Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

Is Huck Finn Racist?

This debate began when I innocently asked CompuServe's Litforum what the Greatest American Novel might be. Alex Krislov, the forum's SysOp, quickly responded, and I responded to him:

>> Huckleberry Finn. It has scope, characterization and a central moral issue that defines America's dream of itself: whether it is better to be "good" and law-abiding or do to what is right, regardless of consequence. <<

That is an excellent theme to define the American question. Good one, Alex!

But isn't Huck Finn racist?

Rob "Opening another can of worms" Schmidt

Alex's succinct response to that and my reply to him:

>> Not a chance. <<

That's not what I heard from my friend Beth the English major. There's always a chance. Or, I should say, the topic engendered a lively debate in her class when it came up, with people on both sides.

Twain's portrayal of Jim, looked at through omniscient eyes, not those of the characters...there's nothing racist about that? You'd conclude that Twain believed blacks were fully equal to whites in all mental and emotional dimensions from Huck Finn? I wouldn't.

The case against Huck

Perhaps Huck Finn isn't overtly racist, but it may be subtly so. Consider:

1) Twain exclusively uses the word "nigger" to characterize Jim. Many scholars believe this was as negative a term in Twain's time as it is now. That Twain didn't use other terms extant at the time, when he easily could have, is problematical.

2) Although the entire book is written in dialect, Jim's dialect is clearly inferior to Huck's. Jim uses the constructions associated with the stereotypical Uncle Tom—the "yassir, massa" types. This is again problematical since Huck and Jim come from and live in the same environs. In fact, scholars say Twain modeled the dialect on black speech patterns. If so, shouldn't Jim speak the same way as Huck? Why are his speech patterns noticeably inferior?

3) Jim professes several superstitious beliefs not shared by the white characters. Some claim this is a natural outgrowth of his position as a slave; anthropologists say powerless people tend to invent supernatural forces to give their lives hope and meaning. Others believe this reflects a pejorative attitude towards Jim.

4) Huck Finn portrays Jim as the mental equivalent of a child or simpleton, not as an adult. One good example is Jim's belief that the man walking around calling himself a king is a king. Jim appears to have no idea what a king is, other than someone who declares himself a king.

In short, Huck Finn shows the Negro as meek, obliging, and subservient. Nowhere is there evidence of the intense pain, hatred, or despair felt by many slaves—the kind that made some of them kill themselves or kill their masters. Jim moans for his family once or twice and that's about it.

Huck Finn gives readers a distorted view of America: where the whites are generally kind and will help a black man if he deserves it. Where a black man can find justice if he acts as a "good" Negro should. What would have happened had Jim destroyed property or (horrors!) hurt a white person in his quest for freedom? Would Huck or the others have been as understanding? Would Jim have come out of it alive?

Now imagine you're a black student told to read this book. "They" tell you it's the Great American Novel, it's read in high schools across the country, and give you no other input. What are you supposed to think: that this was the way it was? That "nigger" was a commonplace term and that blacks were best served by grinning and bearing it? That the powers that be support this view by making Huck Finn the standard of American literature without qualification?

Even if Huck Finn represented the way it was (which it doesn't), it doesn't send the black student a very healthy message. Beth suggests that in any literary presentation of Huck Finn, the points I've made above should be aired and discussed fully. The experience should be enhanced by additional reading—for instance, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass or fiction by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, etc.—that gives a better idea of slavery's evil. Huck Finn alone is a whitewashing of reality.

By the way, some scholars question whether Huck Finn should be considered great literature. They note that Twain wrote it installments for a boys' magazine and didn't even intend it to be a novel. Moreover, he made no distinction between it and Tom Sawyer—he considered both to be boys' adventures.

Further, the scholars note problems with the text, such as the tacked-on ending. At the end, Huck is more or less the same as at the beginning. He hasn't come to some life-transforming revelation about how all men are the same, though the reader may have. It's not as if Huck's become an abolitionist who denounces the institution of slavery.

Rather, his thoughts are directed toward squaring things with the adults. Jim is an afterthought, if anything. He hasn't taken on a new status as Huck's partner or confidante. He remains the object of Huck's adventures, not a person equal to Huck (like Tom Sawyer).

Beth's contribution
Other forum participants soon weighed in—mostly against the idea that Huck could be racist. I consulted with my friend Beth, who was earning her master's in English and training to be a English teacher. She picked up the thread. She began by addressing Margaret Campbell's claim that Jim was only playacting to survive:

I completely agree with you that many black people survived by using a distorted dialect. If Jim were a living person, it's quite likely he would have talked this way. However, Jim is a character in a book written by a white person. I'm not prepared to say that Mark Twain was a racist, or that this is a racist book, but I think it is interesting to consider the difference in dialect between Huck and Jim. Why did Twain choose to deliberately emphasize this difference by phonetically spelling each word Jim says to the point where it is almost unintelligible? This is an authorial decision.

For example, Jim says, "I 'uz mos' to de foot er de islan' b'fo' I foun' a good place." Whereas Huck says, "There was a place right about the middle of the island I'd found when I was exploring." The contrast in their speech reinforces the notion that even an uneducated boy is easier to understand than even the most admirable black man. Given that most people associate standard English with intelligence (unfair as that may be), does this book not promote racist stereotypes among its readers?

Many people are even more concerned with Twain's use of barely intelligible dialect for Jim given recent research indicating that Huck's dialect was modeled after a black boy Twain knew. If it is the case that Twain knew African Americans who spoke the way Huck did, why did he choose to write Jim's voice in such a distorted way? The above does not prove any malice on Twain's part, but it is worth considering, especially given the fact that Huck Finn is the most widely assigned piece of required reading in American high schools today.

Given the racial divisiveness in this country, which seems to be especially pronounced among our youth, is this the best book we could offer our students? And if it is offered, should it not be accompanied by some discussion of the effect the exaggerated portrayal of Jim as a "poor" speaker might have, or have had, on African- and European-American relations? My hope is not to dishonor what is, at moments, a truly great piece of fiction, but to encourage others to consider its implications in a racially divided society, in the hope that these discussions may lead to reconciliation.

Beth continued with the other arguments against Huck:

I have several concerns with this book. One is the use of the word "nigger." Twain had other terms available to him, but he chose this and only this. This makes many African-American students and readers uncomfortable. Should we just ignore their sensitivity and continue to praise this book on its literary merit alone? Does literature exist in a vacuum?

A second concern is the portrayal of Jim as an example of what an African-American male should be. He is continually referred to as a role model, and is probably the most beloved African-American male character in all of American fiction. Yet Jim is, as Toni Morrison says, "unassertive, irrational, dependent, inarticulate...." Shouldn't we examine our consciences on this one?

Third, I find it difficult to defend this book as a great work. There are moments, such as Huck's internal dialogue before apologizing to Jim, which are so superbly drawn and so quintessentially American that we have to acknowledge the greatness of Twain's writing. But as a novel it is structurally unsound and falls apart at the end. Given its divisive language, its stereotypical characterization and its literary weaknesses, why is this book required reading in more U.S. classrooms than any other book? Are we, indeed, less enlightened than we'd like to think? And if that is the case, isn't it time to re-examine this work?

Why the debate matters
More from Beth:

[T]his book was clearly intended as an attack on racism, especially as manifested in the institution of slavery. However, Mark Twain, like his characters, was a product of his times. Is it not possible that the author was more limited in his ability to present a truly admirable African-American character, especially considering he was being paid by a popular magazine whose intended audience was young boys?

Doesn't it seem possible that we, as educated readers in the 1990s, might be more mindful of pejorative stereotyping where it occurs in any 19th century text? If this is true, then isn't it worth considering the effect the continued praise of HF as the Great American Novel might have on twentieth century race relations?

A great many African-American literary critics, schoolteachers and classroom students have tried to let us know that this book hurts them. Toni Morrison believes that Jim is represented as a deferential other who feels nothing but love for his oppressors. "[He] permits his persecutors to torment and humiliate him, and responds...with boundless love." Is this an accurate and helpful portrayal of relations between black and white people in this country? What does this say about us that this book is the one most often required in high school curricula? Does this not bear some looking into?

Bolstering Beth's point are some longer quotations from Toni Morrison's Playing the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination:

Two things strike us in this novel: the apparently limitless store of love and compassion the black man has for his white friend and white masters; and his assumption that the whites are indeed what they say they are, superior and adult.

Jim permits his prosecutors to torment him, humiliate him, and responds to the torment and humiliation with boundless love. The humiliation that Huck and Tom subject Jim to is baroque, endless, foolish, mind-softening—and it comes after we have experienced Jim as an adult, a caring father and a sensitive man. If Jim had been a white ex-convict befriended by Huck, the ending could not have been imagined or written: because it would not have been possible for two children to play so painfully with the life of a white man (regardless of his class, education, or fugitiveness) once he had been revealed to us as a moral adult.

[What people don't stress about the ending] is that there is no way, given the confines of the novel, for Huck to mature into a moral human being in America without Jim. To let Jim go free, to let him enter the mouth of the Ohio River and pass into free territory, would be to abandon the whole premise of the book. Neither Huck nor Mark Twain can tolerate, in imaginative terms, Jim freed.

As Beth concluded:

Who among us knows how it feels to be an African-American high school student in a culturally diverse classroom where passages containing the word "nigger" are read out loud without comment? I don't. But I've been told it's painful. As educated twentieth-century readers, is it not worth taking these feelings into account, given that this book is read in more U.S. high school classrooms than any other book?

Pundits pound Rob
After stating my initial thesis, the debate began in earnest. Or rather, my part of the debate began in earnest. I immediately began receiving ad hominem attacks from the self-appointed defenders of the faith—among them Walter Hawn, Charles Griffin, Margaret Campbell, and Diana Gabaldon. The insults started with Hawn's patronizing comments to Griffin and Griffin's reply:


We've dealt with this pernicious subject several times before and each time have managed to beat back the barbarian.

You surely are aware that academic standards have fallen greatly in the past few years? In my day in college, this might well have been a sophomore. Now, I fear, it is very likely that we face a Master's candidate.


Sophomore isn't always a grade level, rather a state of being, as in Sophomoric (or even Sophomoronic) <G>.

and ended with Gabaldon's flat-out falsification of my rhetorical methods:

Persistence is an admirable quality, Robert. But it's no substitute either for logic or clarity—and using it to exhaust an opponent's patience rather than to defeat his premises is a rather dishonorable dodge, in intellectual terms.

to which I politely responded:

[S]ince I started this discussion (spinning it off from Alex Krislov's thread, that is), I've been in it the longest, by definition. I've answered every challenge put to me, but none of you have "seen the light." By your "logic," therefore, it would be more correct to say you're trying to exhaust my patience than the other way around.

Incidentally, I was a 36-year-old professional writer with an MBA, an MA in library science, and a BA in mathematics (cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) at the time of this debate. Imagine my surprise to be treated as a college sophomore rather than a middle-aged man with an extensive background in both literature and logic.

Among the more obvious ploys was asking when—or if—I had read Huck Finn. Yes, in high school, I answered, and I was skimming it as I typed to refresh my memory. I added:

By the way, to spare you any further embarrassing condescension, I've read Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, A Connecticut Yankee, and The Prince and the Pauper, plus several short stories. How about you—and everyone else in this thread?

Tellingly, almost no one answered when they had last read Huck or what else they had read of Twain. Hm-mm.

Consulting the experts
After the first round of debates died down, I went to the Los Angeles Public Library and did some research on Huck Finn. In the course of this, I came across an intriguing book:

Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Leonard, Tenney, and Davis, eds. Duke University Press, 1993. [Sorry if my bibliographic format isn't up to MLA standards.]

As I told my opponents:

I'm ordering my copy, and I commend it to everyone who's interested in this ongoing debate. In fact, I'd say it's virtually required if you expect to challenge the weight of critical opinion on Huck Finn. But as a public service, I'll quote some passages from this book. I trust you'll find it as edifying as I did.

Before I begin, let me summarize a few key points:

1) Anyone who says this debate ended in the '70s (hi, Walter!) doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. The publication date of this book is 1993, as is that of another book on the subject: Was Huck Black? by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. That's two years before this debate, not 20, and nothing in the authors' tone suggests the issue is resolved.

2) Anyone who thinks I made up my arguments out of whole cloth, that they have no academic support (hi, Diana and Margaret!), doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. Every essayist in this book (except where noted) is a professor or associate professor of English or a related subject at a regular college or university.

3) Every one of my original hypotheses receives substantial support from several authors (once again, all professors of English or the like). Namely, that "nigger" was a racist term not in common usage in Twain's time...that Jim's superstitions are noticeably worse than Huck's...that Jim's dialect isn't a faithful rendering of black speech...and that Jim acts like an addle-brained idiot. My corollary, that these and other examples together make Jim a racist stereotype, also receives substantial support, as does Beth's contention that the book's ending is fundamentally flawed. And my conclusion, that teaching Huck in high school requires inordinate sensitivity to its racial issues, also receives substantial support.

In short, every argument I've made over the last few months, both large and small, receives support in this critical review.

The N-word
On the word "nigger," from "Huck, Jim, and Racial Discourse" by David L. Smith in Satire or Evasion?:

Even when Twain was writing his book, "nigger" was universally recognized as an insulting, demeaning word. According to Stuart Berg Flexner, "Negro" was generally pronounced "nigger" until about 1825, at which time abolitionists began objecting to that term. (12) They preferred "colored person" or "person of color." Hence W.E.B. Du Bois reports that some black abolitionists of the early 1830s declared themselves united "as men,...not as slaves; as 'people of color,' not as 'Negroes,'" (13) Writing a generation later in "Army Life in a Black Regiment" (1869), Thomas Wentworth Higginson deplored the common use of "nigger" among freedmen, which he regarded as evidence of low self-esteem. (14) The objections to "nigger," then, are not a consequence of the modern sensibility but had been common for a half century before "Huckleberry Finn" was published.

Note that Smith also says, "[I]t is difficult to imagine how Twain could have debunked a discourse without using the specific terms of that discourse." But he isn't so naive that he believes "nigger" had no negative connotations in Twain's time (or before). Unlike most of our debaters, that is.

In their introduction to the book, James S. Leonard and Thomas A. Tenney add:

As for the frequent use of the word "nigger" in "Huckleberry Finn," it goes without saying that the word was at the time of Twain's writing, and remains today, a slap in the face for black Americans. It is inevitable that black children in a classroom with whites should feel uncomfortable with the word and a book in which it appears so often, and that black parents should wish to protect their children from what the word represents. In the classroom, "nigger" is embarrassing and divisive at any grade level.

Jim's black dialect
On Twain's use of dialect, from the introduction to Satire or Evasion? by Leonard and Tenney:

One obvious feature of southwestern humor infecting "Huckleberry Finn" with objectionable racial overtones is "eye dialect," which pretends to represent nonstandardness by variant (in some cases, merely phonetic) spellings, though the pronunciations represented may actually be at least regionally acceptable. The speech of Jim and other black characters in the novel is marked by extreme forms of eye dialect, while that of the white characters usually is not; the result exaggerates the ignorance and/or deviance of black speakers as compared to white.

(In the interest of full disclosure, note that Tenney isn't a professor of English like the others I've quoted, but rather the editor of a Twain journal.)

And from Mark Twain's Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety by David Sewell (a different book, not merely a different essay):

That Twain's slave Jim does not speak the exaggerated farcical dialect of the blackface minstrels has misled critics into describing his speech as "realistic" black dialect. It is, in fact, romanticized folk speech, purified of any forceful hostility that might, coming from a black speaker, have seemed threatening to a white readership even in the postwar North.

John L. Myers tried valiantly to defend Twain's use of dialect:

So do you presume that blacks and whites of 19th Century America ran in the same social groups and would thus have shared the same language/dialect and the same superstitious beliefs?

We don't know Jim's history, but we first see him living in a northern Missouri town with his owner, Miss Watson. We know he pals around with Tom and Huck. To some degree, he should reflect the traits of the whites around him.


Are we to presume that, in the setting of the novel, blacks and whites had equal access to language education?

What education of any kind does Huck have? People pick up language from their surroundings—from their parents and relatives at ages 1-2—not from "education" in school. Jim has the same access to English as anyone living in an English-speaking environment.

Walter Hawn:

The dialect is, I'm quite certain, totally authentic for a slave of the time, place and situation.

Margaret Campbell:

I was saying that "speaking like Uncle Tom" was a survival trait, and the literature supports me.

Let me see if I understand. Jim is an ignoramus who instinctively speaks a Missouri dialect because he doesn't know any better. Or Jim is a trickster who intentionally adopts a Missouri dialect to fool his white masters. Well, Walter and Margaret, which is it? Please make up your minds and let us know.

Is Huck reliable?
Campbell tried a different tack:

As I said way back when when I first dived into this, you are apparently viewing Huck as a perfect narrator, that he tells us everything exactly as it happens, without any subjective input. Nope. Non. Nyet. Nein. He is an unreliable narrator. We are shown Jim as Huck sees him, which is probably not the real Jim, yes? I'm not saying that Jim's speech was so ingrained that it never slipt, but I will say that Huck's view of what Jim's speech was defines the relaying of said speech.

You can say "no" in as many languages as you want, but you still haven't quoted a source other than yourself. Let me show you how it's done. A couple of definitions from A Handbook to Literature (Sixth Edition):

Unreliable Narrator: "A NARRATOR who may be in error in his or her understanding of things and who thus leaves readers without the guides needed for making judgments....Huck Finn, in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is often uncomprehending about the situations he describes, as are most NAIVE NARRATORS; hence he is unreliable. Immature narrators...may be unreliable on account of their lack of sophistication. Others...suffer some retardation or derangement that impedes or precludes reliability."

Naive Narrator: "An ingenuous character who is the ostensible author (often the oral narrator) of a narrative, the implications of which are plainer to the reader than they are to the narrator. . . . Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ring Lardner's Haircut are other well-known examples of the use of the naive narrator."

So, to make the points that should be obvious already:

1) Is Huck "very literally the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator," as debater Howard Cherniack suggested? No, as the Handbook states, he's more properly classified as a naive narrator. Sorry, Howard...you're very literally wrong.

Because Huck is immature and naive, we can't trust everything he believes—as when he tries to fathom the inexplicable actions of the adults he meets. We can trust him when he reports something he's familiar with. Jim and Tom's speech and behavior fall into this category. Huck knows them, reports their actions consistently, and is reliable in that regard.

2) How does the textbook definition correspond to the definitions people assayed in our debate? Well, Janet McConnaughey defined an unreliable narrator as one "on whom we cannot rely for the entire truth, between whose lines it is necessary to read." John Renfro Davis defined it as "one whose interpretations of what was going on were evident to the reader as being wrong." And I defined it as "one who repeatedly and blatantly lied or contradicted himself." All these seem similar to me; all correspond roughly to the actual definition.

In contrast, Lynn Kendall goofed rather badly when she said:

Bobbo, my boy, you apparently don't understand what "unreliable narrator" means. It doesn't mean he's an idiot or a liar or a someone who contradicts himself. It means that his beliefs, attitudes, ideas, or viewpoint don't reflect the author's.

I understand exactly what it means, Lynn, as I just proved. Too bad you can't say the same. The textbook definition says nothing about whether the narrator's views correspond with the author's, but only whether they correspond with the reader's.

Sorry, Lynno, my girl, next time check a reference book before you show off your literary ignorance. The same goes quadruple for you, Margaret. Quote a source rather than inventing your imaginative positions out of thin air.

Twain's contemporaries on his dialects
Campbell assayed one more argument. She "trotted out" (her words) a number of contemporaneous African-American authors—W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, et al.—to confirm the prevalence of Jim's dialect.

Unfortunately, trotting isn't debating. Campbell doesn't quote a single line from the books she allegedly read. She doesn't offer any reason to think these authors knew the dialects of a northern Missouri town. (Walter Hawn: "[B]ack in them days, speech patterns varied widely over what we think of as very short geographic distances.") And she doesn't explain why, if Twain knew dialects so well, Jim's dialect changed from book to book.

Does a professional debater waste time on an opponent who drops names rather than presents evidence? Not if he's smart.

Myers again:

Throughout this thread, your detractors have argued that the only one we can trust as knowing how the dialect really was was Twain himself.

And I've argued that, if that's the case, you're accepting received wisdom rather than thinking for yourself. Look at all the claims you and the others have made: Jim spoke this way because he was ignorant and uneducated. He spoke this way because he was dissembling to please his masters. He spoke this way because all blacks spoke that way. He spoke this way because some blacks did in various regions.

This statements aren't all true. Some of them are mutually exclusive. Yet you keep saying Twain knew best. What did he know best? That all blacks throughout the South spoke like Uncle Toms? Or that just the blacks in his neck of Missouri spoke that way?

You see, you haven't begun to address the contradictions in your arguments. You haven't gone beyond "Twain was right because he was he was good and good because he was right."

Twain himself discussed dialects in an explanatory note to Huck:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extreme form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

It's a shame Twain can't answer the same questions his supporters must. How do we know "familiarity" gave Twain the ability to hear and render dialects accurately? Does living in a region with dialects make a person an accomplished linguist? How is familiarity with Missouri dialects relevant if Jim came from "away up yonder" and this is his first time from home? If Twain is so familiar with dialects, how come his dialects resemble the stereotypical speech in minstrel shows? How can Jim's "accurate" dialect vary so much in Huck and improve in later stories?

Twain's vast experience
Charles Griffin claimed that because of Twain's many jobs and travels, he had the background and experience to render Jim accurately. My response:

You cite Twain's eclectic background? Well, the same cosmopolitan influences along the Mississippi would have affected Jim also. They would have ameliorated his superstitious beliefs, homogenized his thick dialect, and taught him something about the abolitionist movement (and about how the US wasn't ruled by kings). As far as we know, Jim lived only in northern Missouri and parts farther north, which would put him far from the Uncle Tomming, foot-shuffling, hoodoo-worshipping blacks of the Deep South. Yet we see none of this in the book.

You yourself said, "There are similarities in speech patterns, then and now; and there are vast differences simultaneously, then as now." Thanks, but that suits my argument, not yours. If you can't show a historical pattern, then you have no basis on which to say Jim's speech and behavior were "normal" or "valid" for that time and place.

Beth mentioned recent research on a black boy Twain knew and wrote about. I believe she's referring to "Sociable Jimmy." As a website describes it:

Sociable Jimmy

Early dialect story by Mark Twain that has been used in recent scholarship to argue that Twain was inspired to use the vernacular dialect of a child in the narration of Huckleberry Finn by his encounter with a gifted young African American story teller. First published in the New York Times (Nov. 29, 1874).

Paul Fatout revived the article in his eclectic 1978 anthology of Twain's "little-known efforts," Mark Twain Speaks for Himself (Purdue Univ. Press). He notes that by transcribing Jimmy's speech, "Mark Twain may have been attuning his ear to the variations of Negro dialect and attempting to get it down credibly on paper."

Beth didn't hammer home the point, but I will. If Twain modeled Huck Finn's speech on a young African American's, why isn't Huck's speech the same as or similar to Jim's? Why would Twain need to model Huck's speech at all if he was such a master of white and black dialects? It does not compute.

If Twain was attuning his ear to black dialects in 1874, barely a year before he began writing Huck Finn, then his knowledge of said dialects is suspect. All the talk of his childhood, his travels, and his mastery of dialects—including his exculpatory note—becomes close to irrelevant. Practice may make perfect, but it implies imperfection.

If you ask me, that Twain felt the need to justify his use of unfamiliar dialects suggests he knew his readers would doubt him. And so they have.

Jim the superstitious
On Jim's superstitions, from "Minstrel Shackles and Nineteenth-Century 'Liberality'" by Fredrick Woodard and Donnarae MacCann in Satire or Evasion?:

The swaggering buffoonery of the minstrel clown is represented early in the novel when Jim awakes and finds his hat in a tree (one of Tom's tricks), and then concocts a tale about witches and the devil....Jim and the other slaves have the superstition-steeped minds that give the whole scene a mistrel flavor, a quality that cannot be explained away by concluding that Jim has been successfully hustling the other blacks. The notoreity and the five-cent piece that Jim ends up with (not to mention the counterfeit quarter that Huck gives him for telling his fortune from a hair ball) can be interpreted as successful con jobs on Jim's part only if we isolate these scenes from the many additional superstitious episodes in which no hustle can be inferred. For example, Jim thinks Huck is a ghost when he encounters him on Jackson's Island, and he believes that all the camping supplies have been acquired through witchcraft.

And from pg. 119 of my Signet Classic edition of Huck Finn itself:

A scow or a raft went by so close we could hear them talking and cussing and laughing—hear them plain; but we couldn't see no sign of them; it made you feel crawly; it was like spirits carrying on that way in the air. Jim said he believed it was spirits, but I says:

"No, spirits wouldn't say: 'Dern the dern fog.'"

Recall that Jim narrates the story of Solomon and the disputed child to Huck. Someone has explained the Bible to him at length, judging by how he tells Solomon's tale with confidence. He also paraphrases a Biblical quote at one point. We can imagine he's a God-fearing Christian who's learned about history, government, and religion from hearing Bible stories.

How much more worldly knowledge and intelligence does it take to understand the concept of people hidden by fog? Or rustling up supplies from the surrounding woods? Not much. This is superstition for the sake of superstition, nothing more.

News flash:  Jim is a slave!
Hawn again:

The first group of scholors are correct is saying that Jim's superstitions are the result of his situation — as are Huck's the result of his position. Huck and Jim lived in very different circumstances. Despite your assertion that Huck and Jim 'come from and live in the same environs,' the inescapable truth is that Jim was a black slave and Huck was a free white, trashy though he may have been.

So Jim is inherently superstitious because he was a black slave? Are you saying all blacks are superstitious? Or all slaves?

If, say, an Oedipus Rex performance portrayed a Greek slave identically to Jim, would you have any problem with that? Why, if all slaves are superstitious?

Myers again:

This question shows a palpable ignorance of the differences of culture. Jim's spiritual beliefs are going to be as far away from Huck's as either of them is going to be from ... oh... the Puritans.

That Jim and Huck have different "cultures" is debatable since their circumstances are similar. They both live in the same small Missouri town in the same household with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Jim knows farming and woodcraft skills, the Bible, the concept of investing money to earn interest, and numbers like "ten hundred thousand billion."

When Huck thinks of Jim moaning for his lost children, Huck says they live "away up yonder." Since New Orleans is "down," Jim comes from the north. Later Huck says Jim was formerly a slave on Miss Watson's nearby farm. So he's either lived in northern Missouri all his life or has come from farther north, as far as we can tell.

Jim relates how he gave his last dime to a black named Balum, who donated it to his church. Whether Jim attends church or not, his black peers do and he's familiar with their religious practices. He knows enough about Christianity for us to infer he's a good Christian.

Jim arguably knows Christianity as well as Huck does. They also share many superstitious beliefs. The difference is, Jim originates many of the silliest superstitious incidents: the hairball fortune-telling, the dream of being flown around the country like a witch's broom, the belief in ghosts and witchcraft. These incidents contribute little to the story, so why are they there?

They're there to paint Jim as ignorant—more ignorant than a boy half or a third of his age. Readers would feel uneasy rooting for an intelligent, aware, adult Negro, but they can feel superior to Jim. He's so innocent and child-like you can't help feeling a little sorry for him, no matter how racist you are.

Blacks = superstitious?
Diana Gabaldon took a stab at dismissing this dispute:

To reply to one point that I saw while racing through here—"Was black culture inherently more superstitious than white?"—I suppose that depends in part on whether you regard Christianity or Judaism as superstitions, but that aside, yes, it was.

It isn't a matter in which I have a lot of natural interest, but I needed to know—both generally and specifically—the nature of religious and social beliefs among black slaves in the West Indies during the last half of the eighteenth century. Consequently, I have some seven or eight books dealing with various aspects of the question....

The thing is, when you enter the nineteenth century, you no longer have distinct tribal groups or origins of black slaves, and most of the commonality and structure of their religious beliefs (separate tribal groups had distinct religions, though some large groups had marked similarities) had been destroyed, leaving the now indistinct "black" culture (as opposed to the distinct original tribal cultures) with the superstitious remnants.

There's a very interesting book called (I think; I was in the eighth grade when I read it) THE STARS FALL ON ALABAMA, which deals extensively with black superstitions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It's an anecdotal, rather than a scholarly work, but it's very interesting to see—from the perspective of the later books I read on African religions—the religious roots of what were then disconnected superstitions (by "disconnected," I mean that certain customs and beliefs obtained, with no conscious reference to spiritual substance).

Missouri's Hannibal area is across the river from the free state of Illinois...close to the Iowa border...as far north as Indianapolis...only 200 miles from big-town Chicago. Whether Jim was born enslaved or caught somehow, he has no known connection to the Deep South's culture. Or to Southern culture, period.

The 18th-century West Indies were some 2,000 miles and half a century removed from Huck Finn's setting. An anecdotal book on Alabama, which is only 500 miles away rather than 2,000, is hardly more persuasive. Even you admit only "remnants" of superstitious belief were left by the 19th century. Which remnants were present and where?

Who knows? You offer zero evidence of religious practices in northern Missouri, black or white. And zero evidence that 19th-century whites were less superstitious than 19th-century blacks. The evidence you do offer is about as relevant as a book on Canada would be.

Perhaps you didn't realize Jim's origins, but they're devastating to your use of unrelated source material. Your opinion that a black man from the Upper Midwest would share the superstitions of a black man from the West Indies or Alabama is completely unsubstantiated. That you'd even try to paint blacks as superstitious, without researching the same subject among whites, seems vaguely racist to me.

Sorry, Diana, your argument fails badly. Better luck next time.

Jim the ignorant
On Jim's child-like ignorance, from "Minstrel Shackles and Nineteenth-Century 'Liberality'":

Jim gives his impression of "King Sollermun" and his harem in a minstrel-like repartee (chap. 14), and his confusion about stock market profits is seen in a farcical account of how Jim's stock—his cow—failed to increase his fourteen-dollar fortune when he "tuck to specalat'n'" (chap. 8). Throughout the novel Jim is stupefied by information that Huck shares with him, as when they discuss Louis XVI's "little boy the dolphin." Huck's miseducation makes him the brunt of the humor here as much as Jim, but the reader is shown many sides of Huck's character, whereas Jim is usually either the total fool or the overgrown child. In episodes where he behaves as an adult, as when Jim chides Huck for "trashy" behavior after Huck tells Jim he has merely dreamed their fogbound separation, Twain often mixes Jim's befuddlements with his insights. If Jim is momentarily wise, it comes off as an accident because he is simultaneously the head-scratching darky. In the fog scene he puzzles, "Is I me, or who is I? Is I heah, or whah is I?" (chap. 15).

Was being a slave really akin to being retarded? I opened Huck Finn at random to a passage where Huck informs Jim the "king" isn't really a king. Jim doesn't know America doesn't have kings? Come on!

Earlier Huck concluded: "It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds." Later he muses about what any five-year-old could understand: "What was the use to tell Jim these warn't real kings and dukes? It wouldn't 'a' done no good." So Jim is less intelligent than a boy half his age.

Right after the King Sollermun routine, Huck and Jim go into a French-speaking routine. Jim supposedly doesn't realize Frenchmen speak French. He knows about the slave trade in New Orleans (with its French Quarter), and he allegedly gets his superstitions from the West Indies (with its French-based culture). Yet he has no awareness of the French language?

I use the word "routine" intentionally, because these two routines resemble classic vaudeville acts. More accurately, they resemble classic minstrel acts. As noted in Blackface Minstrelsy:

During Mark Twain's times most white commentary on minstrelsy (including MT's own remarks for his autobiography) assume its accuracy, its essentially faithful imitation of African-American speech, singing and dancing. Since the Civil Rights Movement, on the other hand, nearly every commentator agrees that the minstrel show "coon" is a racist caricature.

So we're back to the same issue as before. Is Jim pretending to be an Uncle Tom or is he really one? It's one or the other, but not both.

How much does Jim understand?
John Renfro Davis, one of the few openminded people in this debate, discussed the "King Sollermun" issue:

I thought Jim *did* understand the point of the story -- that it illustrated how wise Solomon was supposed to be -- only Jim didn't see it as wisdom at all.

That's where we disagree. If you believe Jim understood the story, then his rejoinder seems eminently wise. But I don't believe it from my reading of the scene. Jim understood that Solomon needed to decide, but Solomon's decision-making approach completely baffled him.

It makes me feel that if you just view him as a stereotype because of the *way* he talks, you're selling him way short.

When Jim utters gibberish like "Is I me, or who is I? Is I heah, or whah is I?" it's hard not to judge him by his language.

But I've said all along that Jim isn't a complete and unvarying stereotype. If he were, I don't think we'd be arguing. <g> The fact is his intelligence level varies all over the map, depending on the matter at hand. This itself suggests Jim is wrongheaded in concept. If Twain can manipulate Jim's qualities to make his points about racism, Jim isn't truly a valid character.

I find it amusing that we have all these contradictory opinions about whether blacks did or didn't act like Uncle Toms, whether it was or wasn't intentional, etc., yet people seem to think I'm doing something wrong by asking questions. The only wrong questions are the ones not asked.

Jim shuffled while real slaves sued
Several debaters tried to rationalize how superstitious and ignorant blacks were in Twain's era. (Presumably these debaters think blacks are less superstitious and ignorant now, although they don't say that.) They excuse Jim's shortcomings on the grounds that Twain was just reporting what he saw and heard.

But historical documents put the lie to this racist view. Let's see just how aware and informed blacks were in Twain's time and place. An excerpt from an article in the LA Times, 3/18/03:

Cries for Freedom Still Ring

In long-ago lawsuits uncovered in St. Louis, slaves tell of their suffering. Dozens won release from bondage before all-white juries.

By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer

Among heaps of musty affidavits about contract disputes and unpaid debts, the archivists have uncovered 283 "freedom suits" filed in St. Louis from 1806 to 1865.

Decades before Dred Scott became the most famous slave to sue for freedom, the imposing, domed courthouse here echoed with the defiant voices of Tempe, of Ralph, of so many others who refused to accept their bondage. They dictated their petitions to lawyers or clerks and signed them with faltering Xs in black ink. "He has frequently abused and beaten her, particularly yesterday." "Unlawfully an assault he did make in and upon her."

Before this cache of documents was discovered, historians had no idea how many slaves had put their faith, and their fates, in the courts. They thought Dred Scott was an anomaly. Now, they are uncovering evidence of an underground grapevine that passed word about the freedom suits from slave to slave, emboldening men and women and even teenage children to sue.

Dozens won their cases, persuading juries of 12 white men to set them free. A few even won damages against their masters.

"This is a stunning find. It's just phenomenal," said Lea VanderVelde, a law professor at the University of Iowa who is writing a book on the freedom suits.

She describes 19th century St. Louis as a frenetic boomtown in which many slaves roamed the streets largely unsupervised. In the Deep South, slaves were isolated on their plantations. Here, they were often ordered to run errands, to unload parcels on the docks, to help a tradesman in town or to do the laundry at a local hotel. Some were even sent to the free territory of Illinois to labor in the salt mines, though their masters kept their wages.

The relative freedom of movement allowed slaves to mingle with one another and with the free blacks who worked on the river steamboats or owned barbershops in town. They got together as well at regular Friday night parties, dubbed "Negro balls," and at church on Sunday. Every meeting gave them an opportunity to swap news of friends who had successfully sued for freedom, to exchange tips about the best lawyers or most sympathetic judges.

The grapevine worked so well that whites raged, filling newspapers of the 1830s and '40s with rants about how freedom suits were subverting discipline among their slaves.

"You get a sense of how difficult it was for the state to maintain the institution of slavery. People want freedom," said David Konig, a history professor at Washington University. "Their language in these lawsuits is not supplicating. They're not coming into court on their hands and knees. They're demanding."

So south of Hannibal, Mo., real blacks attended church and social gatherings, owned businesses, and consulted lawyers about their legal rights. Meanwhile, our correspondents debated whether Jim understood the basic concepts of language, religion, and government. I'm not sure who's more ignorant: Jim or our correspondents.

Maybe Jim was just faking
One critic has postulated that Jim is putting on an act the entire book—that when he adopts a heavy darky accent, pretends to be superstitious, or acts like a buffoon—he's really spoofing the others' ignorance.

Uh-huh, sure. And all Shakespeare's characters were really gay. Dorothy of Oz was really a promiscuous slut. Superman rescues people only so he fondle them while they're unconscious.

You could make up any argument like this and find some evidence to support it. But the most telling argument against this claim is the rest of Twain's work and life. Why would Jim continue to put on an act when he was a free man? And how is it an act when Twain enjoyed minstrel shows at face value?

Furthermore, Twain's body of work shows a pattern of ethnic slurs. From an analysis of Roughing It:

[I]n another mood, he speaks irritably of Syrians and their sore-eyed children, who remind him of Indians: "These people about us had other peculiarities which I had noticed in the noble red man, too: they were infested with vermin, and the dirt had caked on them till it amounted to bark." He calls the Bedouins "Digger Indians," a mythical tribe invented by Americans to give full expression to their contempt.

Either every putdown in Twain's thousands of pages is part of an all-encompassing joke...or Twain meant what he said about Indians, foreigners, and blacks. I consider the latter case far more likely. Twain was a man of his times, perhaps slightly more progressive than average. He wanted to portray a Negro sympathetically, but he couldn't do better than making Jim a clown from one of his minstrel shows.

Likewise, he thought nothing of savaging Indians early in his career, calling them "ignoble—base and treacherous, and hateful in every way." Only when he'd journeyed around the world did he develop a more ambivalent, nuanced view. This first became evident in his 1897 travel book Following the Equator, published some 20 years after Huckleberry Finn.

Once again, indigenous people serve as the canary in the coal mine. How we treat them reveals who and what we really are.

The three faces of Jim
Hawn inadvertently capped the debate on Jim's flawed intelligence when he noted:

Most folks don't know that there is a *third* Huck and Tom book, called _Tom Sawyer Abroad_, nowhere nearly as well-done as the first two. In it, Huck and Tom *and* Jim commandeer a visiting carnival's hot air balloon and wind up in the Sahara desert. (Okay, okay! But this is not MY plot.) In this book Jim is a full partner (his english has improved, as well) and it is often through his agency that the others are saved from severe ends. It is a fairly slim book and was probably done for a boy's magazine, as well, and, it seemed to me, it ended well before it might have; probably at editorial insistence. My point here is that, in it, Twain does address those issues you raised anent the ending of _Huck Finn_. Jim is seen as fully human, as being more intelligent (even to the less discerning; I maintain that Jim is often shown as more intelligent & kinder in both TS & HF, despite suggestions from others to the contrary) as either of the white boys, as being the social equal to Huck and Tom, though it is true that Tom cannot bring himself to say so.

So Jim speaks well in Tom Sawyer Abroad (by your own testimony), but like a stereotypical Uncle Tom in Huck? That alone seems to prove the point that Huck is an inferior depiction of the black condition. How could Jim speak better and be more intelligent in the later book unless the earlier portrayal was stereotypical?

I ascribe [Jim's improvement] to a rise in self-esteem as a freeman and/or, possibly, to a response by Twain to criticism that the earlier speech was just TOO danged hard to read.

Oh, please. Maybe Jim enrolled in night school somewhere. I seem to recall something about a Berlitz program for former slaves—not.

I'm anxiously awaiting your proof (anecdotal, historical, literary, or otherwise) that one can improve a lifetime of ingrained speech patterns by a "rise in self-esteem." My explanation, that the "improvement" occurred because Twain realized the first portrayal was stereotypical, is much more likely, IMHO. Natural speech patterns don't spontaneously change for any reason, much less a rise in self-esteem.

Let's go to the experts again. How does Jim in Huck Finn compare with Jim in Tom Sawyer Abroad? Some opinions from Woodard and MacCann in Satire or Evasion?:

[I]n the next published work about Huck, Tom, and Jim—"Tom Sawyer Abroad"—nothing is left of Jim but the clown.

...Jim stands out vividly as a child among children, the stage role assigned to adult black males.

Jim comes across as the most immature member of the group. He loses his head in episodes with lions, mirages and other apparent apparitions. He overreacts in the good times, too....

He is easily tricked by the children, as when they exploit his ignorance about fractions and dupe him into choosing to shovel a disproportionate share (four-fifths) of the sand that has collected in the balloon.

And in Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor Kenneth S. Lynn writes that Jim "is barely recognizable in the minstrel-show darky of the later book." So Jim speaks better in Tom Sawyer Abroad, but acts worse? Yet the critics in this debate would have us believe Twain was recording the blacks he observed accurately. How is that possible when Jim's speech and behavior are all over the map?

Stereotypes abound in Twain
Incidentally, Jim's one (?) scene in Tom Sawyer also casts him in a racist light. Tom cajoles Jim into giving up his pail for a chance to look at his sore toe, and Jim agrees. He's seemingly so simpleminded he can't imagine what a sore toe would look like. Whereupon someone kicks Jim in the rear as if he is a cartoonish buffoon. What does this Tom-foolery say about Twain's predilections?

We can find similar stereotypes in much of Twain's work. His short stories are full of bumpkins and ne'er-do-wells—one- or two-dimensional types. His Diaries of Adam and Eve are an excuse to trot out every male and female cliche known to man (or woman). And his writings on the American Indian are largely racist.

Campbell tried to dismiss the relevance of other works to Huck Finn, saying:

I...don't compare anything in Huck to anything in Tom Sawyer. I don't consider HF the middle book in a trilogy.

I've never met anyone who considers them the literary equivalent of HF. Drop it. You're dragging in extraneous subjects.

Clearly you don't compare Huck to Twain's other works. You don't want the facts to get in the way of your bias.

I never said the other books were the literary equivalent of Huck Finn. But drop them? Nonsense. You drop your citations of Du Bois and other authors if we're dropping all references outside the book itself.

Twain's body of work is firsthand evidence of his ability to render dialects accurately and his attitude toward blacks, Indians, and other minorities. Tom Sawyer Abroad and Du Bois both provide insight into the historical reality and literary fashion of the times. Rather than drop them, we should use them as auxiliary material whenever we study Huck Finn.

How do real scholars respond to Campbell's uncritical approach to literary criticism? From Woodard and MacCann:

One example of a minstrel-like monologue...compared with similar minstrel-inspired material in "Huckleberry Finn" and in "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy," leads us to consider the Huck/Tom/Jim narratives as a unit in terms of their portrayal of Jim.

Wow, what a concept. Two real experts disagree with one of our "experts." In a stunning revelation of the obvious, they suggest that when you have several books about the same characters by the same author, it makes sense to study them as a whole for the literary clues they provide.


Now may be a good time to note that Satire or Evasion? has a 29-page annotated bibliography on "Mark Twain and race." The website Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884-2001 demonstrates the complaints against Huck are extensive and enduring. Seems to me the only "barbarians" (cf. Hawn) in this debate are the folk who intentionally choose ignorance over enlightenment.

Twain knew darkies
In Satire or Evasion?, scholars talk about the minstrel or "darky" stereotype, not the Uncle Tom stereotype. If you analyzed these stereotypes, I think you'd find several common components: the langauge, the buffoonery, the lack of adult maturity or sense. You can think of a minstrel darky as an active or extroverted version of the general Negro stereotype, and an Uncle Tom as a passive or introverted version.

Or you can claim they're utterly different. But whether Jim is a darky stereotype or an Uncle Tom stereotype, he's still a stereotype. Leonard and Tenney spell it out:

Mark Twain, like anyone else, was not without his blind spots and intolerances. Most notably, he seems to have been capable of blithely overlooking the racial implications of his productions in relation to the image of the minstrel-show "darky." The black-American-as-darky is the white fiction by which an unequal relation between races is rendered harmless, natural, just, and ethical. While Twain was apparently not inclined to actually use the word "darky," it is equally evident that, despite his fondness for subverting stereotype, he was drawn to this one.

He was drawn to it because he was intimately familiar with the minstrel tradition. Some evidence from "Twain's 'Nigger' Jim" by Bernard W. Bell in Satire or Evasion?:

Twain writes: "To my mind [the minstrel show] was a thoroughly delightful thing, and a most competent laughter-compeller and I am sorry it is gone." He saw his first minstrel show in Hannibal in the 1840s. "...[W]e had not heard of it before, and it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise." Sharing the commonplace notion of white contemporaries that their imitation of black character and culture was realistic as well as funny, he writes:

The minstrels appeared with coal-black hands and faces and their clothing was a loud and extravagant burlesque of the clothing worn by the plantation slave of the time; not that the rags of the poor slave were burlesqued, for that would not have been possible; burlesque could have added nothing in the way of extravagance to the sorrowful accumulation of rags and patches which constituted his costume; it was the form and color of his dress that was burlesqued....The minstrel used a very broad negro dialect; he used it competently and with easy facility and it was funny—delightfully and satisfyingly funny.

The buffoonery and extravagant comic arguments of Bones and Banjo, the stock minstrel characters, were believed to be particularly funny because of their assumed accuracy:

Sometimes the quarrel would last five minutes, the two contestants shouting deadly threats in each other's faces with their noses not six inches apart, the house shrieking with laughter all the while at this happy and accurate imitation of the usual and familiar negro quarrel.

Twain's taste in humor reveals his socialization as an American, not merely as a southwesterner, in the ethics of white supremacy.

The book includes several other discussions of Twain's minstrel-derived panderings. Again, these discussions are by accredited professors of English. For more on the subject, visit Blackface Minstrelsy.

Ralph Ellison, a literary critic as well as a literary giant, had this to say about Huck Finn:

Down at the deep dark bottom of the melting pot, where private is public and the public private, where black is white and white is black, where the immoral becomes moral and moral is anything that makes one feel good (or that one has the power to sustain), the white man's relish is apt to be the black man's gall. It is not at all odd that this blackfaced figure of white fun is for Negroes a symbol of everything they rejected in the white man's thinking about race, in themselves and in their own group. When he appears, for example, in the guise of Nigger Jim, the Negro is made uncomfortable. Writing at a time when the blackface minstrel was still popular, and shortly after a war which left even the abolitionists weary of those problems associated with the Negro, Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition, and it is from behind this stereotype mask that we see Jim's dignity and human capacity—and Twain's complexity—emerge.

I have no problem with a judgment like Ralph Ellison's. But most of the people I debated weren't taking this view. They were saying Twain's work was above reproach and I was wrong to reproach it. (Griffin: "Sophomore isn't always a grade level....")

An article in the June 26/July 3 New Yorker includes a lost chapter from Huckleberry Finn and five writers offering their thoughts on the novel. This article contradicts the assertion that the controversy over Huck Finn is over and done. It calls the book our greatest moral challenge (or something similar), and quotes E.L. Doctorow as follows:

As a reconstructed Southerner, Twain was a repository of all the contradictions in his society. Tom's book and Huck's book are conflicting visions of the same past, and at the end one vision prevails, and it is the wrong one. The same thing that made Twain blow his greatest work generates its troublesome moral conundrums—the depiction of Jim. Twain loved dialect; he had an ear for it and it came easily to him, so it is Huck Finn who struggles against the white mores of his time to help the black man, Jim, escape from slavery, but it is Huck's progenitor who portrays Jim, in minstrelese, as a gullible black man-child led by white children.

The irony may not be redemptive.

Yes. So Doctorow, yet another leading literary mind, suggests the debate is alive and kicking. The quote refutes the notion that only a small black elite (e.g., Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison) criticizes Huck Finn.

P.S. After reading the omitted chapter, I can see why it was omitted. It wouldn't have added anything to the book.

Huck's message to the world
Hawn effectively undermines all his previous arguments by describing what he considers Twain's intentions:

Twain is presenting a more or less idealistic view; the world as it ought to be — not as it generally is or was.

Your point about the "boy's story" origins of both _Huck_ and _Tom_ I think explains the simplisitic nature of the "distorted ... America" of both books. Twain is presenting a more or less idealistic view; the world as it ought to be — not as it generally is or was. One function of children's literature is to show the ideal as a final product so that the child reader can learn correct behavior and the reasons for it.

I have no doubt that Twain wrote _Huck_ to be instructive to kids. I believe he wrote it as propaganda — anti-racist and anti-slavery propaganda — and was forced by editorial requirements to make Jim's situation less dire than he would have liked.

Finally someone admits Huck Finn is sanitized propaganda, not historical reality. You've just confirmed my last umpteen arguments, Walter. Thank you.

How exactly does Twain suggest the world should be? Well, he obviously disdains civilized pretensions and hypocrisies. And he obviously thinks Negroes are human beings. But it's not obvious he disdains racial inequality or even the institution of slavery—though slavery had been over for two decades when he published Huck.

Some thoughts on this subject from "The Struggle for Tolerance" by graduate student Peaches Henry in Satire or Evasion?:

Huck's choice to "go to hell" has little to do with any respect he has gained for Jim as a human being with an inalienable right to be owned by no one. Rather, his personal affection for the slave governs his overthrow of societal mores. It must be remembered that Huck does not adjudge slavery to be wrong; he selectively disregards a system that he ultimately believes is right. So when he discourses with Aunt Sally, he is expressing views he still holds. His emancipatory attitudes extend no further than his love for Jim. It seems valid to argue that were he given the option of freeing other slaves, Huck would not necessarily choose manumission.

Compare this view of slavery to Lincoln's complex views. Note that Lincoln was a politician who had to choose his words carefully, while Twain was a novelist who could write anything he wanted. Note also that Lincoln took a stand a decade before the Civil War, while Twain couldn't muster enough courage to question slavery until a decade after the Civil War.

In this light, Twain looks like a moral coward compared to Lincoln—not to mention the abolitionists who demanded an unqualified end to slavery. Yet some deify Twain as a great man in Lincoln's class? I don't think so.

Let's summarize Twain's message. Slavery was kinda cruel but also kinda fun: an adventure where boys can play "Prisoner of Zenda" to humiliate a darky and everything works out in the end. Jim was an ignorant, superstitious, minstrel-like caricature but also a caring human being.

How might Twain's superficial message—which is less enlightened than what 3-year-olds hear on Barney every afternoon—affect children? What does it teach kids, who—like my critics—can't distinguish historical fact from fiction? A recent lawsuit suggests the impact:

According to the complaint, Doe and other similarly situated African-American students suffered psychological injuries and lost educational opportunities due to the required reading of the literary works....It further alleged that the assignment of the literary works "created and contributed to a racially hostile educational environment."

Monteiro v. Tempe High, Oct. 19, 1998

And from Peaches Henry in Satire or Evasion?:

[A] study conducted in 1983 to examine "the effects of reading 'Huckleberry Finn' on the racial attitudes of ninth grade students" corroborates the contention that junior high school students lack the critical perception to successfully negotiate the satire present in the novel. According to the committee that directed the study, the collected data indicated "that the elements of satire which are crucial to an understanding of the novel go largely unobserved by students." That approximately one-third of the group...regarded "Huckleberry Finn" as merely an adventure story "after several weeks of serious study" left the committee convinced "that many students are not yet ready to understand the novel on its more complex levels."

The panel recommended removing the book from the ninth-grade curriculum and reserving it for eleventh- or twelth-graders, concluding:

Given the degree and instances of irony and satire in the book, the difficult dialects and general reading level of the book, and the tendency of many readers to read the book at the level of an adventure story, the committee believes, the novel requires more literary sophistication than can reasonably be expected from an average ninth grade student.

News flash:  Huck is a novel!
Campbell again:

Umm, one note. Huck Finn is a *novel*. It isn't history. I don't feel compelled to point out every deviation from history, any more than I feel the need to point out that Polyphemus wasn't real when I teach The Odyssey.

I wouldn't feel compelled either. But, as I've said, I would feel compelled to mention major points, especially those my students might be ignorant of. The Odyssey is full of obvious fantasy elements. So is Huck Finn, except they're not quite as obvious to unschooled kids (or critics).

We've found the ruins of Troy and they undoubtedly prove and disprove some aspects of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think mentioning this historical context and these historical facts would be a valid part of teaching the works. I wouldn't concentrate on these points to the exclusion of others, but I wouldn't ignore them, either.

Can you divorce literature from its moral, social, and historical context? Is it mere "entertainment"? Not if it's taught in schools. With the authority of a school and teacher behind it, a classrom reading experience is anything but an escapist Saturday matinee. Students learn values, beliefs, and even history from the fiction they read.

Griffin added,

I had a conversation with my friend, a young lady grad student in Florida. Of the exchanges she said:

Huckleberry Finn is a seminal work in American literature. Of course it must be taught for its value as a watershed work with due regard for the influences of the time on the writing of the novel, as well as the influence the novel has on the reader, whether the reader is Black or White. So, what are you guys fussing about?

We're fussing about people who say the book is "just a novel" and imply we don't need to consider its moral, social, and historical context to understand it. I say we do. Griffin, Hawn, and their ilk imply the entire question is "sophomoric."

Inevitably, some will claim Beth and I are trying to abolish, censor, or dismiss Huck Finn as part of the "canon." No, I'm not, and here's what Beth had to say:

I'm not willing to "write off" Huck Finn either, regardless of whether or not I suffer from white guilt, and that has never been the premise of this discussion. Huck Finn is, at moments, one of the greatest American novels ever written. It is also an important American novel, in that it is among the first works ever to acknowledge and portray that valid and lyrical southern dialect to which you refer.

However, one of the central issues of the book is the hypocrisy of the way in which white America, which claims personal freedom as one of its founding tenets, has enslaved, oppressed and denigrated the African-American. One cannot discuss Huck Finn as a piece of literature without discussing this issue. Mark Twain, known as a satirist, was clearly trying to point out the foolishness of slavery. The question is not whether or not Huck Finn is a racist book, and therefore invalid, but whether or not, as twentieth-century readers, there are questions we can ask ourselves about the misconceptions about African-Americans we still might hold, and whether or not some of these misconceptions might be present in this book.

This is especially urgent, given that this is the most widely required piece of reading in America's high schools today. If there is anything in this book which might lead to further racial divisiveness, oughtn't we better have a look at it before we give it to our kids?

What to do about Huck
To reiterate, no one here is talking about censoring the book. Beth and I have suggested only that teachers should teach Huck Finn carefully, present it in context. Don't pass it off as "mere" fiction when it says so much about America's culture and morality.

Rather than removing it from approved book lists, I'd do just the opposite. I'd urge schools to teach it precisely because of its problems. By acknowledging its racist flaws as well as its anti-racist message, we could teach students much about our society's shortcomings. Huck Finn could show us that even the most well-intentioned people fall prey to subtle, implicit racism.

Our debaters say they and other teachers are addressing Huck's themes and messages already. But some of our debaters refuse to acknowledge anything wrong with Huck. How can they say we're teaching the book's problems if they deny it has any problems—any flaws or stereotypes?

As Toni Morrison wrote, Jim is "unassertive, irrational, dependent, inarticulate...." As Beth wrote, "A great many African-American literary critics, schoolteachers and classroom students have tried to let us know that this book hurts them." The question is what we should do about it, if anything.


Buy it now
Huckleberry Finn
Playing the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn

More information on Twain
Mark Twain (BoondocksNet.com)
Mark Twain (About.com)

Related links
Mark Twain, Indian hater

Readers respond
"Your debate not only helped sway me to your side, but helped me think of some awesome arguements."
"There is NOTHING wrong with calling Jim a nigger if that is in fact what he was."
Hawn:  "[Y]es, this is an 'ad homonym attack, because you then and now...fully and richly deserve it."

* More opinions *
  Join our Native/pop culture blog and comment
  Sign up to receive our FREE newsletter via e-mail
  See the latest Native American stereotypes in the media
  Political and social developments ripped from the headlines

. . .

Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.

Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.