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  • The Roots of Huck Finn’s Melancholy: Sam Clemens, Mark Twain, and a World of Pain
  • Robert Paul Lamb

According to Mark Twain, he based Huck Finn on Tom Blankenship, the son of the town drunkard, who grew up impoverished but fully self-reliant, and whom the respectable citizens of Hannibal viewed as an outcast. Twain claimed: “In ‘Huckleberry Finn’ I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community . . .” (Autobiography I: 397).1 Indeed, the fact that Huck was based on Tom Blankenship was so manifest that both Twain’s sister Pamela and Blankenship’s sister Elizabeth instantly recognized it when they read the novel (Autobiography I: 609n397.20–26). Twain also gave Huck the surname of Jimmy Finn, the town’s other notable drunkard, who, like Pap, “slept in the deserted tan-yard with the hogs” and died in 1845, the same year that Pap Finn dies (Autobiography I: 397, 532–33n213.36–37; Twain, Among the Indians 318–19).2 But although he based Huck on Tom Blankenship, and [End Page 165] despite the very different experiences of Huck and Sam Clemens, Twain endowed Huck with his author’s own tormented psyche.

Why is Huck Finn so morbid, depressed, guilt-ridden, and lonely? During the first eight chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), roughly forty pages in a non-illustrated text, he explicitly describes himself as “lonely” or feeling “lonesome” seven times (4 twice, 7, 31, 48 twice, 51). In a telling passage, only a few pages into the novel, in his room in the Widow’s house at bedtime, Huck expresses his characteristic feelings:

Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night, grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared, I did wish I had some company.


The actual details of the scene—shining stars, rustling leaves, the wind, an owl hooting, a whippoorwill, and a dog barking—are not depressing. But Huck’s response in this extended pathetic fallacy, in which he projects his feelings onto the landscape, tells us a great deal about him.

A similar moment occurs in Chapter 32 as Huck approaches the Phelps farm to rescue Jim. With the slaves gone off to the fields and no one in sight, the sound of bugs and flies “makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone” and even a breeze “makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about you. As a general thing, it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all” (276). After describing the farm, he hears a spinning wheel, “and then I knowed for certain I wished I was dead—for that is the lonesomest sound in the whole world” (277). [End Page 166]

There are manifest reasons for Huck’s feelings in the opening passage. He has always been a depressed, lonely child who has never fit into any familial or social group. Although he...


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