But Paul Cantor has a nice essay on Huck Finn in the CRB that captures many of these points:
A Mississippi River pilot named Samuel Clemens reconfigured himself as a writer named Mark Twain, and the rest is literary history. Clemens was in fact one of the first to understand that in a democratic society a man might use the modern media to invent himself as a celebrity. In Twain's presentation, America is a land of disguises. As a runaway slave, Jim in particular must continually be kept under wraps. In a bizarre development—of whose irony Twain must have been aware—Jim ends up dressed in the theatrical costume of King Lear. One of the central motifs of Huckleberry Finn is the theatricality of democratic America. People are constantly playing roles in public, and changing their identities seems no more difficult than changing their costumes.I'm increasingly skeptical of the "immobile aristocracy of ye olden days" trope, which never seems to point to any particular moment in time when Europeans were strapped down to their villages. For one thing, it seems to me that few humanist writers between 1400-1700 stayed at home, and some ranged quite widely. We might say these were some kind of elite, which is true, but they didn't necessarily have to be born into the nobility to become such, they only needed to pursue a university education, which seems to be the impetus for much of their wandering. Consider, for example, the life of Thomas Platter, or John Comenius. Aristocracy persisted long after the decline of serfdom in England and France, so is it an age of powerful nobility to which we refer, or an age of feudalism, or just any age where social hierarchy is visible and unchallenged?
That is why nobody knows for sure anymore who anybody is in Huckleberry Finn. In the aristocratic world of the old regime in Europe, most people were immobile, tied to the land. That is what it meant to be a serf... But Twain's America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor, a stranger in a strange land. This is perhaps the best example of how all the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest.
At least in democracy there is a chance of unmasking the imposture. The king and the duke are not really convincing in their aristocratic roles, largely because they were not born to them. As Huck explains to Jim, men born as kings make the most successful impostors. In Twain's view, aristocracy simply is fraud; it is all an illusion, based on mere externals, based on show, as again Huck explains to Jim: "I read considerable to Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister." For Twain, aristocracy is by its very nature imposture, some men claiming falsely that they are born to rule over others. But people bred to rule seem to do a better job of convincing others to accept their slavery. That is why, in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.
But Cantor's is an intriguing conclusion about the greater ability of democrats to detect impostors, and I think very much in line with my own view, frequently repeated here, that we should not rush to make impermeable whatever barrier has been breached by the most recent revelations of impostordom. We should not run background checks on all applicants to college, or call up the universities from which every job candidate claims to have a degree. This is the first impulse of victims of a con - tighten security so it never happens again! But if the very quality of the regime that creates impostors is also the one which unmasks them, then we ought to feel less paranoid about the dangers of letting a few slip through our fingers.