On February 18, 1885 American readers got their first exposure to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some were delighted. Some were perplexed. Some were outraged. The outrage was particularly intense in the tonier precincts of Boston and its satellite Concord where those who thought they held the exclusive contract on American literature were deeply shocked.
The Public Library Committee in Concord, the epicenter of Transcendentalism and the New England Literary Renaissance viewed itself as the rightful guardian of both public morals and proper respect. The committee voted unanimously not to add Huckleberry Finn to its collection. The Boston Evening Transcript reported that committee members felt the book “…coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”
|Louisa May Alcott bitterly denounced Huck Finn.|
One of Concord’s most famous daughters, Louisa May Alcott who was the most successful and admired writer of juvenile fiction in the country, entirely agreed. She publicly scolded Twain and wrote that if he could not “…think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”
Twain, of course, was amused by the whoopty-do. We wrote his editor with delight, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!”
What those genteel readers were objecting to was the novel’s breakthrough use of vernacular speech and the use of an illiterate adolescent as a narrator. Others had used dialect before, but never pitched a whole novel in it. Worse from their standpoint, Twain did not use either an omnipotent narrator to deliver moral judgment on the action, or put high minded sentiments in the mouths of his characters. Hardly a soul objected to the use of the word Nigger—which I myself will use unvarnished through the balance of these musings—that term was in currency by all classes, North and South and its use was considered quite unremarkable. They were more offended by general “coarseness” as in the phrase, “not only itched but scratched” which was cited as obscene by the Brooklyn (New York) Library twenty years later.
Southern critics, however, recognized a deeper threat. The runaway slave Jim was not only portrayed sympathetically in the book, in many ways he was the true protagonist. They were aghast that eventually Huck, despite all of his internalized cultural training, sees Jim as an equal. They wailed that a White boy, however degraded, was left alone on the raft with a Black hinting sometimes at the dreadful consequences of fraternization. The portrayal of the lynch mob as a cowardly rabble easily turned aside by one determined, moral man, and the general lampooning of the cherished images of ante-bellum plantation gentry were all a slap in the face.
|Huck and Jim--dangerous fraternization.|
All as Twain intended. This book was to be much more than a comic sequel to his most popular novel to date, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But it had its origins as just that. Samuel Clemens (AKA Twain) contracted for just such a book and began work on it in 1876. He envisioned a book to be called the Autobiography of Huckleberry Finn which could take the young character into adulthood in a series of comic misadventures. But Twain rapidly grew tired of the concept. And his maturing views informed by the Reconstruction period including a growing revulsion at racism led him to deeper territory. He laid his first attempt aside for a while.
After Twain picked it up again, he struggled to find a voice for Huck Finn. It took three handwritten drafts to come up with Huck’s clear voice. He then wasted no time in establishing it in the very first sentence of the new book, “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer…’
By the literary conventions of the day, Twain knew that Huck Finn would be viewed as a “child of nature,” a true innocent. And Huck is innocent—but not uncontaminated by the racial attitudes that he has absorbed through his whole life, a lesson stronger than any attempts by Aunt Polly to stamp a Christian veneer on him. Only Huck’s own personal experience on his odyssey down river finally liberates him from the original sin of racism, but not to the extent that he doesn’t feel guilty for having betrayed his understanding of morality. Of course Mark Twain would beat me to death with Huck’s raft pole for engaging in such analysis. He would rather the reader absorb it unaware of the tricks employed to make the point.
|Mark Twain in 1994|
Twain finished his final draft and had a copy transcribed by typewriter for his London publisher, Chatto & Windus. They issued the book in Britain and Canada in December, 1884. The American Edition, was released the following February with illustrations by E. W. Kemble.
By the early 20th Century the local color movement had made the dialect and voice more acceptable in literary circles. By the time Clemens died in 1910 he was the most revered writer in the country and Huckleberry Finn was widely regarded as his masterpiece. Ernest Hemmingway would later famously proclaim that, “All modern American literature comes from a book named Huckleberry Finn.” By the 1950’s it was a staple, outside of the Deep South, of American high school curricula.
The backlash against the book began building in the 1960’s when some Black leaders denounced it as racist both for its frequent use of the word Nigger and because they believed that Jim was characterized as a “minstrel show” stereotype. Calls for its removal from both school curricula and library shelves became both routine and too often successful. The American Library Association routinely reports that Huckleberry Finn is in the top five “banned books” in the nation.
In 2011 Twain scholar Alan Gribben edited a new edition of the classic book published by NewSouth Books. This expurgated version substituted the word “Slave” for each of the 219 instances of Nigger in the original. It also transformed in an accompanying edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Injun Joe to Indian Joe and half-breed to the hardly less offensive half-blood. Facing a storm of outrage and criticism, Gribben defended the book by saying that he hoped they would stem the “pre-emptive censorship” which was removing them from library and classroom shelves.
It does cheer me to note that lately many Black scholars and activists have rallied to the defense of Huckleberry Finn even if they are not willing to absolve Twain of the racism that taints Euro-Americans by deep cultural inoculation. They recognize a writer at least struggling with it. Most current challenges to the book now come from White liberals presuming to speak for African Americans or trying to keep their perfectly innocent children from ever encountering the dreaded N-word.
Count me as one with unbridled scorn for this crap. To me, the best way to come to grips with racism is to face it fearlessly, not to cower in the corner wringing our hands and babbling about the N-word. Mark Twain wrote one of the greatest works of anti-racism ever to come from the pen of White man. And I will take it like I take my bourbon—straight.