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Efforts to ban Huckleberry Finn are typically based around Mark Twain’s gratuitous use of the word “nigger.” Tuire Valkeakari cites Toni Morrison’s arguments against such a ban in her article “Huck, Twain, and the Freedman’s Shackles: Struggling with Huckleberry Finn Today.” The n-word, however, is just one of several examples of racial prejudice in Twain’s novel as well as his own world view. This makes racism the primary source of realism within The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, justifying its relevance in the canon of American literature.
In some ways, Twain’s novel is a work of satire, criticizing the racist attitudes of the Antebellum South. These attitudes classified African-Americans as subhuman. When Huck tells Sally Phelps about the cylinder-head that exploded on the steamboat, she asks Huck if anyone was hurt. Both characters immediately express views that blacks are subhuman with Huck telling Sally “No’m. Killed a nigger.” Sally considers this “lucky” since “sometimes people do get hurt.” Twain uses this conversation to illustrate how empathetic people like Sally could think this way about a person, due to the normalization of slavery in the south. By mocking her hypocrisy, it’s ironic that Twain is unaware of his own racism. Huck’s response is just as racist as Sally’s, but since Huck is the character most often used to express Twain’s own world views, it’s problematic that he considers a dead “nigger” as anything other than a dead human. By saying this more than half-way through the novel, it’s especially problematic since his attitudes toward African-Americans are supposed to have improved by this point. It’s true that Huck makes a transition from treating Jim with cruelty to considering him a father-figure, but this doesn’t mean he ever learns to respect African-Americans as a race. He’s only shown respecting an individual black man.
While this is a form of progress, it’s limited. And it’s the same kind of limited progress experienced by Mark Twain and the rest of the American South. The text features a striking disparity between what Twain considers the end of Huck’s character arch, and the reality that this arch is left unfinished. Valkeakari references Joel Roache, whose analysis of Huckleberry Finn explains this contradiction. According to him, Huck “plays two roles” in the novel. As a protagonist, he’s undergoing change. As a narrator, his change is expected to be complete. Ironically, Roache considers Huck the narrator to be a more racist character than Huck the protagonist. He justifies this claim by saying it’s Huck the narrator who says only a “nigger” was killed on the steamboat, that it “don’t seem natural” for Jim to love his family, and that “you can’t learn a nigger to argue.” While it’s incorrect that Huck (the narrator) commented on the steamboat accident, the rest of this analysis is true.
This contradiction is an example of realism in the novel, since Twain (along with most other white southerners) continued to dehumanize blacks long after slavery was abolished. And by having the novel take place before the Civil War, even its most “tolerant” characters are undoubtedly realistic by having this prejudice. If Huckleberry Finn was meant to be an example of realism, Huck could not feasibly undergo a complete transition when it comes to racial prejudice. Though it might seem more satisfying to contemporary readers for Huck to become a model for political correctness, it would undermine the novel’s significance if this happened. For Huckleberry Finn to be relevant, it must be realistic. A novel which claims its characters could completely overcome racism during the timeframe of the plot would be viewed with skepticism. Such a novel would imply that after the civil war ended, racism did too. The novel’s realism demonstrates that when social progress becomes law, people’s long held attitudes don’t immediately change with it. And at the time the novel takes place, slavery hadn’t ended, and blacks were still considered three-fifths of a human being by the United States constitution. Critics who consider Huck a racist at the novel’s end make a valid point. But that’s an example of realism in Huckleberry Finn. To be born and raised in a world where humans can be owned as property makes it unlikely for someone like Huck to not be unconsciously racist, even after realizing how fundamentally wrong it is to do so.
But the novel’s realism alone doesn’t make Huckleberry Finn completely inoffensive. Valkeakari advocates the idea that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be read as a “semi-autobiographical novel” as a compromise between having the novel banned, and “belittling what is racially offensive in the book”. She references Toni Morrison’s opinion that the book should be kept in school curricula as long as it’s taught in a “politically responsible” way. Morrison explains that Huckleberry Finn is “deliberately cooperating” with its own controversy. This can be attributed to the racial prejudice Twain struggles against by writing the novel. Valkeakari cites Bernard W. Bell, who claims that while Mark Twain makes an effort to “accept his personal share of responsibility for the injustice of slavery,” he never accepts “the equality of blacks.” This complicated and disappointing duality is an example of realism, and it demonstrates how a person can still be a racist despite having some progressive viewpoints on race.
Although Twain perpetuates his own racist opinions in Huckleberry Finn, William Dean Howells would most likely argue in favor of the novel. In his essay “Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading,” Howells explains that “it is only the false in art which is ugly.” He argues that no matter how “indecent” the truth may be, a novel can only contain beauty by expressing it. He lists several English language novelists as being “truthful” and several others as being “untruthful.” Twain isn’t named on either list, but his racist worldview is a defining characteristic of both the Antebellum and post-Civil War South. Since Huckleberry Finn prominently displays this racism in an accurate way, the novel is truthful, and therefore beautiful by Howells’ standards.
However, this does not completely absolve Twain of his racial prejudice. Even though Huckleberry Finn is a “realist” novel, Henry James notes in “The Art of Fiction” that “reality has a myriad forms”. Similar to this idea is how the “truth” by which Howells considers a novel beautiful is not an objective truth. He writes that to a reader, “the only test of a novel’s truth is his own knowledge of life.” In this way, a novel can be “truthful” to its original audience but “false” to contemporary audiences. But few contemporary readers would assume the American South to be anything other than racist at the time Huckleberry Finn was written and published. Since racism is a problem still faced in both the American South, and the United States as a whole, Twain’s “truth” continues to hold true.
While Valkeakari’s article is focused primarily on the shortcomings of Huckleberry Finn, and how to reconcile these shortcomings when teaching the novel, her views are overly cynical. The parallels between Huck running away from his abusive father and Jim running away from slavery creates commonality between the white and black protagonists, allowing white readers to sympathize as much with Jim as they would with Huck. The novel characterizes Jim as a more suitable father-figure than Huck’s real father, a child abusing alcoholic. In this way, Twain doesn’t create a high standard for who would be a better father than Pap Finn. But Pap Finn is among several white characters shown in a negative light. The Duke and Dauphin are con-artists, and even the most positive white role models like Aunt Sally are characterized as hypocrites. If Twain were trying to (intentionally) promote the ideology of white supremacy, it’s unlikely he’d maintain this level of realism to describe white characters in unflattering ways. Despite his own racial prejudice, Twain is clearly making an attempt to humanize blacks through writing Huckleberry Finn. Valkeakari acknowledges Twain’s inclusion of these negative white role models in the novel. However, her overall opinion of the novel is that it’s both “amazing” and “troubling,” with its place on school reading lists barely justified. To her, the most persuasive reason to continue its instruction is its realism. Since Huckleberry Finn illustrates the frustratingly slow process by which attitudes toward race change, she acknowledges that even an offensive novel can have educational value.
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