The issue of whether the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be taught in schools around the United States has been a highly debated topic since the early 1950's, and centers on the racist nature of the novel. This paper discusses the arguments from both critics and proponents and reveals that, although there is no question that the language of Huck Finn is racist, it is racist only in a literary sense. This finding, along with an analysis of the purpose of racism in Huck Finn, shows that while the subject of racism in the novel is difficult, it is one that should be explored within a classroom.
Proponents of the teaching of Huck Finn have noted many useful literary tools used by Twain in his attempt to show racism as a social problem. Bercovitch discusses the use of irony, satire, humor, and innocence to convey a sense of morality to the reader in a way that is non- confrontational (23). Davis and his colleagues discuss the use of the term "nigger" and show that, when taken in context, those within the book who use the word are generally portrayed by Twain as ignorant and vile, further displaying his disdain for racism (11). Schmidt furthers this idea by showing that the use of derogatory language is simply a tool for the writer to show his anti-racist tendencies (452).
Additionally, proponents discuss Twain's character development of Jim as one that demands respect, not racist attitudes. Aarc discusses the use of Jim as an African-American character who is respected, and loved by the reader, thus combating the reader's preconceived idea of African-Americans as unequal (122). Chadwick-Joshua point out the description of the escape of Jim, and Jim's eventual sacrifice of his freedom, is not intended to show an African-American giving up his freedom for a Caucasian, but rather showing Jim's true character; one that we have come to expect in this wonderful man (127).
Still another argument is that Twain's novel is racist only to show the ignorance of the racist Caucasian men of his culture. Mensch and Mensch use the concept that Twain was pointing out racism to combat prejudice as a social problem in their analysis that the description of the raft journey are blind to color differences (47). Aarc also notes that the language of Huck Finn is central to the time frame in which the novel was written, and is actually used to denounce racism in Twain's culture (128).
While there can be no question that the language of Huck Finn is racist, it is obvious that when taken in context, it is precisely this language which allows the reader insight as to the purpose of Twain's narrative. To ban the reading of a novel based on the language of racism would be to deny the very point Twain was attempting to make: that racism should be discussed in order for it to end. Through the use of light humor, irony, satire, and colorful, loved characters, Twain successfully attempts to show racism as a social problem which needs to be dealt with. If we as a society ignore the literary purpose of the novel, we effectively act in ways Twain was attempting to combat. It is only through careful discussion of the novel that all readers can develop ideas of racism in early history, and can begin to understand the troubles faced by founding African-Americans in American culture.
Huckleberry Finn: An Annotated Bibliography
Arac, Jonathan. "Putting the River on New Maps: Nation, Race, and Beyond in Reading Huckleberry Finn." American Literary History 8.1 (1996): 110-130.
This article discusses how the novel the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be viewed as a generational novel, and one that focuses on issues relative to the time period of the early twentieth century, which included war, and the powers of democracy and freedom. The article discusses the use of Jim as a voice for the oppressed African-American slave, and one that is shown to be effective not only at bringing to the reader a sense of respect for him, but also in bringing a sense of the struggle for the freedom of the African-American many.
Additionally, this article presents the idea that the issue of freedom, central to the novel, is one that is best understood by using a variety of enslaved or oppressed individuals, which the author believe Huck Finn does. Through the use of Jim as the oppressed blank, Huck as the low-income Caucasian boy, Aunt Polly as the upper-class authority figure, the biased and racist men who attack Jim, and even Sally as the upper-crust Caucasian female, all help to show how race and class were central themes to the culture of the time period.
This article would assist in explaining how Twain's use of a variety of characters simply further displayed the biases and racial concerns of his time period. Rather than condemning the novel for its use of Jim as an oppressed African-American man, this article would help show that the use of racially derogatory slurs and situations only helps the reader to understand the central themes of freedom from all perspectives, and not just in relation to Jim. Huck's innocent attempts to free himself from his class, along with Jim's attempts at freedom of self and the "white mans" attempts to stop them both, are clearly portrayed in the article, and the use of those clear examples would further illustrate the point that the novel is designed as a universal struggle for freedom.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. "What's Funny About Huckleberry Finn?" New England Review 20.1 (1999): 8-21.
This article discusses the "Trickster" mode of humor used in the novel, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and explains how the use of humor as a way to discuss social and psychological uncertainties within a time period is effective. In particular, the author discusses three ways in which Mark Twain used the Trickster mode to explore difficult issues such as the transgression of boundaries, Huck's rebellion against taboo ideas, and the mockery of rules and regulations. Those three methods of use in Huck Finn, according to the author, are the use of humor to convey a sense of innocence, such as the coin trick by Huck in the beginning of the novel, the use to conceal satire, such as many of the dialogs within the novel, and most importantly, the use of humor to discuss sinister ideas and events in a light manner. The article develops these ideas based on numerous examples from the book, including Huck's first conversation with Sally, his relationship with his aunt and Jim, and the use of the word "nigger" to convey the culture of the time period in a manner which is easy to read.
This article would be particularly effective when used in a paper supporting the teaching of the novel in school classrooms. The author discusses many uses of satire and sinister events veiled in humor, and discusses how the use of that humor helps to convey the true issue of the novel, that of the cultural racism and inequality that is a part of Huck's life. The position of this paper is that the novel should be taught in classrooms on the grounds that the piece introduces ideas of racism and prejudice, which are important topics to discuss. As such, the evaluation of those themes based on the Trickster mode of writing would assist in explaining how Mark Twain's style of writing assists youths in learning the difficult issues of racism without the use of extreme violence or difficult readings.
Chadwick-Joshua, Jocelyn. "In the Dark, Southern Fashion: The Unreconstructed South." The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in "Huckleberry Finn." Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998: 115-137.
On pages 126 through 127, the authors discuss the controversy surrounding the scene in the novel following the escape of Jim, Tom, and Huck. Critics of the novel suggest that the willingness of Jim to relinquish his freedom to a Caucasian man simply shows the racist view of African-Americans as secondary to Caucasians in the novel. However, the author points to the already established relationship between Jim and Huck to douse this argument effectively. Jim has acted, throughout the novel, with only his friendship to Huck in mind, and that this friendship is based on far more than race. Prior to this point in the novel, the reader has witnessed the loyalty, faith, honesty, and self-reliance of the two characters, acting not as a Caucasian boy and an African-American slave, but as a team. This build up of Jim would lead the character naturally into the role of the self-sacrificing man. His development into a character of dignity, with a command for respect simply because of his position as a father, free man, and friend, according to the author, are the very qualities that allow the character to give up what he wants for what he feels is right.
This portion of the book would be very beneficial in addressing the critics who claim…