The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Part 1: Crash Course Literature #302

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature, and today we’re on a raft, floating down the great American river, reading the great american novel. That’s right, today we’re going to be discussing Mark Twain’s the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway once said,
“It’s the best book we’ve had.” “All American writing comes from that,” he added, and then threatened to punch anyone who disagreed. He was such an American Ernest Hemingway! Mr. Green, Mr. Green! No, no, no, Hemingway
lived like half his life in France!? Well played, Me from the past, and he spent much of the rest of his life in Key West, which I also don’t think is really America. But anyway, Me From the Past, it doesn’t
matter where you hung out with F Scott Fitzgerald, it matters where you died, and Hemingway died
in Idaho, which is proper America! I’m sorry, what are we talking about today?
Huck Finn? [Theme Music] So, today we’ll look briefly at the creator of Huck Finn, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. A.K.A. Mark Twain. We’ll talk through the plot and what makes
the book so important in American literature, and why it’s still quite controversial. In our next video, we’ll explore some of the metaphors — the river, the raft — and talk about why when people call Huck Finn
the Great American Novel, they generally mean, “well, but not the last 50 pages.” So, Sam Clemens was born to a not especially prosperous family in Missouri in 1835, the sixth of seven children. His father died when he was 11. He quit school in the fifth grade.
He then became a printer’s apprentice. He would later go on to squander the fortune
he made writing by trying to reinvent printing. But by the age of 15, Clemens was writing funny articles and essays for the paper his brother owned, and he was hanging out in public libraries, reading whatever he could, still trying to give himself an education. And then, in 1859 he got a license to pilot steamboats, which is basically his boyhood dream, and that’s how he came to know the Mississippi River, which he wrote about in “Life on the Mississippi”, and again with passion and precision in “The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Apparently, a steamboat needs a certain depth
of water to run safely and so a sailor called a leadsman would throw a weighted rope over the side to measure the depth. That’s how he got his pen name. So right, Clemens got his license to pilot steam boats in 1859. Careful students of American history will know that, you know, something big was about to happen. In 1861 the American Civil War broke out, and Clemens volunteered for the Confederate side. That’s right, the man who wrote one of the great anti-slavery, anti-racist novels in American history was a Confederate soldier. For two weeks. He then decided war wasn’t for him, and
followed his brother West to the Nevada territory. You can read about all of this — the boats, the weird ragtag confederate militia he was in, Nevada. Twain never had an experience as a boy or
a young man that he didn’t mine for literature. Twain had his first great success in 1865
when he was 30 years old, with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County” and his writing career just hopped on steadily
after that I’m sorry. “Huckleberry Finn” though, was published
in 1884. It was a sequel to the “Adventures of Tom
Sawyer.” I have to say that although I am a huge fan of Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is not a great novel. In fact, I think it’s read today, mostly only for two reasons: One. Because it’s the prequel to Huck Finn, and two, because it’s considered somehow
less controversial than Huck Finn. Which it is, but it is also much less interesting. Right, so Huck Finn is one of those rare examples
— like Aliens or The Empire Strikes Back — where the sequel outclasses the original. At first, Twain had a hard time writing the
book. He began work in 1876 and wrote to a friend, “I like it only tolerably well…and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done.” And he did pigeonhole it for about six years, but then he returned to it in a frenzy of all-day, every day writing. Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunk, is the sidekick character in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” He lives rough and never has to go to school and is pretty much the envy of all the other boys. But at the end of that first book he agrees to go and live with the Widow Douglas and become “sivilized” so that he can join Tom Sawyer’s gang. The question of what constitutes “getting sivilized” is at the very center of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And so it begins right there, some time in the 1830s, a few decades before the Civil War. With Huck going to live with the widow. Huck, who narrates the book himself and is maybe 14 years old, doesn’t take well to what he’s told constitutes civilization. Nice clothes are itchy, table manners are
confusing, he doesn’t understand why the Widow is always trying to tell him Bible stories about dead people. He’s lonely in the house and his only fun
is sneaking off with Tom Sawyer. But all of that changes when his father, Pap,
kidnaps him and locks him in a shack. After an evening in which his drunken father
nearly kills him, Huck fakes his own death, escapes in a found
canoe, and paddles to a nearby island. Quick pause here to note that in the beginning of the novel, there are just these two ways of being and adult. The civilized way embodied by the widow. Which involves, like, clean clothes, and religion,
and institutional racism. And then the uncivilized way of being, embodied
by Huck’s father — which involves, like, terrible alcoholism, trying to kill your children, and institutional racism. But on the river island, away from both of
these models of adulthood, Huck encounters Jim, a slave who ran away when he learned that his mistress, the Widow’s sister, planned to sell him down the river, away from
his family. Now it’s critical to the novel to understand
that Huck believes that the right thing to do in this situation is not to assist an escaped
slave. He believes that the ethically correct thing
to do, the civilized thing to do, and also, by the way, the legal thing to do,
is to turn that escaped slave in. But in Jim, Huck finds a companion and, in
a lot of ways, a surrogate father. And so there’s an immediate tension between
what Huck calls his conscience, which is the social order, telling him that
he ought to turn this escaped slave in, and his actual conscience, which is saying,
“hmmm maybe not.” But when Huck learns that Jim is suspected of Huck’s murder and that men are hunting him for a reward, he says to Jim: “Git up and hump yourself,
Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose. They’re after us!”
And that “us” is really important. It’s only Jim they are after, but this makes
it clear Huck has decided to team up with Jim. From that moment they set out on the raft,
and their adventures really begin. They face all kinds of dangers and meet all
kinds of people — some nice, some sinister — and get into all sorts of trouble before they
team up with Tom Sawyer again and Tom devises an elaborate and cruel plan
to win Jim his freedom. What Tom knows, but Huck don’t, is that Jim is already free, his mistress freed him on her deathbed. So, in the end, Tom forces Jim to undergo an ordeal that’s just Tom’s nasty idea of a good time. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not
immediately recognized as a great novel. A lot of the early reviews weren’t terrific and there were several attempts to ban it on the grounds that it would corrupt any young person who read it. The Concord Public Library called it “trashy
and vicious.” But pretty soon there was widespread recognition
of the novel’s importance. Some of this has to do with plotting, and
some of it has to do with style and language. Like, Lionel Trilling, in one of the most
famous essays on Huckleberry Finn, argued that it was the language that really
sets the book apart. Before Huckleberry Finn pretty much all the
American writers thought that if you were writing an important book it had to be formal and high-flown, like James Fennimore Cooper. Twain, by the way, hated James Fenimore Cooper’s
books. If you ever want a good read, you should look
up “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” It’s a Twain essay that includes lines like:
“Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ in the restricted
space of two thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary
art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” But, unlike ‘The Deerslayer,’ the language of Huckleberry Finn is deliberately down to earth. It’s casual, it’s ungrammatical, it’s frequently
and deliberately misspelled. The genius of the book, Trilling wrote, “has something to do with the ease and freedom of the language. Most of all it has to do with the structure of the sentence, which is simple, direct and fluent, maintaining the rhythm of the word groups of speech, and the intonations of the speaking voice.” Right. At its best, Mark Twain’s writing
sounds like talking. Which is, of course, much harder than it seems, and it signaled a real watershed moment in American literature. Let’s Go to the Thought Bubble. What makes the book truly significant is its treatment of the relationship between Huck, a poor white boy, and Jim, an enslaved African-American man. Twain may have written this book after the
Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but America was and of course, is a nation
deeply shaped by racism, so the friendship between the two characters and the emergent moral intelligence that it foists upon Huck are what really makes the book unusual. As we saw, Huck first throws in his lot with
Jim when they’re still on the island, but throughout their journey Huck struggles with the idea of what it means to help a runaway slave, and what it means to treat Jim as a comrade
and a friend. This is partly due to Huck’s conscience,
which is telling him over and over that he’s going to go to actual Hell for helping Jim. But in the beginning of the book, Huck can
be quite cruel to Jim. Early in the book, he and Tom Sawyer play a trick on Jim, hanging his hat in a tree so that Jim, who is very superstitious, thinks that witches
have taken it, which Jim is very proud of. But later in the book, Huck tries to pull
another prank, making Jim think that his fear that Huck was
lost in the fog was only a dream. But Jim knows it’s a trick he tells Huck that people who try to make others feel ashamed are trash. Now, of course, Huck is an expert at tricks
and telling lies. Through the book he never uses the same name or the same origin story with any two people he meets and the people almost always believe him. Well, except for when he dresses up as a girl.
He’s really bad at being a girl. But on the raft Huck learns that you can’t
trick the people you care about. So Huck feels ashamed for trying to trick
Jim, and eventually works himself up to apologize. He says, and I’m quoting selectively here, “I done it, and I weren’t ever sorry for it afterwards neither.” Thanks, Thought Bubble.
And on the topic of me selectively quoting, we now need to take a short break to talk about the language that Twain uses to describe Jim. You know what?
Let’s just do this as an open letter. Let’s see what’s in the secret compartment
today. Oh! It’s Mark Twain. I like your suit, buddy. Hi Mark Twain, it’s
me, John Green. First off, big fan. Secondly, in your novel, ‘The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn,’ Huck and other characters use the n-word,
to describe Jim many, many times. This is the reason most often cited for the
banning of your book here in the 21st century, so it’s important to talk about. And it’s important to understand that when you were writing the book, it was already an offensive term. Like, abolitionists had been arguing that we should use the term person of color as early as 1825. And since your work is no longer protected
by copyright, editions have been published of Huckleberry
Finn in which that word is changed. But whether or not you, personally were racist,
Mark Twain, your book, I would argue, isn’t. According to the scholar David L. Smith, the
word, quote, “establishes a context against which Jim’s specific virtues may emerge as explicit refutations of racist presuppositions.” It’s really important to understand that
although Huck seems like a pretty good kid, the social order has taught him to dehumanize
Jim. To treat him as property, rather than as a person, but Jim’s humanity forces Huck to contend with him as a person. And that’s what makes your book so, so good. Best Wishes.
John Green. It’s this recognition of Jim’s humanity that leads Huck, in the climactic scene in Chapter 16, to break with all the morality and religion
he knows. When he learns that Jim’s plan is to gain his freedom and gain the freedom of his wife and children, Huck writes a letter informing his mistress,
but then he tears it up. Huck has been taught to confuse social law
with divine law. And he sincerely believes that helping a slave
is a terrible sin that will lead to damnation. And he has been with the Widow long enough
that Hell is a real place for him, but he ultimately decides that it doesn’t
matter. He will risk damnation if it means he can
help Jim. He tears up the letter, saying,
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell… It was awful thoughts and awful words, but
they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought
no more about reforming.” Huck rejects what he has been told is civilization, while also rejecting his father’s version of uncivilization, and for me at least, that’s why he’s a
hero. As Twain said in his lectures, Huckleberry
Finn is a book “where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” And that’s where we’ll leave Huck and
his sound heart for today — unreformed, unrepentant, realizing that he has to follow his own moral path, whatever the risks. And maybe that’s where Twain should have
left it, too. But instead, we get a jumbled mess of an ending
that is often criticized, but which I will do my best to defend next
week. Crash Course is produced with the help of
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You can get lots of great perks. Thank you again for watching. And as we say
in my hometown: Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

100 Replies to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Part 1: Crash Course Literature #302

  1. i read huck finn when i was like 10 and had no clue about the context, history, meaning or importance of it. looks like it's time for an overdue re-read~

  2. While I was unfamiliar with Huckleberry Finn, I knew enough about Samuel Clemens to know he wasn't racist indeed the opposite. When I heard the politically correct groups complain I suspected ignorance. Hearing about the letter makes perfect sense and confirms my believe in Mark Twain. Huck returns to the socially acceptable attitude and language then rejects it thereby showing the reader that they should do the same. It has also confirmed my belief that the pc crowd has on more than one occasion been hypersensitive, ignorant, and silly. Case in point is renaming the word "hipster".

  3. Hold on! I know this was just a throwaway aside, but sequels – especially in cinema – are oftentimes better than the original. Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan, Spider-Man 2 (Toby MacGuire ver.), Mad Max 2, Terminator 2, Godfather 2, The Dark Knight, Evil Dead 2. The list goes on and on.

  4. yeah I see how a staple of capitalism kills "fascists". so here's a question: why are you still alive? socialism is another name for fascism. I know I lived through it's inevitable downfall

  5. I'm just guessing/making an inference here but I think Twain was on the confederate side because he was a regionalist and thought a more united union would mean that each state would have less of an individual identity.

  6. I read Huck Finn in my junior English class and before we started reading my teacher passed out passages from the book and we spent an entire class period discussing the language. This helped me appreciate the book more than anything. If she had not done that and drawn us into the book that way, I might have never even started reading it. But Huck Finn has since become a book close to my heart for its clever writing/hilarious dialouge, satire, development of the characters, and so much more. Gosh now I want to read it again.

  7. Did… did John Green just interact with John from the Past without yelling at him? I… I need to reexamine my views of the universe…

  8. I don't know what it is,but I liked The Adventures of Tom Sawyer much more than Huck Finn,maybe it was the perspective or maybe I couldn't sense as much of a plot in Huck Finn as I did in Tom Sawyer,which Twain does warn the readers about.

  9. Thank you SO much for creating this video. It is really going to help me understand the feel of the time.. trying not to fail my A Levels :3

    For my second literature exam this year it focuses on American literature between 1880-1940.. need to read a few books but I don't know if I'll be able really understand the era with the little amount of time
    This is going to be really helpful 🙂 Thanks again

  10. You know you've created a masterpiece when, throughout 130 some-odd years, someone always tries to ban your book for one reason or another. Back then it was because it portrayed black people as fully-realized humans. Later, because it described terrible scenes of slavery, child abuse and murder. And now, because of the "n-word". Mark Twain just hits the raw American nerve over and over and over again. This is why it's the Great American Novel–it pisses off so many Americans for so many different reasons. That and the incredible language Mark Twain utilizes.

  11. John Green, I respect you immensely and truly admire your intelligence and the way you put things like literature and history in such great perspective. That being said, you lost couple points from me for inferring Aliens is better than Alien.

  12. This book is not brilliant or a masterpiece. It's a ham-fisted attempt at a political statement jam packed with satire that lacks any sembalence of subtlety that it fails to be entertaining in any way. Twain threw these pages together without any craft or skill, leaving a disjointed mess that could not decide what point it wanted to spell out in large bold font. You can love this book like it's your own mother, I won't try to take that away from you, but don't tell me it's some great masterpiece. It's garbage.

  13. For foreigners the book is a master class on the most racist modern history era of USA. While in others latitudes slavery were abolished thru smart reasoning and humility (to some of course, brutality and ignorance will never fully vanish) in the USA as the first democracy and so on slavery even though only in the south, were praised. SHAME on those gringos!! yes feel proud to have elected the STUPIDEST american president ever!!

  14. I just want to know the episode chapter time stamps… my English teacher assigned this over the summer… I'm sooo confused. And it dosen't help… that we haven't even read Tom Sawyer first. Ugh, I have a headache. Can someone help!?

  15. Wait, so you admit that ending was a mess. You said it was awfull and controversial and doomed and yet you say you are gonna stand up for it and defend it?. What are you, a confederate soldier?.

  16. John Green, you are a great host! I enjoy every episode. (Although, it wouldn't hurt to shave.)(And maybe get a decent haircut.) You're a great host!

  17. I don't get praising Twain for writing in a style that's more like the actual way that people talk, specifically a young, ignorant, southern boy in 1884, then have a problem that he uses the n-word. Even if at the time people realized it was offensive you would have to keep in mind how slowly information traveled at the time and how uneducated lots of people were as well.

  18. Funny, I’ve always preferred the story of Tom Sawyer much better than the story of Huck Finn. To me it just felt more relatable than wild adventures on a raft. Which is probably why you like the latter story better. I just connected better with the first story so have always preferred that one.

  19. Twain wrote the greatest novel in American literature to satirize institutional racism. And this self-loathing white liberal still questions if the author is racist.

  20. I will go to the mat for Tom Sawyer, even though it isn’t as ambitious as Huck Finn, it’s a great read and one of my favorite books. While it isn’t as great as Huck Finn I think it’s still worth reading.

  21. Doesn’t he realize that turning in Jim is the “right” thing to do way after they’ve been together” Huck said he’d keep Jim’s secret when they first met and that he meant it. It wasn’t until Jim was almost a free man and was talking about “steeling” his wife and kids away from the slave owners.

  22. Lol i had to write an essay on if Twain was successfully anti racist or not at first o said he wasn’t them half way through writing the essay I changed my mind but was to lazy to change it and had everything I needed to write so I wrote an essay on something I didn’t believe

  23. Crazy. I can't imagine reading a censored version… What's the point? I read the unedited version, along with Tom Sawyer, with my kids at 11 and 12. Sparked a lot of nuanced conversations, felt uneasiness, laughed a lot, were saddened, felt happy… Really takes you on a journey (we loved both) and I feel like to censor it, you won't be on as much of a realistic journey. Life is painful, and full of horrible mistakes. Going through all of it as a reader is a safe way to learn and grow. To watch your kids go from laughing to realizing something turned really shitty on some occasions… sparks an acknowledgement of how complex life really is.

  24. I would like to point out that language is not the issue, but how we interpret it. And the choices in the words we use and the way we use them have impact, are significant in what we write. It shows how we think about things, how our characters think about things, and how we thought of things at the time. If we think of someone in a certain way, it doesn't make sense to phrase it differently because that changes the meaning.

  25. Im following everything I can about Mark Twain. This Crash Course in Literature is brilliant. Thanks x

  26. I prefer this book to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it's more action packed and varied because it is set in a range of different places, not just the one town and its environs. Plus Huck is more likable than Tom Sawyer, who is a brat.

  27. I couldn't disagree more with your dismissal of Tom Sawyer. The book is sweet, subtle and deceptively complex. I find Huck Finn to be unfocused and bombastic by comparison.

  28. John Green, you are honestly just as much of a legendary author yourself as Mark Twain, and you should be proud ^^

  29. I still don't know what the plot of the story is. I watched the movie as a kid. All I remember is tim the tool man Taylors son reaching for gold. Can't find a simple story.

  30. I was wondering why this is reffered to as the best American novel and why John Green like it so much. For me Mr. Green is an authority in this field, but I do not agree with him this time. Excellant rhetorics as ever and good job of the crew. But I think this novel is super overrated.
    I think it is a trash
    Bad boy kids adventures, racism and religion. I do not understand how inteligent contemporary aduld people shoud be interested in this plot.
    The illiterate, slangy, easy style of the author do not sound impresive. Sounds even more trashy.
    If I was an editor I would definitely reject to publish this novel.

  31. The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn is the story of my life, if Jim was a gay man and Huck was a closeted gay man, and Jim and Huck started dating. I am Huck.

  32. First off, Mr. Green, I think You and Your videos are fantastic and You deserve all the praise You get. BUT, the fact You discarded Alien in regards to Aliens akin to discarding Tom Sawyer in regards to Huck Finn, is very disconcerting and I disagree strongly

  33. That was one of my best favorite books, but after these "All right then, I'll go to hell" stuff I realized I wasn't adult enough back then to realize whole heroism of Hack. And also I think it the best books when you think they are great both in 10 and in x*10 years ))

  34. I agree w/ you so hard. I haven't even finished it yet, & I like it so much less since Tom Sawyer showed up. He, is a real A-hole.

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