Let me just start by saying that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a book I would have read on my own. I tried once, when I was eleven, and was bored out of my mind. I could not fathom why anyone would ever read this book. This year, however, it was assigned reading for my AP Language arts class. I bemoaned the required reading of the book. I groaned. I whined. And then I picked it up. And I was shocked to discover that (once I saw past the difficult dialect and generally casual style) I actually liked it. At this point, I looked it up and discovered that it is one of the most banned books of all time. Discovering this, if anything, endeared me to Huck Finn even further. I am a sucker for bold statements, and in terms of radical declarations, Huckleberry Finn may well be the most out there. It is shocking to me that anyone could doubt Huck Finn’s status as a classic. I would say that among novels which are written to make a statement, Huck Finn may well be hailed as the fairest of them all.
I think that Huck Finn should be considered a classic, and I think that anyone who reads this book with an open, unprejudiced mind would agree; because at the time that Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn, his book was radical, and I believe that radical works are the ones which most influence history and the future. I think that Huck Finn is an important book especially as we are so inclined as to not repeat history. I lean towards believing that change is brought about by reminders of our past. As the great Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
The thing I struggled with most as I read various criticisms was the overwhelming opinion that Huck Finn is a racist novel. This claim makes me want to tear my hair out, for several reasons, but primarily because it indicates to me a fundamental failure to understand what Mark Twain was trying to illustrate.
One critic in particular stood out to me in this arena. This critic is the champion of pretentious people who are searching for something to be indignant about. As most provocateurs do, Julius Lester attempts, in his shallow critique, to portray the African American people as having been perjured by Twain’s thoughtful and satirical novel. Lester would love for his reader to think him an educated martyr. He asserts, in the first sentence of his criticism, arrogantly titled ‘Morality and the Adventures of Huck Finn’, “I don’t think I’d ever read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Could that be? Every American child reads it, and a child who read as much as I did must have.”
Lester is attempting to tell the reader that if he has not read Huck Finn, then surely it cannot be a classic. Unfortunately for Lester, however, I do not believe that a person can truly know something unless they are willing to think deeply about it, and Lester, though he would like the reader to think that he has ruminated prudently about the merit and morality of Huck Finn, has overlooked critical pieces. The key element of Huck Finn, and, in fact, it’s most brilliant facet is that Huck Finn was not written to please its reader. It was written by a man who wanted to make a statement. The blatant racism in Huck Finn is blatant for several reasons: 1) at the time Huck Finn was written, racism was blatant, and 2) Twain wanted to draw attention to something that he, a forward thinker, thought was wrong.
I found myself so vehemently opposed to Lester’s assertions that I had to sit back for a moment, take a deep breath, and seek out a more thoughtful critique. In doing so, I found Toni Morrison’s beautifully written and delightfully thoughtful “This Amazing, Troubling book”, in which Morrison states that “the brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument is raises.” At this point, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I was, apparently, not alone in liking Huck Finn. The criticisms I had read up to this point had varied in their theses, but none has been zealously inclined towards Huck Finn. The consensus about Huck Finn had been, widely, negative. I had been seeking a careful, kind criticism, and I did not find exactly that in Morrison’s critique; what I did find, however, was a sense of clarity, a new vantage point from which to survey the rest of the criticisms I would read.
A common complaint about Huck Finn is that it “rambles”. And I will confess there were times in which I urged Twain to just get on with it already- I have heard enough about the river, and the bible, and whatever else. At these times, I found myself both frustrated and delighted by Twain’s refusal to just “get on with it already”. Twain, despite having a sometimes long-winded means, does achieve the ultimate end; his characters are very real. After all, Twain is merely embodying one of his main characters: the river. As rivers are so inclined to ramble on, so is Twain. Some might argue that a river cannot be a character, as it is, after all, inanimate. To those people, I would say that I think that nature can inspire just as much emotion and verve as any turn of phrase. T. S. Eliot believes, in fact, that the two critical pieces of Huck Finn are “The Boy and The River.” It is the River that, according to Eliot “controls the voyage of Huck and Jim; that will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom; it is the River that separates them and deposits Huck for a time in the Grangerford household; the River that re-unites them, and then compels upon them the unwelcome company of the King and the Duke. Recurrently, we are reminded of its presence and its power.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is represented beautifully in the Huck and Jim mural by Thomas Hart Benton. The image depicts Huck and Jim on the river, Jim in a paternal stance, near a steamboat named the Sam Clemens which is pumping out vast quantities of black and white smoke, juxtaposed against the sky. Dark and Light contrast everywhere you look in this image. Huck and Jim, the tree and the sky, the dark and light smoke. All the central pieces of Huck Finn are pulled together in this image, from the rolling river to the implications of a simple, but by no means unfortunate, existence. Even Pap is implied in this image, in the bottom left corner; the arm slung drunkenly over the shelf, clutching a jug of alcohol. What this image has to say about the book is fundamental. This book is not about either Huck or Jim. It is not about race. Even as it points out flaws, it also transcends racism. The relationship between Huck and Jim is sweet, and simple. The negative pieces of the book are not the foreground of the story, or the image.
Huck Finn is a novel which has been worked into the framework of our history. It is most definitely controversial, but it is not a novel which was written to invoke rage- it is a novel which was written to make a statement about the need for social change. It is a novel which has been worked into the patchwork of American literature. It is the novel which shaped the rest of American literature in its genre, and a novel that is so important that people are drawn to it, whether they feel negatively or not about the subject matter. Huck Finn has inserted itself firmly into American culture. It has shaped our past, and will continue to be an example for authors attempting to bring about social change.