I came across this article, ‘“Huck Finn” is not about race: The real subtext of Twain’s masterpiece’ by Laura Miller published in Salon, that reaches the theme of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. What’s surprising to me is that the author of the piece felt the need to explain it, as if this wasn’t widely known. First Miller sets the context:
“A committee of the public library of your town have condemned and excommunicated my last book,” Mark Twain wrote to the secretary of Concord Free Trade Club in 1885, “and doubled its sales.” The book that was the object of what Twain called “this generous action,” was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a novel that would go on to be banned here and there in schools and libraries for the next 130 years.
Today, “Huckleberry Finn” is most often banned for its use of the N-word. (If there’s an argument for the legitimacy of Twain printing it, I can’t imagine one to justify its appearance in a humble book review, so I’ll be euphemizing it here.) But that came later; the book would not be censured for containing “passages derogatory to negroes” until 1957, when it was removed from the curricula of elementary schools in New York. Rather, disapproving librarians and critics in the late 19th century deplored “Huckleberry Finn” as “the veriest trash” for its favorable depiction of “a wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy.” And for its violence, which is considerable.
Yes, every era since the book was published had some criticism of which the impulse to ban it emerged. But since the 1950s the perception has been that Twain was writing about race and that though his intentions were noble the black character of Jim ridicules African-Americans. Indeed I had a black professor in college who said he was insulted by the portrayal. Miller introduces into her piece a new book on the subject by Andrew Levy, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece.
“Huck Finn’s America” is about the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” first appeared and, eventually, how that context has shifted — or not. Levy’s overarching argument is that we misunderstand American culture in fundamental ways because we habitually forget our own past in favor of happy, gauzy nostalgia and/or fantasies of progress.
Miller summarizes Levy’s research:
In researching “Huck Finn’s America,” Levy immersed himself in newspapers and magazines from around the time Twain’s novel was written and published. What he found was that nobody, including Twain himself, considered race to be the primary theme of “Huckleberry Finn.” Rather, the novel emerged from and spoke to a society that was obsessed with wayward children, particularly boys, and most typically lower-class boys spurred to delinquency by the violent stories they read in dime novels. The papers were full of “stories of children committing crimes or dying young or killing each other,” to a degree that, Levy remarks, a modern reader would find “simply numbing.” In response to this perceived crisis, Americans were, for the first time, seriously discussing the establishment of a system of public education.
What I find surprising is that this is surprising to Miller and I suppose her readers. First Twain is upfront right in the very novel himself when he tells us that Huck is an uncivilized delinquent in need of being taught. Second, what constitutes civilizing is clearly at the core of the work. Should I be surprised at Miller’s reaction? Perhaps not. Those of a particular ideology have an obsession with race, and academia has been swallowed up by that ideology, which has a distorting effect on understanding a work, for the past sixty years . Levy appears (I haven’t read it) to have done great research to show the social context that the novel was written in.
What Huck Finn is about is the relationship between two people, a boy and an escaped slave, both uneducated, both uncivilized to the standards of Twain’s time, who through their relationship find that morality rests in the very natural world that harbors them, outside of church, state, and even family structure. Perhaps we might consider that somewhat naïve, but the Romanticism of the 19th century was a bit naïve, and the themes of Huckleberry Finn are square in the Romantic tradition. No one should be surprised by the results of Levy’s research.