NOTICE: I will not be using the phrase “African American” to refer to Jim, or in hypothetical terms which refer to the happenings in the novel, as the Black slaves of the time were not considered American citizens. Persons attempting to find fault in this will be shot.
Since its original publication in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the masterpiece of Mark Twain’s literature, has proven to be one of the most controversial novels of all time. The characters within the book constantly use disparaging language toward the African slaves of pre-Civil War Southern America. The consistent use of the word “nigger” is enough to make one’s skin crawl. However, many times, critics of the novel find their skin crawling for all the wrong reasons. That is, the outspoken majority finds the word “offensive” and “politically incorrect.” They see Mark Twain as a racist who, thirty years after the Civil War, still wishes to perpetuate the racial tension (tension being a large understatement) between White Americans and former African slaves. This is perhaps the greatest travesty that has ever been committed toward American literature. Twain was not attempting to perpetuate the racial views held by former slave-owners. On the contrary, through the events which take place in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain exposes the ignorance and paradoxical views held by many “wholesome” and religious families in 1830s America. Simply stated, those who condemn the novel as racist propaganda are missing the point completely; Huck has lived his whole life learning that Blacks are unequal and should not be considered human, but only through his escapades with Nigger Jim does he find himself battling what he has been brought up to believe is right, and what he himself believes is morally correct.
Perhaps the main reason Twain has come under fire, even a century after his death, is because his views are cloaked in dialogue which on the surface seems degrading or stereotypical to Africans. In one instance in which Huck and Tom Sawyer are on the cusp of realizing that Jim is the one being held prisoner by the Phelps’, they realize where he is being kept because he is brought watermelon. Twain redeems himself through Huck, who exclaims “It shows how a body can see and don’t see at the same time.” On a symbolic level, this simple passage that screams of African stereotyping subtly hints at Huck’s realization that everything he has been taught as moral may not be so ethically just. Another focus of those opposed to the novel is the recurring dialogue between White characters that place no importance on the well being of Africans. For example, when Huck (pretending to be Tom) first meets Aunt Sally he describes an accident on the boat he was traveling on. Aunt Sally exclaims “Good Gracious! Anybody hurt?,” to which Huck replies, “No’m. Killed a nigger.” Sadly, Twain’s satirical perspective on such a serious matter has gone unnoticed by those simply reading the words of the book rather than reading for a deeper meaning. Furthermore, those who find themselves offended should remember the time in which this book was written, and also the time in which the events take place. If the novel was re-written to appease the affronted masses, the topic of slavery and racism would not even come into play, making Jim’s escape unnecessary, and ultimately changing the novel from the greatest piece of American literature to date to a sappy Saturday morning “feel good” story. In an essay titled “Why Huckleberry Finn Is a Great World Novel,” by Lauriat Lane, Jr., the author states quite simply, “Huckleberry Finn is the story of a journey, a real journey” (World Novel). The facts must be faced: slavery did exist. Racism does exist. Anyone finding fault in Twain’s depiction of pre-Civil War Southern America should not “shoot the messenger” so to speak, but rather look at the world in which we live, and shift their protesting to that which is bringing our society down, much like slavery had done in the first half of the 19th century.
At the core of the novel is Huck’s ultimate battle with himself: should he commit what he has been taught to be true sin, or should he resign to helping Jim escape, for no other reason than it just seems like the decent thing to do. When he discovers that the Phelps’ are holding Jim prisoner, he finds himself torn. He writes out a letter to Miss Watson explaining where Jim is, and while holding the note he ponders, “I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things…and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.” Although this novel is chock full of climaxes, in which Huck makes a decision that alters the course of the novel, this passage can be seen as the ultimate climax of his journey. He makes a decision that the reader is supposed to see as the morally correct choice, but to the character of Huck is seen as the deciding factor that will haunt him for all eternity. In understanding this, the reader is left to ponder: is Huck a moral character? Furthermore, what constitutes morality? Throughout the entire novel, Huck, despite his relationship with Jim, still believes Blacks to be worthless and not even on the same scale of equality to Whites. However, this is due to his being a child still. He has been spoon-fed everything he knows about Africans by a society which has enslaved them and treats them as animals. It is a tough situation to examine, as by today’s standards slavery is seen by the overwhelming majority of American citizens as morally wrong, but in Huck’s time and place the majority saw it as not only right, but as the natural order of things. Huck himself acknowledges the ambiguity of right or wrong, ironically in dealing with the Duke and Dauphin’s tar and feathering. Firstly, Huck describes their treatment as “dreadful,” and goes on to say “Human being can be awful cruel to one another.” At this point Twain skirts around the issue that, although the Duke and Dauphin basically got what was coming to them, Huck still feels bad for them.
He feels bad for them, the lowest characters in the novel, but doesn’t even understand why. He contemplates his conscience, stating, “…it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense…” In this, Huck seems to understand that conscience is something which transcends societal norms and morals, and is actually the base of human nature. Compare this to two passages from the novel, which both expose Huck’s true nature, as well as Jim’s. After surviving a dangerous passage on the river and getting separated, Huck decides to play a trick on Jim, and convince him it was all a dream. When Jim finally comes to the realization that the episode did in fact occur, he gets offended that Huck would “put dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.” In turn, Huck finds himself ashamed of what he did, and “(works himself) up to go and humble (himself) to a nigger.” Though Huck still sees himself, a White person, as superior to Jim, his conscience brings him to empathize with the lowly slave. Further along in the novel, the reader gets a glimpse not only of Jim’s good-nature, but of the fact that Jim has a nature, and a conscience as well. Jim relates a story to Huck in which he hits his daughter for not doing what she is told, only to later find out she had gone deaf from sickness, and simply did not hear him. The remorse he feels afterwards shows that, just like the White Huck, Nigger Jim has a conscience. The fact that Jim has a conscience, which is a human trait, shows that he is not an animal or barbarian, but is just as much a human being as Huck is. As Peter Salwen states in an article debating the issue of race in Adventures of Huck Finn, “…Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility” (Finn Racist?). The entire point of the novel is for the reader to feel a genuine sympathy for Jim, who, despite the overwhelming beliefs of the White slaveholders of the time, is a human being, just as they are. Ralph Ellison has been quoted as saying, “Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being
To know that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been censored, banned, and criticized since its publication is very disturbing. Although hailed by many as a masterpiece, and by Ernest Hemingway as “The best book we’ve had,” it is still a center of controversy today. Sadly, those who criticize the novel are completely missing Twain’s intentions, which were to expose the ludicrousness of slavery, the ignorance of slaveholders, and the hypocrisy by which they lived their lives. Throughout the novel the reader comes into contact with seemingly religious and morally just people who ironically see nothing wrong with the practice of enslaving Blacks. The treatment of Africans throughout the novel is not Twain’s personal perspective; rather it is an accurate historical representation of Southern America in the 1830s. Those who shun the book are simply trying to bury the past, without acknowledging the faults on which our country was built. Furthermore, those who shun the book are not paying close enough attention, as throughout the novel, and ultimately upon completing a reading of the novel, the reader is supposed to feel sorrow for Jim, as well as for all the African people who were enslaved prior to the Civil War. Many people simply read the words of the story, see the word “nigger” and assume the author is racist. However, upon closer examination, it should be clear that that is as far from the truth as possible. As Huck says, “It shows how a body can see and don’t see at the same time.”