Huck isn’t who you think he is.
Mark Twain’s 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has been the signature American novel about race for so long that many assume that it’s always been a book about race. That perception, Andrew Levy explains in his provocative and well-researched study of the book, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece, is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the time it was published it was considered an unusual entry in the “boy’s book” genre, and stoked a debate about its appropriateness for children that foreshadowed today’s tussling over the content of YA novels.
“So many of Twain’s moves in Huck Finn and even in Tom Sawyer [are] blurring—‘Am I writing for an adult, am I writing for a child?’” says Levy, a professor of English at Butler University. “The surprising amounts of violence or depression, the authentic child’s voice—so many of the things that he did kind of surprised readers then.” As Levy writes in the book, the 1880s witnessed one of the country’s occasional panics over juvenile delinquency, violence, bad behavior and popular culture’s role in promoting them. In that context, critics seized on a novel that concocted a hero who was a proud reprobate, running away from home and heading downriver with an escaped slave and a pair of con artists. The New York World called Huck a “wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy,” and other critics were similarly concerned about the character’s moral standing—to the exception of discussing much else in the book, including race.
“They were stuck in their frame,” Levy says. “And their frame was a very confused place at that point. They were just moving to lock down what a boy’s book was, and Twain was coming close to blowing it up.”
Indeed, for his time, Twain “was more radical talking about children than talking about African-Americans,” as Levy writes. But what Huck Finn says about race is more nuanced than our contemporary shorthand discussions about the novel—either that Huck is symbolic of seeing past race, or that its recurring use of the n-word makes it unfit for classroom discussion.
As Levy explains in the book, Twain could be hypocritical on race—progressive at one moment, virulently racist the next. Huck Finn in a way sublimated those contradictions, and Twain did it by tinkering with the codes of the minstrel shows he grew up watching. Before Huck Finn was a novel, it was a stage show of a kind: In the months before Huckleberry Finn was published, Twain traveled across North America with George Washington Cable, then a novelist nearly as popular as Twain. Billing themselves as the “Twins of Genius,” they recited stories before mostly well-off white audiences, and Twain road-tested parts of Huck Finn, like the “King Solomon” exchange between Huck and Jim, which plays off of black stereotypes.
As Levy and other scholars point out, the events in the final chapters of Huck Finn, in which Jim is taken captive and forced to wait for Tom and Huck to go through a series of performances of rescue before release actually happens, were a kind of allegory of the false promises of Reconstruction. Blacks were made all manner of promises relating to their freedom, only to have them broken; to suggest that America was ready for an equal society was farcical. But Twain was aware that he couldn’t agitate too overtly on that point. He need only look at the man he was sharing the stage with: In early 1885 Cable wrote an essay attacking segregation and was pilloried for it. One New Orleans paper published nine editorials in one day decrying Cable’s essay, and his literary reputation eroded before his eyes.
“The late 19th century was when a lot of white people were being very polite about the fights they didn’t have about race,” Levy says. “So even when [Twain] was successfully poking at something, people could laugh and turn away. Cable went for a raw nerve very publicly. And Twain knew what would happen to him if he did the same.”
Minstrelsy provided Twain an escape hatch, a way to talk about race without quite talking about it. Which, to Levy, complicates Huck Finn’s status as the Great American Novel on the subject. “We’ve basically celebrated an easy version of what it means to be right on race, to have a black sidekick who patiently waits for his freedom while you go off and have your adventures…[and] every once in a while you state your commitment to racial equality only to tacitly let things fall back and then go forward again,” he says. “As we have a richer sense of white privilege, I feel we can recapture both what was good and antiracist about Huck Finn, but we also have to admit that these racist components are there and that they’re one reason we’ve kept the book around.”
So when it comes to teaching the book—a contentious issue in high schools and even some colleges—Levy recommends facing Huck Finn’s complications and contradictions head-on. “Just tell the complicated story that’s out there,” he says. “Ninety percent of the conversation about whether or not to teach the book is about race in the classroom, and I would like to remind readers that there’s a book about children here, and it’s a book that celebrates truancy, and it’s a book that protests standardized education, and it’s a book that is not happy about coerced or mandatory reading assignments….[Twain] would have wanted a lot of people to read the book and be liberated by it and come to it voluntarily.”
Mark Athitakis' writing about books has appeared in the New York Times, Barnes & Noble Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other publications. He lives in Phoenix.