Huck Finn on Boating

By John Crigler

Take this American masterpiece on your next cruise, and rediscover how much boaters have in common with its irrepressible heroes, and their excellent cruising adventure.

Something struck me recently as I reread Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is more than just a “boys’ book” or a “classic” of American literature. It’s a book about boating. I’d forgotten that Huck escapes twice. Until his Pap reclaims him, Huck’s in danger of being “civilized” — living in town with the Widow Douglas, who’s teaching him table manners, book learning, and an unquestioning acceptance of traditional social values. Pap, horrified to discover that his own flesh and blood is reading books and parading around town, high and mighty, in shoes and clean clothes, regains custody of Huck and hauls him off to a remote cabin near the river.

Photo of silhouette of two boys going fishing

Although playing hooky is at first a relief, life with Pap is anything but idyllic. Huck is routinely whipped, locked up, and almost murdered when Pap, in a drunken stupor, mistakes him for the Angel of Death and comes after him with a knife. So Huck escapes again, this time by cleverly faking his own death, and slipping away in a scavenged canoe. The book takes off when Huck teams up with a runaway slave named Jim, and the two head down the Mississippi in a 12- by 14-foot raft. Those two escapes, one from the Widow Douglas and rigid middle-class respectability, and the other from Pap and shiftless, disreputable chaos, become the fates Huck seeks to avoid. On the raft, he finds a way.

Like most boaters, Huck is superstitious. He learns to read omens, and the river itself, as he’d once read books with the Widow Douglas. Huck distinguishes not only between good and bad omens, but between the kind of bad omens that have reversible effects, such as spilled salt, and the kind that don’t, such as handling snake skins. He learns that bad luck is vengeful and doubles up on complainers: “It would only look like we was finding fault, and that would be bound to fetch more bad luck — and keep on fetching it, too, tilled we knowed enough to keep still.”

On the water, superstitions gradually become a resourceful curiosity, the opposite of Pap’s drunken stupors. Like all boaters, Huck learns to be constantly alert. That alertness helps him escape scavengers on a wrecked steamboat, spy on robbers, dodge posses, and survive a manhunt. It also serves him well in the less obvious kind of adventures in which Huck and Jim explore every topic that comes to mind, or do nothing but kick back together and let the river roll.

On land, Huck’s curiosity leads to satire. There are light-hearted accounts of a circus, mash-ups of Shakespeare and sentimental poetry, and much darker descriptions of a senseless family feud. The more time Huck spends navigating his vessel down river, the more he comes to distrust “civilization” in all its forms, whether they be shifty scam artists and fake evangelists; or good-hearted, blood-thirsty lynch mobs; or kindly, slave-owning aristocrats. Huck’s adventures on land are often “enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”

When he’s had his fill of civilization, Huck heads back to the water, where he develops an alternative set of values, the most dramatic test of which occurs after he and Jim overshoot the last free state in a fog. Civilized values tell Huck that Jim is property and that helping him escape is stealing. Huck’s tortured decision to go to hell rather than betray his friend is a triumph of gut-checked raft convictions over the dictates of land.

On the water, Huck’s curiosity leads to poetry. As they drift along at four miles an hour, seven inches above the river, Huck and Jim talk about ghosts and dreams, the difference between borrowing and stealing, why the French don’t speak English, whether Solomon was wise, and whether prayer works. (Huck is skeptical; he once prayed for fishing gear and found some line but no hooks.)

The raft is neither the Widow Douglas’ well-scrubbed birdcage nor Pap’s filthy pigsty. “We said there wasn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places seem so cramped and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

On this simplest kind of boat imaginable, Huck learns to think for himself, and discovers a way of living far more satisfying than anything the Widow Douglas or Pap has to offer: “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim, he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.”

In Huck’s view, a boat is a revolutionary as well as a recreational vehicle. It can change your life. If you’re ready to learn from the water rather than the classroom, to replace old habits with a pure sense of alertness, or just lay on your back and wonder, listen to Huck. Get on a boat.

John Crigler is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He and his wife Arlene explore the Chesapeake Bay in a small boat named Nevertheless.