With the recent controversy over the censorship of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I was reminded of an essay I wrote a couple years back. In it, I defended Twain’s use of otherwise derogatory terms for several reasons. Primarily, Twain justifiably uses these racial slurs to depict realism. The African Americans in the novel are also continuously portrayed in a rather positive light, especially in comparison to some of the more despicable Caucasian characters.
My essay is below. It’s a bit long (not too long, though). Feel free to read, ignore, skim, and/or comment. I’d love to hear what other people think about the recent censorship.
Racism in Realism:
Twain’s Justified Use of Dialect in Huckleberry Finn
Beginning with the very first page of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain lightheartedly advises the reader: “Persons attempting to find a moral in [the book] will be banished” (108). Whether this warning was made in pure jest or with partial sincerity,
Twain’s novel has become one of the most controversial pieces of American Literature. The majority of the debate stems from Twain’s portrayal of and reference to African Americans in the story. Some contend that black Americans are depicted as foolish stereotypes. The most prominent character to undergo critique is Jim, the runaway slave who soon becomes one of the novel’s principal characters. Twain’s liberal use of the derogatory word “nigger” also conjures much condemnation. In actuality, Twain justifiably uses seemingly belittling terms while never actually portraying or insisting that African Americans are quasi-human or any more subservient than the era had made them.
The importance of the book’s genuity is acknowledged by the author himself in the beginning of the novel when he addressed the “number of dialects” being used (108). Without this particular jargon, Twain would lose his realistic portrayal of the world in accordance to the book’s setting and time period. The novel is set some “forty to fifty years” before the 1880s; slavery in the southern American states was still notoriously thriving (108). The term “nigger” was much less taboo than it is today. Twain has given our culture some of its most beloved characters, particularly due to his ability to humanize each individual. The way an individual speaks is certainly a defining quality, and so it is that without Huck and company’s reference to “niggers,” a certain characteristic realism would have been lost.
Other than his brilliant character creations, Twain is well known for his dry, usually dark, sense of humor. While some argue Twain uses his wit to degrade African Americans in the novel, these readers have evidently missed the blatantly idiotic and sometimes horrifying Caucasian characters throughout the novel. Even the most minor of characters cannot escape Twain’s hostility. For example, the unnamed “new judge” in town becomes the foolish victim of Pap Finn’s deception. Welcoming the man into his home, dressing him, and feeding him, the judge believes he has successfully rescued Pap from a life on the streets. Shaking Pap’s hand, the judge exclaims, “It’s the hand of a man that’s started in on a new life, and ‘ll die before he goes back. You mark them words—don’t forget I said them” (121). Moments later, Pap Finn flees the judge’s house and reverts back to his drunken life. The judge, a white man, has been portrayed as a naïve and easily conned fool. Of course, this situation reveals an ever more negative portrayal of a white man, and that is Huck Finn’s own father.
Throughout the story, Pap fails to present any sympathetic or honorable qualities. He is continuously threatening Huck and often carries out these violent acts. After capturing his own son and holding him captive, the usually headstrong Huck says, “But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts” (122). Pap Huck is an abusive father. His self-absorbed behavior and addictive personality lead him toward alcoholism, homelessness, and hostility. Certainly no more malevolent character can be found within the pages of Huck Finn, be it white or black.
From the start, Huck realizes that the so-called “Duke of Bridgewater” and “Dauphin…son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette” are nothing but “low-down humbugs and frauds” (192). When they join Jim and Huck’s journey down-river, the true manner of their nature is revealed to be even worse than expected. Along the way, the Duke and King manage to swindle money from evangelical worshippers as well as from an entire town of people that the Duke goes on to call “flatheads” (209). But their worst offense by far is impersonating the long-expected uncles of three orphan girls. Their lack of humiliation, especially on the part of the Duke, further discredits their characters. As Huck watches their shameful scam, he comments: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (209). These two despicable characters, the Duke and the King, are a disgrace to the whole human race. They are two loathsome white men whom Twain uses to poke fun at humanity in general.
Huck makes the acquaintance of many other shameful white characters throughout the progress of the story, but he also meets a number of African Americans as well. All the black men and women he encounters are slaves, a realistic fact that should not be misconstrued as racist since the South during this time period was not the type of environment that the rare freed slave would occupy. While at the Grangerfords, Huck is assigned a “nigger,” named Jack, to wait on him. Jack’s minor role in the novel proves him to be nothing more than a friendly and kind-hearted African American. It is thanks to Jack, whom Jim calls “a good nigger, en pooty smart” (185), that Jim and Huck are reunited once again. Although all the slaves are seen as subordinates to their white counterparts, they are in no way portrayed negatively. Again, their societal ranking is not a reflection of Twain’s racist beliefs, but simply an accurate, if unfortunate, portrayal of the 19th century South.
Huck’s father raises the subject of a “free nigger” during a state of drunken stupor. Speaking of this African American man, he says, “They said he could vote…Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is this country a-coming to? …I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?” (124). The bigoted remarks Pap makes are highly offensive. However, taking the whole scenario into perspective, these vulgar statements are being made by one of the novel’s most despicable characters. Also, further examination of Pap’s story reveals that the “nigger” mentioned is in fact “a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages” (124). In this instance, the white man is certainly the inferior of the two.
Of all the African Americans in the story, Jim is by far the most significant character. As the book develops, so does Jim’s character; he proves himself to be much more than a shallow caricature, but an individual with a depth to him that goes beyond the color of his skin. Admittedly, Jim is made to be somewhat of a fool when he is first introduced. Tom Sawyer quickly makes the black man the butt of a joke, even though the incident leads to a further understanding of Jim and his vulnerability to superstition and omens. Twain continues to present an understanding of Jim. He is depicted as more than a slave, but also as a family man and a dreamer. More importantly, Jim is a friend to Huck Finn.
Jim’s second appearance reveals that he has run away in an attempt to escape a “nigger trader” (134). Jim and other slaves are portrayed as property, but Jim’s escape from this incarceration triggers his growth as an individual. Also during this point the relationship between Huck and Jim first begins. This association is a guiding source of Jim’s growth. In the beginning, their living is symbiotic and nothing more than a causal partnership between two individuals with similar goals of freedom. Jim, while not quite equal to Huck in status, is still a human being with very real hopes and needs. It soon becomes apparent that Huck feels only goodwill toward Jim, for instance when he warns the runaway of the men that are after him. In turn, Jim has learned to trust Huck: “Jim never asked no questions; he never said a word” (146).
A major turn of events in the Huck-Jim relationship occurs after Huck pulls a third trick on the poor man. When a veil of fog consumes the river, Jim and Huck are separated from each other for hours. Jim shows considerable concern over losing Huck and is surprised to wake up to see the boy there once again: “Goodness gracious, is dat you, Huck? En you ain’ dead—you ain’ drowneded—you’s back agin? It’s too good for true, honey, it’s too good for true” (158). Huck takes advantage of Jim’s confusion and fools him into believing the fog was nothing more than a dream. When the hoax is revealed, Jim is significantly hurt and says, “Dah trick, dat is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed” (160). For the first time, Jim mentions the friendship that has formed between the two. The hierarchy that was once in place has faded. Huck finds himself thinking, “That was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back” (160). The concept of a white man apologizing to an African American was unheard of at the time, and yet Huck is not so arrogant as to ignore a friendship of any kind. He apologizes to Jim and “warn’t sorry for it afterwards” (160).
Up to the very last chapters of Huck Finn, Jim continues to uphold his reputable nature.
After being caught once again, Jim relies on Tom Sawyer and Huck to concoct a successful, albeit excessive, escape plan. But when things go awry and Tom’s life is put on the line, Jim is willing to relinquish his newfound freedom for the boy: “I doan’ budge a step out’n dis place, ‘dout a doctor; not if its forty year!” (284). He acknowledges the gamble he is taking, but is a loyal companion and refuses to turn his back on someone who once helped him. This courageous act is taken a step further when Jim realizes he must reveal himself to the doctor to help save Tom’s life. In the end, the doctor recaptures the escaped slave to bring him back to his holding, but not without a few words of praise: “Don’t be no rougher on him than you obleeged to, because he ain’t a bad nigger…I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars” (289). Although putting a price on a human being is certainly barbaric, and a comment the doctor would never have bestowed upon a white man, the fact is that Jim has done an admirable deed in sacrificing his own freedom. In the end of the novel, Twain gives Jim the freedom he deserved all along. Jim is an African American character whose great development and praiseworthy moral span the length of the novel.
Huckleberry Finn is a classic piece of American literature, perhaps partially due to the racial controversy with which it will always be associated. However, further examination of Twain’s work reveals that Huck Finn is far from racist. In fact, the greatest of fools and most flawed of characters in the novel are white men. Similarly, the dialects used in the novel are not meant to be racist, but instead serve the purpose of depicting a realistic picture of the 19th century Southern states. The word “nigger” has become very taboo in our current culture, but at the time of this novel’s events, it was a commonly used term. The truth is that, in Huck Finn, African Americans are no further victimized than that era had already made them to be. In fact, Jim is a slave as well as sympathetic and admirable central character. Huckleberry Finn may not be the light-hearted kid’s book that was expected upon its initial publication, but it certainly is not racist either. Huck Finn is a novel that teaches about friendship and acceptance while providing a humorous yet depressing representation of the human race in general.