Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece

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Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece
By Andrew Levy
Simon & Schuster, 2014
368 pp. $25.00
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In this original and illuminating study, Levy takes a fresh look at one of the most beloved and controversial achievements of American literature. Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884—a time not unlike the present, Levy argues, when authorities in the United States sought to strictly regulate the behavior of young people at the same time as they were dismantling racially progressive policies and laws that had emerged after the Civil War. Twain, Levy argues, was a progressive nostalgist, and Huckleberry Finn, with its tale of a wayward boy who befriends a runaway slave, was a protest against the loss of juvenile freedom and the collapse of racial understanding. Twain pined for an era during which, he believed, young people had been less regimented by church and school and race relations had been more open (slavery notwithstanding). In a deft and skillful piece of cultural analysis, Levy argues that the minstrel shows of the 1840s and 1850s, which sometimes subverted racial pre-judices through jokes that reversed conventional roles and emphasized the common foibles of both blacks and whites, served as models for Twain’s novel.