By 1885, when the book was published, Samuel Clemens held views that were very different from those he ascribed to Huck.It might be helpful at this point to chart for your students the growth of the author's developing moral awareness on the subject of race and racism -- starting with some of his writings on the persecution of the Chinese in San Francisco (such as Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy), then moving through his marriage into an abolitionist family, the 1869 anti-lynching editorial that he published in The Buffalo Express entitled Only a Nigger, and his exposure to figures like Frederick Douglass and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.
First, one must understand how Socratic irony works if the novel is to make any sense at all; most students don't. I think under most circumstances, however, they are obstacles you can deal with.
Secondly, one must be able to place the novel in a larger historical and literary context -- one that includes the history of American racism and the literary productions of African-American writers -- if the book is to be read as anything more than a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which it both is and is not); most students can't. It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain's consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck.
Neither is placing the task of dealing with it on one book. But they don't require you to look the perpetrators of that evil in the eye and find yourself looking at a kind, gentle, good-hearted Aunt Sally.
We continue to live, as a nation, in the shadow of racism while being simultaneously committed, on paper, to principles of equality. They don't make you understand that it was not the villains who made the system work, but the ordinary folks, the good folks, the folks, who did nothing more than fail to question the set of circumstances that surrounded them, who failed to judge that evil as evil and who deluded themselves into thinking they were doing good, earning safe passage for themselves into heaven.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Professor of American Studies and English at the University of Texas, is the author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Was Huck Black?
Mark Twain and African American Voices (Oxford University Press, 1993).(2006a, pp.1-504), first published in 1884, starts out in a small fictional town of St.Petersburg in Missouri situated close to the Mississippi River, and is set a few decades before the outbreak of the American Civil War.The story is narrated by the protagonist, Huck, and follows his journey wherein he is faced with a number of moral choices, which subsequently lead him to question the morality and supposedly ‘civilised’ nature of society, outgrowing his own instincts of self-preservation and moral deviancy in the process.Using Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (1981, cited in Gibbs, 2003, pp.57-76), this essay will analyse how and why Huck begins to take responsibility for his own moral choices, rejecting the prescribed morality of some of the authority figures in his life and accepting that of others, thus demonstrating how life experiences of kindness and cruelty can affect the development of an individual’s mortality."We have ground the manhood out of them," Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, "and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it." Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him?"All right, then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery.It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition.Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked.These two problems pose real obstacles for teachers. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what's wrong with his society and what's right about his own transgressive behavior. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying.In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that "one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes -- partially -- of a young white boy." Are you saying, I asked Ellison, "that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author?