Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 01/06/2015
My Rating: 4 Stars
A provocative, exuberant, and deeply researched investigation into Mark Twain’s writing of Huckleberry Finn, which turns on its head everything we thought we knew about America’s favorite icon of childhood.
In Huck Finn’s America, award-winning biographer Andrew Levy shows how modern readers have been misunderstanding Huckleberry Finn for decades. Twain’s masterpiece, which still sells tens of thousands of copies each year and is taught more than any other American classic, is often discussed either as a carefree adventure story for children or a serious novel about race relations, yet Levy argues convincingly it is neither. Instead, Huck Finn was written at a time when Americans were nervous about youth violence and “uncivilized” bad boys, and a debate was raging about education, popular culture, and responsible parenting — casting Huck’s now-celebrated “freedom” in a very different and very modern light. On issues of race, on the other hand, Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded. In Levy’s vision, Huck Finn has more to say about contemporary children and race that we have ever imagined—if we are willing to hear it.
An eye-opening, groundbreaking exploration of the character and psyche of Mark Twain as he was writing his most famous novel, Huck Finn’s America brings the past to vivid, surprising life, and offers a persuasive—and controversial—argument for why this American classic deserves to be understood anew.
A special thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece delivers an exploration of the character with a fresh new contemporary look of the American literary Classic Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Have we missed some critical points in the classic and controversial novel over the years?
“Maybe we have misread Huck Finn on matters of race and children especially, for the same reason we repeat the cultural and political schema of the Gilded Age-because the appealing idea that every generation is better off than the one before conceals our foreboding that we live in a land of echos. And yet we read, after all these years, because the foreboding speaks to us anyway. “
There was a serious debate about how to raise and educate children in the American 1880s. Twain was contributing something more than a lighthearted boy’s book to that debate. He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at-risk children, and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor. There was also a serious debate about the future of race relations in the American 1880s, as well. But possibly not as much a part of it as we tend to think.
Twain offered Huck Finn to a country where parents, educators, and politicians worried that children, especially boys were too exposed to violent media, that they were too susceptible to amoral market forces that made them violent themselves. The twenty-first century reader lives in a country worried about the exact same things, only with fresher media. In fact, Levy reiterates the debate over children has changed so little over the last century.
In this light, it matters that we have been misreading Huck Finn because that misreading is both wasted opportunity and metaphor for our larger failure to recognize our close relation to the past.
Richly researched, well-developed and insightful, Levy dives into controversial issues of race, violence, and parenting. Levy brings to light Twain’s focus on race was less about civil rights than the role of race in entertainment and culture. Levy reveals sides of the 1884 fiction that few of us ever noticed.
A fascinating re-discovery and thought-provoking narrative, Andrew Levy breathes new life into an American classic, giving modern readers a fresh understanding of Huck Finn's colorful world.
Recommended for fans of Twain, African and American history, American literature, and books about writers and books about books.