IN AUGUST 1876 Mark Twain began to write what he called "another boys' book. . . . It is Huck Finn's Autobiography." Four hundred pages were finished when his well ran dry, as he said, and he put it aside, seriously considering that he might burn the manuscript when it was finished. In the seven years that followed Twain wrote three other books, including The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. In July 1883 he took Huck up again and finished it in September, having discovered, he wrote to his mother, that now the book "is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie."

Huck is probably the only important novel printed in modern times for which the publisher (the author and his nephew Charles Webster) forgot to send out review copies. As a result, only one major review appeared upon publication. It was as well. When the critics did read the book they disliked it. It was banned from the Concord Public Library, which regarded the book as "the veriest trash." However, the critics' views and the banning, as is still the case in this country for popular fiction, had little effect on its sales. Twain recognized that the banning would be a financial boon and boasted to his nephew, a month after publication, that Concord has "given us a rattling tip-off puff . . . that will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

In 14 months Huck sold more than 50,000 copies and went on to become one of the most popular books ever written by an American. It has been so widely reprinted that no adequate bibliography of its appearances has ever been made. One of its subsidiary records is that it is probably the most written about novel in American literary history. It had its sequel, Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy, a fragment Twain left behind in his papers, it has been a play, a musical comedy, a movie, a TV show, but as a novel it has never lost its notorious reputation. As late as June 1976 it was still offending: Huck was removed from the required reading lists in Illinois because it contained the word "nigger."

Huck 's most famous admirer, Ernest Hemingway, wrote in 1935 in Green Hills of Africa that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." There has been a hurricane of debate in this century as to whether it is an unflawed masterpiecce--critics argue about the tone of the last sections--but no one doubts that it comes close to that mythical beast, the Great American Novel.

All of these fascinating facts, and thousands more, are incorporated into Michael Patrick Hearn's excellent introduction to the large (8x11) facsimile and annotated edition of Huckleberry Finn. What is not included in the long information-and anecdote-packed introduction is to be found in the full notes printed at the side of the original quarto text. Taken with the appendix containing the Raft chapter, which Twain removed from the novel and inserted into Life on the Mississippi, and the extensive bibliography, the book may be said to contain everything the curious general reader needs to know about Huck. Clarkson N. Potter, the publisher, has issued other annotated classics--Gulliver's Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol --but this volume, in my view, is the best of them all, rich in interesting detail, accurate, satisfying in that almost every question concerning text, allusion, ambiguity of expression, confusions created by the author, and biographical use, is answered completely and, often, wittily.

I have two small demurrals in this hymn of praise. The first concerns the editor's choice of the British rather than the American first edition to be the text for his annotations. His reasons are understandable: the Chatto and Windus edition did come out first, through a holdup at the American press to remove a drawing made obscene by a playful engraver. But it was printed from corrected American galleys so it contains none of the useful (to the collector) points of error of the American first. In addition, Hearn has corrected a few mispellings that got by the British editor, eliminated the chapter headings, redone the table of contents so the pages are now those of his edition, and included, curiously, the title page of the American edition, not the British. This hybrid result will bother no one but the specialist; the general reader will not care what edition he is reading.

The other small flaw is that the notes and their numbers are set in heavy type which, on some pages, overshadows the rather dim type of the facsimile, an unfortunate contrast that diminishes the all-important text in favor of the remarks upon it. This is a fault avoided in other volumes in the "Annotated" series.

These are minor matters when one recognizes the contribution this new volume makes to the mountain of literature about Huckleberry Finn. Nowhere is there to be found a better review of the illustrated editions, including a close study of the original E.W. Kemble illustrations. It is an attractive and useful book. My grandson, a highly critical reader at 10, reviewed the annotated edition together with some others I had on hand and pronounced this one "dandy, because I don't have to get up to look in the dictionary when I don't understand things." A small concern, I suppose but one to be reckoned with.