A Big River of Americana
By Kathryn Neves
This season Big River is the show that has everyone humming here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. With its catchy bluegrass songs and fun familiar story, this musical is one of the most American performances you could ever see. After all, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the basis for the musical) has been taught in American high schools for well over a century. But it’s also been debated for just as long— ever since it was published in 1884, some parents, teachers, and moralists all over the United States have called for it to be banned. It is currently number fourteen on the list of Top 100 Banned Books. When someone says “censorship,” the knee-jerk reaction is to think of Huck Finn. So why bother to read the book at all? Why bother to watch the musical if some people seem to hate it so much?
The answer to that is simple. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel— perhaps even the Great American Novel. There is nothing more true to the American spirit than the story of Huck Finn and his adventures on the mighty Mississippi.
At its simplest, Big River is about overcoming bad circumstances. It is about escaping, and it’s about becoming a better person. Throughout the story, we see both Huck and Jim escape from their horrible circumstances— Huck from an abusive household and Jim from slavery. We watch them learn how to navigate the enormous Mississippi River and then the world. We can see them grow and improve themselves, becoming better people and getting more out of life. And isn’t that the American Dream? To rise above your station and to succeed? It seems like the story should be embraced and lauded, not condemned!
However, the opponents of Twain’s story have a point. The book studies race and discrimination in a very complex way. Some argue that the book portrays racist stereotypes through Jim. Those who would ban the book hold up the racist attitudes of the characters— even Huck himself. They claim that the whole book is racist and has no place within our culture. But is that true? Shouldn’t we try to be as accurate as possible to the time period it was written in? To sugarcoat the treatment of slaves and African-Americans would be worse than including the racism— it would be denying that racism existed back then.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s real name) lived through the American Civil War. He saw the emancipation of the slaves and the rampant racism that grew ever larger afterward. He was a member of a society whose values were far different than ours— he lived in a world where racism was the norm. He was even considered forward-thinking for his time. We have to accept his story as what it is— a product of its time.
Even more important, though, is the message at its core. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a story about friendship overcoming everything else. Huck and Jim differ on many levels besides race. Their upbringing is different, their personalities and their ideologies clash, and their sense of moral rights and wrongs usually contradict each other. However, throughout the story, they overcome each of these differences and bond together as brothers in the human race. This message is more important now than ever. The country is divided along so many lines, and anger towards each other is rampant. To say that Big River and Huck Finn are not relevant any longer is just not true. It is a story that everyone should hear again; in some ways times today are not so different from Mark Twain’s time. Differences aren’t important, whether they are political or racial, big or small. The only thing that matters is friendship and humanity.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of America’s past, present, and future; and Big River tells it with such fun music, written by Roger Miller, that you can’t help but stomp your feet and clap your hands. It is definitely a must-see this season— after all, if Huck Finn is the Great American Novel, then perhaps we can say that Big River is the Great American Musical.