Racism in Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain

Seminar Paper, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Huck Finn and the controversy

3. Racial Discourse
3.1. Twain’s strategy of subversion
3.2. The portrait of Jim
3.2.1. Jim’s superstition
3.2.2. Usage of the term nigger
3.3. Huck and Jim

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Having the possibility to read one of Mark Twain’s most controversial pieces of literature at university should not be taken for granted by students, as the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had been struggling for its existence in the curriculum and for its title of an American classic from the day its first English edition appeared in 1884. The historical frame around the novel provides the reader insight into the Antebellum South illustrating the limitations which American civilization imposes on individual freedom of African Americans by the time before American Civil War and furthermore attacks on the evil ways in which racism impinges upon their lives. At that point opinions about the novel’s correctness arise and critics are divided into detractors and supporters, where opinions range from “racist trash” (Wallace in Chadwick-Joshua 5) to “one of the world’s greatest books” (Trilling 318). Even if the novel was written nearly two decades after the end of Civil War, which resulted in the abolition of slavery followed by the idea of Reconstruction to integrate former slaves into society, African Americans still had to fight for equal rights to be accepted as valuable human beings. It was still a long way from here with many impediments like the imposition of Jim Crow laws they had to face limiting their lives by laws of segregation. Consequently the response to any piece of fiction dealing with this sensitive issue, with which the African American middle class of the 20th century has struggled, particularly when it was written by a person who is not African American, has been “swift and predictable” (Chadwick-Joshua 3). This assignment aims a critical examination of how racial issues in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are created and how race is represented in the novel with the purpose to defend it from the often comment of being racist. At the beginning there will be given an overview of the novelʼs history of controversy, where different views and opinions being held over time towards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be presented. The main part focuses on the racial discourse explaining Twain’s strategies and writing techniques and furthermore the portrayal of Jim in the novel will be analyzed under the aspect of racism with special emphasis on his superstitious behavior and the often used term of nigger in the novel. Ultimately the relationship between Huck and Jim will be examined by a special incident in the novel, before a conclusion will revise the most important findings of this assignment with a personal statement and opinion.

2. Huck Finn and the controversy

From the day The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared in 1884 myriad critics arose about different ways in which the novel fails, including “[…] bad grammar, coarse manners or low moral tone […]” (Henry 360). These critics lead to several exclusions within the country, for instance from the Concord Public Library in 1885. But as Chadwick-Joshua pointed out the most radical accusation still “focuse[s] more directly on the novel’s racist posture, and thus on Jim” (4). This can best be illustrated by the novel’s journey into the school’s library canon spanning more than two decades, which began with a study that aimed to find out “the most effective ways of utilizing” (Mench and Mench 5) Huck Finn in the classroom, resulting in a special junior high school edition. Two important critics whose essays then gave the last impulse for Huck Finn to be established as required reading were Lionel Trilling and T.S. Eliot. The former marked the novel as “one of the worldʼs great books” (Peaches 360) and “[…]one of the central documents of American culture” (Chadwick-Joshua 6) strengthened by T.S. Eliotʼs declaration of “a masterpiece” (Peaches 360). Therefore before desegregation white teachers taught the novel exclusively to white students. When in 1945 segregation in public schools came to an end and black youngsters came to be introduced with the novel as well, most of the reactions, particularly because of the use of the term nigger, probably will best be described with indignation, needless to say including the pupil’s angry parents. Henry Peaches could embrace the cause of African Americans reaction, which lead to the novelʼs first exclusion from classroom in 1957 by the New York City Board of Education, in one precise sentence:

Black protesters, offended by the repetitions of “nigger” in the mouths of whites and black characters, Twainʼs minstrel-like portrayal of the escaped slave Jim and of black characters in general, and the negative traits assigned to blacks, objected to the use of Huck Finn in English courses. (361)

Banning Huck Finn presumably associated with the civil rights organization NAACP placing pressure on the board, which has continued the discontent with racial attitudes the novel would hold periodically over the next years. Several boards of education followed and adapted versions replacing the original one, featured with less violent tone, a more simplified southern dialect or a censorship on terms which described African Americans as inferior in any way. One of the most direct detractors to Huck Finn, is John H. Wallace. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written” (Wallace 16) is cited from the beginning of his critical essay from 1992, in which he tries to protect African Americans from the “mental cruelty, harassment, and outright racial intimidation [the novel constitutes]” (Wallace 24), and recommends that “[t]his book should not be used with children” (Wallace 24) pointing to his adapted version “[which] no longer depicts blacks as inhuman, dishonest, or unintelligent” (Wallace 24). Among the wide range of critics who clearly articulate a critical attitude towards Huck Finn may also be listed Forrest G. Robinson, who claimed that “[Jim] eventually reverts to a two dimensional character, gullible and superstitious” (Chadwick-Joshua 5) as well as James Cox, who “never actually asserts a strong position on the character of Jim, placing him […] in ambiguity” (Chadwick-Joshua 5). But as many detractors against Huck Finn there might be, there are still opponents to those, representing the case in favor of Mark Twain’s novel. By providing an opinion that highlights the gap between both counterparties, Nat Hentoff “stated that the novel is not only the least racist he has ever read but that the character of Jim […] signals a redeeming hope for the future health of society” (Chadwick-Joshua 7).

This controversy surrounding the novel should be taken into account while analyzing it under the aspect, whether Twain held racist attitudes or not, particularly because “such oppositions [provide] an effective and productive environment for […] debate” (Chadwick-Joshua 6) as the critic Wayne C. Booth correctly assumed. Furthermore it shows the discourse the novel is embedded into, being revealed by the different critics and supporters who are showing up new interpretations to readers or different institutions, which may stimulate and influence them. The NAACP for instance changed its position in the early 80ʼs from objection to praise of Huck Finn, even if they were calling attention to the teaching methods of the novel and suggested that teachers should be “trained to handle potentially sensitive areas” (Cole in Mensh and Mensh 11) before placing the novel on the list of acquired reading.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Racism in Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
PS Mark Twain
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
3929 KB
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Racism
Quote paper
Isabella Wrobel (Author), 2007, Racism in Huckleberry Finn, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/155574


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Racism in Huckleberry Finn

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free