Critics of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered by many to be the greatest American novel ever written. Despite this praise, Mark Twain’s masterpiece has never been without criticism. Upon its inception it was blasted for being indecent literature for young readers because of its lack of morals and contempt for conformity. Modern indignation toward Huck Finn arises from its racist undertones, most notably Twain’s treatment of the character Jim. As is the case with many canonized yet controversial books, the biggest conflict revolves around the inclusion of Huck Finn on required reading lists of public schools throughout the country.
In general, the mostly African-American critics consider Twain himself to be racist and Huck Finn simply reflects this. Blacks, especially Jim, are portrayed as fools and used as comedic fodder to bolster feelings of white superiority in Twain’s southern audience. Although Jim’s positive qualities are presented in certain parts of the novel, they are overshadowed by his superstitious folly which Twain returns to in the later chapters. The fact that Huck’s narration is intentionally skewed by the innocence and ignorance of an adolescent is little consolation to critics who feel that Twain has committed gross immorality. Also, the incessant use of the epithet “nigger” has been deemed excessive. Despite these condemnations though even the staunchest opponents of Twain find certain redeeming qualities that make it hard to promote all out censorship.
One of the most stringent dissenters of Huck Finn is Julius Lester, Newberry Award winning author of the children’s book To Be a Slave. Lester argues that one of the primary concerns of literature should be to reinforce morality, not necessarily bourgeois morals of conformity but rather a positive spirit of living in unity. He quotes Kafka as saying a book’s purpose is to “serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us” and to Lester, Huck Finn is the frozen sea, immoral and demeaning in its treatment of black history.
Lester is offended by the parallel that Twain draws between Huck’s imprisonment at the hands of an abusive father and the actual institution of slavery that binds Jim. By drawing this comparison, he argues that Twain is applying a veneer to obscure the horrors of slavery and therefore evading responsibility and remorse for the crime. The legal ownership of human beings is not in the same ballpark as child abuse and by placing them side-by-side, Twain shows that he doesn’t take slavery or black people seriously.
He goes on to argue that Jim’s childlike nature is not only offensive but also lacking in credibility. Are we to believe that a runaway slave wouldn’t know that freedom was as close as the banks of Illinois all along and that he would actually travel south into the heart of southern slavery? And is it likely that a white woman would’ve freed a slave suspected of killing a...