Transcendentalism in Huckleberry Finn

The purpose of this blog is to explore the relationship between Transcendentalist ideas and the novel Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Question for Discussion: Transcendentalism Today

The ideas expressed by Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are addressed quite frequently in the novel Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Are these ideas still relevant in modern day life? If so, how can the Transcendentalist philosophy relate to life in the 21st century?

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature was an essay published anonymously in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This essay explores the relationship between humans and nature and describes the great importance of this connection.  

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is the essay Self-Reliance written by the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It was once said by the great writer Ernest Hemingway that, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn. (Hemingway)” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had an extremely important role in the defining of American Literature. But what was it that made Huckleberry Finn so unique in comparison to the works that came before it? What made this novel so special was the strong emphasis on individuality,

 an idea that was relevant to the relatively new independent country of America.  But this was not the first time that these ideas were addressed. Forty years earlier, the Transcendentalist movement “emphasized individual intuition as a central means of understanding reality.” (Quinn). These Transcendentalist ideas clearly had a powerful impact on Twain. Although many themes are explored in Huckleberry Finn, the most important theme of the novel is the struggle between individualism and society, an idea strongly influenced by Transcendentalism.

            Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement took place during the late 1820s and 1830s in the Eastern United States a protest against the general state of culture and society. Transcendentalists believe that people are inherently good and that society and its institutions corrupt the individual. In the eyes of transcendentalists such as, Ralph Waldo Emerson, people are ultimately at their best when they are “self-reliant” and independent.  Emerson was at the head of the movement and helped to bring the movement into the spotlight through his 1836 essay Nature. In Nature Emerson stated that “man and nature are indissolubly joined.” (Emerson, Nature). According to Emerson, society helps to widen the gap between man and nature.

            Emerson also called upon people to be individuals and resist conformity.  In his essay Self Reliance Emerson stated that “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (Emerson, Self-Reliance). To transcendentalists, social-conformity marked the death of the soul and was something to be avoided at all costs.

This social conformity is exactly what is being imposed on the young protagonist, Huckleberry Finn. On the very first page of the book Huck mentions that The Widow Douglas has taken him in “for her son” and is attempting to “sivilize” him. (Twain 1)  Already, Twain has introduced one of the major themes of the novel, the battle between the individual and society; the young boy Huckleberry Finn representing pure individuality and the elderly widow representing the overbearing pressures of society.

Mark Twain carefully chose to use a young boy as the protagonist of his novel in order to paint a picture of society from a fairly non-biased point of view. It is very possible that Twain was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance when making this narrative choice. In Self-Reliance Emerson states the following about children- “Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered.” (Emerson, Self- Reliance). This relates to Huckleberry Finn, because although has already been influenced by the world around him to some extent, in comparison with adults, his mind is still fairly open and impressionable. Huck is not completely convinced that many of ideas that are held by adults around him are true. He has not been overly influenced or brain washed to think in a certain way.  He is morally underdeveloped and because of this provides the perfect eyes for which to observe society through.

The novel begins as Huck is in the process of being converted into a “proper” member of society by the Widow Douglas and her sister Ms.Watson. He is forced to abandon his uncivilized ways and conform to the ways of upper class society. As the novel continues, Huck, while still resentful of the rules imposed upon him, is beginning to settle into his home with The Widow Douglas. All is well until Huck’s drunken father returns and eventually kidnaps Huck, forcing him to live with him in his cabin. Even though Huckleberry Finn is no longer under the watchful eye of the widow his individuality is still being suppressed. Instead of being told what to do by the supposedly high end of society, he is now being controlled by the polar opposite.

By showing the way in which Ms. Watson and the widow attempted to control Huck and then immediately afterwards showing Huck’s low life father attempting to manipulate him in the same way, Twain exposes the flaws of both ways of living. Although Watson and the widow hold the strong conviction that their way of life is the correct one, by forcing Huck to conform to their ways, they only prove that they are no different than Huck’s scumbag father, who attempts to pull Huck in the opposite direction. Deep down Huck knows that neither of these influences working in his best interest. He then goes on to fake his own death and escape from the clutches of his father. Once free, his true journey for individualism begins.

After escaping from his father’s cabin, Huck flees to Jackson Island to lay low for a while. While there he meets a slave named Jim, who has run away from Ms. Watson for fear of being sold away from his family. It is at this point in the novel where Huck’s inner battle begins. Although Huck has not been shaped completely into a racist individual, he is still a product of the South during the 1800s and is therefore infused with beliefs against African Americans. He is concerned with the legality and morality of befriending a slave. Deep in his heart Huck is drawn to helping Jim because he knows that it is the right thing to do. In contrast to this though, Huck feels immense shame due to the fact that he is helping a runaway slave which is extremely frowned upon in Southern society. This inner conflict is expressed by Huck when he tells Jim “people would call me a lowdown Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum- but that don’t make no difference. I aint going to tell” (Twain 41).  This is where Twain truly begins to explore Transcendentalism.

The fact that Huckleberry Finn actually feels guilty about doing something that the vast majority of people today would agree was clearly the better moral choice speaks volumes about the state of society at that time. The transcendentalist belief that society corrupts the individual is extremely apparent from this point in the novel onward. Although Huck knows through the use of individual logic and moral standards that he was born with that helping Jim is right he has the constant urge to turn Jim in due to the extent that he has been manipulated and ultimately corrupted by society.

Huckleberry Finn and Jim continue to live on the peaceful island until Huck learns that nearby citizens have noticed smoke coming from the island and are beginning to get suspicious. Huck and Jim take off down the Mississippi river on a raft. The Mississippi river is the ultimate symbol of freedom and individuality in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. On the raft Huck and Jim are free from the clutches of society. They do not have to answer to anyone. They simply let the river guide them to freedom. Jim is moving towards liberation from slavery and Huck is moving towards freedom from his abusive father and the overly controlling Ms. Watson.

Huckleberry Finn and Jim are abandoning society and its corrupt was and surrendering to nature. “The Transcendentalist approached the natural world not empirically but subjectively, in that truths were perceived through one’s own experience of the natural world, not through objective scientific information; through intuition, not formal learning” (Wayne). This approach is exemplified in Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s escape from society marks a rejection of traditional beliefs and “formal learning” and a greater acceptance of individual perception of nature and “intuition.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated in his essay Nature, nature “is the apparition of God… the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual and strives to lead the individual back to it” (Emerson, Nature). The Mississippi River represents nature, leading both Huckleberry Finn and Jim towards freedom and individuality.

They continue down the river for some time and come across a sinking steamboat on which they encounter robbers. Huckleberry and Jim manage to escape from the boat with the bandit’s loot. This encounter brings them closer together but it is not long before their friendship is tested.

One night thick fog engulfs the raft and makes it very difficult to see. They end up missing the mouth of the Ohio River and continue down the Mississippi River, further into slave territory. The pair runs into men who are searching for escaped slaves. Once again Huckleberry Finn is morally conflicted. He feels guilty about concraling stolen property, but again decides against turning Jim in. He tells the men that the man on the raft is his father who is suffering from smallpox. The men are eager to get away from the diseased man and leave without further questioning. Afterwards Huck reflects on the situation by saying

“They went off and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong…  Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give 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.” (Twain 87).

           

Much later in the novel Huck and Jim allow two con-men onto their raft. One of the men claims to be a duke and the other a dauphin. As the group moves down the river, the duke and dauphin stop at various locations along the way to scam people. Huck and Jim do not particularly like the two con-men, but realize that they ar powerless against the wishes of two white adults. Eventually the duke and dauphin prove themselves as men of absolutely no character by selling Jim to a farmer.

Huckleberry Finn soon learns where Jim is being held and is now faced with a predicament. He considers sending a letter to Ms. Watson to inform her of Jims location so that he would at least be returned to his family, but he soon decides against this due to the fact that Ms. Watson would probably sell Jim right back down the river. Huck is very upset about Jim being captured and comes to the conclusion that he is being punished by God for helping a runaway slave in the first place. He states on page 202,

“And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven,whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. (Twain, 202).”

 

This sentence is a great example of the Transcendentalist belief that society corrupts the individual. Huckleberry Finn’s environment has shaped him into believing that helping a slave is extremely wrong on a moral level. Twain masterfully satirizes the racist society that existed at the time by exposing how hypocritical it was. By using words that have strong negative connotations such as “wickedness” and “miserable” Twain is able to evoke a strong emotional response from the reader because they do not seem to fit the description of a young boy who is trying to help a friend. This allows the reader to become aware of how society can negatively affect the thoughts of the individual.

Huck continues to deliberate about what he should do about Jim. He even writes a letter to Ms. Watson explaining Jim’s location but once again decides against it in the following passage. “It was a close place. I took it up and held it in my hand. I was a trembling because I’d go to decide forever betwixt two things, I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.” (Twain 204). This marks the moral highpoint of the entire novel. It is in the moment when Huck states “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” That he truly makes a large stride towards individualism and self-reliance. Although Huck is well aware of the views held by society at the time he makes the choice to follow his own soul regardless if it means that he will be condemned to hell. This decision truly establishes Transcendentalism as the main theme of the novel.

 

 

 

 

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