Racism chronicled in Huck Finn [UPDATED]Published 9:23am Friday, January 20, 2012 Updated 11:24am Friday, January 20, 2012
Fergus Falls Reads is back. During the month of February, “I Love to Read” month, The Fergus Falls Reads Committee is encouraging the community to read and discuss the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. This title was chosen by the committee because of its place in American literature and history and, also, because of the ample opportunity the book provides for meaningful community-wide discussion.
Despite the fact that Huck Finn is one of the most taught (and, thus, read) works of American literature, it is a difficult book to read as it illustrates a horrendous wrong in our history — slavery, and American
society’s perception of slavery during the 1840s.
In order to fully understand the novel and its place in the history of American racism, the reader must understand Twain’s use of irony and realism.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) grew up accepting the then societal norm that slaves were property. Between the time of Clemens’ child and adulthood, however, and the years during which he wrote Huck Finn, his viewpoint on slavery changed dramatically. Huck Finn was published in 1885, and by then, Twain viewed slavery as a horrendous wrong and, also, believed that white Americans should pay for those wrongs committed to black Americans.
So, why, then, if Twain held these views, did he create a character like Huck who is ignorant and so scared to stand-up to the societal norms and free his friend, Jim, from slavery?
This is where realism enters into the equation. In Huck Finn, Twain breaks away from literary tradition and writes a novel in dialect involving realistic characters reflective of the society at that time. It is because the novel is realistic that it is also, at times, painful to read.
Twain’s frequent use of the N-word in the novel can be especially hard for readers to bare.
Huck is too ignorant to understand what is wrong with the society he lives in and, thus, what is wrong about the way he acts towards and treats Jim.
We know that Huck, and his contemporaries, were wrong. Yet, Huck Finn forces the reader to meet Huck, Aunt Sally and the other characters in their time. To understand that kind-hearted people like Aunt Sally were the ones that made the system of slavery work by not questioning the status quo and failing to see the evil and immorality in the institution, a powerful lesson.
Huck Finn brings the issue of ongoing racism in society to the surface. Indeed, if we lived in a society where racism had been eliminated long ago, reading Huck Finn may be easy, but that is not the case.
The difficulty we readers encounter mirrors the difficulty we have confronting and eliminating racism in modern-day America. The Fergus Falls Reads Committee hopes that by encouraging the thoughtful reading and discussion of Huck Finn, as a community, we can continue to work towards addressing these issues and solving these problems in our time.
Watch for additional columns appearing each week regarding the reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the coordinating events planned for the month of February.
You can also learn more about the book, the author and upcoming events by joining Fergus Falls Reads on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fergusfallsreads / or by joining us on Twitter at “fergusreads”
Erin Smith, Library Director, Fergus Falls Public Library