The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Not Just for English Majors

Annotated editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been relatively rare, especially considering how frequently the novel is taught in courses at both the secondary and collegiate level. The ever-popular Norton Critical Edition of the novel has not been revised since 1998. The most recent edition of the outstanding Bedford Case Study in
Critical Controversy, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, is more than a decade old. Both editions are geared towards advanced undergraduate literature students. They emphasize reception histories, textual analysis, and, of course, the novel’s linguistic controversies.

51eUKKRfnyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ranjit S. Dighe, who heads the Department of Economics at SUNY-Oswego, does not teach Huckleberry Finn to English majors, but he does teach it. The novel’s nuanced representation of slavery and racism, which has dominated literary and cultural approaches, figures heavily in his pedagogy as well, but so do 19th-century debates about currency, banking, labor, real estate, and entrepreneurship. The apparatus which Dighe has designed for The Historian’s Huck Finn: Reading Mark Twain’s Masterpiece as Social and Economic History caters explicitly to students and teachers in history and social science courses. In his preface, Dighe even offers suggestions for pairing episodes in the novel with readings from popular U.S. History and U.S. Economic History textbooks.

Dighe’s introduction and the annotations which follow emphasize four central principles of Gilded Age political economy: prosperity, expansion, inequality, and commercialization. The nature and appropriate prioritization of these principles was the subject of much debate amongst legislators and within the nascent discipline of political economy. Twain’s somewhat masochistic fascination with partisan politics is well documented. Less has been written about his skeptical, but no less passionate, readings of emerging economic theory. Both certainly informed his writings, as Dighe demonstrates by drawing attention to the various commodities produced and transported through the Mississippi River Valley, rates of interest and exchange which affected that commerce, the complex and vitriolic debates about currency and credit, and the intersection of financial and industrial development with social concerns.

T. S. Eliot argued that the triumph Huckleberry Finn lay in expanding the linguistic potential of the novel genre. Ernest Hemingway famously made it the hegemonic nexus of American cultural identity. Toni Morrison argued that it interpolated transhistorical conflicts about race and racism. The three debates these famous interpretations engaged predate the examples I’ve chosen and continue to dominate contemporary critical conversations about Huckleberry Finn. They aren’t going away, nor should they. However, the edition Dighe has prepared promised to introduce readers to the novel through an unconventional, interdisciplinary lens, perhaps generating fresh perspectives on these debates and others. At CMTS, we vigorously applaud the implicit position of The Historian’s Huck Finn, that Twain’s works make valuable contributions to courses outside the Department of English.