MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “Mark X: Who Killed Huck Finn’s Father” by Yasuhiro Takeuchi

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Mark X: Who Killed Huck Finn’s Father?. By Yasuhiro Takeuchi. Routledge, 2018. Pp. 236. $155.00 Hardcover (2018). $39.95 Softcover (2019). $35.96 ebook. ISBN 978-1-138-61675-2 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-367-24835-2

Is there room on the shelf for another book about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Hasn’t everything been said about Mark Twain’s masterpiece that can be said? And if anything is left to be explored, would answering the question of who killed Pap Finn be near the top of the list? Or even on that list? And yet, that is the book we have before us, and it reminds us that the answers to the first two questions are “yes” and “no,” and the answer to the second two questions is “no, but it should be.”

One of those books on the aforementioned shelf is a slender yellow volume by Franklin R. Rogers called Mark Twain’s Burlesque Patterns (1960), in which Rogers postulated the notion that Huckleberry Finn was first conceived as a “burlesque detective story,” or, more to the point, a murder-mystery centered on who killed Huck’s father. Rogers studied the early composition of Huckleberry Finn and demonstrated that in 1876 Twain
was focused on murder mysteries, including them not only in Huckleberry Finn, but in two shorter works he wrote about that same time, A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, and “Simon Wheeler, Detective” (which was both a play and an aborted novel).

Murder mysteries–fictional ones–can be entertaining. The mystery surrounding the death of Pap Finn is intriguing. He’s found naked in a house swept by flood waters into the Mississippi River, and the room is cluttered with sordid clues–some of them revealing and some not. But even if his murderer is discovered, where would that leave readers of the story? Besides, by the time Twain finished writing Huckleberry Finn, the mystery of who killed Pap Finn was no longer central to the action and was left unresolved. Forty-seven years after Rogers raised the question, Jon Clinch published a superb contrapuntal novel that shadows the action in Huckleberry Finn, solving that mystery and establishing Huck’s maternity. But that novel is Clinch’s fictional conception of the story, not Twain’s.

Takeuchi discusses the work of both Rogers and Clinch, among others, and offers a plausible resolution to the mystery by the end of his first chapter, but that’s not the end of Takeuchi’s enquiry; it’s just the beginning. For Takeuchi, there is the “larger mystery involving the novel’s author–why Twain, all his life, evaded writing about what he had experienced at the death of his own father” (vii). Takeuchi likens his investigation to studying a black hole, in which the black hole itself cannot be seen or directly observed, but can only be detected by studying the movement of nearby objects and distortions of light around it. We may never know exactly what young Sam Clemens saw of his father’s autopsy, or the full depth of his ambivalent feelings about his father, but his writings–both what he wrote and what he didn’t write–provide clues, and Takeuchi sorts them out.

The investigation begins at the murder scene in the floating house. Twain provides a detailed inventory of the contents of that room. Huck and Jim take careful note of what is there. Among the items present is a wooden leg, but they are unsuccessful in their search for its mate. More seriously, both Huck and Jim fail to notice that Pap’s boots are missing. Huck would have recognized them by the “X” nailed into one heel, the sign by which he’d known his father was back in town when he saw his footprint in the snow by a fence stile (a ladder or steps built into a fence). In fact, they also fail to notice that Pap Finn’s clothing seems to be missing; at least Huck does not recognize any of the clothing in the room as Pap’s. As Takeuchi points out, the critical clues are not what is present in the room, but what is absent. This observation sets the stage for some of what will follow in his study: the significance of footprints, crosses, and absences. Besides A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, and “Simon Wheeler, Detective,” Takeuchi traces these clues in other writings including a letter Twain wrote to his children as Santa Claus, and “The Stolen White Elephant.” He pieces together these clues and reveals Pap’s murderer. No spoilers here, but the murderer used Pap’s clothing as a disguise, and is exposed by Pap’s distinctive boot print.

At this point, those familiar with the tropes, metaphors, themes, and plot devices that have attracted the most attention from Twain scholars for decades will see where things might be headed–disguises, gender roles, crosses, twins, corpses, father-figures, crime and punishment, etc. In fact, those who have read two books that were published in 2019 alongside the paperback edition of Takeuchi’s book–Jarrod Roark’s Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, and Ben Griffin’s Mark Twain’s Civil War: “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed”– will find those studies helpful preparation for understanding Takeuchi’s sometimes complex arguments. Crime and justice are a recurring theme, and the final chapter of this book is on “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.”

Just as Roark explains Twain’s treatments of legal and extra-legal justice,Takeuchi notes that Twain does not always solve a murder by catching the murderer. In both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Detective, the corpse of the victim is identified at the end, but not the murderer. Crosses are crucial clues to identity in both stories, and so are footprints. In “The Stolen White Elephant,” the footprints being followed are of the dead elephant, not a murderer, and are still being followed after the corpse of the elephant has been found. In A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, it is the absence of footprints in the snow around the unconscious body of the Frenchman that are a clue to a murder. Twain uses the word “clew” for “clue” implying the double-meaning of a ball of twine that can be used to trace a path (just like following footprints), a meaning that Twain makes explicit when a clew is used in the cave to mark a path.

Studies of twins and doubles in Twain’s fiction are exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, but Takeuchi takes a new approach, and discusses what he calls “splitting”……..

…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.

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