Slavery and American Society

Although Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the late nineteenth century, he set his novel decades earlier when slavery was still legal, making his book an extended exploration of the morality of one person owning another human being. Slavery in the American South was a brutal institution involving the physical and psychological domination of black people who had been forcefully uprooted and transported—mainly from Africa—to serve as laborers on American cotton and tobacco plantations. By 1804 all Northern states had abolished slavery within their borders, but the free labor that slaves were forced to perform still constituted the major force behind the American economy. As long as the country as a whole condoned and benefitted from the practice of slavery, no black American could consider himself truly free, which is why Jim’s emancipation at the end of the book is bittersweet, rather than fully triumphant. His wife and children are still slaves, as are all the other enslaved characters in the story.

Although economically slavery advanced the whole nation, politically it proved divisive, and led the country to its greatest internal rift, the Civil War. Despite the North’s economic dependence on Southern agriculture, Northerners found slavery morally indefensible, and sought to abolish the institution in all states. Southern states resented the attempt of the federal government to restrict state sovereignty, which in 1791 had been enshrined in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. The issue of slavery brought the issue of states’ autonomy into sharp focus. Southern states banded together, formed the Confederacy, and seceded from the North, known as the Union. The Civil War ended with the collapse of the Confederacy and the liberation of four million slaves, but equality was still an elusive goal, as the South soon established a form of racist segregation known as Jim Crow. As Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the thirtieth anniversary of the Civil War’s end, readers would know that the years ahead for Huck and Jim would be far from easy, and Jim would continue to suffer racism, prejudice, and lack of opportunity.

By setting his novel in the antebellum, or “prewar,” South, Twain fully explores the tensions between North and South, and the mindsets that enabled slavery to endure. At the beginning of the book, Huck buys into many popular Southern sentiments about race, and is surprised to discover Jim has the same human emotions as he does: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” Despite sympathizing with Jim, he still believes that helping him escape is morally wrong. He ultimately decides not to betray Jim, but he remains conflicted because he doesn’t want to be seen as a “low down Abolitionist.” At the time the book is set, many Southerners argued that slavery was the natural lot of black people. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, wrote that the Confederate government was founded on the idea that black people were inherently unequal to whites, and that slavery was therefore a natural state of being.

Huckleberry Finn’s realistic depiction of Southern slavery is in part due to Twain’s own relationship with slavery and the ways it had been previously portrayed. Twain grew up in Missouri in the period before the Civil War. Missouri never became part of the Confederacy, but slavery was legal in the state. Twain’s parents owned slaves, but his wife’s family was staunchly abolitionist. Through the influence of his wife’s family as well as numerous African Americans who he met during his life, Twain developed into a humanitarian and vocal champion of African American rights. He also grappled with previous novelistic depictions of slavery, which tended to romanticize the institution. One example of this kind of unrealistic portrayal is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin , which depicts slavery in a nostalgic manner and includes characters who prefer slavery to freedom. The complex representation of slavery in Huckleberry Finn can be understood as Twain’s attempt not merely to comprehend an institution that had officially ended three decades prior, but to recognize slavery’s continuing legacy in American society and politics and to imagine literature’s role in addressing this legacy.

Read more about the context of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin. 

Huckleberry Finn and the N-word

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains over two hundred instances of the n-word, which has caused many readers to question whether the book is appropriate for high school reading lists. Many readers find the ubiquitous presence of the word needlessly offensive to African Americans. As Langston Hughes wrote, the word “sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.” Throughout the 1990s, parents and concerned readers frequently attempted to ban the book from public libraries and school curricula, and its presence on reading lists continues to be challenged on a regular basis today. In 2011, a publisher released a version of Huck Finn with the n-word replace by the term “slave,” but the book remains problematic. Defenders of the novel maintain that Twain had artistic intentions for using the word so often. Literary scholar David Sloane argues that the frequency of the n-word throughout the novel reveals Twain’s desire “to show racism as so integral and pervasive as to be inescapable,” and thus to shame his readers into repulsion. Despite arguments emphasizing the literary effects of Twain’s use of the n-word, there remains a lack of consensus in the United States regarding how—and indeed whether—to teach Huckleberry Finn.

The n-word first appeared in English in the seventeenth century, when it functioned as a neutral descriptor whose meaning derived from the Latin word for “black”: niger. Even then, the n-word was only relatively neutral, since it appeared in the context of slavery and the slave trade, which involved race-based political imbalances. By the early nineteenth century, the word had become synonymous with slavery in the United States, and was often used to distinguish a black slave from a white person with the same first name. This close association with slavery, coupled with racial bias among whites, endowed the term with derogatory power. By the mid-nineteenth century, the n-word was recognized as an epithet against black people. In 1837 the minister and abolitionist Hosea Easton wrote that the word “is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.” Far from merely describing skin color, the n-word served to dehumanize black people and therefore to justify and extend the institution of slavery in the United States.

When Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in the late nineteenth century, he knew full well the power of the word. So why did he use it repeatedly – some would argue excessively – in the novel? By comparison, his previous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , contains nine instances of the word. One way to answer that question is to ask who is using the word: is it Twain himself, or his character, Huck? Twain himself uses the word “negro” in the Explanatory to describe a type of dialect. But the rest of the book is told through the voice of Huck – a voice, Twain writes, he “painstakingly” ensured was socially, historically, and regionally accurate. Other terms for a black person existed when Twain wrote the book – “African” and “slave” in addition to negro – but Huck is raised by a deeply racist father and equally racist caretaker, both of whom use the n-word exclusively. Considering Huck’s social milieu and lack of education, it is unlikely he would have been familiar with the writing of abolitionists like Easton, or even known the n-word was pejorative.

Twain wrote that his goal for Huck Finn, in part, was to show “that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.” By showing that Huck grew up surrounded by the n-word, and uses it himself unthinkingly, Twain conveys how natural, and even morally correct, racism would have seemed to characters like Huck. Twain knew the pervasiveness of racism firsthand, as he grew up in a slave-owning family, and held racist beliefs as a young man. His views slowly changed over the years, thanks in part to his wife, whose family were abolitionists. By the end of the nineteenth century, Twain was writing essays about the corrosive, dehumanizing effect of slavery on slaves and slave-owners alike. To many critics, Huck Finn is an equally impassioned indictment of the institution of slavery. To other readers, the novel’s repetition of the n-word make it a flawed, alienating artifact of a different time. However, rather than dropping the book from their curricula, many teachers use the book to explore the history and use of the n-word, suggesting the book has a continued place of importance in American education.