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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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Historical Context

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The issue of slavery threatened to divide the nation as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and throughout the years a series of concessions were made on both sides in an effort to keep the union together. One of the most significant of these was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The furor had begun when Missouri requested to enter the union as a slave state. In order to maintain a balance between free and slave states in the union, Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine entered as a free one. And although Congress would not accept Missouri's proposal to ban free blacks from the state, it did allow a provision permitting the state's slaveholders to reclaim runaway slaves from neighboring free states.

The federal government's passage of Fugitive Slave Laws was also a compromise to appease southern slaveholders. The first one, passed in 1793, required anyone helping a slave to escape to pay a fine of $500. But by 1850, when a second law was passed, slaveowners had become increasingly insecure about their ability to retain their slaves in the face of abolitionism. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law increased the fine for abetting a runaway slave to $1000, added the penalty of up to six months in prison, and required that every U.S. citizen assist in the capture of runaways. This law allowed southern slaveowners to claim their fugitive property without requiring them to provide proof of ownership. Whites and blacks in the North were outraged by the law, which effectively implicated all American citizens in the institution of slavery. As a result, many who had previously felt unmoved by the issue became ardent supporters of the abolitionist movement.

Among those who were outraged into action by the Fugitive Slave Law was Harriet Beecher Stowe whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) galvanized the North against slavery. Dozens of slave narratives—first hand accounts of the cruelties of slavery—had shown white Northerners a side of slavery that had previously remained hidden, but the impact of Stowe's novel on white Northerners was more widespread. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said when he met her during the Civil War, "So you're the little lady who started this big war." White southerners also recognized the powerful effect of the national debate on slavery as it was manifested in print, and many southern states, fearing the spread of such agitating ideas to their slaves, passed laws which made it illegal to teach slaves to read. Missouri passed such a law in 1847.

Despite the efforts of southerners to keep slaves in the dark about those who were willing to help them in the North, thousands of slaves did escape to the free states. Many escape routes led to the Ohio River, which formed the southern border of the free states of Illinois and Indiana. The large number of slaves who escaped belied the myths of contented slaves that originated from the South.


Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place before the Civil War, it was written in the wake of Reconstruction, the period directly after the Civil War when the confederate states were brought back into the union. The years from 1865 to 1876 witnessed rapid and radical progress in the South, as many schools for blacks were opened, black men gained the right to vote with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 desegregated public places. But these improvements were quickly undermined by new Black Codes in the South that restricted such rights. White southerners felt threatened by Republicans from the North who went south to help direct the course of Reconstruction. Most galling was the new authority of free blacks, many of whom held political office and owned businesses. While prospects did improve somewhat for African Americans during Reconstruction, their perceived authority in the new culture was exaggerated by whites holding on to the theory of white superiority that had justified slavery.

In response to the perceived threat, many terrorist groups were formed to intimidate freed blacks and white Republicans through vigilante violence. The Ku Klux Klan, the most prominent of these new groups, was formed in 1866. Efforts to disband these terrorist groups proved ineffective. By 1876, Democrats had regained control over the South and by 1877, federal troops had withdrawn. Reconstruction and the many rights blacks had gained dissipated as former abolitionists lost interest in the issue of race, and the country became consumed with financial crises and conflicts with Native Americans in the West. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, new Jim Crow laws segregated public spaces in the South, culminating in the Supreme Court's decision in the case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which legalized segregation.

Minstrel Shows

As the first indigenous form of entertainment in America, minstrel shows flourished from the 1830s to the first decade of the twentieth century. In the 1860s, for example, there were more than one hundred minstrel groups in the country. Samuel Clemens recalled his love of minstrel shows in his posthumously published Autobiography, writing, "If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity and perfection I should have but little further use for opera." His attraction to blackface entertainment informed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where, many critics believe, he used its humorous effects to challenge the racial stereotypes on which it was based.

Minstrel shows featured white men in blackface and outrageous costumes. The men played music, danced, and acted burlesque skits, but the central feature of the shows was the exaggerated imitation of black speech and mannerisms, which produced a stereotype of blacks as docile, happy, and ignorant. The shows also depicted slavery as a natural and benign institution and slaves as contented with their lot. These stereotypes of blacks helped to reinforce attitudes amongst whites that blacks were fundamentally different and inferior. The minstrel show died out as vaudeville, burlesques, and radio became the most popular forms of entertainment.

Social Concerns

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Although regarded as a classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has engendered controversy from the start. The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned it shortly after publication. In reporting approvingly of this action, the Boston Transcript noted that members of the library committee found the book "the veriest trash" and "rough, coarse, and inelegant." The Springfield Republican found the novel "a gross trifling with every fine feeling" and "harmful." These objections, grounded on the view that only idealized portrayals of young persons can be edifying, can be dismissed easily by contemporary readers; more serious, however, are charges that the book encourages racism.

In 1957 New York City junior and senior high schools dropped the novel from a list of approved books because it uses the term "nigger" and allegedly stereotypes Jim. More recently, a number of court cases have been fought to remove it from lists of required reading on grounds of racism. For example, in 1982 an administrative aide at, ironically, the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia, stated, "The book is poison ... it works against the idea that all men are created equal. . . anybody who teaches this book is a racist."

Some elements in Jim's character do suggest stereotyping — his superstition, his seeming passivity and gullibility — but he is generally superior to the book's white characters. Pap Finn's "whiteness" stands in contrast to Jim's color as does his vice to Jim's virtue. Pap's color is linked to his racism. He is white "not like another man's white, but white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's flesh crawl — a tree toad white, a fish-belly white." He gains his sense of worth by feeling superior to black men, whatever their attainments. Far from degrading Jim, Twain measures the worth of all of the other characters against him.

The impact of the term "nigger" cannot be discounted, however. The sensibilities of readers may be offended by its use if they come to the book without adequate historical background: The characters' attitudes and terminology must be measured against the times in which they live.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1840s: Under the Slave Codes, enacted by individual southern states, slaves could not own property, testify against whites in court, or make contracts. Slave marriages were not recognized by law.

    1884: As the result of Black Codes enacted by states during Reconstruction, African Americans could now legally marry and own property, but the codes also imposed curfews and segregation. The Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote, but individual states prohibited them from doing so.

    Today: The right to vote is universal for all citizens above the age of eighteen, and other rights are not restricted by race.

  • 1840s: The steamboat was the most popular mode of travel and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers were the main thoroughfares in the West.

    1884: The railroad had taken over as the means of mass transportation all across America.

    Today: Most goods are transported within the U.S. by truck, and airplanes and cars allow people to travel long distances in short periods of tune.

  • 1840s: Means of entertainment were beginning to flourish in America. Among the many new kinds of literature available were slave narratives and romantic adventures. The first minstrel show was staged in 1843.

    1884: The field of literature, in the form of books and periodicals, had become the province of the masses. The minstrel show continued to be popular, as did the music of ragtime which was associated with it.

    Today: Entertainment, especially film, television, and music, is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

  • 1840s: The Mississippi River ran freely, making travel dangerous, due to snags, large pieces of trees lodged in the river.

    1884: The Mississippi River Commission had been founded in 1879 to improve navigation. Over the next decades, a series of levees were built which also alleviated flooding problems.

    Today: The level of the Mississippi River and its banks are tightly controlled so that navigation is very safe and floods are less frequent.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


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