I’ve recently re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—for those of you paying attention, you know why. As usual, it was a good read.
Huck Finn is one of those stories that I didn’t have an appreciation for as a high school student and didn’t develop that appreciation until college. Of course, I think there is much of literature that is that way. Often, I think we try to get younger students to understand the classics when quite simply they are too young to understand. But that’s another ramble for another day.
One can certainly understand why many critics wanted it removed from shelves; the frequent use of the n-word being one of the primary reasons. The abusive nature of Pap is another. Of course, we don’t see it in any of the visual adaptations, but Huck specifically mentions that both he and Jim are naked most of the time while riding down the Mississippi on a raft. That would really go over today, wouldn’t it? A 14 year-old white boy with an older (at least 30) black man…a slave at that.
When I taught English at Northwest Shoals Community College, I used Huck Finn as one of the two novels we read during the course of the semester. There are all sorts of “literary” elements to talk about, but you can read most of those elsewhere.
One of the biggest elements of the book, I think, and not often talked about, is the reflection of attitudes about blacks. Keeping in mind, the book was written and published after the Civil War, but the story is set roughly 30 years before the war, when most of the country west of the Mississippi River was still generally unpopulated. Obviously, the biggest window we have is Huck himself.
Throughout the course of the book, he feels very guilty that he’s helping a runaway slave run away—it’s not the proper thing to do after all, plus, it’s against the law. Throughout the course of the several months trip downriver, Huck gets to know Jim as a person. When it comes time to turn him in or “go to hell,” Huck decides if turning Jim in is bad enough he’ll go to hell, then he’ll go to hell.
A very powerful moment of decision for Huck and for us as the reader.
Of course, race relations are a big deal in the U.S., and particularly in the South. It has certainly improved even just during the course of my lifetime. I was in first grade in Memphis during desegregation. I think much of the change has come with my generation and the ones that immediately followed. My own mom imparted to me these words of wisdom: “judge each person as an individual, not based on their looks or color of their skin.” Or something like that.
It seems that is the very lesson that Huck learned.
If you’ve never read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I highly recommend this classic!