression into an older, cruder, point in civilisation. Kidd also notes that the genre of the Good Bad Boy modelled itself on a an idea that every boy was, albeit temporarily, a “savage.” This is perhaps best exemplified in Dudley Warner’s Being a Boy:

“Every boy who is good for anything is a natural savage. The scientists who want to study the primitive man, and have so much difficulty in finding one anywhere in this sophisticated age, couldn’t do better than to devote their attention to the common country-boy. He has the primal, vigorous instincts and impulses of the African savage, without any of the vices inherited from a civilization long ago decayed or developed in an unrestrained barbaric society. You want to catch your boy young, and study him before he has either virtues or vices, in order to understand the primitive man.” (Ref?)

As we shall see again in week 9, when we look at Charles Eastman and Jack London, the equation of childhood with “savagery” was given scientific credence through a poplar notion from nineteenth-century evolutionism known as “recapitulation theory.” This was an idea that first emerged in biology thought the work of Ernest Haeckel in 1866, who argued that every individual species in its development repeated – or recapitulated – the development of all animal forms: from single cell amoebae through to complex mammals such as man. The idea took hold in the popular imagination, and  – as interest in evolutionary theory began to spread – began to be used to justify a narrower racial hierarchy, which saw white civilisation as the pinnacle of social and biological evolution. This not only sustained beliefs in the infantile nature of the racial other – whether African or the Native American  – it also argued that each (white, male) child went though a “savage” state before reaching full, civilised maturity. Consequently, Kidd argues that The Good Bad Boy tends to be an essentially middle-class vision of boyhood: bad and somewhat delinquent – but never seriously so, and always capable of ultimate reform. It thus places the white middle-class boy in tense alignment with social inferiors (by race and class) and the civilised order that he must grow in to. This tension is evident, if unacknowledged, in a review of the novel from 1897 by Charles Miner Thompson when he writes: “what Huck really is … is simply the usual vagabond boy, which his expected shrewdness, his rags, his sharp humour, his practical philosophy. The only difference between him and his type would be found in his essential honesty, his strong and struggling moral nature, so notable Anglo Saxon” (cited in Stone 132)

The Innocent Eye

Stone has argued that: “One reason why children …. play important supporting roles to Huck Finn is that Twain believed they would help Huck dramatise social and moral issues in a novel intended to be read by boys and girls as well as by adults.” (150) The more recent debate on the inclusion of the novel in American high schools retains this sense of its educative value. However, for Kidd, the novel’s use of the child’s “innocent eye” to frame this analysis of social and moral issue is that it means “the reader must supply the critique” (80); and the risk with this strategy is that the reader will instead resort to innocent readings. This is a common problem in approaching children’s literature and other representations of childhood with ac critical eye,  whereby an assumption is made that  because the character is seen as an “innocent” child, this somehow makes the author innocent, and – even more strangely – it seems to compel the reader to assert his innocence also. Consequently the literary device of the child’s “innocent eye” can serve both as a means of exposing the hypocrisies and complications of society (akin to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”), and as a means of screening them in a veil of innocence.

This tension sits at the centre of Huck Finn. As Mintz notes, it is a text that is fondly remembered by some for the vision it affords of boyhood life of adventure and freedom from the coils of  “sivilisation.”  Yet whereas some recall only the figure of the carefree boy on the raft gliding down the Mississippi with his friend Jim, others might note more strongly the real sense of fear that pervades the novel:

  • The fear of a child at risk of violent abuse from a parent (the first child protection laws were passed in New York in 1876, when the NYSPCA was founded; but generally where unevenly enforced owing to the stronger traditional belief in the absolute right of the father’s authority over his family (the rule of pater familias): which we see in the early part of the novel as the new judge fails to agree to the Widow’s request to remove the boy from his father into her care.  (Indeed, the first successful suit of a child abuse case was against a woman who appear to have claimed an orphan she had no biological tie to, in the case of Mary Ellen Wilson in 1874.)
  • Or there is the fear of the boy’s total lack of protection from being robbed of whatever property he may have by both family and strangers (whether in the form of the $6,000 [about $1 mil] that prompts his “Pap” to reclaim him; or in the form of the Duke and the King claiming Jim just because they can);
  • Or the fear of the slave at the threat of being “sold down the river,” of being separated from his family, or of being re-captured into a wholly uncertain future (and, indeed, one might even see Jim’s fear of the white boy whom he must trust to survive).  Or Huck’s related fear of social retribution for his “crime” of assisting a slave to escape.
  • Then there is the  constant fear of cutthroats, fraudsters, and thieves (Tom Sawyer’s “robber band” proving to be a prescient mirror of the more unnerving reality of the murderous robber gang that Huck later encounters on the sinking steam ship); or of the casual violence of feuding families; mobs bent on lynching someone; or merely the cool vengeance of figures such as Colonel Sheridan, shooting a man down merely for drunken verbal abuse.

From this perspective, perhaps the biggest smokescreen for seeing the barely concealed violence and hypocrisy that this book examines, but arguably fails to resolve, lies in the compelling characterisation of Huck as a child; and the skill with which Twain uses him as an “innocent eye.” However, Kidd argues that to succumb to the seduction of this device, and resort to becoming an innocent reader and believe therefore that the novel somehow  “transcends rather than dramatises racial tensions” (80) is to ignore how the book replays the American nation’s history as child’s play. If the closing “playful re-enactment of slavery” in the closing chapters dramatise the failure of reconstruction, they may also “trivialise slavery by treating it as an innocuous pastime for boys” (Kidd 80)

In his essay of 1848 on the novel, Leslie Fiedler has made a similar point, when he argued:

“In each generation we play out the impossible mythos [of atonement for slavery], and we live to see our children play it: the white boy and the black we can discover wrestling affectionately on any American sidewalk, along which they will walk in adulthood, eyes averted from each other, unwilling to touch even by accident. The dream recedes; the immaculate passion and astonishing reconciliation become a memory, and later, a regret, at last the unrecognised motifs of a child’s book. ‘It’s too good to be true, Honey,” Jim says to Huck. ‘It’s too good to be true.’” (“Come Back to the Raft”)

Over half a decade later, Toni Morrison returned to this question of the child’s innocent eye, in the process reconfiguring it as one that seems to place the burden of responsibility for social change on the shoulders of a child, when she  writes:

“The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses – Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness, and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the heart of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy with which Huck’s estrangement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted… My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze,  that risk.” (Morrison 287)

While this serves to reconcile Morrison to the memory of her very first appalled response to the text, it leaves unresolved a question that we will return to in the second section of the module on childhood and reform, which asks, to quote Hannah Arendt: “Have we really come to a point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?” (239)

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. [Library]

Arac, Jonathan, “Nationalism, Hypercanonization, and Huckleberry Finn.” boundary 2. 19: 1. (Spring, 1992)pp. 14-33 [JSTOR]

Arendt, Hannah, “Reflections on Little Rock.” Between Past and Present. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1958. [Library]

Deloria: Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale U. P., 1998. [Library]

Fielder, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, 1960. [Library]

Fiedler, Leslie. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey.” Partisan Review, June 1948. [ELE]

Hemmingway, Ernest. The Green Hills of Africa. Scribner and Sons, 1935. [Library]

Howells, William Dean. A Boy’s Town New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890 [Library]

Jacobson, Marcia Ann. Being a Boy Again: Autobiography and the American Boy Book. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.1994. [Library]

Stone, Albert the Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain’s Imagination. New Haven: Yale U. P. 1960. [Library]

Morrison, Toni. “This Amazing, Troubling Book” in Stephen K George (ed) Ethics, Literature, Theory. Rowan and Littlefield, 2005. [Library]

Turner Frederick Jackson, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” U. of Virginia Hypertext.  [On-Line]

Warner, Dudley. Being a Boy. Boston: James R Osgood & Co., 1877. [Library]

Other Relevant Works

Clinch, John. Finn. Random House, 2008 [A prequel to Huck Finn)

Fisher Fishkin, Shelley. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. Oxford U P. 1994. [Excerpt in the Norton Edition of Huckleberry Finn]


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