Teaching Huck is such a pleasure in so many ways. This year I am intrigued by the message of the ending to a degree further than often. My two stimuli are a new interest in Eco Criticism and an awakening understanding of the treatment of the native Americans as described in books such as The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens.
At the end of the novel, Jim’s future is sorted out in as much as his free status is revealed and Huck ‘lights out’ for the ‘territories’ – those areas of land viewed by the white Europeans running the country as uninhabited or wild. In truth these are the homelands of a vast number of Native Americans in their tribes, living their traditional life as semi nomadic hunters, living in a strong social order and embedded in an ancient religious framework. It is only with the arrogance of a people who could believe in the concept of Manifest Destiny, that the lands can be written off as awaiting settlement and ‘sivilisation’.
Tom Sawyer, the prototype of the wealthy and insensitive white man found in later characters such as Tom Buchannan can envisage using these areas to play games and seek excitement among the ‘injuns’. This should not come as a surprise – he thinks the tormenting of Jim in the closing chapters is perfectly acceptable despite his carrying the incredible information that Jim is a free man. To him Jim is not a human at all- he is a plaything and the injuns are exactly the same. He feels that he can pay Jim off with $40 for being such a good sport in the same way that Buchannan can taunt Wilson with the promised car or Carraway can be so unpleasantly rude about one of the rare Black characters in Gatsby – the ‘buck’ in the car.
I want to see Huck’s decision to light out alone in the light of the appalling destruction of the way of life of the Plains Indians in the later decades of the 19th Century, when Twain was writing.
It is possible to read his departure as an awful prophecy of the Westward expansion of the Pioneers into the territories, bringing death and destruction to a civilisation which generally viewed the white settlers with an amount of disdain, but little aggression. However, I wonder if another angle might be useful, if only to challenge this more accepted interpretation.
I feel that the beauty of the nature writing around the Mississippi and Huck’s general identification with nature and with a way of life that lives in harmony with nature stands in contrast with the negative portrayals of urban life as the raft drifts south. We might consider this as Huck representing an older way of life – an innocent way of life in harmony with the nature of the vast continent – as opposed to the new industrialisation which pushed railways and ‘sivilisation’ further West at speed.
In this, Huck can be seen to represent not just an older perspective, but a perspective which ties closely with the treatment of the Native American tribes from the later 1860s. Both are ‘adopted’ by a stifling parent who seeks to ‘sivilise’ them and bring them under the Aegis of God. Both adoptive societies are duplicitous and hypocritical. Both are destructive of the old ways and view the old ways as being in some way barbarous. That he should seek to leave -alone- to enter that world seems to me to show that he realises that there is no future for him in the new world order. It is as though he is leaving to seek his natural home – the home for which he is suited: the way of life of the Indian.
We can then allow ourselves a little digression. We know of Pap but know nothing at all of Mom. Who is she? We assume that Pap and Mom were together in the period between 1800 and 1825, give or take, and were therefore able to be meeting at a time when the frontier was immensely fluid. It would not be unusual for mixed relationships at this time and it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that Huck may well be a little boy of mixed race. It might help to explain why he is so clearly othered both in HF and Tom Sawyer. It is clear that he is not cut of the same cloth as Tom and the other ‘robbers’ and we can read this to be a tale of poverty and simple ‘wrong side of the tracks’, but we could see more in it in terms of him representing the last figure of a civilisation about to be wiped out in the rush West and a civilisation which, by the time of writing the novel had all but ceased to exist.
Maybe a jump too far. But I firmly believe that in Twain’s writing there is a mourning for the lost way of life of the Mississippi and a regret for the coming devastation of the land – no longer living alongside nature, but imposing urbanisation and mechanisation upon it.
Given this, we can read this ending as ambiguous. Throughout the book we have come to love Huck and to trust his moral positioning. His departure is tragic – he is doomed, but not because of the threat of the Indian, but because of the pursuit of wealth led by men like Tom who will see the territories as ripe for exploitation and who will be ruthless in clearing the way for those who will grow rich on the demise of old way of life.
Is Huck a Native American? is a question worth asking. Maybe not, but his values seem far closer to those which they hold dear than to those of the white settlers who will be ruthless in suppressing this ancient way of life.