Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 30 April 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
"It's lovely to live on a raft" says Huck just a few paragraphs into chapter 19 of Mark Twain's masterpiece. But what kind of raft is it lovely to live on, and does it even matter what kind of raft Huck lived on? Of course, everyone who has read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the raft that transported Huck and Jim into literary immortality was a tiny affair consisting of a few short logs tied together with barely enough room to hold the two of them. Proof of this can be found on the covers of many modern paperback editions of the book. But looking at more covers it becomes obvious that their tiny raft was made of logs with a plank deck on top, and a wigwam. Of course, anyone who has studied the one dozen illustrations in the first edition of the book (found in chapters 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 29, and 40) knows that their raft was in fact made of planks and had a wigwam and a long steering oar, but nowhere in the book does an illustration depict the entire raft, so even a careful study of E. W. Kemble's drawings does not tell the whole story. Finally, anyone who has read the text carefully, knows that Huck gives a fuller description of their raft, declaring that it measured twelve feet by fifteen or sixteen feet, and that it was made of pine planks that had broken off of a much larger lumber raft, and that it sat a good six or seven inches out of the water, and had one long oar. They also know that Jim had to fashion a second steering oar to control their not-so-tiny raft, make a raised platform of dirt upon which to build a fire, and build a wigwam large enough to accommodate that fire. They also know that the raft later had room for the Duke and the King. These astute readers think they know more than those readers who misplaced their trust in those modern paperback covers, but even astute readers don't know the half of it.
In Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, Peter Beidler knows the other half of it and a good deal more, and attacks a topic most Twainians might think could be vanquished in one short journal article. Beidler comes at this topic from every flank, armed to the teeth with meticulous research and 60 informative illustrations, and wins the battle in less than 200 pages. Beidler leaves no plank unturned, so to speak, and investigates things like whether the pine planks were seasoned or green (fresh) and how much they weighed per cubic foot, how and where lumber rafts were constructed (Wisconsin) and how they were steered (with sweeps), what Twain knew or did not know about lumber rafts and other rivercraft, and a myriad of other historical facts wisely separated from river lore, and convincingly concludes that Huck and Jim's raft was a "crib"--a twelve by sixteen foot section of a lumber raft (which usually consisted of six such cribs held together by "yokes" dropped on top of "grub stakes")--made entirely of fresh pine planks. Early on (page 35), he calculates that if six or seven inches of those planks were above the waterline, then another eighteen inches of planks were below the waterline giving the raft its buoyancy, and that this 12x16x2 foot raft was made of 384 cubic feet of green pine that weighed thirty-six pounds per cubic foot, bringing the weight of their raft to 13,824 pounds--nearly seven tons!--not counting the pad of dirt for the building of fires, the wigwam, Huck, Jim, various supplies, and two rapscallion guests for a portion of the journey.
Just about now, even the most astute reader must be rethinking everything they thought they knew about that flimsy little raft and its precious human cargo. And what the heck is a grub stake and how do you yoke one--or two--or, damn it, how many grub stakes do you have to yoke anyhow? And what exactly does a yoke look like? And what made their raft a crib? And how does Beidler know that lumber rafts were made of green wood? And, while we're at it, just what the heck is a lumber raft, and what "pints" does Beidler see about a lumber raft that make it any better'n any other raft? And now that readers know the dimensions and origins of the raft, why should they care to know more? The astute reader might even begin to wonder why it is significant that Huck uses a canoe, the slave traders a skiff, and the Duke and the King arrive in style on a yawl posing as the English brothers of Peter Wilks.
The good news is that Beidler provides clear explanations augmented by contemporary drawings and photographs as well as modern diagrams that answer these questions. By the end of this book, every reader will know if there is any difference between a flat, a flatboat, a woodboat, a wood-flat, or a broadhorn (spoiler alert: nope). The reader will also know what a sweep is, and what to do with one (well, you don't sweep with it), and how to use it with a headblock (no football or wrestling is involved either). The reader will know the difference between a rapids-piece, a skiff, a yawl, a scow, and a string. He'll know a Mississippi raft from a Wisconsin raft, and how you make one out of several of the others. He'll be able to distinguish a drift canoe from driftwood, and a witch from a thwart. He'll know how to reconfigure a lumber raft to run a rapids, and what can go wrong, and how such a mishap yielded the raft that is central to Huck and Jim's story. Huck and Jim knew these things, so it behooves the reader to know them too. As Beidler says "We might wish that Huck had explained some of his nautical terms more fully, but we can scarcely fault Twain for not anticipating that readers a century and more after he wrote his book would not be aware of the meanings of some of his terms. Surely it is our job as readers and as researchers to figure out what Huck means when he talks . . . . [T]o assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means . . . is to miss the boat" (117-118).
The raft that carries Huck and Jim is not the only raft in the book, and Beidler also explores why knowing about the rafts in this great novel is important. He discusses the famous (infamous?) raft episode and casts its exclusion and restoration to the text in a new light. He calculates that the "monstrous" raft in that episode covered about a half acre, and was four cribs wide (twice the normal width of a typical lumber raft and huge in Huck's eyes, but not so huge by Mississippi River standards (153). He prints an account by a raftsman who worked on such a raft, describing the dangerous deadly labor involved, providing insights into the behavior of the raftsmen that Huck encounters (147-153).
Beidler also reviews the reasons proposed by the MTP, David Sloane, Victor Doyno, and others for restoring the raft episode back into the text (127-132), and gives equal time to those like Hamlin Hill, Jonathan Arac, and Michael Powell, who advocate the exclusion of that chapter (133-134). He recites Twain's own comments on that chapter (135-136) and presents the evidence of Charles Webster's ignoring Twain's instructions and tampering with the text of Huck Finn (139-140). Finally, Beidler quotes Lewis Leary's judgment that Twain maimed his text by leaving out that chapter (140) and provides four convincing reasons of his own for restoring it to the story (140-142). Those reasons include how that episode relates to other events in the story, Huck's learning about manhood and courage when little Davy challenges his fellow raftsmen, the psychological significance of Huck using the name of the murdered baby (Charles William Allbright) mentioned by one of the raftsmen, and how Huck's constant searching for a home is made explicit when he swims back to the raft he and Jim have made a home and safe haven (symbolically and literally, a crib).
Along the way, Beidler corrects some misconceptions. For example, the "horse-ferry" upon which Huck's imaginary Miss Hooker narrowly escape death was not used to transport horses, but was powered by horses (107-108). He presents a plausible source for Huck's using smallpox to frighten away the slave-hunters (71-75). He gently corrects mistakes and misreadings by many scholars over the years. Along these lines, this reviewer will quibble with only one term that Beidler himself uses--rivercraft. The term is not incorrect, but riverboats might be a better term. The OED is no help and ignores both terms (as two words, as a single word, or as hyphenated words). Googling the terms yields 387,000 rivercraft to 5,370,000 riverboats, and searching Googlebooks for the period during Twain's lifetime yields twenty examples of riverboats, mostly in Congressional reports and military records, and just six rivercraft, four of them in England, one in Canada, and just one in the US (in 1877). Searching American newspapers up to the time Huck Finn was published in 1885 yields nine riverboats in Louisiana and Mississippi, and one lonely rivercraft in Mississippi. Lloyd's 1856 steamboat directory never uses either term but uses the term "boat" rather than "craft." George Merrick's 1909 memoir of his days as a steamboat pilot (a source cited by Beidler) uses both "craft" and "boat" singly, and uses "river boat" (two words) but not rivercraft (99). Perhaps Twain's own use of the terms is the best guide. In his published writings Twain does not use riverboat or rivercraft in any form, but he uses the term "boat" two dozen times in Huck Finn and four times in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He uses "craft" only once in each book. Well, what's a book review without one small quibble?
Readers will find the Q&A format used by Beidler convenient. It fits his topic well because he is covering ground (OK, water) that is unfamiliar to most Twain readers, and almost every explanation he provides therefore raises new questions. He anticipates these questions and addresses them in a logical sequence, an effective pedagogic technique. His glossary is not comprehensive, and not intended to be, but it describes in plain language the jargon necessarily encountered in this kind of study. The index is useful and accurate. The bibliography not only provides documentation of Beidler's sources, but is suggestive of further inquiry for readers wishing to dive deeper into the river culture of Mark Twain's time.
But the ultimate reward of reading this book is to discover how Huck's spiritual rebirth relates directly to the rafts and other riverboats great and small that populate the pages of Twain's great work. After reading this study, Twainians will want to read Huck Finn once more, seeing things anew. As Beidler himself sums up his intent, "It has been the purpose of this book to steer such readers back to the main channel" (156).
It's lovely to read about living on a raft.