Able critics have declared that the psychology of Huck Finn is the book’s large feature: Huck’s moral point of view—the struggle between his heart and his conscience concerning the sin of Jim’s concealment, and his final decision of self-sacrifice. Time may show that as an epic of the river, the picture of a vanished day, it will rank even greater. The problems of conscience we have always with us, but periods once passed are gone forever. Certainly Huck’s loyalty to that lovely soul Nigger Jim was beautiful, though after all it may not have been so hard for Huck, who could be loyal to anything. Huck was loyal to his father, loyal to Tom Sawyer of course, loyal even to those two river tramps and frauds, the King and the Duke, for whom he lied prodigiously, only weakening when a new and livelier loyalty came into view—loyalty to Mary Wilks.
The King and the Duke, by the way, are not elsewhere matched in fiction. The Duke was patterned after a journeyman-printer Clemens had known in Virginia City, but the King was created out of refuse from the whole human family—“all tears and flapdoodle,” the very ultimate of disrepute and hypocrisy—so perfect a specimen that one must admire, almost love, him. “Hain’t we all the fools in town on our side? and ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” he asks in a critical moment—a remark which stamps him as a philosopher of classic rank. We are full of pity at last when this pair of rapscallions ride out of the history on a rail, and feel some of Huck’s inclusive loyalty and all the sorrowful truth of his comment: “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”
The “poor old king” Huck calls him, and confesses how he felt “ornery and humble and to blame, somehow,” for the old scamp’s misfortunes. “A person’s conscience ain’t got no sense,” he says, and Huck is never more real to us, or more lovable, than in that moment. Huck is what he is because, being made so, he cannot well be otherwise. He is a boy throughout—such a boy as Mark Twain had known and in some degree had been. One may pettily pick a flaw here and there in the tale’s construction if so minded, but the moral character of Huck himself is not open to criticism. And indeed any criticism of this the greatest of Mark Twain’s tales of modern life would be as the mere scratching of the granite of an imperishable structure. Huck Finn is a monument that no puny pecking will destroy. It is built of indestructible blocks of human nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not always agree, we need not fear. Time will blur the incongruities and moss over the mistakes. The edifice will grow more beautiful with the years.
THE MEMOIRS OF GENERAL GRANT
The success of Huck Finn, though sufficiently important in itself, prepared the way for a publishing venture by the side of which it dwindled to small proportions. One night (it was early in November, 1884), when Cable and Clemens had finished a reading at Chickering Hall, Clemens, coming out into the wet blackness, happened to hear Richard Watson Gilder’s voice say to some unseen companion: