I’ve always been fond of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I don’t know that I would put it in the highest group of my favorites.
It’s hard to know what I would think of this book if I were somehow reading it cold, with no prior knowledge of its reputation, or of the controversies about it.
If I had no awareness that this is a “classic,” that almost all literary historians and critics place it near the top of the list of the best and most important American novels, would I have guessed it has that status? Probably not. I can understand why it would be highly regarded, but it doesn’t blow me away as far as being among the greatest books of all time.
The book does an excellent job in using irony and humor to convey certain attitudes and beliefs. The struggle within Huck between individual conscience and the external social, political and religious moral code is one obvious example.
Also the attitude toward the slaves as being property, of being at or below the level of livestock. It isn’t just that they legally had that status–we know that–but that mentally that’s how the Southern whites regarded them.
One of the scary things about racism and any “us versus them,” “in-group versus out-group” thinking in general is how it dehumanizes the “other.” But in a sense the dehumanization depicted in this book is a lot more literal and extreme.
In the contemporary world, or in recent history, it seems to be more of an “I’m not going to afford you the rights I would a full human person,” so the dehumanization is a more subtle, partial, symbolic kind of thing. Even in extreme cases like the Holocaust, there’s at least as much “You’re a bad person” as “You’re a non-person” at work. Jews are depicted as unusually malevolent, powerful, cunning folks who must be destroyed out of self-defense. They’re hated in a way that the blacks in this book aren’t. Because to hate, to fear, to recognize an urgency to destroy, is in a sense to acknowledge agency, and humanity or at least a kind of quasi-humanity. The attitude of the Southerners in this book to blacks is closer to indifference. Hate here feels like it would be as out of place as hating an inanimate object. That’s a more thorough and internalized dehumanization.
Then again, how accurate is that? This isn’t a work of history after all; it’s a novel, and a comic novel at that.
My guess would be that the attitudes Twain depicts were true of some people to some extent, but that he allows himself literary license to make them seem more extreme and more universal for effect. I picture the reality back then as having somewhat less indifference and somewhat more conscious and intentional cruelty than in this book. But I don’t know.
One consequence of this is it makes the characters more sympathetic. They’re too blinded by ideology and social norms to be capable of willful wrongdoing. How can you really blame them?
But again, how accurate is that? It’s as if Twain is saying “It’s not so much that people disagreed with the proposition ‘blacks are humans and ought to be treated as such’ as that it would never have occurred to them to agree or disagree with it. It was unthinkable. The non-human status of blacks was embedded within them as an assumption, not as a conscious belief.” I’m skeptical. My understanding is that slavery was a hotly debated issue during the time period of the novel. No doubt many white Southerners strongly and vehemently believed slavery was just and black people were somehow inferior or not fully human, but those were contested beliefs, not unquestioned assumptions operating below the level of consciousness.
More broadly, the novel is far more condemnatory (implicitly) of institutions and social norms than of individuals. Not just on the issue of slavery, but religion and everything else. Maybe that’s laudable at a certain level, just in showing that the whole can be more evil than the sum of its individual human parts, and in avoiding making social criticism a form of attacking persons of a certain mindset and making them defensive, but I think it understates the prevalence of certain egregious character traits.
Almost every character in the novel is either 1) An exception who doesn’t conform to societal norms about race and such, 2) So stupid or crazy as to be no more responsible and blameworthy for what he says and does than a small child, 3) A “lovable rogue” type who, yeah, does bad things, but is presented in a humorous and entertaining way to soften the impact, or 4) Some combination of the three.
The reader is encouraged to like or laugh at (or both) the characters, and not to be appalled by them or their behavior, as much as by what it represents as far as the broader forces or institutions. I think that lessens what could and should be the outrageousness of some of what’s happening at an individual level.
For example, Pap’s treatment of Huck is genuinely horrific if you stop and think about it (beaten, kidnapped, imprisoned, stolen from, deprived of schooling), but it’s recounted in a matter-of-fact way between jokes.
Well, maybe the claim would be that that’s paradoxically more impactful in its way: the matter-of-fact style reflects the fact that the behavior would have been regarded as ordinary, and the realization that the behavior would have been regarded as ordinary provokes outrage in the reader. I don’t know. I’m more inclined to think that Twain keeping his tongue firmly planted in his cheek the whole way enhanced the book in some respects but also made it less effective in others.
Also as I read the book, I became aware of other respects in which it doesn’t have the ring of truth, how realism was sacrificed, whether for humor or social commentary or whatever.
Huck is a great character in some ways, but when I stop and think about it honestly, he, and even more so Tom, don’t feel like real kids to me. It’s as if they’re simultaneously of all different ages. As I recall, they’re supposed to be 13 or 14 or so, but the way they’re able to live in their imaginations for sustained periods strikes me as more like how the mind of a 4 or 5 year old functions.
It makes some sense that a person like Huck would be much more developed in terms of practical knowledge in the areas where he has personal experience, and would be naïve and gullible otherwise, but the extremes are too extreme. In his areas of expertise he is almost superhumanly able to concoct, logically think through, and execute the most elaborate practical plans and schemes (rather like the little kid in Home Alone), while otherwise he’s slow to the point of being retarded.
And Jim is an even more extreme example of the “holy fool,” which raises the question of whether this is a racist book, and whether it should be assigned to be read by children and such. Jim is loving and good-hearted to the point of saintliness, and has a certain amount of practical knowledge from personal experience, but otherwise is a complete blithering idiot. He’s far, far more a child than a man, in both good and bad respects. His stupidity played for comedy is cringe-inducing, when read with the most insulting “shuffling, groveling, fool negro” stereotypes in mind.
Is it offensive and racist? Yeah, in a way it is. I think it depends on the context, though. If you look just at that one character, then I think it’s offensive. Even though on the whole he’s a positive character, because of his laughable traits (and really, even in a way because of the fact that he’s allowed to have the specific positive traits he has), it’s an ugly, insulting portrait.
But the thing is, he’s not the only lovable buffoon in the book. It’s not like he was singled out for that because he’s black. The white characters are played for laughs as fools and/or rogues as well. Everyone is caricatured. So there’s an equality to the ridicule, and in that sense it’s arguably not racist.
Still, I would have misgivings about assigning this book to children. I think it’s the kind of thing I would want to present with a lot of disclaimers and supplementary material. I would want it put in historical context, and I would want points of satire and irony explained and discussed.
I wouldn’t side with those who want it removed from school libraries and classrooms and such as racist, but I’m also not unsympathetic to their concerns. This book is sometimes used as an example of the ludicrous extremes that censorship and book banning and such have gone to in this country, as if it’s self-evident that this is a completely harmless, inoffensive, wonderful book, but I don’t see it as such a no-brainer. Like I say, I wouldn’t side with the censors, but I agree it’s a troubling book in some ways, and probably not appropriate for certain ages.
I know I’d feel very self-conscious walking into a classroom in a predominantly black school, having assigned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to read. Not just as a crude matter of counting up the number of times the word “nigger” appears in the text, but for its racist stereotypes.