An Analysis Of Transcendentalism In Huckleberry Finn By Mark Twain
An individual can inspire great things. Today, one of America’s biggest literary inspirations remains to be the beloved The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by one of the most popular American authors, Samuel Longhorn Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain. Many Americans acknowledge Twain as one of the greatest American authors of all time, whose classic works are still being read across schools in America. Celebrated authors such as Ernest Hemmingway have acknowledged The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since” (Ulin). Is it possible that while writing this cherished novel, Twain was inspired by another individual or idea new to the 19th century? While writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain used ideas and moral traits in his characters that mirror those of the transcendentalist philosophy.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows Jim, a black runaway slave, and his companion, a young, white, Huck Finn as they drift down the Mississippi River. They leave their old lives to start anew and to find the American dream. On their journey, Huck shows his self-reliant, non-conformist, and individualistic ways, which leads many to think that Mr. Twain wrote Huck as a transcendentalist.
What is transcendentalism? Transcendentalism is a philosophy developed in late 1820’s by American Ralph Waldo Emerson that explains the balance between Nature, Man, and God. Transcendentalism is a philosophy developed in New England that reasoned that for one to understand reality, one must first understand life through experience. It’s all about experience, about how the individual interacts with nature and fellow humans. It’s a philosophy that teaches that you cannot trust what is believed to be true by large groups of people (i.e., society), but you can only believe what you yourself have learned.
In many of his works, Emerson explores this relationship, and how every man and part of nature had a divine spirit that could only come from God.
Nature is clearly represented in this novel through the Mississippi River. The mighty Mississippi is one of the main settings of the novel, along with its surrounding towns, and serves as almost a character unto itself.Huckleberry Finn and Jim travel down the river in search of one thing: Freedom. The Mississippi, this natural force that gives life to all who lives and works near it, represents freedom to this odd duo, Huck and Jim. While the river represents freedom, it also shows the balance of power between man and nature. The river clearly has a power over Huck and Jim, ultimately controlling where they go.
While the river is a controlling force throughout the novel, Mr. Twain focuses on the transcendentalist ideas of man – namely, whether man conforms to what society wants or follows his own path. Mr. Emerson wrote: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind" (Mattix). This quote sums up the non-conformist ideas of the philosophy. Emerson believes that the people of the past built upon their own experiences with the universe, and one must form their own understanding. No other ideas, from any group are as important as those from your own mind. One must not conform to society’s ideas of the ideal individual, but with one’s own goals and dreams. Huck certainly demonstrates this, especially within the first few chapters of the book.
In the very beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has moved in with an old woman, Widow Douglas, and her sister, Miss Watson. Both sisters try their very hardest to change Huck into a refined member of society. Huck tells readers that “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son… allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living” (3). The Widow and Miss Watson want to turn Huck into the boy they always wanted. There’s no denying that they were trying to do some good for Huckleberry. They provided him with a roof over head, food, and all of the means to live a civilized life (according to them). But in doing so, they were forcing Huck into being someone he was not. They tried to educate him, put him in stuffy clothing, and made him follow table etiquette. One could argue that an education and some manners would be a good thing for an impolite, racist like Huck, but this was not important to him.
One of Emerson’s main points was that “the responsibility of each citizen is to the self rather than to an outside authority” (Self-reliance for students). Huck did not care, or want the things the Widow and Miss Watson (the outside authorities) were offering. He wanted to live as his true self, and by making his own decisions about his life, it was possible for him to take responsibility for himself.
Some contend that Huckleberry fighting against a proper upbringing and an education is not what Emerson had in mind. He was Harvard educated philosopher and teacher, writing: “Transcendentalism emphasized the need for social reform that would lead the individual to self-reliance, and education was seen as the surest way to permanent and progressive reform” (Pemberton). So Emerson did see education as a very important part of individuality, but above this, he believed that following your own ideals was most important. Emerson's idea in “The American Scholar” is that “action—along with nature… is essential to human education” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In short, experience is education. Isn’t that what Huck was doing? Throughout his journey, this young man was gaining life experience – making friends, dealing with people, making decisions – giving him the only education he really needed.
After escaping Miss Watson and the Widow, Huck went out to live with his father, Pap, in the woods. After realizing that life with Pap was terrible, Huck finds his way out of the locked house, faking his death to make sure no one would come looking for him. He travels to the small Jackson Island where he runs into Miss Watson’s runaway slave, Jim.
After running into Jim, with whom he is familiar, they decide to travel together down the Mississippi. Huck soon finds out that Jim is being blamed for Huck’s “murder” back in their home town. Here is the dilemma that follows Huck throughout the book: Does he conform to society’s norms and do the “right” thing (in this case, turn in the runaway slave), or does he stick to his own beliefs (Jim wasn’t such a bad guy and he knows he did not murder Huck)?
Huck deals with a lot of internal turmoil. As Huck starts to travel with Jim, he starts to feel bad about taking Miss Watson’s runaway slave. “What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her n* go off right under your eyes and not say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you could treat her so mean” (85), Huck wondered. Why was Huck thinking this? Could it be that society corrupted his thought? Huck’s society taught him that slavery was good and that a runaway slave should be returned to its owner, but… Jim would surely be killed if he was returned, which Jim didn’t deserve. The ways that Huck had been taught had started to catch up with him, and he felt bad. Huck was at a cross roads –he certainly didn’t want to turn Jim in, for Jim was never mean to him, but neither was Miss Watson, she even had tried to help him. Huck even found some slave hunters nearby with the intent of turning Jim in, but changes his mind at the last second.
He decided to not turn in Jim. Jim had called Huck “de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had… de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.”(87). Huck is a new sort of friend to Jim, and Jim a new sort of friend to Huck. Huck isn’t like those other white men that Jim has met, because he conforms only to his own standards. Huck struggles with his decision and asks himself had he given “Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now.”(89) Huck recognizes both sides, as he had been raised to be biased against other races, but he also recognizes that the one side is wrong. Either way he would feel bad, but he knew that he should act according to what he thought was right, not to what the society of the early 1800s said was right.
On their way along the river, the pair runs into two con men. These two men call themselves the Duke and the Dauphin, claiming they were royalty. Huck immediately recognizes that they were frauds. Huck and Jim travel down the river with the Duke and the Dauphin, conning different towns every week, such as putting on plays that were not worth their admission price. In one town they travel to, the Duke and Dauphin impersonate a recently deceased man’s brothers in order to collect their inheritance.
Huck did not trust or like the two, but simply thought that as the adults, they had authority. So, Huck followed their lead for a while. Huck and Jim made some money to live working with and for the con artists, but Huckleberry’s suspicions about the trustworthiness of the conmen came true. They sold Jim to a farm, once again leaving Huck in a tricky predicament.
What to do? Huck debates whether he should rescue Jim himself or write a letter to Miss Watson, notifying her of Jim’s whereabouts. Huck decides to write out an entire letter giving away Jim’s location, but after he writes the letter he thinks “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him” (206). He tears the letter apart saying “All right, then I’ll go to hell… no more about reforming” (206). Once again, Twain’s transcendentalist tendencies show through – Huck was using his own mind, and not conforming to what “should be done.” This choice clearly mirrors one made through using ideals of a transcendentalist philosophy.
Twain’s use of Huckleberry, a boy of about twelve years old, also speaks directly to the novel’s transcendentalist thought. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in one of his most famous works “Self-Reliance,” writes: “Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered.” Children are an important part of the transcendentalist philosophy: they have not been fully persuaded or corrupted by society’s values and beliefs. Huckleberry Finnclearly represents this. He does not let the views of those around him affect him, as he is truly an individual.
Clearly, this novel had an emphasis on individuality. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took inspiration from the very new (to the time) philosophical movement. Overall, along Huckleberry’s journey, it is clear he took on standard transcendentalist morals, or that, at least, Mark Twain took on some inspirations while writing this classic that came from transcendentalism, and its most important figures, such as Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this novel, Mr. Mark Twain clearly was inspired by transcendentalism in the way that, Huck shows his self-reliant, non-conformist, and individualistic ways.