Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Arkansas Sections of)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), best known by his pen name Mark Twain. It was published in 1884 in the United Kingdom and 1885 in the United States, and is set on and around the Mississippi River in the pre-industrial era before the Civil War. Twain was familiar with the river from his time as a riverboat pilot in the years immediately before the Civil War and his childhood near the river in Hannibal, Missouri. The book contains vivid and humorous descriptions of Arkansas and its people. According to Ernest Hemingway: “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” William Faulkner described Twain as “the father of American literature.”

It is not until chapter 21, “An Arkansaw Difficulty,” that the raft carrying Huckleberry Finn, who escaped from both his drunken father and the attempts of his guardian Miss Watson to civilize him, reaches Arkansas. He is accompanied by his friend Jim, a fugitive slave, as well as two conmen who claim aristocratic status as “duke” and “dauphin.” After he reaches the Arkansas segment of the Mississippi River, Finn observes that “when we was pretty well down the state of Arkansas, we came in sight of a little one-horse town in a big bend.” According to scholar and author Elmo Howell, “Napoleon, built on a narrow promontory jutting into the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi, was the only significant Arkansas village south of Helena, which was built on a bluff.”

Twain’s Bricksville fits the location of old Napoleon, a town that had been washed away by the river and abandoned. Twain referenced Napoleon in his notes for Huckleberry Finn. Little remains of Napoleon, and the descriptions are not grounded in verifiable locations: “On the river front some of the houses was sticking out over the bank, and they was bowed and bent, and about ready to tumble in. The people had moved out of them.” The protagonist also observed, “The fences was made of different kinds of boards, nailed on at different times; and they leaned every which way, and had gates that didn’t generally have but one hinge—a leather one.” Twain chose to name the town Bricksville and let the reader discover that apparently no bricks were used as a building material there. There was mob justice, “considerable many cusswords,” and loafers who watched dogfights.

The entire novel is written in the narrative voice of Huckleberry Finn. His observations are an example of double consciousness, described by novelist and teacher James Hynes as how Twain “can simultaneously evoke the beliefs and prejudices of his narrator while letting the reader see through the narration to what’s really going on.”

In chapter 24, after leaving Bricksville, the group arrives at a site where there were two villages on each side of the river. These unnamed villages apparently do not correspond to identifiable locations. As with all of the settings, they are representative of the time and the region of the story. It is here that the pair of conmen fraudulently claim an inheritance and manage to lose it along with the cash they picked up at the bogus theatrical production they called the Royal Nonesuch at Bricksville.

In chapter 31, the journey downstream continues, where they find “trees with Spanish moss on them, hanging down from the limbs,” which would suggest proximity to Louisiana. An unnumbered series of stops at villages is mentioned, where the duke and dauphin “tackled missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything; but they couldn’t seem to have no luck.”

After this, the group stops at “a shabby village named Pikesville” where the dauphin sells Jim. Here in the novel’s climactic point, Huck resolves to free his friend Jim in violation of the law and religious teachings, declaring: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Specific locations for Pikesville, and the nearby farm of Silas Phelps have been suggested as being in Arkansas, Louisiana, or Mississippi. In addition, these could be seen as fictive locations such as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

Twain later re-used the Arkansas setting and characters Silas and Sally Phelps in his 1896 novella Tom Sawyer, Detective.

For additional information:
Cummings, Sherwood. “Mark Twain’s Moveable Farm and the Evasion.” American Literature 63 (September 1991): 440–458.

De Voto, Bernard. Mark Twain at Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Gifford, Elizabeth J. “Critics’ Views of the Character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn.” MA thesis, Iowa State University, 1977. Online at https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/6965 (accessed July 14, 2020).

Hoffman, Andrew. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997.

Howell, Elmo. “Mark Twain’s Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Autumn 1970): 195–208.

Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.

Ward, Geoffrey C., Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Allen McMillan
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 07/14/2020