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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Home

Resources related to Mr. Wodnick and Mr. McCabe's unit on the historical context of Huck Finn.

General Historical Context

Two Major Primary Source Texts

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, 1841

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

Lots More Resources

You can find many more resources relevant to American history in the 19th Century (and therefore, to all these topics) in the U.S. History Resources LibGuide. Click on the screenshot to see: 


How did slavery impact the family structures, belief systems and cultural experiences of African Americans? How did white Americans in both the North and South of the country view African Americans, and how were whites viewed by them? What impact does this legacy have on the social experiences, cultural identities and economic prospects of blacks and whites in this country today?

Online Reading from Slavery and the Making of America:  The Family | PBS

Google Book: “ Coming To Terms With Slavery in Twenty-First Century America,” by Ira Berlin, in the collection Slavery And Public History, ed. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton


What economic factors led to the use of slaves as labor in the agrarian South, and how did the onset of industrialization impact these factors?  In what ways does the logic of capitalism continue to impact the labor market in today’s America? What parallels can you discover between slavery in the antebellum South and current economic relationships between labor and capital? 

Google Book: “Introduction: The Bricks We Stand On,” Slavery By Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon,

Archived Book: Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams, pages 4-7

Online Reading: In Order to Understand the Brutality of American Capitalism, You Have to Start on the Plantation. by Matthew Desmond From The 1619 Project

How did Southern whites justify the institution of slavery? What values and assumptions did their arguments rest on? What arguments did abolitionists counter with? Does the rhetoric employed by either slaveowners or abolitionists (or both) remind you in style, strategy or implication of the rhetoric employed in any current American controversy?

Documenting the American South: Digitized Library of Southern Literature,Beginnings to 1920 (scroll down to Chapter XIX, pg. 175),

 “ What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?”  by Frederick Douglass 

Topic: America in 1850, The Triumph of Nationalism - The House Dividing  

How did the South’s fascination with chivalric concepts of honor and duty impact the development of American culture as a whole? How might these concepts continue to influence our country’s attitude toward violence and use of violence to resolve disputes?

Google Book:“The Marketplace of Values: Honor and Enterprise In The Old South,” by John Mayfield, in The Field of Honor, ed. John Mayfield and Todd Hagstette

Does American ideology depend upon a romanticization of childish optimism and a refusal to acknowledge the influence of the past? What argument does Twain’s depiction of Huck’s hopes, fears and internal conflicts imply about the willingness of Americans to face uncomfortable truths about the world and their role in it?

Google Book: The American Adam, R.W.B. Lewis, pages 5-10

What does the tradition of the con game and the con man say about America? How does the con man contrast with the self-made man as an image of what it means to be successful in our culture? What argument does Twain’s treatment of con men and con games seem to imply, not only about his own time, but about ours as well?

Google Book:: Confidence Men and Painted Women by Karen Halttunen, pages 1-4 and 24-25

Book: Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (in the Northern Highlands Library)

In what ways is democracy celebrated in the novel? In what ways is it denigrated? Is our current age more or less democratic than the era Twain wrote about, or wrote in? How does the cultural image of “the common man” continue to influence American society and politics?

Online Reading: "The American Democrat,” by James Fenimore Cooper
Online Reading "Social Conditions of the Anglo-Americans" by Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America
Google Book: Anti-Intellectualism In American Life by Richard Hofstadter, pages 21-26

What was the Second Great Awakening, and how did it affect American culture? What were Evangelical revival meetings, and what made them so popular and powerful? What does the novel imply about organized religion in general and Christianity in particular? What are current American attitudes about the proper role of religion and/or Christianity in our society? What do you think Twain would have to say about these attitudes?

Online Reading: The Second Great Awakening and the Age of Reform: Overview
Reference Source: Revivals and Revivalism from The Encylopedia of the New American Nation

How were disputes typically resolved in small town America along the Mississippi? How much influence did courts of law have over people’s behavior and social arrangements? How often did people “take the law into their own hands,” and with what results? What does the novel imply about this sort of behavior? What would Twain’s attitude towards today’s ideas of law and order be?

Online Reading: Law and Society by Drew VandeCreek
Google Book: “Preface” in Popular Justice by Manfred Berg
Reference Source: Vigilantes from Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Magazine Article: "America's Peculiar and Horrifying Tradition of Vigilante Justice" by Reed Karaim

How important was the river to life in the towns that bordered it, and to American life as a whole? What impact did it have in a practical sense as an element of the economy, and in a cultural sense as a symbol? How does the Mississippi continue to act as a mythical force in our culture, as well as a natural and economic force?

Online Reading:“Mark Twain’s Mississippi” (you should find many of the links on this project website designed by the Northern Illinois Library useful)
Google Book: “Introduction: The American Nile,” from River of Dreams, by Thomas Ruys Smith
Book: River of Dreams by Thomas Ruys Smith (in the Northern Highlands Library)

How did westward expansion shape America’s identity? How does our culture continue to be shaped by the frontier—or a lack of it? What argument do you feel Twain is making about the frontier as the novel ends? How might that argument apply to today’s America?

Online Reading: The Frontier In American History by Frederick Jackson Turner (Especially Chapter One
Reference Source: "Frontier" by Elliott West, from Encyclopedia of the New American Nation

How did polite middle-class society of the nineteenth century view Native Americans, African Americans and recent immigrants? What assumptions were made about civilization and its role in the lives of these marginalized segments of American society? What commentary do you feel the novel is making about these attitudes? How do these attitudes compare to attitudes evident in today’s America between established and marginalized groups? Where does today’s society draw the line between “civilization” and the Other? Who draws this boundary, with what consequences?

Google Book: "The Westward Route"from The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age by Alan Trachtenberg
Online Reading:"The Genteel Republic" by Richard L. Bushman

What roles do women play in the novel, and how do those roles reflect attitudes towards women that were prevalent in Mark Twain’s time? How do the gender anxieties of that time period compare to the gender anxieties of our own? What insights into our own time period can be gained by looking closely at the implications of the novel in terms of gender?

Online Reading:"The Cult of Domesticity"

Sources for Primary Documents

“America In Class”

This collection of primary documents put together by the National Humanities Center is extraordinarily useful for your research, especially the sections on the Making of African American Identity, the Triumph of Nationalism, and the Gilded and the Gritty.


“Primary Documents In American History”

This web guide organizes digitized versions of materials found in the Library of Congress by time period. Use the links to discover documents relevant to your topic.


Documenting the American South” 

This website constructed by the University of North Carolina library contains many documents from many areas. The link above takes you to an explanation of the “subject headings,” which may prove useful to you in navigating the resources available here.


“The Reconstruction Era And The Fragility of Democracy”

This unit put together by the organization Facing History And Ourselves contains a collection of primary documents focused on race relations in the reconstruction period the novel was written in.


"Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and Race in Postbellum America"

This collection of documents from the Newberry Library in Chicago is organized by categories and contains documents directly related to the novel. Further explore the Newberry’s broader collection on American History and Culture here.


Primary Documents in the Northern Highlands Regional High School Library Databases

The Northern Highlands History and Social Studies databases at this link contain primary documents in American history.





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