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Storytelling Lecture, Huckleberry Finn

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 4 (From the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

(JayJay here. I posted this blog straight from the transcript, but once Jim got a bit of a break, he touched it up. Here is his edited version.)

I like Mark Twain. He was good. Take Huckleberry Finn for example. That’s a great piece of writing. It’s about this boy, Huck, who has been taught since birth that certain people are property, they have no rights, no worth except as slaves, and if you help one of them run away or you let one of them escape, you’re going to hell because it’s evil to do so. In the story, Twain makes this clear, so we understand the situation, the status quo, and of course he introduces the characters. We read about the disruptive element that sends this story into motion—both Jim the slave and Huck are driven by circumstances to run away.  They fall in together, and travel down the Mississippi on a raft. The conflicts that are raised are wonderfully interesting, and Twain brings the characters alive so well, that we really relate to them.

If you think about Huckleberry Finn, as Huck and Jim travel down the river, everything that they encounter brings the problem into focus. The evidence of Huck’s eyes tells him that this guy Jim is the best man he ever met, like a father to him. Everything he was taught says the guy’s property and should be turned in. Every single event further underscores the folly of what Huck was taught.

It’s never heavy-handed.  The events that happen along the way are dramatic, funny and sometimes poignant.  But, think about it, every single one relates to Huck’s dilemma, and Twain’s insight.

And, oh, by the way, think about this.  Jim, alone, would be an obvious runaway,  would be caught and harshly dealt with.  With Huck, presumably his “owner,” he’s safer.  On the other hand, the river is carrying them ever deeper south—not the best plan for escapee Jim. Tension builds…. 

Down the river a ways they run into the Duke and the Dauphin. Now, they didn’t run into a rodeo cowboy and a hooker, they ran into the “Duke” and the “Dauphin”—two guys who were ostensibly superior beings to Huck, just as Huck is ostensibly superior to Jim the slave. The Duke and the Dauphin are royalty. And we have a whole adventure with the Duke and the Dauphin. We find out that it’s nonsense—that these guys are phonies, driving again home the point to Huck to forget what you’ve been told about people, there is a dignity in man that transcends the station that we assign to him. That a person’s true worth is not determined by a title, be it king or slave. 

Remember what happens to the Duke and the Dauphin? They get tarred, turned black.

So Huck and Jim get down to New Orleans and Huck finally has to decide what to do because there’s a problem. There’s Jim and he’s found a way out, a way to freedom.  He’s heading for a boat will take him away. Huck knows that if he doesn’t yell to a nearby cop, “Get this guy, he’s a runaway slave!” that he, Huck, is going to hell. This is the watershed moment in his life. He has that moment and he says, “So be it. I’ll go to hell.” That’s the climax folks. The resolution is that Jim gets away, just like Little Miss Muffet.

So, back to Miss Muffet—you could add all kinds of stuff to a story to make it better. Action, humor, car chases, whatever. But, if you have some insight, something to say, an observation on the human condition—If you really have what Mark Twain had and you can bring some new light to the world, then it makes it a great story.

Ask a hundred people what Huckleberry Finn is about, and at least 99 will say it’s about two guys floating down a river on a raft. But that’s not it. It’s about human dignity and equality. Its insights are so subtly implanted, its wisdom so deeply imbued that it communicates them almost by stealth, while entertaining brilliantly. Huckleberry Finn will live forever and stealthily bring home its point to people for thousands of years.

That’s where we’re trying to go if we are writers. That’s what you want to do. I’ve been trying to find something worth saying for 29 years. I’m no Mark Twain and I haven’t done it yet, but that’s what we should all strive for. That’s what you got to go for. If you aim high you might hit it.

it raises in Huck is really what makes this interesting, and really what relates to us. It brings that insight that makes this story live forever.



Even More Questions and Answers


Storytelling Lecture, Structure – Part 1


  1. Yep! I look for that "I'll go to hell" moment in other work and strive to achieve that revelation in my own.

    And you should never go longer than 2 years without rereading Huck! 😉

  2. Right. It was Pikesville. Looked it up. And it was tearing up the letter that accompanied the "…I'll go to hell." So long since I read that book.

  3. Excellent points! Love Huck! I use it in my 101 classes often.

    Huck and Jim never made it to New Orleans, though. 🙂

  4. Thanks for this!

  5. Dear Jim,

    Relieved you feel the same way I do about revisionism. I can't believe a Twain scholar is responsible for this monstrosity. A degree is not a license to mutilate.

  6. Dear Marc (re: What do you think of the new edition of Huckleberry Finn with altered language?)

    I hate it. Take it in the context of the times.

  7. @ Flying tiger – Sad but true. I have to agree thats the road we are headed down. When I went to Greece a few yrs ago on my Honeymoon there were some stark differences in attitude from life here in the States… The steps leading up to the Parthenon were worn and slick.. the Greek solution was to pour unformed (unfinished) cement on them for better traction. The rails on the steps were wide.. wider than benches actually folks were sitting toddlers toddling and could have an EASY fall over a steep drop. The point is folks were supposed to KNOW to look out for themselves and not have some Gov't entity with a pacifier standing by.

  8. All of which makes the censorship of Huckleberry Finn not only bitterly ironic but a sign that Ray Bradbury's 451F naziverse is coming true. 🙁

  9. Dear Jim,

    I read HUCKLEBERRY FINN in eighth grade. Even by then, I avoided preachy stories. The kind that had "MESSAGE!" in neon-red letters pasted upon a skeleton of a plot. But HUCKLEBERRY FINN didn't feel like one of those. Huck wasn't a generic Lecturing Good Guy. He was, in fact, a "bad" boy. Kids don't like being lectured to. Who does? But they can identify with a rebel (not to be confused with a self-conscious hipster). Huck's adventures – not some paste-on speech – drive the message home. Insight is hard, but the integration of insight and fiction is harder.

    Even though it's hard for us to see the book through 19th century eyes, it's still controversial today. What do you think of the new edition of Huckleberry Finn with altered language?

  10. The first time I ever saw this, I was amazed at how dense I had been regarding the subtleties of Huck Finn. Thanks so much for pointing it out. As a writer myself, I love this kind of stuff.

    The only thing I disagree with is your statement that you have yet to write anything worth saying on the human condition. You've written plenty, in fact some as recently as these Blog posts. Keep up the great work!

  11. Thanks for sharing this series, Jim. Is there any way you could do a similar series about being a publisher? With webcomics and self publishing still considered viable options for some, it would be nice to know your advice on that front. Namaste.

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