by Matt Posner
Huckleberry Finn has been a controversial novel in the United States for a long time, for a lot of reasons. American children usually don’t like it because of its difficult language. Parents and school board members complain about its depiction of blacks and use of the word “nigger.” Some readers, however, call it one of the greatest novels ever written. Well, fortunately, the author of School of the Ages is going to tell you what you need to know about Huckleberry Finn and racism, Huckleberry Finn and the word nigger, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and other topics of importance.
We’ll start by going back to Tom Sawyer. This character is the hero of a book named for him, by Mark Twain, who wanted to celebrate boyhood. It was 1876, eleven years after the Civil War, and the country might have been said to be in a dark mood, with wounded veterans and widows everywhere, the economy dismayed, the South contending with the devastation of having a war fought and lost on its soil. Tom Sawyer was just the thing people needed. It was set before the war, it was about childhood and playfulness, and it celebrated innocence, a thing there wasn’t much of in the memories of those Americans the war had touched. There was no radio, no TV. In most places, live entertainment was either a local band or a touring show. Reading was the thing — reading on your own, or reading aloud to your family — and the novel Tom Sawyer therefore had appeal for almost anyone.
Today’s kids don’t like Tom Sawyer any more than they do Huckleberry Finn. The writing style is complex and old-fashioned in their view, and the humor feels very unsophisticated to the point that they miss it entirely. Here’s one example. Readers of the time were slapping their knees when a small animal got loose from Tom’s pocket and went up the aisle in church, because in context, it was the disruption of a solemn, joyless ceremony that bored the crap out of most everyone. They recognized that experience well. Twenty-first century America still offers that kind of tedium. I’m a high school teacher, and I know, because I bore the crap out of kids regularly. (I try not to, but duty is duty.) However, American kids in this multimedia age have too many options to find a story about a little animal in a church particularly funny. Inappropriate ring tones in church would work better. (At least, they work well in class.) Furthermore, Tom’s innocent cleverness, getting kids to pay him to paint a fence by pretending it’s lots of fun, doesn’t resonate with tweens and teens much, given that their real concerns these days are too often adult concerns — money, clothes, and sexuality.
Mark Twain did something in Tom Sawyer that might have suited the times, or his mindset, but that seems odd today. He wrote a book about a boy who didn’t grow up. I don’t mean that, like Peter Pan, he said “I won’t grow up” and stayed physically a boy. There isn’t that much time covered in the space of the novel Tom Sawyer for young Tom to get bigger. What I mean is that at the end of the story, Tom Sawyer hasn’t learned from his experiences. Despite his chaste romance with Becky Thatcher, and his deadly adventure in the cave with Injun Joe, his personality is about the same as when he started. He’s not more responsible, or ready to work harder. He doesn’t understand the world differently. He’s still an open-hearted, playful trickster.
Along comes Huckleberry Finn. In Tom Sawyer, Huck is a simple country kid who can be manipulated into doing whatever Tom wants him to do. He’s only a supporting character. In that role, however, Huck captured Twain’s imagination, and he became the protagonist of the sequel. What qualities does he have to make him the good hero of a novel?
Let’s start with his name. In Twain’s time, Huckleberry meant, roughly, “a small, unimportant thing.” So calling him Huckleberry Finn meant that he was not much of anybody. This makes sense. He lives out in the woods, has no education, is small for his age due to malnutrition, and has to struggle to survive in a world that has nothing but obstacles for him. His mother is dead, and his father, Pap Finn (who has had a novel written about him in the 21st century) is a brutal drunk. Although Huck obtains a treasure chest at the end of Tom Sawyer and is technically rich at the start of his own novel, he gives all his money to Judge Thatcher at the start of the book in order to keep his father from getting hold of it. Without access to the money, he still has to live by his wits, and truth be told, Huck doesn’t really understand what the money is good for; he knows it’s good, but he isn’t greedy, and he goes on surviving by use of his cleverness.
Although Huck is more resourceful than most adults, he is essentially an outsider to society, a supreme innocent whose perspective on what he encounters in the mainstream is not influenced by anything except shrewdness and common sense. This gives Huck an amazing potential as a novel protagonist. On the one hand, he can use his wits to make fools of most adults. On the other hand, he has almost no idea what any adult’s reason is for doing or saying anything. His questions and reactions thus expose the foolishness of those adults and of their beliefs and institutions. It is ironic that an uneducated, inexperienced boy can make educated and experienced people look like fools by accident, but it works well to serve Mark Twain’s intention to make them look like fools on purpose.
In the course of the novel, Huck fakes his death to escape his father and leaves his home town. He travels on the Mississippi river, visiting new communities, always as an outsider and in disguise. This gives Twain the opportunity to expose all types of foolishness and villainy in different aspects of society, although he shows some good people also. This journey should also give Huck a chance to grow up. A novelist of our time would see that potential instinctively, but Twain was a different sort of novelist. Huck begins to grow up, but then something happens. Let me explain.
Huckleberry is not alone in his outsider’s journey along the Mississippi. He is joined by another outsider, Jim, an escaped slave. Earlier in the novel, Huck has made a fool of Jim, who seems to be less clever and educated than he is. On the river, their relationship changes. Some of Jim’s childishness falls away, and we see that while he may talk like a fool, he isn’t one. Playing dumb may have been his survival strategy as a slave, but away from bondage, Jim is able to discard it, and in his way, he is able to take care of Huck, just as Huck takes care of him, too. They become allies, friends, brothers. Huck still talks down to Jim and acts like the boss, but the relationship evens out, and a real loyalty forms between the boy and the man.
This leads to a moment which I would call one of the most beautiful ironies in all of American literature. Jim has been caught by a man called Phelps, and Huck has to decide what to do. He can write to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, which he has been taught is morally right. Or, he can be loyal to his friend and try to help him escape. Here is what happens.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do.
At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter–and then
see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a
feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece
of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below
Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the
reward if you send.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever
felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it
straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking
how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost
and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our
trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day
and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we
a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I
couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the
other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of
calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I
come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up
there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me
honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how
good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling
the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was
the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got
now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was
a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them
stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole
thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which
was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a
starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I
could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I
was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
The irony is that Huck thinks he will go to Hell for protecting Jim, but from the perspective of both 21st-century readers, and many readers post-Civil War, he has actually made the morally right choice. If there is a Heaven, he has made a step in that direction. He has done the right thing when he thinks it is the wrong one; he has shown that he has a proper moral compass when he thinks he’s a sinner.
Huck has grown up.
Mark Twain was onto something here. He had moved beyond the innocent foolery of Tom Sawyer, and had shown the moral growth of his character in a way that paralleled the moral growth of a nation that had thrown off, with great pain and loss, the atrocity of legalized slavery. He encouraged readers to grow up with Huck and feel ashamed of slavery, something that Twain had never approved of although he had grown up in Missouri, where slavery was legal and his uncle was a slaveowner.
This is a pivotal moment in literature, and it could be a turning point in Huck’s story, the moment at which he will become a man. But then, this happens:
Why, Silas! Look yonder!–up the road!–ain’t that somebody coming?”
He sprung to the window at the head of the bed, and that give Mrs. Phelps
the chance she wanted. She stooped down quick at the foot of the bed and
give me a pull, and out I come; and when he turned back from the window
there she stood, a-beaming and a-smiling like a house afire, and I
standing pretty meek and sweaty alongside. The old gentleman stared, and
“Why, who’s that?”
“Who do you reckon ‘t is?”
“I hain’t no idea. Who IS it?”
“It’s TOM SAWYER!”
The end of the novel is resolved by Tom Sawyer, who shows up and takes responsibility for the whole situation. He cooks up a hare-brained scheme, plays the big hero, gets himself shot trying to free Jim, and then reveals that it was all a big and unnecessary game, because Miss Watson died and freed Jim in her will, and he could have been set free from Mr. Phelps simply by showing some paperwork.
For whatever reason, whether it be his love for Tom Sawyer, or his feelings about the taste of his readers, Twain backs off from letting his hero grow up. Huck is pushed aside, and the eternal innocent takes over. It’s shocking, and it’s a bad authorial mistake in my opinion: Mark Twain refuses to let the hero of his novel complete the transformative journey that he undertook all those months before. Huckleberry was no huckleberry when he was on his own, but as soon as Tom shows up, Huck becomes a gawping bystander. Imagine how much more powerful this novel would have been if Huck had seen through Tom’s harebrained scheme, and taken charge, and Tom had said, “Well, just as you say, Huck. I reckon you know best, bein’ so travelled an’ all. I weren’t but funnin’.”
Given the beautiful irony of Huck’s choice as described above, I find it nigh impossible to accuse Mark Twain of being a racist. Certainly, he grew up in a time when the divide between blacks and whites was immeasurably wide. But there is evidence that he did feel keenly the injustice of slavery, and the commonality of the human spirit. In the essay “The Lowest Animal” he wrote:
“Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day he is always some man’s slave for wages, and does that man’s work; and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.”
For certain, there is racism in Huckleberry Finn. The difference between the races is constantly remarked upon, by Huck and by the adult characters. Many of those characters are racists. However, Twain is not one of them. He draws Jim differently than a racist author might have. While Jim does the same bowing and scraping and dissembling expected of slaves in 1840s Missouri, he clearly does it only as a survival tactic. When he is on his own, with Huck, he no longer acts like a slave. He is a loving and responsible man who demonstrates in reality many of the Christian virtues espoused by Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, and others. Jim demonstrates not one of the moral failings which racists have always assigned to blacks, such as laziness or lust for white women or cowardice. On the contrary, he works hard, misses his own wife and children, and takes risks in order to keep his younger friend safe. The contrast between Jim’s behavior and the behavior of blacks in racist literature is rather extreme.
Weighed against this is the claim that the word “nigger” is used hurtfully. There is no question that it is used constantly, and that the expression “a nigger” is used to distinguish a particular category of person. In the sense that it is racist to make any distinction whatsoever, then the presence of “niggers” behaving differently than whites is technically racist. And a reader with limited sensitivity to literary subtlety might consider painful a wording like this:
“It warn’t the grounding–that didn’t keep us back but a little. We
blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
In so speaking, Huck implies that the “nigger” mentioned is not a person. But we have to keep in mind that Huck is being deceptive here. He is making up a tall tale to deceive a lady who thinks that he is Tom Sawyer. Naturally, he has to talk to her in a way she will think is natural and ordinary, and a case could clearly be made that this was a typical point of view for 1840s Missouri. Earlier on the same page you also find this:
And behind the woman comes a little nigger girl and two little nigger
boys without anything on but tow-linen shirts, and they hung on to their
mother’s gown, and peeped out from behind her at me, bashful, the way
they always do. And here comes the white woman running from the house,
about forty-five or fifty year old, bareheaded, and her spinning-stick in
her hand; and behind her comes her little white children, acting the same
way the little niggers was doing.
The social and economic distinction between blacks and whites is clear here, but their behavior is the same. Twain shows in this quick passage what people have in common, not how they are different.
For readers in the 21st century, the word “nigger” does not have the same sting it did in the 20th. In the urban environment where I teach high school, the word, usually spelled “niga” by those who write it down, seems to be a generic alternative for “person.” Kids of many colors and backgrounds call each other “nigger” in many ways: positively (“What up, niga?”) and negatively (Shut up, niga!”) and neutrally (“There’s nigas running around in the hall.”) The word has been transformed by its use in hip-hop, which is a youth-oriented musical style, so that its association with racism is much stronger for earlier generations than it is with the present one. (For the record, I hate the word, and don’t like to hear kids use it.) The word “nigger” has changed. It used to be a standard word for African-Americans, which made a distinction but was the only word available. Then, after the Civil War, it became a demeaning word, although it and “negro” and perhaps “darkie” were the only words widely used. In the Civil Rights era, the word “nigger” was strong hate speech, and the word “black” was substituted. (Linguistically, “black” is actually the same, since it translates to “negro,” from which “nigger” was a slang reduction — but intent is important.) In the 1990s, the term “African-American” was coined. This term is actually not very valuable, because it can’t be applied to non-Americans, for which reason I still say “black.” I’ve rambled a little, but my point is that the use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn should not be read as hate speech. Rather than being hurtful, Huckleberry Finn is really educational, as a book that depicts, but in no way endorses, racism of a kind that no longer exists. It’s a historical document, as, in part, Twain wanted it to be, showing the times in which he grew up with particular attention to an accurate representation of speech.
It should be obvious that the man who wrote the lines below, quoted again from above, was not promoting hate.
And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now…
This is the love of a brother for a brother, or perhaps even a son for a father. Racist? Of course not.
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