Huckleberry Finn: Racism in Context
By Kelly Gayle


My research will clearly prove that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its author, Mark Twain, have been and continue to be useful tools in combating slavery and pursuing the goal of a more moral and ethical country. In order to disprove the common and erroneous belief that Samuel Clemens is truly racist and promoted it through this novel, it is important to examine his own personal childhood in Hannibal and his travels as an adult. Additional material will present a strong argument, based on references from the novel, as to how the strong language and indirect methods of the author tarnish white America and its history. My research will also add insight as to how the satiric illustrations Edward Kemble in the novel reinforce Mark Twain’s anti-slavery message.


In 1885, Samuel Clemens responded to a critical viewpoint and the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by stating the harsh and earnest reality of the novel. To the editors of the Boston Transcript and the Springfield Republican he wrote: “Huckleberry Finn is not and imaginary person. He still lives, or rather they still live: for Huckleberry Finn is two persons in one-namely the author’s two uncles, the present editors of the Boston Transcript and the Springfield Republican.” This particular quote reinforces a reoccurring theme in Mark Twain’s literature. His work and specifically this novel draw from his own life and the history of the country in which he lives.

Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, but was raised in Hannibal, in the pre-Civil War era. He watched his father send three white, would-be slave emancipators to prison and sell a slave of his own. Hannibal, during that time period, has been compared to the Cold War, where its borders were patrolled, blacks without passes were whipped and suspicious whites were interrogated. Any boats in this slave outpost, with unidentified owners were destroyed for fear of being vehicles to free soil. (Dempsey, 2001). Clemens, as a child, was a bystander to this while he spent his time with a black playmate.

As the author grew older and the Civil War had erupted, he chose a more vocal standpoint on race relations in the country. He disagreed strongly with his state’s position on slavery, leaving Missouri surrounded by free soil. The Union directed Clemens and two other steamboat captains on a mission, in which they, “snuck out of the general’s office,” and evaded his command. He and his men then joined a very ineffective and inactive unit called the Missouri State Guard, hiding in the woods throughout its existence. He was also have said to have never sworn allegiance to the Confederate Army. (Dempsey, 2001). In the midst of war, he was reported have suffered no more than a painful boil and a sore ankle. These actions or lack thereof can be interpreted into an anti-slavery, anti-war view.

When Samuel Clemens began his career of writing, he started as a newspaper reporter out West. He took it as an opportunity to polish his craft of satire and depiction of real life. Part of that real life was the ongoing oppression of the Chinese. Clemens submitted an article on the horrific treatment of the Chinese, expecting to incite empathy from the public. His editor, as well as others refused to print his article due his to unpopular compassion.

In Samuel Clemens’ later years, he and his family employed a freed, former slave, named Aunt Rachel that worked for them as a cook. Both she and her life are described in Twain’s essay, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word, as I Heard It.” Aunt Rachel is portrayed with great warmth, empathy and sorrow. It tells of her family being separated by slavery and her present day ability to demonstrate positivity and joy. Twain remarks that she lives her life as though she has not seen any pain. Mark Twain relays this story, without opinion, only accuracy of detail and dialect. It is from this autobiographical foundation that Clemens writes about the ethical and moral dilemma in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Initially, as the reader begins the novel, he or she is struck by the diction, the harsh consequences and the term, “nigger,” that is ever present. At the onset, at a superficial glance, the novel can be viewed as supporting the oppression of blacks and reinforcing the castes and conditions in America. Mark Twain presents Jim as a stereotypical slave that is easily impressed, easily frightened and a flat character. Huckleberry Finn and the rest of characters overlook the dehumanization of slaves and Jim. The terminology, although grim and offensive, becomes a powerful tool, as it is accurate to the time period in which the novel takes place. The author writes in such an understated manner, that the mere reality and historical reference to slavery has an unwanted impact and forces the reader to confront the issue. The rage, physical abuse, poverty, and ignorance does not accomplish flattering the white characters or white readers that have arisen from or take part in this oppression of another human being. The adventures in the novel defy the reader’s logic and questions how the “nice” characters in the novel can partake in such dehumanization. Logic is again questioned when Huck debates on whether or not to be condemned to hell for stealing Jim away from his rightful owner. Huck finally resigns, “to take up wickedness,” and fight for the thing they both share, a desire for freedom. The author illustrates the common thread of freedom, not controlled by age, race or economics. Huck wants the freedom from his family and academics while Jim’s freedom is on a more basic human level.

I strongly believe that this novel is not a story supportive of racism and the author shared the same feeling towards this human cruelty. If Mark Twain were in support of slavery or any human oppression, he never would have allowed the growth in the relationship of Huck and Jim to take place. Theirs is a true friendship exemplified, not derived from race. Twain began at the origin of learned hatred and ignorance and transitioned into human revelation. Huck slowly unraveled the idea that Jim was human and an exemplary one at that. The king and duke were also probably utilized as a means of comparison, underling the faithfulness of Jim.

Jim’s character was the sole moral character in a painful, yet accurate, historical context. It is true that this commentary on slavery and use of these grass roots dialects might shame black Americans. However, it is also in true Mark Twain style that he envisions the overall, ethical, central purpose and manipulates the popular stereotypes to get his point across. Jim was presented in such a way that empathy is the only result of his physical oppression, betrayals and unanimously human needs. It is evident that through the choice of subject matter, diction and the moral dilemma that the author can be seen on both sides of the argument. This instability and lack of clarity is a wonderful device that Twain employed, requiring the reader to determine on their own, what their history is about and what role they play, active or inactive.

The illustrations provided with the novel were originally done by a man, by the name of Edward Windsor Kemble. These sketches are equally appropriate to the slavery topic and time period. This novel is filled with black, stock character images and their creator, Kemble was well known for it. He authored books such as Comical Coons and Coon Alphabet. Mark Twain chose the artist because he had seen his work in Life magazine. Upon the choice, Kemble stated that he had never drawn black figures, which proved to be incorrect. (Briden, 1988). The reason behind the mistruth is unknown, but a great portion of his life’s work surrounded the satirical impression of blacks. It might be assumed that it was not a marketable skill or unaccepted in a post-Civil Wartime. The images of Jim at the end of chapters XI and XII, accentuate the popular notion of blacks being surprised, wide-eyed and afraid. At the beginning of chapter XIII, Jim is seen clinging out of fear, to Huck. This reinforces the unequal relationship between a boy and a man. At the end of chapter VII, another slave is depicted as confused and open mouthed. As you look at the collection of illustrations, it is apparent that none of the sketches demonstrate anything admirable or respectful about the slaves.

For being the sole moral character in the novel, there is not one image of Jim that hints at his strength in character. He is seen typically confused, crying, sleeping, being led out of danger by someone junior to him and set free by mere boys. He is depicted as reliant, enacting weak functions. Mark Twain skillfully chose Kemble because he mirrored the stereotypes that he wanted to reflect with his story. He soon grew impatient with Kemble’s inability to progress his images of Jim, as the relationship and view of respect progressed in the novel. After repeated, failed attempts to make more realistic and less satirical the sketches of Jim, Kemble was finally able to get away from the, “ over expression,” as stated by Twain, of his previous work. (Briden, 1988). It was discovered that Kemble used one model for all of his sketches, male, female, black and white. He used a young boy named Cort Morris. Kemble also did not always refer to the manuscript and neglected to add important detail. One such detail is the notion of Jim having excessive body hair that would someday afford him a great fortune. With the skillful choice of Kemble, he accomplished a depiction that fit the novel perfectly for a pre and post Civil War time period. It is well understood that Edward Kemble used his craft to foster racism. Readers of this novel however must be aware that the ultimate usefulness for this hatred came into play, when Mark Twain exploited his artwork to make his own message clear.

Mark Twain has successfully and cleverly translated his feelings about racism and slavery by means of speaking to the reader and viewer indirectly. His reality is far more horrifying than any work of fiction. I believe that Tom Sawyer’s final line has a strong underlying meaning. “ Turn him loose, he ain’t no slave, he’s as free any cretur that walks the earth!” This line infers that Jim has always been free and fell victim, helplessly to his own kind.

It is evident that through reading an individual piece of Mark Twain’s literature, or his lifetime collection of work, that the author’s goal was to improve race relations and the ethical and moral dilemmas in America. It is this central theme that permeates The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was inspired by the nineteenth century in which he grew up and the dehumanization of blacks he saw. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is apparent that this novel is a manifestation of his anti-slavery and anti-racism beliefs. Mark Twain has effectively used the stereotypical illustrations, his life experience and his satirical craft as a means of getting the negative view of racism across.


1. Bloom, Harold, Modern Critical Views, Mark Twain, (Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1986) 14,15, 22,124,136. This book presents Twain as a rebel and one of the pioneer, democratic writers at a time when it was unpopular to do so. It also adds insight to his childhood and adult life.

2. Budd, Louis J., The American Novel, New Essays on Huckleberry Finn, (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986) 1-3, 5, 10-13, 16. These essays address the value of Huckleberry Finn applying itself to various classes, races, literacy level and economic divisions. The book supports Clemens as rebel and political activist, whose goal is to ensure the country’s moral and ethical greatness.

3. Wixon, Douglas, Worker- Writer in America, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1994) 124, 136,341. This book focused on the radicalism in the Midwest and in Missouri specifically. The author references Clemens, as a target goal for writers and pin points his use of his childhood and political climate as fuel for his work.

4. Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Briden, Earl, Third Edition, Norton Critical Edition,(W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1999) 299, 308-318, 320-323. These letters to and from Mark Twain add insight into his purpose behind the novel and the interpretation of the illustrations. It also provides the only background information of the original artist behind the artwork.

5. Dempsey, Terrell, Why Sam Clemens was Never a Confederate, http:// This site provided information into the political climate in Hannibal, MO prior to and during the Civil War. It also presents information on why Clemens’ did not stand behind the Confederate army or beliefs.

6. Loewen, James W., Domesticating Mark Twain, Hannibal, Missouri, http://www . This presents a very negative light into the present day Hannibal, MO. It states that the town and overall area benefits from the Novel and Mark Twain, but does not recognize its slave holding history. It also presents Clemens as a anti-slavery rebel.