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Reading Race in Huck Finn

Written by By Christine A. Wooley, Assistant Professor of English

Illustrations by Edward W. Kemble

Early editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were illustrated with drawings by then-unknown artist Edward W. Kemble. Twain is said to have complained the original Huck was not handsome enough; others criticize the original Jim for its stereotypical African-American characteristics.

 

What’s the key to thinking about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and race? The novel offers numerous starting points for those readers interested in such issues, but I would make a case for Twain’s satirical portrait of 19th-century reformers presented early in the novel, when Huck's father Pap − poor, powerless, and violently greedy for Huck’s money − makes his first appearance. Twain describes how the “new judge,” who has jailed Pap for public drunkenness (but neglected to assign Huck a more suitable legal guardian because he believes “families” shouldn’t be separated), decides to “make a man” of Pap. He takes Pap home, gives him clean clothes, multiple meals, and a lecture on temperance. Pap cries, declaring that he is a changed man. In response to these signs of a successful reformation, Huck describes how [t]he judge said he could hug him for them words; so he cried, and his wife she cried again; pap said he’d been a man that had always been misunderstood before, and the judge said he believed it. The old man said that what a man wanted that was down, was sympathy; and the judge said it was so; so they cried again.

Despite the tears of all involved, however, Pap’s conversion fails in less than 12 hours: he gets drunk, breaks his arm in two places, and nearly freezes to death.

It doesn’t take much digging to see that the judge and his wife have been too quick to sympathize with Pap. Primed by popular fiction of the 19th century in which sympathy transforms the recalcitrant sinner, they are all too willing to believe that Pap is a changed man. Twain’s aim here is to point out how such sentimental stories set their readers up for real-life disappointment. Intractable villains like Pap are unlikely to change, no matter how good a story it would make, and upstanding citizens like the judge are foolish to let their sympathy jump ahead of their reason.

last chapterAdventures of Huckleberry Finn is consistent on this point: from characters like Emmeline Grangerford, whose poetry and pictures reduce death to trite iambic tetrameter and creepy portraits, to the King and the Duke, who try to con the Wilks sisters out of their inheritance, any time feelings are being formed through dramatic events and overblown rhetoric ripped from the pages of popular sentimental narratives, reader beware.

Nonetheless, the novel frequently − though not exclusively − presents Huck’s sympathetic feeling as the surest sign of his status as an ethical person. And while we see this sign in Huck’s reaction to the shootout between the feuding Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, and in his decision to help Mary Ann Wilks outsmart the King and the Duke, nowhere is the presence of Huck’s sympathy more transformative than in his relationship with Jim, the slave who shares Huck’s journey down the river. It’s part of how Huck comes to see Jim as a friend to whom he has a moral obligation and an emotional connection. Sympathy helps Huck see Jim as human.

This distinction between Huck’s sympathy for Jim and those other moments in the novel that activate Huck’s better feelings is significant, for the relationship between race and sympathy has a complex history in 19th-century U.S. literature. In the antebellum era, slave narratives − and famously, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin − linked white readers’ sympathy for slaves to an abolitionist movement built on the work of individuals whose private feelings would guide them to the right public choices. Twain, however, is writing about the antebellum era after the failure of Reconstruction. He indicates early on, when the judge’s tears fail to ratify Pap’s transformation, that the impact of feelings is more likely to be fleeting and unfinished than revolutionary.

Why, then, present Huck as a uniquely sensitive young boy, whose sympathy for Jim helps fuel his famous declaration that he’ll “go to hell” and aid Jim’s escape? Furthermore, why problematize the effectiveness of this sympathy in the confounding final chapters of the novel, in which Jim is held captive on the Phelps farm while Huck colludes (albeit reluctantly) with Tom Sawyer’s elaborate, unnecessary, and ultimately dangerous plan for Jim’s escape?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that this episode returns Huck to what he might call “sivilization.” Here on the Phelps farm, Huck inhabits a place governed by middle-class norms embodied by Tom, and reflected in Tom’s willingness to see Jim as stock character from a familiar story. Accordingly, Tom’s treatment of Jim puts us right back in the world of the judge, for whom feelings and events are meant to follow certain well-trod paths. Whatever Huck feels for Jim, the astute reader realizes, it’s not enough to disrupt Tom’s adventure-story fantasies.

And yet, Huck certainly isn’t Tom.

Twain’s point here seems to rely on the reader’s recognition of Huck’s predicament. Huck’s connection to Jim − his recognition of Jim’s kindness and their shared past − isn’t like that of the antebellum abolitionist’s feelings for the slave, or the judge’s sympathy for Pap. It’s both more and less than that. Huck’s feelings are the product of his lived experience with Jim, but they are also subject to his lived experience in which Tom’s class status outranks Huck’s and Huck himself has seen first-hand that those without power (like Jim, like himself) do best by biding their time with those who are powerful. Twain’s novel thus equips the reader to see both the difficulty − and the necessity − of forging meaningful connections across the racial divide between black and white. When it’s easy to sympathize, as it is for the judge, it isn’t really worth the effort. And when Huck − young, poor-white, and alone − falters, we would do well to remember why, and learn from his predicament. In this sense, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn complicates the reader’s sympathy for Huck, and in so doing, it models the kind of sympathy that might enable white readers to think about race in more productive ways.