The Literary Lincoln:

Mark Twain and the Ideology of Race in America

 

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called  Huckleberry Finn." — Ernest Hemingway

 

From the Concord public library, which banned the novel from its shelves for being trashy and vicious when it was first published in America in 1885, to  the Enid, Oklahoma Public School District, which as recently as 2000 almost removed the book from its required reading list under pressure from local African-American ministers who felt the book’s repeated use of the “n-word” could be damaging to young black children, Mark Twain’s Adventures Huckleberry Finn has been one of the most polarizing novels in American letters. Although the portrait of a poor, young white boy helping the slave, Jim, escape to the north on the Mississippi River is unquestionably anti-slavery, the novel’s unflinching use of derogatory language has led many to mistakenly question whether Twain himself was a racist. Yet, when one looks at the life of this legend of American literature, one finds not a bigot, but a man who, like Huckleberry Finn, shook off the fetters of his racist upbringing to become one its harshest critics.

Born in Florida, Missouri in 1835, Samuel Clemens, who would later adopt the pseudonym Mark Twain while a riverboat captain, had an up-close view of the daily lives of African-Americans in pre-Civil War America. Not only did his father periodically engage in the trading of slaves, but his uncle, on whose farm he often worked during summers, was a slave holder. It was in this environment that Twain not only learned the folklore, speech patterns, and slave stories that would eventually enable him to realistically depict the lives of slaves in Missouri, but it also gave him first hand knowledge of the savagery that results when a human being is reduced to nothing more than property. While living in Hannibal, the setting of both Tom Sawyer and  Huckleberry Finn, Twain witnessed a man stone his slave to death for “merely doing something awkward.” It was a traumatic event that ignited in Twain a lifelong advocacy for human rights.

Yet, despite his powerful feelings concerning slavery and human rights, writing Huckleberry Finn proved no easy task. Twain began the novel in 1875, a decade after the Civil War had ended, and he apparently had trouble digging into his subject. In a letter to Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells, he claimed to like the work only tolerably and even considered burning the manuscript.  It would take eight years and a trip down the Mississippi River—his first in two decades—before he could resume work on the novel. However, it was not the childhood memories his homecoming must have provoked that inspired him to return to his writing desk, for as he traveled down the Mighty Mississippi, Twain was forced to confront a bitter truth:  Despite the hundreds of blood drenched battlefields, the assassination of a president, and the much heralded Emancipation Proclamation, the lives of African-Americans had changed very little, if at all, since the days of slavery. Motivated by a more immediate indignation than he had felt while first working on the novel, Twain returned to Huckleberry Finn not just to document the greatest crime in American history, but also to expose the racist culture that persisted in America 18 years after a war that had, at least superficially, promised to give African-Americans the freedoms the constitution promised. 

Huckleberry Finn may have been Twain’s first substantial foray into social criticism, but it definitely would not be his last. In years to come, he would raise his pen against American imperialism in the Philippines, Belgium’s King Leopold III and his tyrannical rule over the Congo, and anti-Semitism in Vienna. Yet, it will always be Huckleberry Finn that overshadows the rest of Twain’s work. Not only is it a novel that strikes to the marrow of American culture and history, but it is the first work of literature, as poet Langston Hughes pointed out, to give African-Americans a voice.

 

Dan Tarker, Literary Associate