The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an implicit condemnation of racism written by a man with racial prejudices and narrated by a boy with racial prejudices. Those paradoxes place it beyond the intellectual grasp of its supposedly intended audience. Folks fixate on the liberal sprinkling of the N-word throughout which might have been cured by a corresponding overt attempt at making it into a teaching moment, as well as the more troubling issue of equating a black man and his quest for freedom with two white boys playing pranks. Twain could have resolved much of that by telling the story from Jim’s perspective and giving it the gravity and irony it deserved. For example, this is Jim musing on using the N-word in Black Lives Matter Too: My Adventures with Huckleberry Finn:
While I was lying there one night trying to fall asleep, I remembered how I near broke that young boy’s neck on the raft when he called me “nigger.” It was partly because of how he surprised me by talking to me, but it was partly that he called me a slave name. Once a slave like me escapes, for as long as till he’s caught, no man who’s still a slave had the right to call me “nigger.” I chuckled to myself, thinking my ole Granny was right that I liked making rules for other people better than I liked following rules myself. The only time she ever hit me hard was the time she took a switch to me for calling my older brother a nigger. I was too young to know what it meant, exactly, but I knowed it was an insult from the way I heard other slaves use it on each other. After she thrashed me, she asked, “I’ve whipped you before, but you know I generally stop about the time you start crying, but this time I didn’t stop until I could see blood. Do you know why I whipped you so hard this time?”
“You whipped me because I said ‘nigger,’ but I don’t know why it made you so mad. You know everyone around here says ‘nigger’ to each other whenever they feels like it, and none of them gets whipped.”
“I don’t care what everyone else says. All I care about, and all the Good Lord asked me to look out for, is that you don’t use that word no more. You see, most white people are God-fearing, so they feel guilty about owning slaves and are a-feared they’ll be punished for it someday. So they tell themselves that they are doing God’s work by taking care of black people who can’t be trusted to take care of themselves. When a white man calls a black man a ‘nigger,’ he’s just saying to the black man that you can’t be trusted with your own freedom. Since our masters have power over us, we got to just take it when they call us that. But when a black man calls another black man a ‘nigger,’ he’s just saying that our owners are right, that we don’t deserve to be free. And if we don’t think we deserve to be free, how we going to expect anyone else to think we deserve our freedom?”
“But Johnny don’t deserve to be free, the way he stole my piece of watermelon when I weren’t looking. And he’s bigger than me, so the only way I can get back is to call him a … nnnn … name.”
“If he stole your watermelon – he said it was his watermelon – then he deserves to be punished, but even thieves get their freedom back after they’ve been punished. When you call him a ‘nigger,’ you’re saying that he never deserves to be free, and nobody like him deserves to be free neither. If your own brother don’t deserve to be free, then you don’t deserve to be free neither because you’re the most like him of anyone in the world.”
“I ain’t like him one bit. Mama says we as different as night and day.”
“Maybe your own Mama can see the difference between you two, but everyone else is going to judge that you don’t deserve to be free if your own brother don’t neither. Do you want that to happen?”
“No . . . ma’am,” I said after remembering that she was still holding that switch.
From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> On Behalf Of K. Patrick Ober
Sent: Monday, March 29, 2021 9:56 AM
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Thanks, Larry. I have always favored that interpretation of Huck’s concluding chapters. In fact, I think Twain’s commentary on the failure of Reconstruction continues as a theme in Pudd’nhead Wilson, where the “n word” is also used with frequency.
After “Tom Driscoll” discovers his true lineage as Roxanne’s biological son in PW, Twain wrote more manuscript in which Tom ponders the significance of his genetic make-up. That part did not make it to print. Here is Tom's contemplation of his status. I substitute “[n-word]” for the original term.
“Why was he a coward? It was the “[n-word]” in him. The [n-word] blood? Yes, the [n-word] blood degraded from original courage to cowardice by decades & generations of insult & outrage inflicted in circumstances which forbade reprisals, & made mute & meek endurance the only refuge & defence.
“Whence came that in him which was high, & whence that which was base? That which was high came from either blood, & was the monopoly of neither color; but that which was base was the white blood in him debased by the brutalizing effects of a long-drawn heredity of slave-owning, with the habit of abuse which the possession of irresponsible power always creates & perpetuates.”
Source: Daniel Morley McKeithan, The Morgan Manuscript of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, Uppsala: A.-B. Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1961, pp. 36-37.
From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> On Behalf Of Larry Howe
Sent: Sunday, March 28, 2021 9:55 PM
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Well said--that's quite a catechism to which "Yes" is the resounding answer.
I agree that the ending needs to be understood in a larger context. But Scott's romanticism is one of those contexts. Another context, and perhaps a larger one, is the defeat of Reconstruction. When _HF_ is discussed as a response to slavery, a crucial point is obscured. The novel may be set in the 1850s, but it was published in 1885, when slavery was no longer a vital issue. The _legacy_ of slavery lived on, however. Any reading of Tom's elaborate pageant to free Jim, whom Tom knows is already free, that does not address the post-Reconstruction rise of the Black Codes and Jim Crow discrimination in all its forms, ignores an important target of the novel's satire.
Given the daunting challenge of the supplementary readings that Matt describes, I think secondary education students can be taught about Reconstruction without addressing the nuances of Scott's romanticism. In fact, given the persistence of the racist assumptions that Stephen Railton raised at the outset of the thread, one might even conclude that it's probably more important for high school students to learn about Reconstruction and its aftermath than about the Civil War. It's a more complex part of US history, but crucial to understand who we are.
Professor Emeritus of English & Film Studies Department of Humanities Roosevelt University Editor, Studies in American Humor Past president, Mark Twain Circle of America
From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Matthew Seybold <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Sunday, March 28, 2021 5:43 PM
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I think it is very important to discern between the following questions:
1.) Did Samuel Clemens at any point in his life express racist views? (Yes.)
2.) Do some of Mark Twain's published works present overt, cohesive cases for anti-racism? (Yes.)
3.) Do some of Mark Twain's published works present harmful racial stereotypes? (Yes.)
3.) Did Samuel Clemens sometimes remain silent on issues of racial discrimination, exploitation, and violence, demonstrating his white privilege and complicity? (Yes.)
4.) Did Samuel Clemens sometimes speak up on issues of racial discrimination, exploitation, and violence, risking his reputation, his livelihood, and even personal harm, and by so doing contribute to meaningful reform? (Yes.)
5.) Is the use of the N-word (or, for that matter, other BIPOC epithets) in a classroom, regardless of context, volatile? (Yes.)
6.) Can *Adventures of Huckleberry Finn *be taught without a narrow focus on the N-word while also doing justice to the complex ways in which white supremacy and other systems of inequality are woven into the narrative?
7.) Were Twain's works, and particularly the characters from *Tom Sawyer * and *Huckleberry Finn, *appropriated and canonized during the 20th-century expressly as part of exceptionlist (New Criticism), imperialist (Cold War), and white supremacist (Lost Cause) programs which sought to portray America's racial problems as already solved? (Yes.)
8.) Do these propagandized versions of Twain's works only hang together when they are isolated from his broader corpus and the historical contexts in which he lived? (Yes.)
9.) Has the habit of secondary school curriculums (and most college curriculums for that matter) been to teach these works in isolation from his broader corpus and the historical contexts in which he lived? (Yes.)
I would like to add (and what follows will, I expect, provoke broader disagreement than any of my answers to the above questions) that I strongly disagree with the conventional interpretation of the ending of *Huckleberry Finn. *By conventional interpretation, I mean that which Prof. Railton glossed and which is famously essayed by Marx, Henry, Smiley, and Arac. As this interpretation goes, the return of Tom Sawyer's idyll, Huck's willing embrace of Tom's romantic imagination, the burlesquing of Jim's torment, and the trivialization of Jim's emancipation demonstrate Twain's laziness, a betrayal of the novel's foregoing chapters in both form and conceit, and a capitulation to racist readers.
I think these critics fail to take seriously one of the most obvious aspects of this maligned section of the novel: it is a satire of Walter Scott. We know from Twain's eviscerations of Walter Scott, most famously in *Life On The Mississippi, *that there were few individuals upon whom he laid more blame for the romantic delusions of the antebellum South which sustained the idealization of the plantation economy, the "chivalry" of the slaveholders, that echo chamber of southern literature, the delusion of secessionism, and thus the brutality of the Civil War.
*Adventures of Huckleberry Finn *is Twain's attempt to deal a final deathblow to the influence of Scott's romantic novels. The aesthetics of Southern utopia cannot survive what Huck sees from that tree in Orion County. The romance keels over alongside Buck Grangerford and his brothers.
Via the senseless death of Buck, the bloated corpse of Pap, the murder of Old Boggs, the lynchings, the grievings, the tar-and-featherings, and, let us not forget, the drowning of *Walter Scott, *the reader witnesses the slow suffication of Clemen's antebellum nostalgia (still evident in *Tom
Sawyer*) and the paralysis of Huck's romantic imagination.
When the muse of that imagination, Tom Sawyer, reenters the novel, it is a macabre puppeteer. The final section of *Adventures of Huckleberry Finn *is *Weekend at Bernie's *with Walter Scott for the corpse.
In St. Petersburg, Sawyer was a precocious purveyor of compelling fictions, the charismatic captain of a gang of ethical pirates. At the Phelps Farm, however, Tom's theatrics are as incomprehensible as they are inhumane. The Scottian romance cannot possibly survive what Twain has Tom do to it. It is not enough to drown Walter Scott after all the damage he has done to American culture. Twain feels obliged to parade the decaying corpse of Scott's sensational plots across the stage, so there can be no mistake:
romance is dead.
Twain is saying: I dare you to take Walter Scott seriously after THIS. And, so far as I can tell, we haven't.
Now, to TEACH the ending in this fashion, students have to be introduced to a range of supplementary readings and contexts (Scott, Alger, southern literary magazines, *Life, *etc.), which probably isn't realistic in most secondary school classrooms. And you can certainly argue that Twain decapitating zombie Walter Scott had unintended consequences. But if that was the goal (and I believe it was), it's hard to call the ending a failure.
*Matt Seybold, PhD*
Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies Scholar-in-Residence, Center for Mark Twain Studies Editor, MarkTwainStudies.org Host, The American Vandal Podcast <https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__marktwainstudies.com_the-2Damerican-2Dvandal-2Dpodcast_&d=DwIFaQ&c=a-IB_GMEfAZCNvTl5o6ZExYKmR-HZTqw1M_ZxQv8eiY&r=M7fe_5tVzFcSaDV_TGyMVieQKup7oSC-0rxoDyxcCJY&m=nJHspQ04Ot6OrqyMcQtFk1qZyXt5k-ip8Dd85OEE3KY&s=AVg7LVSNu5koAIKmmHied32A2p0dmPyt4VnKTv9RNaM&e= >
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On Sun, Mar 28, 2021 at 11:26 AM Railton, Stephen F (sfr) <[log in to unmask]>
> Bob, Barbara and all -- I'm hoping to hear from others about this
> issue, and so won't say much here, except that I don't think we should
> take "what Sam Clemens said or thought or wrote but didn't publish" as
> the final authority on "what 'Mark Twain' meant and means to American
> culture" or to "what Huck Finn said and says to its readers over the generations,
> including the students and parents and others in the 21st century." To me
> part of the story of racism and anti-racism in HF is what Sam Clemens
> did not let Mark Twain publish.
> It's amazing how tempting it is to want to go on defending my position!
> But what I am hoping for is a discussion, Steve
> From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Robert H. HIRST
> < [log in to unmask]>
> Sent: Sunday, March 28, 2021 10:48 AM
> To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
> from SLC to Josephine and Karl the Gerhardts, 1 and 3 May 1883, UCCL 02380.
> Charles E. Porter was the black painter the Clemenses were supporting
> in Paris.
> mr. porter has written to ask me to get some orders for him, as his
> money is nearly spent and he wants to remain some time longer in
> paris. this places me in a bothersome position; because, a long time
> ago, josephine intimated in one of her letters that porter had gone to
> the dogs or was on his way there. she gave no details, brought forward
> no facts. i meant to write her, then and there, and say that whenever
> one a flask of dynamite under a person’s character, he should always
> go into the details of the matter, and state exactly why he felt
> justified in doing that thing. i hav[e ]n’t answered porter; cannot
> answer him until i learn from you how he stands. tell me all you have
> heard against him, keep back nothing whatever.
> also tell me what part of the evidence rests upon trustworthy
> authority, and what part of it doubtful. i want to know everything
> about him, good and bad; for if he is worthy of help i want to turn
> out and see what can be done for him; and if he is not, i want to at
> least act with caution. at the same time i must remember, and you must
> also remember, that on every sin which a colored man commits, the just
> white man must make a considerable discount, because of the colored
> man’s antecedents. the heirs of slavery cannot with any sort of
> justice, be required to be as clear and straight and upright as the
> heirs of ancient freedom. and besides, whenever a colored man commits
> an unright action, upon his ̭heaḓ is the guilt of only about one tenth
> of it, and upon your heads and mine and the rest of the white race lie
> fairly and justly the other nine tenths of the guilt. so, when you
> have told me all there is to tell about porter, i shall doubtless judge his case charitably enough.