Autobiographical Elements in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Mark Twain, in his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, seems to have illustrated various perceptions, geographical scenarios and people based on his real life friends and acquaintances. Though the novel is not an attempt to write an autobiography, it has a flavor of Twain's own life. It chronicles the experiences as well as the people and state of affairs that he came across.

      The "Preface" to Twain's novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, states: "Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual - he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture." It is suggested by critics that the character of Tom Sawyer is an amalgamation of that of Samuel Clemens and his friends, John Briggs, Will Bowen and John Garth. Twain has reportedly confessed being a prankster and adventure - loving young boy like Tom Sawyer.

      Like Tom Sawyer and other "sivilized", "white" children of his group, Twain was also brought up with "Christian" values. "For we were little Christian children and had early been taught the value of forbidden fruit...." says Twain in his "Autobiography".

      In 1839, four years after Twain was born, in Missouri, his family relocated to Hannibal, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi river. The river, Twain's "strong brown god", helped shape up and evolve many of his experiences that are reflected in his works, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As a young man, Twain worked as a steamboat pilot - a profession that entailed an acquaintance with life on the river Mississippi. This familiarity embellished much of his later writing. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain draws on the river almost as a character in its own right. The river provides a sort of safe haven to Huck and Jim, in their pursuit of freedom. It provides them with the much-needed shelter and tranquillity from the society that they are trying to keep away from.

      Hannibal, Twain's home-town, became the model for St. Petersburg, the imaginary setting of these two novels. The cultural and social values that he assimilated here are echoed in his novels. Having been born in a reasonably well-to-do family (his social and family circumstances grew worse as a result of his father's death, after which he had to abandon his studies and look for a job to support his family), he had all the luxuries of a materially comfortable life. His father owned a grocery store and was a slave-owner. Clemens grew up within an environment that upheld the concept of slavery.

      Twain's Uncle, John Quarles, (who seems to be the original for Uncle Phelps in Huckleberry Finn), owned a farm in Missouri. This farm forms the foundation of the Phelps' farms in the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain writes in his "Autobiography", Twain describes his Uncle's farm at Florida, "a heavenly place for a boy" thus:

"My uncle, John A. Quarles, was a farmer, and his place was in the country four miles from Florida. He had eight children and fifteen or twenty negroes, and was also fortunate in other ways, particularly in his character. I have not come across a better man than he was. I was his guest for two or three months every year, from the fourth year after we removed to Hannibal till I was eleven or twelve years old. I have never consciously used him or his wife in a book, but his farm has come very handy to me, once or twice. In Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Detective I moved it down to Arkansas. It was all of six hundred miles, but it was no trouble; it was not a very large farm-five hundred acres perhaps-but I could have done it if it had been twice as large. As for the morality of it, I cared nothing for that; I would move a state if the exigencies of literature required it".

      There is striking similarity between Uncle Quarles' farm and that of the Phelpses. In Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn, we are given a graphic description of the latter's farm.

      'Phelps' was one of these little one-horse cotton plantations, and they all look alike. A rail fence round a two-acre yard; a stile made out of logs sawed off and up-ended in steps, like barrels of a different length, to climb over the fence with, and for the women to stand on when they are going to jump on to a horse; some sickly grass-patches in the big yard, but mostly it was bare and smooth, like an old hat with the nap rubbed off; big double log-house for the white folks- hewed logs, with the chinks stopped up with mud or mortar, and these mud-stripes been whitewashed some time or another; round-log kitchen, with a big broad, open but roofed passage joining it to the house; log smoke-house back of the kitchen; three little log nigger-cabinsin a row t'other side the smoke house; one little hut all by itself away down against the back fence, and some outbuildings down a piece the other side ash-hopper and big ketle to bile soap in by the little hut bench by the kitchen door, with bucket water and a gourd; hound asleep there in the sun; more hounds asleep round about; about three shade trees away off in a corner; some currant bushes and gooseberry bushes in one place by the fence; outside of the fence a garden and a watermelon patch; then the cotton fields begins, and after the fields the woods". (Chapter 32).

Twain Talks of His Uncle's Farm Thus

"The farmhouse stood in the middle of a very large yard, and the yard was fenced on three sides with rails and on the rear side with high palings; against, these stood the smokehouse; beyond the palings was the orchard; beyond the orchard were the negro quarters and the tobacco fields. The front yard was entered over a stile made of sawed- off logs of graduated heights; I do not remember any gate. In a corner of the front yard were a dozen lofty hickory trees and a dozen black walnuts, and in the nutting season riches were to be gathered there.... Down a piece, abreast the house, stood a little log cabin against the rail fence; and there the woody hill fell sharply away, past the barns, the corncob, the stables, and the tobacco-curing house, to a limpid brook which sang along over its gravelly bed and curved and frisked in and, out and here and there and yonder in the deep shade of overhanging foliage and vines-a divine place for wading....."

      He had several slaves on his farm. As a result of spending much of his time amongst them, Twain soaked up their local dialect. This explains the ease with which he uses it in the novel. Twain adds a touch of verisimilitude to his writings by means of his use of the American colloquial speech.

      Twain reveals in his "Autobiography", "We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and advisor, in "Uncle Dan'l', a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the Negro quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. He has served me well these many, many years. I have not seen him for more than half a century and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time and have staged him in books under his own name and as 'Jim' and carted him all around to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft and even across the desert of Sahara in a balloon".

      Jim seems to be sculpted on Uncle Dan'l' - a slave in the house of his maternal uncle. Twain attributes his "strong liking for his (Uncie Lan'l's) race and...appreciation of certain of its fine qualities" to his stay at uncle Quarles' farm. We identify a similar emotion that Huck displays for Jim. In Chapter 40, when Tom suffers a bullet injury, Jim, despite the danger of being re-captured, decides to stay with Tom until Huck gets doctor. Though Tom instructs him to run, he refuses to budge. Huck says, knowed he was white inside, and I reckoned he'd say what he did say - So it was all right now, and I told Tom I was a-going for a doctor". Twain's regard for Uncle Dan'l' and his "appreciation of certain of its fine qualities" resonates in Huck's high opinion of Jim.

      In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim gives Huck the advantage of his "spiritual" company and helps the latter attain spiritual and moral growth. By extending his support to a runaway nigger, Huck is caught in an ethical dilemma. He is torn apart by the conflict between what society deems "right" or "wrong" and his own moral scruples. Lige all "white" children, Huck too has been brought up with the notice that niggers and slaves are "lesser mortals". They are not capable of Norman human emotions, which is the prerogative of the "whites". Due to this social conditioning, Huck goes through a tough time trying to justify his action of extending help to Jim. He feels a strong sense of remorse because his reason tells him that he is being deceitful towards miss Watson who has done him no harm.

      Jim's spiritual presence is instrumental in helping Huck decide his course of action. By and by, Huck manages to overcome the pressures of his social conditioning and uphold his own standards of propriety and moral correctness.

      Huckleberry Finn, the unkempt adolescent and town pariah enjoys the chaos and disorder that his life bestows on him. Despite the opportunity to lead a cleaner and more organized life, he loves his "rags" and "sugar hogshead". He cannot adapt to a conventionally "good" and "acceptable" existence. Tom Blankenship has been Twain's real life acquaintance (they were neighbors for a period) on whose lines the character of Huck seems to have been sketched.

      Twain's writes in his "Autobiography", "In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only real independent person-boy or man-in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continually happy and was envied by all the rest of us. We liked him; we enjoyed his society. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than of any other boy's".

      Just as Tom Blankenship's company was sought atter by Twain and his companions, so was Huck Finn and his seemingly carefree life envied by Tom Sawyer and his group of "civilized" friends. Huck is not obliged to go to school and does not have to adhere to socially acceptable "rules and regulations" - a concession that attracts young boys of his age. Tom Blankenship's father was, life Pap Finn, a drunkard.

      Another pair of characters that Twain delineates through real life familiarity is that of the royal families of the South the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons people who are exposed in a relatively negative light, owing to Twain's disapproval of the concept of romanticism and idealism. He attributed such fancies to the writings of Sir Walter Scot.

      "Darnell & Watson were the names of two men whose families had kept up a long quarrel.... as the young Darnells were walking up the companion way stairs with their wives on their arms they shot them in the back. Once a boy 12 years old connected with the Kentucky family was riding thro the woods on the Mo: side. He was overtaken by a full grown man and he shot that boy dead... shortly afterwards there was another row at that place and a youth of 19 belonging to the Mo. tribe had wandered over there. Half a dozen of the Ky. tribe got after him. He dodged among the wood piles & answered their shots. Presently he jumped in the river & they followed on after him & peppered him & he had to make for the shore. By that time he was about dead-did shortly die.

      In much the same way as Darnell and Watson, the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, too, have long-standing grievances against each other and end up shooting members of the other's family without any concrete and justifiable reason.

      "There's been more than one feud around here, in old times, but I reckon the worst one was between the Darnells and the Watsons. Nobody don't know now what the first quarrel was about, it's so long ago. Some says it was about a horse or a cow-anyway, it was a little matter; the money in it wasn't of no consequence-none in the world-both families was rich. The thing could have been fixed up, easy enough; but no, that wouldn't do. Rough words had been passed; and so, nothing but blood could fix it up after that. That horse or cow, whichever it was, cost sixty years of killing and crippling! Every year or so somebody was shot, on one side or the other; and as last as one generation was laid out, ther sons took up the feud and kept it a-going. making a kind of a religion of it. Men would shoot boys, boys would shoot men.

      The reference that the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons used to carry guns to church and listen to sermons on "brotherly love" seems to run parallel to Twain's description of the Darnells and Watsons.

      It is quoted in Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, Vol. II ("On the Mississippi"), "They used to attend church on the line... Both Darnell & Watson went to that church armed with shot guns, & neither party would allow the other to cross the line in that church".

      During his days as a riverboat pilot, Twain came across many vagabonds who swindled unwary and simple travelers. He sculpts the "King' and the "Duke" on these vagabonds. They are characters that symbolize the inhumanity and selfishness that Twain saw as inherent in human beings. These are the human attributes that Twain derides in people.

      Joln Lauber, in his "The Making of Mark Twain" (1985), gives an account of Hannibal, Twain's home-town that, despite being a comparatively serene town, had its share of aggression, bloodshed and death. Twain, as a child, witnessed the ferocity of death in the murder of one Sam Smarr by a townsman, William Owsley. Lauber writes about "the grotesque final scenes" that Samuel beheld "the great family Bible spread open on the profane old man's chest". He continued hallucinating the incident for a considerable time afterwards and had a profound effect on the young boy's psyche.

      John Lauber states in his book, "The weight of that Bible was more than a physical choker; it became a symbol of religious oppression to a mind rebellious by nature".

      All these allusions give the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a distinct touch of Autobiography. Yet, as per critics, it is a "generative act of the imagination".

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