Is Huckleberry Finn really a racist book?
Controversial in death as he was in life, Mark Twain has been seriously accused by some of being a "racist writer," whose writing is offensive to black readers, perpetuates cheap slave-era stereotypes, and deserves no place on today's bookshelves.
To those of us who have drunk gratefully of Twain's wisdom and humanity, such accusations are ludicrous. But for some people they clearly touch a raw nerve, and for that reason they deserve a serious answer. Let's look at the book that is most commonly singled out for this criticism, the novel that Ernest Hemingway identified as the source of all American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
For Twain's critics, the novel is racist on the face of it, and for the most obvious reason: many characters use the word "nigger" throughout. But since the action of the book takes place in the south twenty years before the Civil War, it would be amazing if they didn't use that word.
A closer reading also reveals Twain's serious satiric intent. In one scene, for instance, Aunt Sally learns of a steamboat explosion.
"Good gracious! anybody hurt?" she asks.
"No'm," comes the answer. "Killed a nigger."
But anyone who imagines that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to underscore the chilling truth about the old South: it was a place where perfectly nice people didn't consider the death of a black person worth their notice -- where a "nigger" was, literally, not a human being. To drive the point home, Twain has the lady continue:
"Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt."
That's a small case in point. But what is the book really about? It's about nothing less than freedom and the quest for freedom. It's about a slave who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family, and a white boy who becomes his friend and helps him escape.
Growing up among slaveholders, the boy naturally accepts the idea that slavery is part of the natural order. But as the story unfolds he gradually learns to see Jim as the man he really is. He’s forced to wrestle with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend.
Meanwhile, Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom -- risks his life -- for the sake of his friend Huck.
Note, too, that it is not just white critics who make this point. Booker T. Washington noted how Twain "succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for 'Jim,'" and pointed out that Twain, in creating Jim's character, had "exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people."
The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim's "dignity and human capacity" to emerge in the novel. “Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain [Ellison wrote], that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town" -- in other words, of the abomination of slavery itself.
In fact, you can search through all of Twain's writings, not just the thirty-plus volumes of novels, stories, essays, and letters, but also his private correspondence, his posthumous autobiography and his intimate journals, and you'll be hard put to find a derogatory remark about the black race -- and this at a time when crude racial stereotypes were the basic coin of popular fiction, stage comedy, and popular songs.
What you find in Twain is the opposite: a lively affection and admiration for black Americans that began when he was still a boy and grew steadily through the years. In a widely praised post-Civil War sketch titled "A True Story," for example, he wrenchingly evoked the pain of an ex-slave as she recalls being separated from her young son on the auction block, and her joy at discovering him in a black regiment at war's end.
And on those occasions when Twain does venture to compare blacks and whites, the comparison is not conspicuously flattering to the whites. Things like:
"One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be."
"Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare."
"There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages."
Mark Twain a "racist"! Isn't it about time we put this ridiculous notion to rest?
-- Peter Salwen
So, Mark Twain stays in the news even 100 years after his death. First, with the initial volume of his Autobiography, finally published in the form planned by the author. Second, with the controversy stirred up by a "new" edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which the offensive racial epithets "injun" and "nigger" are replaced by "Indian" and "slave" respectively.
Undoubtedly the use of the word "nigger" – surely the most inflammatory word in the English language – makes Huckleberry Finn a tricky novel to teach. The book has recently repeatedly been judged as unsuitable for schoolchildren to study in the US educational system – and one can fully understand the feelings of anger and humiliation that many African American children and parents feel at having such a word repeatedly spoken in the classroom (the word appears 219 times in Twain's book).
But that is not necessarily a reason for replacing it with a gentler (bowdlerised) term. Twain was undoubtedly anti-racist. Friends with African American educator Booker T Washington, he co-chaired the 1906 Silver Jubilee fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for the Tuskegee Institute – a school run by Washington in Alabama to further "the intellectual and moral and religious life of the [African American] people". He also personally helped fund one of Yale Law School's first African American students, explaining: "We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it." And his repeated use of that derogatory term in Huckleberry Finn is absolutely deliberate, ringing with irony. When Huck's father, poor and drunken white trash by any standard, learns that "a free nigger ... from Ohio; a mulatter, most as white as a white man ... a p'fessor in a college" is allowed to vote, he reports: "Well, that let me out ... I says I'll never vote agin ... [A]nd the country may rot for all me." It is very clear here whose racial side Twain is on. Similarly when Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in a reported riverboat explosion, and Huck himself answers "No'm. Killed a nigger," she replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." The whole force of the passage lies in casual acceptance of the African American's dehumanised status, even by Huck, whose socially-inherited language and way of thinking stands firm despite all he has learnt in his journey down-river of the humanity, warmth and affection of the escaped slave Jim – the person who truly acts as a father to him.
Language counts here. As Twain himself said: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing "that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain's ... novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol."
But it's exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author's words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.
• Peter Messent is the author of the Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain