Is Huckleberry Finn Racist?

huckfinn-bookcoverAdventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”


It’s been said that “Literature is the Handmaid of History.” By this statement, the late Mrs. Rosalie Slater meant that literature is a useful tool for teaching and learning history, for seeing how God has worked through the ages in different times and places, and for showing how men thought and acted in those settings. Of course we can see how this applies to works of history and biography, but it is also true of fiction. The writer Henry James defined the novel as a “personal, direct impression of life.” James pointed out that although fictional works are stories of “make-believe,” it is just as much the job of the novelist to convey truth as it is the historian’s. While a fictional story itself may be “made up” and largely a product of the writer’s imagination, it also conveys something about his or her experiences and impressions of life; the characters, ideas, and principles actually exist in the real world.

Samuel Johnson compared fiction to art, and literature is certainly an art form. Johnson said that just as excellent art imitates nature, likewise excellent fiction imitates life; he also believed that both art forms should strive to make a distinction between that which is good, lovely, true and beautiful from that which is evil, corrupt, false and ugly. In Johnson’s opinion, “Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust…Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems.”

One of the reasons that I find modern, contemporary fiction less enjoyable than earlier fiction is that vice, sin actually, is no longer viewed with disapproval or disgust. The moral lines have become blurred, and behavior that was once assigned to villains is now allotted to the main character or hero. For example, 200 years ago, a character that had pre-marital sex or engaged in an extra-marital affair was either a scoundrel/tart or was ashamed and repentant of it. By the early 20th century, it became acceptable, justifiable, and even praise-worthy for the protagonist/hero character to have a pre-marital or extra marital affair. (Examples of classic novels where this is depicted include: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, 1984 by George Orwell, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H Lawrence, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and that’s just getting started.)

I love classic literature, both British and American, particularly of previous centuries, and try to encourage others to delve into some of those great works. It’s not merely for the story that a good work of literature may be enjoyed and appreciated, but for the truths and principles about people, society, and life in general that they present. One favorite is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a novel that depicts the attitudes and beliefs of both whites and blacks living in the pre-Civil War South. It is undoubtedly an anti-slavery work. But Huckleberry Finn has been the object of much criticism and controversy and has been included on several lists of banned books. The South took Twain’s harsh satirical critique rather personally, while others have considered the novel vulgar and inappropriate, (particularly lately for its use of the “N” word).

The following commentary was written by Robert Leslie Palmer, author of Archibald Zwick and the Eight Towers. I thought his observations and points were very well expressed and asked his permission to share his thoughts on Huckleberry Finn with my readers.
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Is Huckleberry Finn Racist?

From time to time I hear people declare that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel, and it causes me to wonder whether those people have ever read the book. In my view, the novel is quite the opposite, and in it Mark Twain seeks to encourage people to rise above prejudice. Why, then, is the book often deemed to be racist?

The “evidence” that Twain’s masterpiece is racist is found on a superficial level, for in the novel, the “N” word is used by almost everyone. Today, of course, we rightly shun the use of that word because it is a hurtful word and bears so much emotional baggage. But Twain’s novel is set in the South long before the Civil War, and he used the “N” word for at least two reasons. First, he was simply using the dialect of the place and era in which the novel was set. Second, and much more important, he was using the “N” word as a foil for the central thesis of the novel: that we must examine in our hearts whether what we have been taught about right and wrong is valid.

Throughout the novel, the conventional “wisdom” of the Antebellum South is repeated without question: that helping a fugitive slave was a sin and returning him to his master was “righteous.” Against these unquestioned statements of the accepted “truth,” Huck Finn, a runaway himself, teams up with Jim, a runaway slave. Twain clearly made Jim the noblest character in the novel, and during the course of their journey down the Mississippi on a raft, Huck Finn’s acceptance of what he has been taught all his life is challenged. More than once he must struggle with his “sin” of helping a runaway slave. The central theme of the novel is made clear when Huck deliberately rejects those teachings and decides to help Jim. Mark Twain was a satirist, and so expressed that theme with satire, never overtly stating that the conventional “wisdom” was wrong, but instead forcefully demonstrating his thesis through the inner turmoil that Huck feels:

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

‘Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.’

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.

That Huck deliberately chose to go to “hell” rather than betray Jim shows that he has overcome the learned prejudice of his youth. Through this novel, Mark Twain was imploring his generation to do the same. Remember, Twain wrote this novel less than twenty years after the end of the Civil War. Twain’s use of fiction and satire is far more effective than any sober essay demonstrating that the conventional “wisdom” of the Antebellum South was not, in fact, supported by Scripture.

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Thanks, for sharing, Mr. Palmer. I agree that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a racist work; it is a great American classic with an important message that shows the ugliness of racism and condemns prejudice. While it is a rather dark tale, Huckleberry Finn contains humorous as well as touching moments. It’s full of irony, sarcasm, and insight on the attitude and practices of pre-Civil War America. I recommend Huckleberry Finn for any high school literature course, and if you’re an adult who hasn’t read it, I would recommend it to you as well. Don’t let the critics and “PC” folks decide for you; decide for yourself if Huckleberry Finn is racist. In fact, I consider Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a work of fiction that every Christian should read.

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3 Responses to Is Huckleberry Finn Racist?

  1. I’m not a huge Mark Twain fan cause he gets really preachy sometimes, but maybe I’ll try Huckleberry Finn again. I tried it as a child and thought it was very boring: too much talk and not enough adventure. Seen through the eyes of a child, right? On the list it goes!

    • I'mAllBooked says:

      I can see how a young person could find it boring, but for me it is the dialogue that moves the story in HF more so than the action. Good for you to be willing to give it another shot! I will be interested to hear what you think of it this time.

      • I’ll keep you posted. As of right now, my list of books to read is almost overwhelming and I have a huge desire to re-read through Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I’m resisting as long as possible. :-)

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