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The Portrayal of America before the Civil War

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American authors tend to write about life in their times. Mark Twain lived in the 1800’s and witnessed the Civil War era. At that time, our nation was divided over the issue of slavery. The inhumane treatment of slaves moved Twain to use his talent to criticize their treatment. In one of his most famous novels named The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain depicts the injustice of slavery in the South just before the Civil War.

To begin with, Mark Twain uses the plot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to reveal the truths about life in the South during the 1800’s. For starters, slavery proved to be one of the most predominant aspects of southern life at that time. The birth of Mark Twain occurred during this era of slavery, so racism surrounded Twain his whole life.

Twain based his writings upon his own personal experiences. Critics agree that, “The book is a strong voice against racism, but at the same time some passages mirror the values of the racist society Mark was raised in” (Meltzer 89). Secondly, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays the appalling truths regarding enslavement which pervaded the South. Twain utilizes his work as a means to reveal the factuality of racism. “Perfectly ‘nice’ people didn’t consider the death of a black person worth their notice,” claims literary analysts (Salwen). Additionally, Mark Twain illustrates life in the South through the actions of the main character Huckleberry Finn. Huck, as he is known for short, has never perceived slavery as anything but a natural part of life. “Because of his upbringing, the boy starts out believing that slavery is part of the natural order,” Salwen exclaims to clarify Huck’s ignorance (1). In addition, most of the remaining Southerners possessed the same views of slavery as Huck. “The satire of a decadent slaveholding society gains immensely in force when Mark Twain demonstrates that even the outcast Huck has been in part perverted by it,” Smith comments on the oblivious views of Southerners (6:480). Finally, Twain’s realistic masterpiece satirizes slavery along with man’s quest for freedom.

Since many African-Americans had been imprisoTwainned as slaves, it seems only natural that one would occasionally escape to search for freedom. An obvious quest for freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be that of Jim, an escaped slave. Huck meets Jim and they grow to become exceptional friends. Salwen explains, “It’s about a slave who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family”(1). Huck contributes much aid to Jim’s mission for freedom, and thus learns many truths about society. Meltzer elaborates, “Huck helps Jim to escape from slavery, and in a famous scene Huck’s spontaneous self is placed in opposition to his acquired conscience,to the prejudices and values of the society he was raised in” (89).

In addition to Jim’s pursuit of freedom, Huck hopes for his own independence. By escaping and traveling along the Mississippi River, Huck aspires to gain Freedom for both of them. Unger illustrates, “The next twenty chapters detail adventures on the river or beside the river, in a pattern of withdrawal and return, as Huck and Jim float with their raft toward what they hope will be freedom for both” (203). Huck wishes to prove his independence through his notorious trip along the Mississippi River. “Huckleberry Finn speaks out against stupid conformity and for the freedom and independence of the individual,” states Meltzer (89). Naturally, with issues such as slavery and racism pervading his novels, Twain would receive a variety of responses to his works. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like most other novels, has its share of various public responses. First of all, many people respond to the novel in a negative way. For example, some readers possess a feeling of anger towards issues discussed in the novel. One critic elaborates, “The novel’s semiliterate narrator, vernacular dialogue,forthright depiction of the hypocrisy and brutality of American life, and unrefined frontier humor were sufficiently radical at the time of its publication to warrant the novel’s banishment from numerous libraries as ‘the veriest trash'” (19:349). Contrarily, some people do not possess enough knowledge of the issues to understand the novel’s message. “It is a concretely liberating effect, and therefore different in kind from Whitman’s vision of democracy, which can hardly be said to have been understood by or to have found a response among any considerable number of Americans,” explains DeVoto (6:466). On the other hand, many readers have felt positively towards the novel. They believe that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has caused society to recognize the mistakes of the past. Hall emphasizes, “Initially a clowning humorist, Twain matured into the role of the seemingly naive wise Fool whose caustic sense of humor forced his audience to recognize humanity’s foolishness and society’s myriad injustices” (6:452). Along with this recognition came the realization that the treatment of slaves was inhumane. “To its everlasting credit, American society in the postwar period gradually came to the conclusion…that the ancient pattern of discrimination against Negroes was morally and legally indefensible,” states Lynn (6:484). Finally, not only does Twain possess a negative view of slavery, he also has a distaste for war.

In conclusion, Mark Twain utilizes the plot in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to express the immorality of life in the South during the 1800’s. He depicts the code of slavery in the South and the quest for independence of a slave and a young boy. Additionally, Twain’s work produced a wide range of readers’ responses. Finally,Twain’s last major work Pudd’nhead Wilson also strongly spoke out against slavery.

Works Cited

DeVoto, Bernard. “Introduction,” The Portable Mark Twain, 1946. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 6. Detroit:Gale Research Co. 1984, 466.

Lynn, Kenneth. “Welcome Back from the Raft, Huck Honey!” The American Scholar,1977. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 6, Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1984, 484.

“Mark Twain,” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 6, 1984 ed. 452.

“Mark Twain,” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 19, 1986 ed. 349.

Meltzer, Milton. Mark Twain: A Writer’s Life. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985

Salwen, Peter. Is Huck Finn a Racist Book? New York, NY: Salwen Business Communication, 1996. Online. Netscape. Available: http://www.salwen.com/mtrace.html. January 7, 1999.

Smith, Henry. “Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer,” The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1984, 478.

Unger, Leonard. American Writers IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.

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