Writing Huck Finn, by Victor A. Doyno
(publication place: publisher, date)

Reviewed by Sam Bush

Considered to be on of the first great American novels, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is arguably Mark Twain’s most brilliant work, heavily layered with its vibrant descriptions of people and places, its humor as well as its sobering reflections on religion, racism and morality. In his book, Writing Huck Finn, Victor A. Doyno provides a unique perspective on the making of Twain’s celebrated novel. Digging into Twain’s writing, thematic development, editing as well as the economic shrewdness of his book, Writing Huck Finn enlightens the reader on how intense of an endeavor producing such a masterpiece was; that the careless, simple minded genius that is Mark Twain was merely a façade successfully hiding an extremely diligent and attentive author named Samuel Clemens.

Throughout his book, Doyno makes it clear that, although Huck Finnreads as if it were written effortlessly and even sloppily, Twain was completely intentional with every word. After hand writing the manuscript three times before having the novel typed and with more than 1,000 changes made throughout its being written (xi), Twain would repeatedly explore the novel, writing “discovery” drafts which allowed the story to develop more freely. Noting that Twain’s previous experience as an editor reinforced the author’s need for perfection, Doyno writes about the rough drafts being covered so heavily with revisions that one could no longer read what had been written in the first place (14). Twain was well aware of his attitude towards editing, writing, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - ‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning” (17). Doyno’s book intentionally discusses Twain’s search for Huck’s tone of voice in great detail in order to show just how much work was put into the story’s main figure.

Of all the revisions Twain made on Huck Finn, most of them dealt with Huck’s speech. In order to portray Huck in a convincing light, Twain was painstaking when revising the boy’s voice as to not make him sound neither too mature nor too colloquial. Of Twain’s efforts to create the perfect character, Doyno writes, “[He] revised to achieve the proper amount of impropriety, the correct degree of incorrectness” (231). Huck’s diction was repeatedly experimented with as Doyno shows that the word “yellow” was later changed to “yeller” and “foreign” eventually made “furrin” (47). Although Huck was apparently Twain’s most carefully crafted figure, the spectrum of characters was wide, from the morally upright, through the complex Huck, to the evil. Such a broad range of personalities allowed Twain to create themes of conflict between class, race and religion, adding a serious undertone to the novel.

Two significant themes of Huck Finn Doyno points out are the conflict between nobility and individualism as well as Christianity’s conflict with morality. Doyno observes the sobering matter of class status that was so prevalent throughout the United States during Twain’s life, writing, “Twain explored the conflict between birth-determined status and individualism by contrasting characters of supposed nobility and low morality [such as the duke and the dauphin] with people of low status and better morals, such as Jim and Huck” (114). Although the novel can easily be read simply as a fictional adventure, Twain addresses the important issues that his society was dealing with at the time should one read in between the lines of the text. The issue of religion in America was also included at times of the book. Doyno notes that Twain’s trip to the Holy Land (which would later be recorded in Innocents Abroad) “sharpened Twain’s eye for hypocrisy” and provided social commentary through travel letters (131). Huck Finn ends with “The End. Yours Truly, Huck Finn” which makes Doyno interpret the entire novel as an “extended example of the travel letter” (131). Sneaking in his religious and political analysis through his characters, Twain was able to expose his opinions of society without losing any customers to controversy.

I consider Victor Doyno’s book to be very informative and insightful on how Mark Twain was arguably the hardest working author in American literature. Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book for our syllabus, I will say that reading about what was behind the writing of Huck Finnfrom an outsider’s perspective was helpful, mainly because one never knows when Mark Twain will take the truth and stretch it out a little.