More than one hundred years have passed since the death of one of America’s finest wits, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). His characters still live on in the national imagination. They are stark images, as rough and ready as the everyman, and they shine light on the nature of what it means to be American. Of those characters, Huckleberry Finn is the manifest expression of the American identity. But even this conception does disservice to the young river wanderer. Huck Finn is larger than a country. He is all of us. We are attracted to his compassion, and we fear his demons.
Huck coexists with his demons—some his own, some his culture’s—not the least of which is religion. The crucifix found on his father’s boot heel is perhaps the darkest image Huck encounters. The sight of that grim stamp on the ground sends shivers through the boy, and rightly so. It signifies precipitous abuse and potential captivity by an absent father. Sound familiar? Luckily, Huck is strong, and in one of the greatest affirmations of individual freedom in American literature, the boy leaves behind the tyrant father in favor of direct engagement with the natural world.