In Defense of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A friend of mine reacted with some surprise when I told him of my love for the novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Apparently, some people simply can’t get past the fact that it uses the N word numerous times. Or, they are afraid that others will start using the word after reading the book. In my opinion, only a very simple mind would draw the wrong conclusion, from reading this novel, that the N word is perfectly acceptable to use in casual modern conversation. One beautiful aspect of the novel is that its language and style renders it inaccessible to such simple minds. Unfortunately, the novel has frequently been banned for its use of offensive language.

The use of the N word is perfectly justified by the author’s desire to express accurately the colloquial language of a certain time and place. Never does the narrator himself use offensive language—only realistic characters do. This raises another beautiful aspect of the novel: it captures the bittersweet entirety of provincial Mississippi River life, conveying its pastoral charm without glossing over the horrible injustices of slavery and racism.

It has been said that in every good novel, the protagonist undergoes a change or transformation. What makes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn truly great is the profound transformation its protagonist undergoes. Huck uses reasoning and his personal moral compass to shatter his own indoctrination in the institutional racism of the 19th-century South. The critical passages are copied below.

And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's ni**er that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that ni**er goes to everlasting fire." It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that ni**er's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie -- I found that out. So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter -- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway ni**er Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking -- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll go to hell" -- and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

These words give me goosebumps and bring tears to my eyes. Huck is initially shown as a product of his environment, possessing both pastoral charm and racism in his personality. At this critical juncture, he makes the right choice in his heart, evacuating his prejudice with relief like a difficult bowel movement. No doubt there is much injustice left to remedy in Huck’s world, but it must start with the change of heart and mind spelled out here. In this passage, Twain shows that nurture, religion, ignorance, and poverty are poor excuses for prejudice, while honest soul-searching is sufficient to cure it.

I like to think that Twain’s portrayal of historical Mississippi River life has the power to lure modern-day white supremacists to a similar transformation. They may long for the good old days of slavery, or react with glee at language considered offensive today. This passage gives me hope that their hearts and minds might be changed for the better.

Tags: Philosophy, Reading

Created at: 28 April 2008 12:04 AM