- Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn by Peter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler's Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn follows a line of inquiry that is unusual for Mark Twain scholars and for scholars of the U.S. South. Beidler takes river travel and maritime material culture as starting points to understand Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London, [End Page 712] 1884). Beidler does not address the critical thematic or literary arguments that scholars have posited about the text or about Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), except for arguments about the editorial inclusion of the "raft episode" in the novel (p. 3). Instead, Beidler takes on, in incredible detail and with spectacular illustrations, the particularities of how rafts (lumber and log), canoes (dugout and birchbark), flatboats (wood-flats and trading scows), steamboats, and ferries were constructed, navigated, and valued. Beidler's goal is to reveal all that readers have missed by misunderstanding the rivercraft in Twain's work. Ultimately, Beidler makes a good case that if we "ignore them as we read, or … assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means" in reference to river culture, we "miss the boat" (p. 118).
Historians will appreciate Beidler's efforts to fill in the gaps in their understanding of the river landscapes that influenced Clemens as a child growing up in a small town on the Mississippi River, as a steamboat pilot who worked on that river, and eventually as an author who wove tales from the drama that played out along the river—tales of enslaved men and children who navigated the antebellum southern waterways. Like an analysis of the whaling industry through Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Beidler presents readers with all that Clemens would have known about "skiffs, canoes, keelboats, woodboats, broadhorns, wharfboats, and horse ferries" as well as what is revealed by the distinctions between "an oar, a paddle, a pole, a steering oar, and a rudder" (pp. 5, 4). For those who are interested in Twain and technology, this book places the riverscape as an essential setting for understanding technology in Clemens's world. For those who know little about boats (let alone boats of the past), Beidler's book is a short and excellent primer.
Beidler's method is both original and idiosyncratic. His chapters are organized by carefully framed questions, which artfully lead readers to understand the distinctions between the crafts he investigates. The sources he uses are rich all on their own. After carefully reading nearly every nineteenth-century historical account of travel along the Mississippi River and finding wonderful paintings, photographs, and etchings to unpack the construction and use of rivercraft, the author presents a vivid visual reading of the novel. He also takes on the accuracy of rivercraft depictions in any number of covers and illustrations of editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Nearly all of Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn focuses on the actual vessels mentioned in the novel. However, chapter 4 wades into a thoughtful discussion about the inclusion of the "raft episode," which was removed by Twain and his editor before the novel's original publication because much of it had already been published in Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883). Twain scholar Bernard DeVoto reinserted it into its original place in chapter 16 almost sixty years later. Beidler argues for keeping the episode and proposes his own solution to the editorial quandary of the original edition. Chapter 5 reproduces and contextualizes Ceylon Childs Lincoln's 1910 account of his 1868 trip down the Wisconsin River to the wider Mississippi River. Beyond providing a fascinating report about the logging industry and river travel that environmental historians may find interesting, including Lincoln's account helps Beidler to make sense of several crucial concerns of the novel [End Page 713] (including the "raft episode") and to make his argument that understanding rivercraft in the novel is essential to understanding the relationship between Huck and...