The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

Autobiography of Mark Twain and Huck
—In Search of a Voice of Freedom

Kaoru Murata
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

2010 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and the 100th anniversary of his death. Although Autobiography of Mark Twain was banned by the author from publication for a century following his death, the first volume (of an anticipated set of three), along with detailed commentary, was published in November 2010 by the University of California Press. However, much of this section of his autobiography has already been circulated in print.

At the same time as this book was published, all the texts, including notes, were posted online*1. Autobiography, instructed to be kept from the public domain for a century, thus became accessible the world over in an instant, which no doubt would have brought a wry smile to Twain. Even so, why did the author, who acknowledged that many of his works were largely autobiographical, feel the need for an autobiography on such a heroic scale? It is almost as if Samuel Clemens were hoping, through recounting numerous episodes he had experienced, to make the fictitious character Mark Twain live forever in our minds.

Freedom acquired through a pen name

Autobiography was kept out of the public domain for 100 years out of consideration for the people who were the target of his satirical humor and bitter criticism. What is interesting here is the circumstances of his refraining from using his real name in the title, and there was a behind-the-scenes account of his struggles. Twain thought it was vitally important to avoid using a real name when it came to writing an autobiography.

In a letter he exhorts; “you must banish all idea of an audience […] you must tell your story to yourself, & to no other […] you must not use your own name, for that would keep you from telling shameful things, too.”

The freedom a pen name brings was essential for his autobiography. By using a pseudonym, Twain's imagination could roam ever more freely—and no one serves as a better example of this than Huckleberry Finn. By adopting the name of Huckleberry, Twain was able to produce a masterpiece which can be deemed a landmark in the world of literature.

Voices viewed as oppression

As his efforts to write his autobiography show, Twain was obsessed with freely expressing his inner self. While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Twain's crowning achievement, the problem of free expression—wherein the voices of others who have penetrated his being become instruments of self-censorship—is revealed in the most important part of this work. Huck, who helps a black slave named Jim to escape (a felony in those days) and goes down the Mississippi on a raft, begins secretly to contemplate divulging Jim's whereabouts when cornered (Chapter 31). The multiple voices of his “conscience” wildly echo in his mind, blaming him for being a party to the escape of a slave. Huck is left with no other course of action but to give in to this, and he reveals where Jim is in a letter. However, realizing that Jim is a person he cannot do without, he cries out “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears up the letter.

In fact, the voices of the conscience which condemn Huck are not his own, but rather they are the voices of the grown-ups in his hometown—that is, the voices of people intolerant of a slave’s escape. Yet, it is the reader who is able to make this distinction, not Huck.

Perhaps we all have voices inside which serve to censor us, but it is almost impossible to distinguish clearly which are our own and which are the voices of others. First of all, what is our own voice? And what is our own language? Can anyone answer this with certainty?

Freedom through adventures of language

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been generally read as a harsh critique of slavery and racial discrimination. Such a reading, however, explains little of its brilliant spectrum of literary significance. Undoubtedly, reading with an awareness of the voices of others which afflict Huck, and of the process by which he acquires his own language and inner voice, also makes for an adventure. The verbal abuse and vicious rhetoric of his alcoholic father, the tedious Bible education of his adoptive guardians and of church Sunday school, the language of Tom, who controls others with his knowledge of adventure novels, and monstrous lies told by the swindlers—despite absorbing such poisonous language, Huck somehow manages to find his own linguistic way forward.

Escaping from his town is not enough for Huck to secure his freedom. He is truly bound by the heavy rope of language and he cannot be free unless this rope is loosened. It is the language of the fugitive slave Jim and his love that rescue him from his hard-fought battle against the language of violence, control, manipulation and intrigue, and thus Huck and Jim form a relationship by which they save one another. It is not obvious to Huck what a great deal he learns from Jim. This is perhaps because Huck is the narrator and much interpretation is purposely left to the reader.

Huck also learns a lot from the process of giving himself to the wilderness that is the Mississippi, and his narration is tinged with euphoria at those joyful times when his observations and perceptions are converted into language. In a manner of speaking, the Mississippi is a place of immeasurable self-education. The night storm, the roll of thunder, dawn, the changes in the river's flow; Huck puts all his new experiences into words. So, to sum up, together with the never-ending homeless state resulting from running away on a raft, the danger, insecurity and even boredom are all trials essential for Huck to achieve the full realization of true boyhood.

The possibility of simple vernacular language and colloquial literary style is the greatest influence this work has had on subsequent generations, and one is ever impressed by Twain's prodigious power of monosyllabic narrative, which breaks fresh ground. The fact that the penniless Huck is freer than anyone emanates from his style of narration.*2 The origin of the human experience of language—awakening something unnoticed until it is expressed in words—becomes evident and is freshly recreated.

Since the novel is narrated by Huck throughout, the reader may get the impression that he never ceases to talk. But every now and then Huck stops talking all of a sudden, followed by eloquent silence. In such silence, Huck seems to be immersing his whole body and mind in full freedom, just for a couple of moments, existing between words and the world.

*1. http://www.marktwainproject.org/homepage.html
*2. To cite one offering, I strongly recommend you to read the text at the beginning of Chapter 19.
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton is one of the best sites on Mark Twain

Kaoru Murata
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1953 in Iwaki City, Fukushima, Professor Murata completed the English literature course at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Currently a professor at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (Transcultural Studies in the School of Culture, Media and Society), he lectures on such topics as literature and culture of the American South, US-Japanese Relations, and American movies and music.

Professor Murata’s primary works include:
The American South that Gave Birth to Rock and Roll (NHK Books, Co-author)
What Young Americans Know about History (Japanbooks, Co-author)
Marginalia – Literature Forgotten or Hidden [Marginalia – Kakureta Bungaku/Kakusareta Bungaku](Otowa Shobo Tsurumi Shoten, Co-editor) among others