Controversy Over Huckleberry Finn: Depictions of Slavery & Racism Caused a History of Banning

Controversy Over Huckleberry Finn: Depictions of Slavery & Racism Caused a History of Banning
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Historical Context of the Novel: Slavery in Huck Finn

One cannot understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without understanding its historical context.

After the commercial success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain felt creating a sequel would bring increased monetary success, so he did. This time the novel’s protagonist would be Tom Sawyer’s best Friend, Huckleberry Finn. The sequel would take on a more serious tone, focusing on slavery and the plight of a runaway slave.

By the time Twain wrote the novel, the Civil War had ended and slaves had been emancipated. Huckleberry Finn is, therefore, not an abolitionist work, nor one that promulgated the continuation of slavery. It was completed in the 1880s at a time when Reconstruction, the federal government’s effort to provide equal opportunity for freed slaves, was failing miserably and was perhaps a call to equal treatment of the freed slaves.

The antislavery theme, the depiction of a slave as human, and the portrayal of Southerners as hypocrites caused a firestorm of controversy upon the novel’s release. The abrasive language of Huck and other characters in the novel has, in modern days, undermined the anti-slavery message.

Twain’s Depiction of Slavery

A look at slavery in Huck Finn focuses on the novel’s second major character, Jim.

Twain, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was not attempting to write an expose on slavery or even trying to give an accurate depiction of it. Twain needed to sell novels, making at outright attack on slavery, racist Southern attitudes, and Jim Crow laws unwise. Instead, he used irony, satire, and subtlety to make his points:

  1. Jim, despite their separation, has one of the few functional families in the novel. It’s the thought of a permanent separation from his family that prompts him to escape. It’s Jim’s love for his family that affects Huck so strongly, causing him to realize that a black man is capable of loving his family as much as a white man. This is especially significant considering the abusive nature of Huck’s father. Jim becomes a father figure to Huck, although Huck doesn’t necessarily recognize it as such, sheltering him from the more disturbing features of their journey, including the death of Huck’s father.
  2. Jim is at the mercy of white characters in the novel, most of which are morally inferior to him. Jim must follow Huck’s schemes and “adventures,” such as exploring the wrecked ship that causes them to lose their raft and supplies and Tom and Huck’s ridiculous escape attempt in the novel’s closing chapters. Jim must also take orders from the duke and the dolphin, two of the more reprobate characters in all of literature.
  3. Jim sacrifices his own safety and freedom for Huck and Tom’s safety. His chastisement of Huck after Huck tricks Jim into thinking he dreamed the episode regarding the two’s separation causes Huck to apologize and shows the depth of Jim’s tender, human feelings.

Huck Finn Banned: A History of Censorship

According to the American Library Association, Huck Finn is the fifth most banned book in the history of the United States. A history of censorship of Huck Finn shows that the banning of the novel has occurred numerous times since Mark Twain wrote it over 150 years ago. The reasons for its banning, however, differ and many modern bannings of the novel are for the opposite reason the novel was banned in the 19th century, something Mark Twain himself would have found humorous.

The initial uproar over the novel focused on its irreverence toward authority figures, Huck’s lack of manners, and the friendship between a white person and a black person. Racists objected to the portrayal of a black man as human and morally superior to many of the white men he encountered. As social changes occurred, the book was viewed as racist on account of the frequent use of racially inflammatory language and the depiction of Jim as an ignorant, superstitious caricature.

A History of Censorship Timeline

Huck Finn Book Cover

Use this “History of Censorship of Huck Finn” timeline to gain perspective on one of America’s most controversial literary works.

1884 - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.

1885 - The Concord Public Library bans Huck Finn on account of the title character’s bad example.

1885 - Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women remarked, “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”

1891 - English writer Andrew Lang called Huck Finn “the great American novel.”

1900 - Harvard called Huck Finn the “most admirable work of literary art as yet produced on this continent."

1902 - The Brooklyn Public Library banned Huckleberry Finn because of Huck’s inappropriate behavior.

1907 - Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were banned from libraries on a regular basis for their bad examples.

1935 - Ernest Hemmingway said, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

1955 - CBS produces a made for TV film adaptation of Huck Finn. The film doesn’t even mention slavery. Jim is not black.

1957 - The NAACP calls Huck Finn racially offensive. The New York City Board of Education takes it off its approved novels list.

1976 - Huck Finn is removed from a required reading list in Illinois because of the “n” word.

1978 - Ironically, the People’s Republic of China lifts its ban on Mark Twain.

1982 - Mark Twain Intermediate School administrator calls Huck Finn the“most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life”

1998 - Parents in Tempe, Arizona sue the school district over Huck Finn’s presence on a required reading list. The parents lost.

Quotes Showing Racism

The #1 reason for banning or censoring Huck Finn over the past 25 years involves the claim that the novel is racist. keep in mind as you read that the novel is written from the perspective of a young boy who lived in the South before the Civil War and his views do not necessarily reflect those of the author. The following quotes have come under scrutiny:

Quote: “We blowed out a cylinder-head.” / “Good gracious! anybody hurt?” / “No’m. Killed a *n______.” / “Well it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” (Chapter 32)

Analysis: This is perhaps the most confusing line regarding race in the entire novel. Huck’s response that the steamboat explosion killed a n________ and is therefore no big deal contradicts the tender feelings he’s expressed toward Jim and his recognition that slaves were human. There are three plausible explanations: (1) Huck believes Jim is an isolated example and that slaves/blacks are truly inferior; (2) Huck has had racist attitudes drilled in him for so long that he is unable to eradicate them; (3) Huck is simply trying to make his appearance believable to Aunt Sally and plays the role she would expect.

Aunt Sally’s comment that the death of the n________ doesn’t matter because he wasn’t a person contradicts her otherwise benevolent nature. Twain demonstrates the hypocrisy and flawed way of thinking possessed by racist Southerners.

*If you can’t figure out what the n-word is in these passages, then you haven’t read the novel. Some would argue that I am censoring the novel by not writing the entire word. Deal with it.

Huck-and-Jim-on-raft.Quote: “It was the most astonishing speech I ever heard–and I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a n________ stealer.” (Chapter 33).

Analysis: There is no need for Huck to pretend to be anything in this section of the novel. He’s speaking to nobody but the reader and it’s apparent that Huck does not feel his aiding of Jim as a noble act. It’s one thing for an outcast, son of a drunk, good-for-nothing, uneducated rapscallion like himself to help a slave runaway, but for a respectable boy like Tom Sawyer to do so is shocking.

Quote: “Here was this n________ which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children–children that belonged to aman I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t never done me no harm. I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him.” (Chapter 16).

Analysis: This is irony. Twain presents the events in the story to show beyond a doubt that helping Jim escape is the right thing to do. Huck, however, is unable to recognize this truth.

This post is part of the series: Huckleberry Finn Study Helps

Review Mark Twain’s classic with these study helps.

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Chapter Summaries
  2. Test Your Knowledge of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
  3. The Huck Finn Controversy
  4. Satire and Irony in Huckleberry Finn
  5. Examples of Satire in Huck Finn: Superstitions