The Avenues of Racism in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Racism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

During the Antebellum period of American history and for decades after, authors often wrote works regarding the tragedies of slavery. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, is one of the most famous works of literature dealing with the issue of slavery. Unfortunately, some claim that Twain s writings are offensive to black readers, perpetuates cheap slave era stereotypes, and deserves no place on todays bookshelves (Salwen 1). This work reflects a boy s struggle dealing with slavery while growing up in the South during the era of slavery.

In fact, the style of the book, which is the style of Huck, is what makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalist propaganda of Uncle Toms Cabin (Eliot 64). Furthermore, Huck Finn savages racism as thoroughly as any document in American history (Morrow 159). However, Attempts have been made to deprive children of the right to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that it is a racist tract (Morrow 155).

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Twain s controversial usage of literary devices such as the vernacular of the time period and various speeches by the characters has raised many issues as to the worth of the work itself. Teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can surely open students eyes to the racial tension caused by ignorance.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the deepest stories written on slavery. The main question that arises from readers and critics alike is What is the book really about? (Salwen 1) This question is one that the reader will have to answer for himself after reading the novel.

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As with any good work of literature, there always remains a range of interpretation that is still correct though it may differ from other readers. T. S. Eliot commented on Twain s writings stating that he wrote with just the right details and no more, and leaving the reader to make his own moral reflections (64).

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the realization that everyone deserves to be treated as a human being, as Huck finds out while on the river journey with Jim, and about the horrors of slavery. Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom– risks his life–for the sake of his friend Huck (Salwen 2). The trials and tribulations that both Huck and Jim encounter while on the river serve to shape not only their relationship as friends, but also to transform Huck s view of sivilized life. Having gone through his life up to the present, he sees it as a whole and sums up what he sees in his decision to run away from civilization (Miller 22). Huck yearns to find something better in life than childish games of bandit and hypocritical prayers to save one s soul as is evident in his decision to run away and to fake his death.

Twain s intent in writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to satirize the ridiculous lifestyle of the South during the slave era and to illuminate in a personal manner the tragedies of slavery. One such example of the personal portrayal of the injustice of slavery is a recantation that Jim gives to Huck while on the river. In a way that almost made it seem okay, Jim tells Huck the story of his family and how they are separated as a result of slavery. In the beginning of the novel, Huck uses the word nigger to describe Jim and the other slaves living on the Widow Douglas s plantation. From his experiences during the journey on the river, Huck learns from within himself that he does not agree with slavery. This is evident in his attempt to save Jim from being turned in and in his risking his life for Jim in the end of the book. The law [at that time] [] says Huck is doing an awful thing in harboring Jim (Morrow 158).

A closer reading of the book reveals Twain s serious satiric intent. For instance, in the scene when Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion, Twain s usage of satire comes across as particularly harsh.

Good gracious! anybody hurt? she asks.

No m, comes the answer. Killed a nigger (Twain 167).

Anyone who feels that Mark Twain meant this literally is clearly missing his true intent. Twain is trying to effectively underscore the chilling truth about the old south–that it was a society where perfectly nice people did not consider the death of a black person worth their notice (Salwen 1).

Understanding what the piece is saying and recognizing that it is written in satiric form, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn proves to be some of the most significant anti-racist literature rather than the pro-slavery work it is often proclaimed to be (Fishkin 3). These judgments often come from readers abhorred by reading only a few chapters of the book. [f the content of Huck Finn is read carefully, it is clear that the message Twain is sending is anything but racist (Phan and Nguyen). One could blame the misperceptions of Twain s writings on the ignorance of today s readers and their lack of knowledge in understanding a literary work.

The real controversy comes from Twain s usage of this casual dialogue which is used to underscore the chilling truth about the old south (Salwen 1). Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the intent to prove a point about the racial tension in the South before the Civil War (Phan and Nguyen). This controversy, however, is understandable for those who have not taken the time to sit and read the book, cover to cover. Most presume that Mark Twain was a racist writer because of hear-say or simply because they were turned off from the book after reading just a few chapters. For most of Twain s critics, Huckleberry Finn is instantly deemed a racist novel, and for the most obvious reason being that many of the characters use the word nigger throughout it. Twain s reference to the runaway slave Jim as the nigger Jim creates a misconception about his intent (Nichols 338). Given that the time and setting in this book is in the South twenty years before the Civil War, it would be amazing if this word was not used. Twain tried to be as accurate as possible in depicting the conversations in the South during this time period.

Many of Twain s critics are African-American parents, who are simply trying to shield their children from the cold truth of racism, which still exists today. These critics only take Twain s writings at face value and fail to explore the literary significance of the work.. Readers must take the time to experience literature slowly, taking in each element as if it were a savory drop of rich coffee. In order to understand a work thoroughly, a reader must carefully consider all elements comprising the work as a product of history and not simply as a piece of work standing on its own. This consideration includes the authors own experiences. For Twain, this experience includes fighting in the Civil War himself, and growing up in the Antebellum South.

Critics often accuse Twain of being a racist. Huckleberry Finn, which tells the story of boyhood in the Mississippi Valley in the 1840 s, has been criticized by some Negroes as racially offensive (New York Times). Some of his critics say that his repeated use of the word nigger proves to be offensive and derogatory toward African-Americans who read the book. Others argue that the word usage is superfluous to convey his point. The story does not focus on sex or profanity but instead on race, and the deepest, most painful American memory, slavery (Morrow 156).

Twain s intention in writing the novel was to simply tell the truth about Huck s life on the Mississippi River, without diluting the truth about the Old South. The question of whether the presence of the word nigger makes Huckleberry Finn racist needs to be looked at in the context of the story as a whole (Fishkin 1). Twain succeeds in depicting an atmosphere of causal hatred of a society that classifies Jim as less than human. The word nigger is central to depicting both that society and the people in it with chilling accuracy (Fishkin 2).

The word, however, still packs a painful punch. This word makes African-Americans wither up with shame and whites, with guilt. It is a word that can hurt and that can be used to deny the personhood and humanity of the person to whom it is directed. This is partially due to our failure to deal with racism in our society today. It seems that we just push it aside in hopes that the wound will heal itself. Some African-American parents sensing their own helplessness, decide that the least they can do is see to it that their children are not exposed to this book, because they feel it is offensive and derogatory (Fishkin 3).

Some officials submit to the parents wishes, without reasoning with and without informing them of the benefits of having this novel openly read. This approach seems only to add fuel to the fire. The fact that racism was an issue in that era needs to be dealt with and not just pushed aside. Racism and slavery both are issues that need to be dealt with in the classroom. This novel has the power to elicit open-ended classroom discussions of various methods that can be used to deal with these issues. A tremendous amount can be learned from reading this novel about the history of racism and slavery as a whole. Twain does an extraordinary job in perpetrating the realism of the views of society during this time. Examining all views is necessary if one really wants to learn more about racism and its origin and what society can do to help heal this painful wound.

Racism is an institution that is still present in society today, so for this reason Americans are very touchy on this subject. This is especially true for those who had to endure the cruelty that was present during the slave era, and more recently, the Civil Rights Movement. Naturally, African-American parents want to protect their children from reading Huckleberry Finn. To anyone who has studied the book with an open mind clearly Huck Finn does not agree with slavery, despite his upbringing. Most objections to having their children read Huckleberry Finn come from African-American parents who are trying to draw some lines. Lance Morrow adds, If Huck Finn were merely a nineteenth-century minstrel show-the n-word slurring around in an atmosphere of casual hatred above a subtext of white supremacy-then no one could object to African-American parents removing the book as a precaution to keep gratuitous germs away from their children. Rather than having the book banned, it should be thoroughly studied and read in conjunction with works on the reality of slavery and the similarities between Huck and Mark Twain s many black friends (Morrow 155).

The book, however, has come to be appreciated for the core of its realism, and as a feature that makes the book a valuable document of its time (Morrow 157). It was for this reason that Ernest Hemingway issued his famous dictum that all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn It s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since (Morrow 157). 

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a major American novel known for its authentic vernacular. Various school officials and librarians across the nation have regarded the book s language as unnecessarily coarse and have banned it for this reason. In addition, critics claim it is full of objectionable morals. Parents who lack the initiative to sit and read the book primarily think Twain was a racist writer. Many have a tendency to prejudge the book without giving Twain s story a chance. This is probably due to them having read only a few chapters and being turned off from reading it completely. One must read each page thoroughly and open-mindedly, while trying to fully grasp Twain s satiric intent, as he proceeds in successfully molding each of his characters. When read carefully it becomes clear that the message Twain is trying to send is anything but racist. Huck tells the reader that Pap Finn, had been drunk over in town and was just all mud (Twain 20). He erupts into a drunken tirade about a free nigger from Ohio a mulatter, most as white as a white man, with the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there aint a man in town that s got as fine clothes as what he had (Twain 20).

They say he was a professor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn t too drunk to get there: but when they told me that there was a state in this country where they d let that nigger vote, drawed out. I says I ll never vote again. Them s the very words I said. And to see the cool way of the nigger why he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out of the way (Twain 20).

Anyone who imagines that Twain meant this literally is clearly missing the point. Here, we see an example of Twain s ironic use of casual dialogue, as a means to underscore the chilling truth about the Old South. Twain succeeds in depicting the extreme hatred within Pap Finn when he hears of a black professor, who dresses nicer than any of the people around him and can vote. By doing this, he submerges his readers into becoming a listener of Pap s drunken rage, thus showing his audience exactly to what extreme hatred that Huck is exposed to when at home.

Having Adventures of Huckleberry Finn taught and thoroughly studied in the classroom offers a tremendous step in fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. s dream of having a racially united nation. This novel contains many real-world values throughout. One value it teaches young readers is to use their own best judgment to determine what is right and wrong, even if this means not following the path of their parents. Twain shows in this remarkable piece of literary work that he was decades ahead of his time in that he coaxes and requires his readers to become critical thinkers. This is a tremendous step in breaking the barrier on the views of racism that are present now and those that were present in previous generations. In other words, instead of one pre-judging someone by the color of their skin, as their parents or grandparents may have done, they may take Huck s approach and use their conscience to decide what is ethical.

In order for society to outgrow the stereotyping of others based on their skin color, we must first start with teaching our children the reasons behind the mindset that was present in society during the era of slavery. If Jim emerges from the degradation of slavery to become as much a man as Mark Twain could make him be, we must remember that Jim s growth marks a progress in Twain s spiritual maturity too (Hoffman 107). If we neglect to use this extraordinary piece of literature as a means to introduce the issue of racism to our young and to show that we as individuals have the ability within ourselves to move beyond it, then we fail to use history as a teacher.

If Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is taught, it can open students’ eyes to the racial tension caused by ignorance and avoidance of the topic of racism by society. The literary and real-world significance should be stressed above all. By studying Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the door for discussion of race is opened ushering in a new light on the topic for students. Though Twain’s efforts may be controversial, this work may be used to put a spin on slavery and create a positive outcome. If the controversial aspects of Twain’s writing are not dealt with, the work may very well prove offensive to readers, however, open discussion may be the key to dissolving at least some of the pain. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most influential works on slavery. What a shame it would be to let it sit on the shelf and collect dust because of the unresolved controversy it stirs.


Works Cited

  1. Eliot, T. S. Introduction to Huckleberry Finn. Critics on Mark Twain. Ed. David Kesterson. Comal Gables: Florida, 1973. 64
  2. Fishkin, Shelley. Mark Twian s America. 11 Apr. 1997.
  3. Online posting. Online Newshour Forum: Mark Twain. 4 Mar. 2001
  4. Hoffman, Daniel G. Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Henry Nash Smith. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
  5. Miller, J. Hillis. Modern Critical Interpretations: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
  6. Morrow, Lance. Readings on Mark Twain. Ed. Katie de Koster. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1996. New York Times 12 Sept. 1957
  7. Phan, Giang and Diep Nguyen, Pro Huck Finn. Online posting . 12 Mar. 2001
  8. Ramussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain: A to Z. Ed. Thomas Tenney. New York: Oxford, 1995. 338
  9. Salwen, Peter. Is Huck Finn a Racist Book? 1996. Online posting. Salwen Business Communication. 4 Mar. 2001
  10. Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover, 1994.

Works Consulted

  1. Dudley, William, ed. African Americans: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
  2. Lawton, Mary. A Lifetime With Mark Twain. New York: Haskell House Publishers LTD, 1972.
  3. Paine, Albert B. Mark Twain. Ed. Daniel Aaron. Vol. 3 New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
  4. Readers Digest Association. Great Lives, Great Deeds. New York: Coronet Series, 1964.
  5. Skarmeas, Nanny. Mark Twain. Nashville: Ideals Publications Inc., 1998.

Cite this page

The Avenues of Racism in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved from

The Avenues of Racism in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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