2. Historical Background
2.2 Resistance and Solutions
2.3 Civil War
3. Racism in the Novel
3.1 Racist Characters
3.2 Racism by Huck
3.3 Huck's Change of Mind
4.1 Perception When it was Published
4.2 Perception Today
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are considered as Mark Twain's masterpiece. In his work he both depicts and criticizes the society in which he grew up and what was typical of it back then: slavery, violence and bigotry (cf. Pettit 83). When Mark Twain wrote his novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1876, the status of blacks was a very important issue in the United States (cf. Sloane 3).
Mark Twain was born in 1835, in Florida, Missouri as Samuel Longhorn Clemens. He was the sixth of seven children. The family was relatively poor and could therefore afford one slave “only”. Thus, he grew up with a different treatment of whites and blacks. Racist attitudes were nothing unusual for the young Mark Twain (cf. Gribben 1). When Twain was a young man, his views were racist. For example, in 1853, aged 18, he wrote a letter to his mother from New York in which he stated:
“Niggers, mulattoes, quadroons, Chinese and some the Lord no doubt originally intended to be white but the dirt on whose faces leaves one as uncertain as to that fact, block up the little, narrow street; and to wade through this mass of human vermin would raise the ire of the most patient person that ever lived.” (qtd. in Branch 10)
Statements like that which would be marked as unmistakably racist nowadays were normal for whites of that time.
In 1862, Twain started his career as a journalist, after he had gathered experience in several other jobs like printer, steamboat pilot, miner and many more which had brought him insight into several kinds of different people. From 1866 to 1867 and from 1878 to 1879 he traveled the world, including countries like France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Palestine and Egypt (cf. Kirk 52). This surely played a part in contributing to change his views towards other people. Another important factor concerning this issue was his marriage with Olivia Langdon who he married in 1870. Olivia's family was not only deeply religious but also reformist and abolitionist (cf. Loving 138).
His later statements about racial issues proved his change of mind. For example, when he traveled to Australia in 1895, he criticized the treatment of Aboriginals by whites there. He felt ashamed for slavery in his own country and never owned a slave. Twain even had black friends which was not common for white southerners at that time. In September 1899, Twain spoke out on the racist issue in his essay “Concerning the Jews” by saying “I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it.” (Harper's Magazine, Sept. 1899) Furthermore, one must not forget that Clemens was an admirer of black culture. (cf. Lott 132) Bearing this in mind, it is unlikely that Mark Twain intended to write a racist novel when he worked on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.
Mark Twain turned away from 19th century romanticism to realism. His aim was to depict “men and women as they are” (cf. Bell 36). Twain intended to write a novel in which he could portray the society in which he had grown up. This paper shall help to understand the novel's message, by introducing some biographical facts about Clemens on the one hand, and the historical context in which it was written on the other hand. Furthermore, it shows how the novel's perception, which has always been controversial, has changed over the years. My aim is to explain to the reader why Twain's best-known novel is not racist.
2. Historical Background
Twain wrote his novel while he was living as a wealthy man among other wealthy people in “in a superstitious frontier community”. He could still remember his childhood when he knew “Uncle Dan'l, a middle-aged slave” (qtd. in Smith and Goetz 211) who lived on the farm of his uncle John Quarles. “I can see the white and black children grouped around the hearth […] and I can hear Uncle Dan'l telling the immortal tales which Uncle Remus Harris was to gather into his book and charm the world with”. (qtd. in Smith and Goetz 217) Here one can see the roots of Mark Twain's connection of slaves and boyhood freedom while living in a superstitious environment (cf. Hoffman 109). This is not the only autobiographical element which can be found in the novel; the core element of the whole story took place in reality: In Hannibal, there was a boy called Tom Blankenship who was friends with a runaway slave. (cf. Sloane 32)
The novel alludes to the fact, that it was written 100 years after the American Revolution and alludes to the fact that Clemens was disappointed about the political situation in the United States. 1876 was not only the anniversary of the American independence but also the year in which the Northern involvement in the South ended. Thus, the situation for African-Americans had not really improved. In spite of the fact that slavery had ended factually, it remained in the minds of many white Americans. Thus, there seemed to be no real chance to escape from slavery: Jim would have de facto been re-enslaved in the 1880s. (cf. Hurm 204)
Slavery was over when Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nonetheless, there had not been a change of mind among white Southerners which is why he criticizes the pre- as well as the postwar society of the South (cf. Pettit 83). Almost all African-Americans in today's America are descendants of black slaves who were mostly brought from Africa to America in the early 17th century. Their procurement was arranged by the Royal African Company (cf. Lovejoy 473). The importation of slaves started in the Spanish colonies of America. In 1694, rice cultivation was introduced in Carolina. As there was a shortage of laborers, the use of slaves for agricultural work was carried over by the North American colonies. The treatment of the black slaves was very different from that in Latin American colonies: While in America black slaves mixed up with white settlers and natives, they faced harsh discrimination in the English colonies. In the late 17th century, there was no way for a slave to escape from his or her legal status. For example, Virginia enacted a law of hereditary slavery in 1662 meaning that a child born to an enslaved mother inherits her slave status. (cf. Hening 170)
The treatment of slaves differed between the northern and southern states of what would later become the United States. While the South needed the slaves because of its agricultural-based economy, slaves enjoyed more and more liberalization in the northern states. This was due to the fact that the north industrialized earlier and therefore did not need so many laborers on the fields. This fact encouraged many slaves from the South to escape to the Northern states. As the South desperately needed these slaves, the “Fugitive Slave Laws” became law in the Southern states. Those laws justified the recapture of runaway slaves and their legal status as being the property of their masters. They were highly controversial, especially in the Northern states as they stood in contrast with the gradual abolition of slavery in the North. The laws worsened the situation of runaway slaves even more as there were now commissioners who received some money for each recaptured slave. From now on, even whites underwent punishment when they helped slaves to escape. (cf. Jenkins 130) In the novel, Huck and the runaway slave Jim try to escape to Illinois. But even there he would have been a target for slave hunters as he had no freedom papers. (cf. Hurm 201)
In chapter 16, Huck meets two slave hunters who try to find out, whether his companion is black or white. He tells them that he is white and that his raft is infected by smallpox, which is why they do not check it. Afterward, Huck has a bad conscience as he did not hand in Jim to them which was against the law:
“Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd 'a' done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad—I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother nomore about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time“.
Slavery is also thematized in Chapter 31. Huck does not care any more about being a good person as he decides to steal Jim out of slavery, no matter whether this is considered as “good” or “bad” by society.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” points out that it was almost impossible in the antebellum period to bid defiance to slavery. Even Huck, the moral hero of the novel, cannot fully overcome “false values” (Hurm 203).
2.2 Resistance and solutions
In the early 19th century the black slaves emancipated more and more. They organized self-help by creating their own church, own newspapers and own schools which resulted in a higher literacy among blacks (cf. Hatt 28). Furthermore, they were inspired by the high ideals of both the French and the American revolution.