American history is not always pretty. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that, but it is true. As Americans, there are blemishes there we don’t like the mirror to remind us of. For over 130 years, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain has held up that mirror and dared us to look at the reflection.
When Huck Finn was first introduced in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” he was Tom’s untamed friend, the one who was always ready to play hooky and look for pirate treasure; the friend Tom could always trust to follow him without question. In his own story, Huck takes over as narrator with his distinctive American voice, sharing with us not only his escapades since fleeing his abusive father, but also his growing philosophy about slavery and the world.
In many ways “Huckleberry Finn” is the story of Jim, the runaway slave who accompanies Huck on his adventures. A complicated character, Jim goes from silly to tragic, sometimes even within the same paragraph. He dreams of freedom, not just for himself but for his wife and children, sharing with Huck his desire to purchase each of them back -- and if he can’t buy them back, he’ll steal them. To help emphasize the heartbreak of Jim’s plight, Huck witnesses a family split up by a slave auction. People in the book are upset by it too, and their inaction speaks volumes.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been one of the most banned books in our nation’s history. From complaints about its use of foul language and stereotypes, to just being a flat-out bad influence, this book has never escaped controversy. For me, whenever I pick up Mark Twain’s masterpiece, my first question is always who exactly did Twain picture as his audience. Sometimes it feels like a children’s adventure, and sometimes a bleak tale for adults. Yes, Huck may dress up like a little girl and get in comic misadventures, but this is also a novel with slavery, beatings, child abuse, alcoholism and murder. Huck’s America is not a friendly one.
If you look at the novel as merely a contemporary tale for Twain’s time period, it is masterful how he handles Jim for that reader. Twain begins by hitting all of the stereotypes Americans would have expected, then he builds on the character until he emerges as a hero, sacrificing his freedom to carry an injured white boy to safety. It is a subtle and brilliant statement against racism and for equality.
With events like the recent racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Mark Twain’s home state, it is obvious that we still need “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Our reflection in the mirror is still dirty, and equality in America still has a long way to go. Luckily, this important book will always be there to help ground us. After all these years, it still encourages us to be strong, like Huck, and to tear up the paper and proclaim against our wrongheaded beliefs:
“All right, then I’ll go to hell.”
Scott Southard is the author of the novel “A Jane Austen Daydream” which was just released as an audiobook. It can be found on Amazon, iTunes, and Audible.com. Scott can also be found online at his website "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at SDSouthard.com.