This Day in History… February 18, 1885

Mark Twain Publishes Huckleberry Finn

U.S. #2787The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was honored in 1993 in the Children’s Classics set.

On February 18, 1885, Huckleberry Finn was released in America.

Growing up along the banks of the Mississippi River, Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) longed for a life of excitement. By the time he was 30, he’d worked as a steamboat pilot, served briefly during the Civil War, and tried his hand at searching for gold. While working for a newspaper, Twain discovered his knack for story telling and he knew he found his calling.

Twain’s first brush with national fame came in 1865, when his story about life in a mining camp, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” was printed in papers across the country. In the following years, he became one of the nation’s most popular writers. Then, in 1876, he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a book inspired by his childhood town of Hannibal, Missouri.

U.S. #4545 – Mark Twain stamp from the Literary Arts series.

That same year, Twain began working on a sequel with pages he’d removed from Tom Sawyer. He originally titled his new story Huckleberry Finn’s Autobiography, planning to follow Finn’s life into adulthood. However, Twain was often sidetracked with other projects and put Finn’s story aside for long periods of time. Then, after taking a trip down the Hudson River, his excitement for the project was renewed. He dropped the idea of following Finn to adulthood and completed the book in 1883.

The book was first released in Canada and the United Kingdom on December 10, 1884. Two months later, on February 18, 1885, it was released  in America. The story provides a vivid record of 19th century America.  It follows the adventures of two runaways – Huckleberry Finn and a slave named Jim – as they travel on a raft down the Mississippi.

U.S. #863 – Twain stamp from the Famous Americans series.

Told from Huckleberry Finn’s point of view, Twain used realistic language to make Huck’s speech sound like actual conversation, and imitated a variety of dialects to bring the other characters to life. It was this realistic use of speech that set Twain’s work apart from other writers of the day, and influenced numerous other modern American authors.

Huckleberry Finn was harshly received when it was first published. Several libraries banned the book. According to the Concord Library in Massachusetts, “One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Upon hearing this, Twain was excited, believing the attention would sell another 25,000 copies.

U.S. #UC60 – A 1985 aerogram honoring Twain’s birth pictures Finn with a fishing pole.

While today it is often considered by many to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, Huckleberry Finn still receives criticism for Huck’s lack of morals, as well as his unrefined manners and careless grammar. Its deeper themes, however, argue for equality and universal opportunities for all races.

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