The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the best-known works of American literature, known as much for the controversy surrounding it as for the indelible characters it creates. Written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens’s pen name), it was published in England in December 1884 and in America in February 1885. Among its most defining characteristics is that it is written in vernacular style, a radically different way of crafting dialogue introduced by Twain into American literature. Twain’s characters speak in regional dialect, not standard English, and their words are spelled and punctuated to convey not only what they say but how they sound. Twain’s use of vernacular style reflects the local color movement that developed in American literature after the Civil War as writers incorporated specific realistic details in their descriptions of people and places in uniquely different geographical sections of the country; local color writing retained many of the elements of Romanticism while moving toward Realism in American fiction.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is both romantic and realistic. Twain romanticizes the beauty of nature and the freedom of life on a river raft, but there is no romance in his depiction of society beyond the banks of the Mississippi: it is morally corrupt. The novel presents an accurate and uncompromising representation of a society rooted in the ignorance and cruelty of institutionalized slavery. Like the writers of realism that followed him, Twain exposes the truth about subjects previously considered taboo in American literature, and he does so through an unlikely voice as the story is narrated by Huckleberry Finn, an illiterate boy with no real home who forges a friendship with a runaway slave.
Twain is famous for approaching serious issues in a humorous way, and there is much humor and satire in the novel; however, it is the troubling questions Twain raises about American values and American identity that make it a cultural milestone. His attitude toward social conventions, literary icons Emerson and Longfellow, and even the Bible is irreverent. The novel’s themes include some that were rarely addressed at the time, such as superstition. Twain develops the superstition theme to bring humor and local color to the story, but it also illustrates the lack of education among some Americans of this time. Superstition reflects the human desire to make sense of world, and nothing makes sense, Twain suggests, in a society that embraces slavery and cannot distinguish right from wrong.
It is essential to understand the novel in its historical context. The setting is pre-Civil War Missouri sometime in the 1840s. At that time, slavery was institutionalized, and the Slave Codes were enforced. Slaves could not own property, testify against whites in court, or make contracts; slave marriages were not recognized by law. By the time the novel was published in the 1880s, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the antebellum South depicted in it no longer existed. New laws had extended some rights to black Americans, such as the right to legally marry and own property, but curfews were imposed on them and racial segregation was enforced through state and local laws known as Jim Crow laws. Slavery had been eradicated, but racism remained entrenched. Thus Twain’s portrait in Huckleberry Finn of the pre-Civil War society that permitted, justified, and promoted racism when slavery was legal resonated as a savage critique of an American society that had continued its racist practices.
The novel has stirred up a great deal of controversy over the decades. Its early detractors were mainly concerned with its coarse language and what they considered to be disrespectful, immoral examples of behavior set by Huck, a lower-class hero. Despite those objections, literary critics increasingly recognized it as a major work, and by the 1950s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was firmly established in the American literary canon. Ernest Hemingway called it “The Great American Novel,” and H. L. Mencken said it was “perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English.” T. S. Eliot agreed, writing that he viewed Huckleberry Finn as “the most American of heroes” and “one of the permanent symbolic figures in fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.”
However, after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Twain’s novel was attacked once again, this time for its language; its nineteenth-century characters use the word “nigger,” the most demeaning and inflammatory of racial epithets, more than two hundred times. Fears that the book promotes racism or simply presents racial issues that are too complex for anyone but an adult to understand resulted in its being banned from some school libraries and reading lists; the controversy continues today as Twain’s use of language is either condemned as being racist or defended as being necessary to present realistically the setting of the novel. In “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” African-American author Toni Morrison points out that removing it from students’ hands is not the best solution. She calls that approach a “narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones,” suggesting that preventing this work from being read rules out students’ investigating it, learning from it, and being enriched by it. As Morrison points out, “the brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument is raises.”
The controversy over Twain’s novel is understandable, but it is ironic, as well, since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of slavery in American literature. Huck believes truly that he will “go to Hell” if he does not obey the law and turn in a runaway slave. He knows this is true because every voice in his society has taught him that it is, but he chooses to exchange his soul for Jim’s freedom. Huck’s being confronted with this decision emphasizes the depth of the moral corruption inherent in his racist society and its effects on him; in deciding to accept damnation rather than send Jim back into slavery, Huck is acknowledging its profound horror. Despite certain and unbearable consequences, Huck finds slavery to be an evil so great he cannot impose it on another human being. Mark Twain never tells readers explicitly what to think or feel about his young hero, but in Huckleberry Finn’s innocence and moral courage, Twain’s novel leads them to examine the nature of their own humanity.
By the end of the unit, the student will be able to
1. Explain why Huckleberry Finn has been a controversial book since its early publication and has been and continues to be subjected to censorship.
2. Identify issues of racism, as well as of slavery and its stereotypes, and discuss how they are challenged through the character of Jim.
3. Analyze the way Mark Twain uses humor to satirize the evils of society and point out hypocrisies in the antebellum South.
4. Understand how superstition functions as a theme and informs the book.
5. Investigate whether or not Huck’s character develops morally over the course of the novel.
6. Analyze the way in which the Mississippi River functions as a symbol, and contrast it with life ashore in “civilized” society.
7. Explain why the book has been called “The Great American Novel,” and discuss which aspects of it are uniquely American.
8. Discuss what makes Huckleberry Finn’s narrative voice unique.
9. Identify specific details in the novel that make it realistic in its regional setting.
10. Identify elements of Romanticism in the novel, including Twain’s treatment of the Mississippi River, Huck’s relationship to nature, and Huck’s innocence and intrinsic morality.