The Negro-image and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Seminar Paper, 1999

15 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Blacks in US-American History
2.1. The Slave Era
2.2. Growing Resistance

3. The Negro-image in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
3.1. Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas
3.2. The Book’s Context
3.3. Huck and Jim

4. Responses to the Race Issue in Huckleberry Finn
4.1. Early Criticism
4.2. Recent Criticism

5. Evaluation - is Huckleberry Finn a Racist Book?

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In modern literature there is hardly a book as famous as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which has been discussed more controversial than that. It describes how a white boy with "a sound heart but a deformed conscience" (Mark Twain) overcomes his southern background and helps a runaway Negro slave escape to freedom. According to its author, the book is a "satire on the damned human race". Twain had already dealt with the subject of race in Tom Sawyer, but it only becomes a matter of central concern in Huck Finn.

Critical comments on that novel range from high praise to total condemnation. It was described as "explicitly anti-racist stance" (David L. Smith) and as "racist trash" (John H. Wallace). The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee decided 1885 to exclude the book from the library. It regarded the book as "the veriest trash" and stated that it is "...more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people." Even today, the book is banned from a number of high school libraries, especially in schools mainly visited by black children.

On the other hand, in 1935 Hemingway made his often quoted statement that "all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn..." The extreme comments of the book, no matter if approval or objection, deal almost without exception with the central issue of the novel, the acceptance by Huck of his responsibility to Jim, a "nigger". For that reason, since it was first published in 1883, argument continues about the books racism. It has always been the target of censors of manners, morals or misguided racial consciousness.

However, the book reflects America’s difficulty with itself and its own history. It greatly projects America and the American spirit. Restricting it is like killing the messenger who brings the bad news. To show that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a racist book but the opposite is what I want to show in this research paper.

2. Blacks in US-American history

Today most of the black population of North America is in the US. Almost all these black people are descendants of Africans brought to the New World as slaves by white colonists. In 1501 Spain first permitted African slavery in its colonies and in 1808 the US banned the importation of new slaves.

Whereas the Afro-American population mixed extensively with other races in Latin America, the blacks living in the US remained socially separate. However, on the cultural level they combined African aspects with European elements to create an Afro-American culture that has had a deep impact on non-blacks. Black people also have used the language and social skills needed to survive in a white-dominated society but maintained a sense of racial identity. The history of North American blacks is a history of recurring struggles for civil rights as well as economic and political equality.

2.1. The Slave Era

The use of African slave labor started in the Spanish colonies in Central America. The profitable Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries provided a model for European settlers in North America where native Indians and white servants could not meet the demands for agricultural labor. Most blacks brought to North America were used to produce the export crops (tobacco, rice, cotton), though Africans also served as soldiers during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The agricultural trade became the major source of wealth extracted by European nations from their colonies.

The English settlers turned gradually to black slavery to solve their labor shortage. While Spain was busy bringing blacks to the New world during the 16th century, England did not engage in the slave trade until the foundation of the Royal African Company in 1663. The status of the first Africans who arrived in the English colonies since 1619 was similar to that of white servants. As white workers gradually improved their status, new laws were introduced to ensure that the political rights and economic opportunities granted to whites would not be extended to Africans. The laws also prohibited racial intermarriage and organized the punishment of slave disobedience.

In the north, were the economy was not based on plantations, liberalization of white attitudes continued. However, in the south, the spread of cotton cultivation during the 18th century supported the rise of an arch-conservative southern political order based on the use of slave labor. In 1800 the population of the US included almost one million slaves, of which only 36,000 were in the northern states. A number of northern states provided the gradual emancipation of their slaves before 1804. In 1860 all of the nearly four million black slaves in the US were in the southern states.

Aware that the northern states might become refuges for escaped slaves, the southern states sought the return of slaves on the same basis as the extradition of common criminals. In 1793 and again in 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Laws, intended to organize the recapture of runaway slaves and to legitimate by law the holding of property in slaves. For the first time, the new laws defined the process of taking custody in a state to which a slave from another state has escaped. Both laws ultimately provoked dissatisfaction throughout the country. Northerners questioned the law’s regard on civil liberty whereas southerners complained that the laws were circumvented by legal defiance as well as growing popular hostility to enforcement.

Further difficulty arose from free-state legislation to define citizenship which was followed by the gradual abolishment of slavery in the north. These early liberty laws were also designed to protect free blacks from dishonest slave catchers. They strongly irritated slave holders.

The law of 1850 even made the situation of runaway slaves worse. In an attempt to solve the issue, the law created commissioners under federal court appointment who were responsible for the retrieval of escaped slaves. If a runaway escaped while in a marshal’s custody, the marshal had to pay the slave’s full value to the owner. Persons guilty of helping a slave to escape were subject to fine or a maximum prison sentence of six months. In court, federal commissioners received $5 for proslave verdicts but $10 for decisions favorable to masters.

By the end of the 18th century the small number of freed blacks had already begun to establish their own social institutions and to improve the conditions of the race. Most of these efforts were centered in the cities, which offered black residents more liberty than rural areas. Even black slaves had some freedom of movement in the cities and generally better access to information than was common on the plantations. By the end of the 18th century, blacks had founded a number of African Methodist churches.

By 1830 there were a variety of schools, self-help groups and political organizations founded by the black urban communities. Although literacy was still uncommon, as self-confidence among black leaders grew their will to decide their own destiny was revealed in the first black newspapers, such as Freedom’s Journal. During the 1830s black leaders gathered every year in national conventions to discuss strategies for racial advancement.

Efforts by blacks to improve their conditions ranged from the adoption of white values to attempts to reform or to escape American society. The black ship owner Paul Cuffee succeeded 1815 in transporting a small group of free blacks to Sierra Leone. In 1817, when whites in the newly founded American Colonization Society (ACS) suggested to return free blacks to Africa, black representatives rejected the idea, arguing that they should not abandon their enslaved fellow blacks. The options of immigrating to Canada, Latin America or Africa continued to be discussed. Although the ACS established a colony in Liberia 1822, the idea of foreign colonization received lesser support as the African-born slaves died out.

By the 1830, most southern and some northern states restricted or prohibited the entry of blacks. Ohio law required entering blacks to deposit $500. White workers in the emerging capitalist industry feared the competition from blacks for jobs. An attack on the Cincinnati black community by a white mob in 1829 was followed by similar attacks in a number of northern cities.

Although southern free blacks lived in societies that restricted their life, they often had greater opportunities than northern free blacks to acquire property. However, the majority of them were barred from educational facilities, good housing and legal protection. For thousands of blacks, Canada and Mexico became places of refuge.

During the 19th century, ideas from the American and French revolutions as well as Christian idealism and African folk beliefs had a strong influence on slave resistance. Major conspiracies occurred 1800 in Virginia and 1822 in South Carolina. Finally, the bloody and religiously motivated Nat Turner rebellion (1831) resulted in the increase of repression of slave activities. Only small scale resistance - running away, tool breaking, sporadic violence - continued to interfere with plantation operations.

2.2. Growing Resistance

Although individuals and groups of all religious sects defended slavery, antislavery views grew steadily. However, many who personally held strong antislavery opinions hesitated to discuss what many citizens held to be their rights.

Blacks resisted enslavement from the time of capture in Africa but, outnumbered by whites, they were less likely than Brazilian or Caribbean slaves to engage in major rebellions. Usually, on their way to North America, blacks underwent "seasoning" in the West Indies and a "breaking process" on the mainland which was designed to change African cultural roots into the attitude of obedience that was required for slave labor. African skills or social patterns were not favored by the white slave holders. Only in South Carolina, where slaves became a majority of the population, planters looked for desired skills, such as the knowledge of rice cultivation.

More often, slave holders tried to suppress African culture, believing it was easier to control slaves who spoke English and depended on the knowledge installed in them by whites. Not everywhere these efforts were successful. Slaves africanized English, Christianity and other aspects of Western civilization. Despite the restrictions white masters placed on them, literacy and Christianity often became tools for individual and collective resistance, both to brutal treatment and enslavement itself.

Blacks petitioned state legislatures for freedom, better treatment or return to Africa. During the 18th century, the black movement received new power by the growing influence of democratic and egalitarian ideas among whites.

Increased discrimination, combined with the growth of black literacy, institutional power and economic resources encouraged an abolitionist movement after 1830. Impatient with gradualist plans, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison founded the American Anti- Slavery Society in 1833 in order to end slavery immediately. He noted that slavery might be ended by moralistic arguments. Many black leaders later disagreed with that and broke with Garrison. Instead, they stressed the need for violent resistance. The growing militancy was shown when black communities raised funds to defend Africans in the famous Amistad case.

During the 1840s black abolitionists developed a variety of strategies for the abolition of slavery. Many resisted slavery by organizing the Underground Railroad, a supporter’s network to help slaves escape to free states. Several violent clashes occurred when armed blacks tried to free recaptured fugitives or to protect escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act increased pessimism among blacks about the possibility of an peaceful end of slavery. Black pessimism was further encouraged by the Dred Scott case that ruled that blacks were not considered to be US citizens.

In the north abolitionist resistance was so strong that 1854 in Boston over 2000 soldiers were required to escort Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, to a waiting ship that took him back south, when the abolitionist mob tried to rescue him.

Black nationalism rose and many militant black leaders concluded that blacks only can achieve freedom by staying separate from whites. Thus they organized exploring expeditions to Africa. Although these leaders were a minority within the black community, they reflected the strong believe that slavery was a basic part of the US political system.

Although most northern whites did not expect the Civil War to result in the elimination of slavery, many blacks offered their services to the Union army with just that in mind. Northern policy regarding black enlistment first was hesitating because President Lincoln hoped to preserve the Union without abolishing slavery or eliminating racial discrimination in the north.

During their military service, however, black soldiers suffered racist treatment from their white officers and, when captured, from their Confederate enemies. In the early part of the conflict, northern commanders even returned freed slaves to their masters. But by the end of the war the Union had become dependent on its almost 200,000 black soldiers. There also had been a significant change of the racial attitudes of northern leaders including President Lincoln that eventually led to the constitutional prohibition of slavery by the 13th Amendment.

3. The Negro-image in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

3.1. Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas

In order to understand the problems of society that are behind The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we must take a look at the historical background of the places where the story is set. Huck and Jim start their journey on the Mississippi in Missouri, they raft down the river between Missouri and Illinois, and the story comes to an end in Arkansas.

After the first steamboat reached St. Louis in 1816, immigration into the Missouri territory increased rapidly. In 1821 Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. It quickly became an area of wild land speculation, accompanied by an inflation in currency.

In the early years of the 19th century, Missouri, although a slave state, was not a strong defender of slavery and many of its citizens were interested in movements for gradual emancipation. However, with the rise of the abolitionists, Missouri became decidedly proslavery. The state legislature adopted the Jackson resolutions in 1849, in which the right of Congress to regulate slavery in the territories was denied. In the presidential election the vote for Lincoln was very small, and when he won the election, the legislature established a convention to consider the relation of the state to the Union. After the outbreak of the Civil War, the state government favored secession but was soon defeated by Union troops in the southern part of Missouri.

When Illinois became the 21st state of the Union in 1818, there was considerable proslavery sentiment in the new state as many settlers had immigrated from the south. In 1823 the proslavery majority called for a convention to amend the constitution. To legalize slavery was the implicit but not expressed intention. The proposal was heavily defeated in the election. However, the murder of a abolitionist leader in 1837 showed that there still was a strong proslavery sentiment. In the early 1830s, about 500 Indians staged a war against the white settlers in northern Illinois but were quickly driven out of the territory.

During the decade before the Civil War, the influx of settlers from the northern states strengthened the antislavery movement in Illinois. In the elections of 1854, the Democratic Party was defeated by an antislavery coalition.

Arkansas was granted territorial status by the US congress in 1819. Increasing numbers of cotton farmers immigrated, bringing slaves with them. Exploitation of forest resources and the introduction of steamboat transportation brought further economic growth. By 1860 about one fourth of the population were slaves. However, despite the great number and the political influence of the slave owners, considerable antisecessionist sentiment developed in Arkansas in the period before the outbreak of the Civil War. But after the rebellion begun, the secessionists prevailed, and Arkansas was part of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865.

3.2. The Book ’ s Context

After the war the Freedman’s Bureau provided needed rations and medical care for ex-slaves. Despite the Union victory, southern blacks experienced severe restrictions on their freedom. Many hoped they would be given confiscated lands and gain economic independence, but soon white landowners passed "black codes" to restrict black landowner-ship and movement. Many blacks became sharecroppers, a system in which whites provided them with land, tools and seeds so they continued to be dependent on their former masters.

While they remained under economic conditions similar to slavery, the Freedman’s Bureau’s greatest success was in literacy training. However, improved education was of little use for sharecroppers.

After the withdrawal of northern troops from the south, intense racial discrimination and bad economic conditions prompted many blacks to leave. Southern blacks trying to exercise their new civil rights faced growing terrorism from such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. More than 1000 blacks were lynched to death during the 1890s. By the end of the century, southern white leaders had begun to eliminate the black voting rights by devices such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Generally, after the Civil War, much of the political power of the South was reinstalled and it fell back into its prewar racism. By 1875, countless ex-slaves were wandering the country seeking jobs, food, shelter and family members who had been sold somewhere. For many blacks, the economic situation was as bad as or worse than under slavery.

In this conflict-filled context, Twain began to write his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that recreated an earlier, simpler time. But the story contained current material: In the end, a free black man is enslaved again.

The Missouri territory had become a state only after much argue between pro and anti-slavery states which led to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, that allowed slavery in Missouri but not further north. As a boy, Sam Clemens surely shared the prevailing racial prejudices of his parents and neighbors in Hannibal. During the time when he grew up, racism was everywhere. But Sam changed as he became older, until he was able to write his book which presents and challenges American racism.

Although people in pre-war Missouri did not officially question slavery, there was serious debate about it on a regional level. Hannibal, the town in which young Clemens lived, was surrounded by free states (Iowa and Illinois). The infamous Dred Scott Case at that time was centered around the deep conflict between human rights and property rights.

During this time, when young Mark Twain developed his values, certain central moral issues were discussed: political obedience, abolition of slavery and the right of an individual or state to disobey any law it disagreed with. Clemens had to leave school at the age of 11 and worked as a printer. In that way he could read many articles about these issues. His various jobs as Mississippi pilot, journalist, miner and his life at the frontier let him experience society on many different levels. These experiences and also his marriage into the abolitionist Langdorn family made him even more sensible for the problems of his time and helped to transform his earlier attitude about race. His life experiences prepared him to write Huckleberry Finn which is widely considered to be his masterpiece.

A number of persons whom he knew from his early years posed as models for important characters in the book. A boy from Twain’s hometown Hannibal who was not educated in school (model for Huck) had a brother who once smuggled food to a runaway slave, defying in a shocking way the southern social "code" that a white person should never help an escaped slave. In the portrayal of intelligent but superstitious Jim, the author may have recalled a slave named Uncle Dan’l who worked on his uncle’s farm. He remembered all the children of the neighborhood, black and white, sitting around him and listening to his ghost stories.

Whereas modern readers recognize race of the central subject of the book, there was no discussion about the novel’s attitude toward racism at its time of publication, perhaps due to the more obvious debate about the "bad boy boom" at the time.

Why should Mark Twain write a novel about slavery when it was over and done with? To read Huckleberry Finn with the racial circumstances of its time in critical mind, we will discover how clearly it engages its social and historical context. (Messent 1997, 89)

However, the book in the 1880s entered the public discussion about race relations and the failure of the emancipation and suggested a new model of interracial relationship.

3.3. Huck and Jim

Mark Twain chose the setting of his story on purpose. He uses the raft and the river as symbols for the flight of Huck and Jim from society. The trip down the Mississippi river stands for the ever-changing American society. The trip also represents freedom, independence and brotherhood as great American images.

In the center of the novel is the development of the relation of Huck and Jim. Both have in common that they are on the run and on search for freedom ("They are after us", says Huck in chapter 11). Huck is on the run from the oppressive society, impersonated by the people of St. Petersburg, especially Mrs. Watson and Pap. Jim is on the run from a society that forced him into slavery. However, Huck and Jim must have a slightly different opinion about what freedom means: Huck searches for freedom from Pap’s violence, from "civilization", from Tom’s games, he wants to "boss it all", whereas for Jim freedom means being his own master.

The raft stands for traditional American values: on the raft, Huck feels "mighty free and easy and comfortable" (chapter 18). As long as they are far from the shore (repressive society), everything is fine, Jim and Huck can be friends, it does not really matter that their skin color is different, racial tensions disappear. The raft functions as an anti-social world where Huck and Jim depart from accepted interracial behavior: they strip off their clothes, they share food and talk, sing and laugh freely together. On the other hand, whenever they reach the shore, the harmony is immediately disturbed. So the raft trip takes on a symbolic dimension - the sharp contrast between the peace that is possible in their retreat from society (on the raft) and the reality (cruelty) of society is shown.

Although some critics may disagree, Huck is the hero of the book. The story is settled around an internal drama in Huck’s mind. The tensions rise when he recognizes his responsibility for Jim, the drama’s climax is his decision to go to hell for Jim and the action falls from then to the end of the book when he decides to set out to the Territory no longer worrying about Jim. Mark Twain raises two central questions that he asks his hero Huck during the course of the story:

1. How can the conflict between social norms and individual conscience be resolved?
2. What can an individual American do about group-enforced, socially approved injustice?

In the beginning of the story Huck shows a typically childish racism. He is subject of the social codes of the society surrounding him. Here, the reader can realize the ironic use of the word "nigger". Twain uses this word to make the reader uncomfortable and to show the bad effects of local thought even on a good mind like Huck’s. He wants to make Huck as inexperienced in adult society as possible. Huck is a naive outcast, no spokesman for a certain class but a combination of youthful naturalness and moral integrity. He does not reject conventional belief but he sees his lack of it as a sign of himself being "ignorant and low- down and ornary".

Twain lets Huck say sentences such as "You can’t learn a nigger to argue" and so exaggerates racial stereotypes to an extend that they surely become ridiculous and questionable. In that way the author aggressively displays the American and universal shortcoming of his time. First, Huck (as well as Jim) are well aware of class and caste in the south. However, their master-slave relation is soon displaced by deep affection. When they come together again after they were separated in the fog, Huck wants to "humble myself to a nigger" (chapter 15). It is Huck’s first acknowledgment that Jim is something more than property. Here, Huck’s development during the novel becomes clear: he becomes a defender of Jim despite the "conscience" imposed on him by Mrs. Watson’s St. Petersburg. He rises from codes of color to codes of humanity. First, he can not get rid of his bad conscience since he has "stolen" Jim. But Huck’s change becomes clear when he does not tell Jim to the slave hunters. The climax of the novel as well as of Huck’s development is his decision to save Jim and to go to hell for it (chapter 31). First, he writes a note to Mrs. Watson to inform her of Jim’s whereabouts. Then he feels relieved. And then he tears up the note and says: "All right, then, I’ll go to hell..." This is also the emotional climax of the book.

Huck’s conflict is about freedom and authority. But he overcomes this conflict by overcoming his social background as his respect for Jim grows. After all, Twain again uses irony to describe Huck’s "crime" of "stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm". The attentive reader will realize that Mrs. Watson was not a poor old woman but "a lean old maid with goggles on who made him feel restricted and scared him with her stories about hell."

Some critics have argued that Huck is unwilling to accept the equality of difference (Jim is "white inside"), but he is willing to ignore Jim’s origin and establish equality as the base of their friendship.

Many critics, especially black Americans, have complained about the portrayal of Jim. But Mark Twain uses a Negro-stereotype to frustrate the reader of what it represents. In the course of the story, Jim is more or less a passive hero. I have already noted that the author describes Jim as being "white inside". It means Jim imitates "white mentality" and "white values" such as loyalty to friends and family when he risks his freedom by watching over the injured Tom or when he regrets his own violence toward his daughter. He also shows the language of his white masters by saying: "I owns myself, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars." To declare that Jim is "white inside" could easily be interpreted as a racist statement, but the author’s intention was to undermine popular prejudices that whites held concerning blacks. Here, Twain has undermined the racist doctrine of "retrogression", the theory of the emancipated slave returning to his "natural" state of sexual and social bestiality supposedly inherent in African culture. According to that doctrine, slavery had kept the decadent behavior of the blacks under control.

Jim gradually but deeply reveals his humanity to the reader by his compassion for Huck and his regret of his former behavior toward his daughter (chapter 24). However, Jim then is reduced to a blue-painted "sick Arab" by the King and the Duke. During the Wilks episode, Jim is finally put out of action and totally becomes subject to what others do with him. He is not even present when Tom Sawyer reports that he is freed.

In the book it is clear where Jim is escaping from, but it is not as clear where he is escaping to. His future plans remain diffuse and rather concealed for the reader. In the end Jim becomes free through the decision of Mrs. Watson (and a second time through Tom’s plan), but not through his own actions. He is freed by a "deus ex machina" (Mrs. Watson). That could be interpreted as the author’s pessimistic opinion that no man’s activities can overcome the making of human history and that human determination counts very little.

The greedy King’s final action results in the recapture of Jim and in Huck to fulfill his moral destiny to free Jim for good. However, both Huck and Jim become passive because Tom takes the leadership and creates a fantasy-plan to free Jim. Huck wonders how the "well broughtup" Tom helps to "steal a nigger". But Tom already knows that Jim is free and that there is no real danger of conflict with society. Tom represents the middle-class attitudes and learned authority. In chapter 35 Tom reveals his sources - the "best authorities". Pap (racism), Miss Watson and the widow Douglas (religion) are all characters based on learned authority. The middle-class people are very religious people but own slaves and believe they exhaust their Christian duty by having the slaves every evening in for bible reading.

Huck is not the only person in the book that shows what a strong impact the racist prejudices of society can have even on a "good" mind - Mrs. Loftus (chapter 11), although a very helpful person, wants to recapture the runaway slave but feels sorry for the runaway (white) prentice. Also, the doctor (final chapter) falls victim to the corrupting influence of race at that time: he values Jim in money terms: he is "worth a thousand dollars", hereby reducing Jim again to a piece of property.

In the final chapter, after Jim is freed for good, Mark Twain intentionally creates an atmosphere of racism. In the chapters preceding the last chapter the language gradually becomes racist again. Huck answers "No, killed a nigger" when he was asked if anybody was hurt in the steamboat accident. When Jim is irritated by Tom’s plan to set him free, Huck notes that he "couldn’t see no sense in the most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him." Jim’s final situation brings no suggestion of a radical change of his status. He falls back into being the passive Afro-American victim of white authority. Only on the raft - far away from society - he was free.

Here, the text follows southern history, back toward authoritarian control, repression and racial inequality, away from easy companionship. According to real history, Jim was freed, stood a brief moment in the sun, then went back into slavery again. Together with Northern indifference, the emerging Black Codes in the South, the sharecropping system and widespread racism, the Reconstruction after 1876 proved to be a failure. Soon white Southerners re-established political, economic and social control over the blacks.

Jim’s final situation asks questions concerning the nature of freedom for black Americans after the Civil War. Jim is free with $40 but left alone, eleven hundred miles from home, forgotten even by Huck.

The real likelihood for Jim to earn enough money to purchase his wife and children were close to zero. If a freedman stayed in Arkansas longer than 180 days in the 1850s, he could be imprisoned for up to one year. Twain uses Jim’s desperate situation in the end of the book as a symbol for the unchanged situation of many blacks after the abolition of slavery.

4. Responses to the Race Issue in Huckleberry Finn

Since the book was first published in 1885, reactions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remained extremely controversial. Attempts to ban the book from required reading lists of high schools continue. Whereas directly after the publication the reason for that could be seen in the author’s general criticism of his society, especially the religious aspects in it, today critical comments of the book usually focus on the race issue.

4.1. Early Criticism

The author’s criticism of his contemporary society with its continuing racism and discrimination of the blacks certainly was one major reason for the first infamous banning of the book from the shelves of the Concord Library in Massachusetts. The committee members argued that the book is "the veriest trash" and "suitable only for the slums."

In 1885, the Hartford Daily Courant writes about how "...Mr. Clemens strikes in a very amusing way certain psychological problems." The paper is one of the very few in the late 19th century that mentiones the slave issue of the book. However, it quotes that Huck’s struggle with his conscience in regard to slavery is "most amusing". His conscience, as it has been instructed, tells him that helping the runaway slave Jim to escape "is an enormous offence that will no doubt carry him to the bad place." The study of Huck’s moral nature is "as serious as it is amusing". But then the paper concludes that these considerations " not interfere with the fun of the story", in which the author of the article seems to see the most important aspect of Huck Finn.

As the decades passed by, the race topic of the book comes gradually into the center of the attention of literary scientists. In 1950 T. S. Eliot carefully introduces that subject into his essay about the novel. He quotes that Huck would be incomplete without Jim. Huck is the passive observer of men and events whereas Jim is the sufferer from them, but "...they are equal in dignity". In this context, Eliot regards the scene in which Huck and Jim are reunited after they have been separated in the fog as the most important part of the book. Here, "the pathos and dignity of Jim" as well as that of Huck is obvious.

It is remarkable that contemporary reactions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hardly deal with the book’s regard toward race and slavery. Although many critics of that time mention the fact that Huck Finn is a very distinct literary advance over Tom Sawyer, that Mark Twain here becomes a serious interpreter of human nature and the American society, they leave out the important relation of the topic to the post-Civil War society they live in. However, the emphasis on race and slavery in the novel only becomes a real subject of critics after 1950s.

4.2. Recent Criticism

Mark Twain always said that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s book. A number of recent critics refered to the question whether it is all right to be taught in school. Many high school teachers complain that the use of the word "nigger" in the the book is extremely difficult to handle for black youngsters.

In a 1985 ABC TV-show John H. Wallace declared: "I think the book is certainly the most racist book, among many, that is printed in the United States of America." He says that every black student he has spoken to felt embarassed and humiliated when they had to sit in classes and read "this kind of filth."

Wallace, a Chicago schoolteacher, wrote in 1982 that the book is good only for students in the college age and older, "...where students can gain insight into the use and writing of satire and an uncensored flavor of the times." He writes that Mark Twain’s use of the term "nigger" implies that blacks are not as honest, not as intelligent and not as human as whites. This of course is meant to be satirical, but it also ridicules blacks. So for years black parents have complained to their children’s teachers that "this book is bad for our children". Wallace is convinced that reading Huck Finn in classes makes black children to have a low esteem of themselves and of their race. It also causes white students to have little respect for blacks. As Wallace says, every black child is a victim of the history of his race in America. From the day he enters kindergarten, he carries a burden that no white child can ever imagine. If the reading of a book like Huckleberry Finn is added to this, the effects could be traumatic.

In the same edition of the Washington Post, Robert Nadeau stated that "misguided guardians of the moral integrity of school children have often attempted to prevent young minds from being exposed to the profoundly moral views of the 13-year-old, pipe-smoking marvelously imaginative liar whose love for the runaway slave Jim grows to such proportions that he would risk eternal damnation to protect him." Nadeau further says that the term "nigger" is of course a terribly abusive word in our own time. But it might help to explain to the students that in the slave states the word was an ordinary colloquial term for a slave, and not necessarily abusive. Twain himself was an opponent of slavery and Huckleberry Finn "...should be read as one of the most forceful indictments ever made against the subjugation of any class of human beings by another." This must be obvious to anyone who carefully reads the novel.

As Nadeau writes, many children in the US are still subject to a religious education that seeks to sanction the view of black people as inferior. The message of the book is that truly moral acts are often undertaken " defiance of the so-called moral majority." By preventing American children to read Huck Finn, "...we not only narrow the range of their educational experience, but ... helpthem to grow into individuals, as the members of the Grangerford and Shepherdson families in the novel, who might commit senseless acts of destruction out of a lack of understanding of the complexities of moral life."

However, in the dispute over the race issue in the book most literary scholars have defended Mark Twain. Examining the book, the reader will find "the charge of racism is likely to sound harsh", as David Heim put it (1985). The climax of the book, when Huck decides that he won’t turn in Jim, against all the moral beliefs of his time, is proof enough that the book is strongly anti-racist. Heim says that teaching the book in school without considering the ability of students to understand it in its historical context is to surrender to the forces of "sivilisation".

Probably the most famous defender Huck Finn has ever had was President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, on February 28, he read from the book in the Washington Hilton Hotel. He said that the book reflects values that American schools should be teaching. The students at their schools "should not only learn basic subjects, but basic values."

"Huck works hard to keep Jim free, and in the end he succeeds. I believe the book says much about the moral aims of education, about the qualities of heart that we seek to impart to our children," Reagan said. "In the decades to come, may our schools give to our children the skills to navigate through life as gracefully as Huck navigated the Mississippi."

Many literary scholars agreed with the President that the book stands against racial prejudice, but they were skeptical about the American values the President has found in the book. Many asked why Huck would run away if he was happy to live in America.

5. Evaluation - Is Huckleberry Finn a Racist Book?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be restricted in many high schools and libraries, even in a school called Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax/Virginia. Argument over the question whether it is "racist trash" or a highly moral book has led to an edition without the words "nigger" and "hell". There even was an edition that left Jim completely out. The usual charge was that the ironic use of the word "nigger" (it occurs 206 times in the novel) could not be understood by American school students, especially the black ones. However, this is true to a certain extend. American students often lack a critical knowledge of their own country’s history, thus they can not deal with the irony that Mark Twain uses to describe it.

The question raised plenty of times during the last hundert years was: Is Huckleberry Finn a racist book? It can be clearly answered with No!

Mark Twain himself was not a racist, though racist views on society were common at his time, especially in the southern states, as the author shows in the last chapters of the novel. Twain loved black culture. It is reported that during his travels around Europe he often impressed his hosts by singing Afro-American spiritual songs. Very unusual at his time, in his late life he sponsored the education of a black student by paying the tuition at Yale Law school.

Reading Huck Finn, the reader can feel the author’s sympathy for the black people. This becomes obvious in the portrayal of Huck’s father, who is very racist and complains about the rights granted to blacks. He complains about the government that allows a black professor to vote, though he himself is one of the most low-down characters in American literature. By creating such an extreme social contrast, Twain obviously criticizes white racism. Huckleberry Finn, like Twain himself during his life, changes from a young boy full of the race prejudices of the society surrounding him into a young man who does not look at Jim as a master but as a friend.

The book shows the difficulty of America with itself and its history. Tom’s treatment of Jim stands for society’s treatment of its black citizens. In the time the book was written, America worked heavily to reenslave the blacks people who were freed after the Civil War. In 1863, just before the book was published, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act, that has granted black citizens a certain number of rights, unconstitutional.

Therefore, banning Huck Finn is like killing the messenger who brings the bad news. "The attempts to remove the novel from classrooms extend Jim’s captivity on into each generation of readers."

According to the two questions asked in the beginning of chapter 3.3., the attentive reader will discover two theses that strongly emerge from the book:

1. At every social level the white race is corrupt and cruel.
2. Reform is impossible because every race, not just the blacks, is enslaved.

The historical relevance of the novel lies in ist representation of white thought and social practice at the time of writing, when "...the average freedman had about as much chance as Jim has at the Phelps Farm of realizing any practical distinction between his current situation and his previous condition of servitude."

Mark Twain’s voice is very much a part of what Americans are today. In Huckleberry Finn, he teaches his readers to recognize the irony of a country founded on freedom and equality that continued to deny freedom to many of its citizens. He teaches that even well meaning people can be very hurtful under the influence of a restricted society. The central issue of the book is up to date - shown by the recent efforts to remove it from high school reading lists - because racism in American society continues on to these days, not only toward the black people.

The freedom that Jim gains at the end of the novel is not at all freedom. Until these days the struggle goes on about being "Free at last!", how Martin Luther King put it in his 1963 March on Washington speech, about gaining the freedom that the emancipation proclamation had handed over a hundred years before.

6. Bibliography

- Champion, Laurie (Editor) 1991: The Critical Response to Mark Twain ’ s Huckleberry Finn, Westport CT
- Fisher Fishkin, Shelley 1994: Was Huck Black?, Mark Twain and African American Voices, New York
- Gerber, John C. 1988: Mark Twain, Boston
- Kaplan, Justin 1966: Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, A Biography, New York
- Kravitz, Bennett 1996: Dreaming Mark Twain, London
- Messent, Peter 1997: Mark Twain, London
- Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, © 1994 Microsoft Corporation
- Sloane, David 1988: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A student ’ s companion to the novel, Boston
- Twain, Mark 1996: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York

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The Negro-image and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg
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Negro-image, Adventures, Huckleberry, Finn
Quote paper
Jens Kayser (Author), 1999, The Negro-image and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 8/17/2001

    The Negro-Image and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

    Eine sehr informative Arbeit, analytisch fundiert (obwohl an einigen Stellen eine nähere Erläuterung wünschenswert gewesen wäre). Der geschichtliche Rückblich gerät im Verhältnis zur restlichen Arbeit etwas zu ausführlich. Ansonsten sehr brauchbar.

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