While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has an anti-slavery message, Mark Twain’s portrayal of African Americans is not up to our current standards of political correctness. For that reason (and the n-word), it is viewed as racist by some. Yet the book was widely viewed as anti-racist from its publication, insofar as it humanizes Jim.
One might be surprised, given all the controversy, that Twain’s own views on matters of racial justice were decidedly liberal for his time. This speaks directly to the intent of the author, something that shouldn’t be discounted in any examination of Huck Finn and racism.
A Frequently Banned Book
Huck Finn has been banned throughout its history, but not necessarily for accusations of racism. In its initial publication, readers were offended by the colloquial dialect (how quaint!). In the ’50s, left-wing civil rights groups such as the NAACP complained against Huck Finn for racism. Such groups were and still are (understandably) offended by the n-word. Many are quick to acquiesce to such complaints, regardless of the merits of the novel and the intent of the author.
The Message of Huck Finn
Given the controversy around Huck Finn, it is worth exploring whether the message and theme of the book is one which promotes a racist outlook. I would contend that it doesn’t.
With that said, the profuse use of the n-word is enough nowadays for the book to be condemned. Well, it always was controversial. It is true that the n-word was used much more widely and shamelessly in Twain’s day. Still, it was known to be a pejorative. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a compliment. On the other hand, it wouldn’t get you “canceled” or be a career/life ending incident should you be known to use the n-word in the 19th century.
Also at issue in Huck Finn is the portrayal of Jim. Jim is a fine person and rather blameless as a character. Yet it isn’t a characterization which would pass muster by our standards. This is to say that nowadays we are rather sensitive to any perceived unflattering treatment of an African American character in film or literature.
Huck and Tom Sawyer hold ridiculous beliefs and have outlandish schemes; yet the slaves themselves are even more superstitious. Jim is portrayed at times as “simpleminded, almost retarded” (Saunders xxii). He has a giant hair-ball which he uses to divine people’s fortunes, provided they had a little money: “He said it sometimes wouldn’t talk without money” (16). This is not to mention the dialect in which they speak, which Twain humorously transcribes phonetically. Based on my research, it is an accurate portrayal of how a slave with limited educational opportunity might have spoken. Nonetheless, some view this as a gross caricature and stereotype.
Within the long conclusion of Huck Finn is an anti-slavery message: The doctor who helps Tom Sawyer after Tom received a bullet to the calf gives a character witness for Jim:
“...I never seen a n*gger that was a better nuss or failthfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I seen plain enough he been worked main hard, lately” (238).
The doctor concludes, “He ain’t no bad n*gger, gentlemen” (238). Twain shows that despite Jim’s demonstrating commendable behavior, the doctor still regards him as a “n*gger,” and still arranges for him to be recaptured. There’s a disconnect between the good behavior of Jim and his shabby treatment by southern Whites, even those one would expect to be better educated, such as a doctor. Indeed, irony is Twain’s literary device of choice.
Jim gives us a sympathetic view of the black experience in the antebellum South; he humanizes an entire class of people who otherwise would not necessarily been viewed through such as lens. But the slave owners in Huck Finn are not portrayed as particularly malevolent either.
There are scoundrels such as the Huck’s father, the King and the Duke. Then there are slaveowners, such as Miss Watson and Aunt Sally, who are not exactly moral paragons, maybe a little insensitive. But otherwise, one does not find them to be altogether bad people. They simply adopt the norms of their society, and consider their few slaves to be their property. They do not single out their slaves for gratuitous cruelty (other than the fact that slavery is in and of itself a form of cruelty).
Ultimately, the question of whether Huck Finn is racist is impossible to resolve. Though I contend it is not racist, still, one must be willing to allow that it can be both racist and not-racist, in the great contradiction which is inherent to any work of art. In particular, such tension is characteristic of the Great American Novel. It is part of a “Yelp,” which is to say a work of art which expresses the contradictions of the country, its morality and immorality, transcending that “national energy” into something that will stand as a testament to the artist’s particular time (Saunders xxiv). In that sense, Huck Finn is almost beyond criticism and beyond reproach.
Twain’s Personal Views Pertaining to Racism/ Slavery
Twain was labeled by southern Whites as a “traitor” (Burns et al 129), presumably for his at times satirical look at the South and his portrayal of Jim’s flight from slavery in Huck Finn. We’re in very different times now, such that Twain’s great novel is attacked not by reactionaries but by PC liberals.
The thrust of Twain’s wit was to puncture hypocrisy, and this extended to race and the treatment of Blacks. He was generally a man against cruelty and prejudice. Would Twain reach our standards of liberalism and political correctness? Certainly not. I like to think if Twain were alive today, it would be the left whom he would satirize. But of course that is merely a thought experiment.
At any rate, by the standards of his day, he was one for progress. Whether it was racism against Blacks, imperialism, or any other hypocrisy, Twain spoke out against it, which put him on the liberal side of his society. Indeed, in his public statements and commentary, racial injustice ranked high on his list of despised hypocrisies.
Twain’s own lower middle class household owned one slave. Further, his father “abused and sold slaves and helped send abolitionists to prison” (Burns et al. 73). It should be no surprise then that while he was no defender of slavery, he was not inclined to demonize a small-time slave holder either.
Twain as a boy was known to throw around the n-word liberally, reflecting the mores of Hannibal, Missouri. He grew up on the Mississippi river, so Twain was in a good position to accurately represent how people there really spoke, n-word included. In part, use of the n-word in Huck Finn was merely reflecting this reality.
We don’t have to just make inferences about Twain’s views on race and slavery; it’s a matter of public record. Twain described going to his uncle’s farm on fraternizing with his uncle’s slaves, though not exactly on a basis of equality:
“All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect [because] we were comrades and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered complete fusion impossible” (Burns 10).
Twain likewise spoke to his childhood impressions of slavery in a manner which seems relevant to Huck Finn’s attitude on the matter:
“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that here was anything wrong about it. The local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind–and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing” (Burns, et al 11).
Twain describes a society in which slavery was so engrained that not even the slaves questioned it (though as Twain allows, perhaps they inwardly rejected it). This helps us understand Huck’s frame of reference. He really has no basis to question slavery; all he knows is that “ablitionists” are the most scorned type of people. What a wonder then that he was able to deduce that Jim neveretheless should be free.
As a young man, Twain did not hold particularly liberal views towards blacks. He told his mother in 1854:
“I reckon I had better black my face for in these Eastern States n*ggers are considerably better than white people” (Burns, et al. 14).
During the Civil War, Twain’s family was split in their allegiances. His mother supported the Confederacy and loathed the Yankees; whereas his brother Orion was a staunch Republican. Twain, meanwhile, was ambivalent. Taken away from his beloved position as a steamboat pilot, he briefly joined a local Confederate militia, where he studiously avoided any conflict:
“I knew more about retreating, than the man that invented retreating” (Burns, et al 27).
But what if Twain had fought bravely for the Confederacy? At least it seems he intended to fight for it in some capacity. One imagines then he would have been regarded as a hero of the lost cause, and approached politics and social causes differently. Maybe his evolution on the subject of slavery is a way of justifying his lack of martial fortitude. Of course, this is merely another thought experiment. There is no evidence that Twain was troubled by not fighting for the Confederacy when it may have needed him. In fact, he was rather wont to make self-deprecating jokes about his lack of valor in the Civil War.
All this is to say that Twain’s attitude towards race and slavery is just as ambivalent as his attitude and lack of action during the Civil War. The “voice” of Huck Finn is one that at the same time despises the mistreatment of Blacks, while also not appearing to be especially overzealous in the cause of abolition.
Twain’s parents-in-law, the Langdons, were indeed staunch abolitionists. At one time, they even harbored Frederick Douglass in their stately three-story home in Western New York, and also helped runaway slaves. Surely they exerted an influence in the more liberal direction for Twain, who anyway would have been keen to get along with his in-laws.
In 1869, Twain wrote a satirical piece in which he mocked the wrongful lynching of a black man, who was after all, “only a n*gger.” His mocking tone shows Twain’s true feelings on the matter:
“But mistakes will happen, even in the conduct of the best regulated and most high toned mobs, and surely there is no good reason why Southern gentlemen should worry themselves with useless regrets, so long as only an innocent “nigger is hanged, or roasted or knouted to death, now and then.” (Burns et al. 76)
Twain wrote and published Huck Finn after Reconstruction, when the South was back to its old ways to some extent. There was the KKK to enforce its renegade justice, and in some ways “Black Southerners were being abandoned” (Burns et al 113), as the North returned inward to its own problems, ending its veritable occupation of the South. When Jim escapes slavery to find himself in a new kind of bondage in a scheme of the King and Duke, this can be viewed as an echo of the era in the South after Reconstruction, when Blacks found themselves “trapped in new kind of bondage” (Burns et al 121). In this view, Jim’s experience is an extended metaphor for the experience of Blacks as a group in the 19th century.
By the 1880s Twain continued in this more enlightened perspective, having befriended the likes of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington (Saunders xxii). He continued to make public statements that mocked and scorned racial injustice into the 20th century.
Given Twain’s personal record on the question of the rights of Black people, it seems reasonable to conclude that, on balance, the use of the n-word is Huck Finn was meant more as a way of illustrating racism rather than perpetrating racism. But all this context will fall on deaf ears for those who cannot get past the admittedly jarring use of the racial slur.
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Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.