When Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, few readers seem to have paid Mark Twain's liberal use of the word "nigger" too much heed. Commentators appeared more concerned that the story was written in a low-born vernacular from a child's point of view than whether a black man got his due. Some even thought that Jim, the runaway slave character from Twain's episodic novel, was a little too likable.
Despite an immediate outpouring of praise and support from some quarters, the book also was panned from shore to shore. The New York World headlined its review: "Humor of a Very Low Order -- Wit and Literary Ability Wasted on a Pitiable Exhibition of Irreverence and Vulgarity." The San Francisco Examiner, though possibly biased since Twain had written for the Chronicle, carped that the work had "little to be said in its favor," and is "very much in character as many of the author's Pacific Coast sketches, in the utter absence of truth and being unlike anything that ever existed in the earth, above the earth, or in the waters under the earth." Descriptions such as "pernicious," "vulgar," and "trash of the variest sort" were also thrown about, much to Twain's dismay or bemusement, depending on his mood.
Reviewers generally chose the strategy of omission when it came to discussing the book's prominent black character. "Jim was ignored as a character, for the most part," Twain scholar Alan Gribben notes. "Reviewers just simply viewed it as an embarrassment that a black man was getting that much typeface. They chose to overlook it almost entirely, even though he takes up almost a third of the book."
Almost a century and a quarter later, everything and yet nothing has changed. Ironically -- and oh, how Twain loved irony -- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn's contemporary enemies are almost the exact cultural opposite of their 19th-century predecessors. Now the word "nigger" all but jumps off the pages and straight into the minutes of school board meetings. And where the book was once pioneering for its sympathetic if occasionally clichéd portrayal of a black character, modern criticism comes from N-word-averse readers or nonreaders offended at how stereotypical Jim's character seems by modern standards. Today, Huckleberry Finn is controversial not because Jim is "too likable," but because he comes across as an ignorant, superstitious Stepin Fetchit.
When Twain began writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in July of 1876, few would have guessed that it would become his most important work. His publishers wanted a light adventure story in the mold of his best-selling novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The author's initial intention was to write a companion to that work, and yet he also wanted this one to be a little different. This story would be told by an "unreliable" narrator, someone who was omniscient but in no way authoritative -- or as Huck would put it, "book-learned." Twain selected Huck, a minor character from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom he had described as "idle, lawless, and vulgar."
Huckleberry Finn does indeed begin like a sequel to Tom Sawyer, with both characters living under the roof of the Widow Douglas and getting into light-hearted scrapes. But as soon as Huck's inebriated father shows up, the book's stark realism becomes darker than anything in Tom Sawyer. Huck's "Pap" kidnaps him and takes him to Illinois, where the father's harsh beatings prompt the boy to fake his own death and escape down the Mississippi River. On his journey, Huck runs into the Widow Douglas' escaped slave Jim, and the two become companions through even more adventures. Many a college paper has since been penned about how Huck and Jim's flight downriver symbolizes freedom and man's natural state in contrast to their compromised interactions with shore life, which stands for society.
Today, Huck Finn often is hailed as the Great American Novel. Yet it is also banned from more classrooms than any other major American book. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that all American literature stems from it, while school boards in cities as enlightened as San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Modesto have challenged or removed the book.
Perhaps its best-known contemporary critic is the writer Jane Smiley, who penned a caustic critique in Harper's Magazine after an extended bed rest led her to pick up and read the novel. "I closed the cover stunned," she wrote in the January 1996 issue. "Yes, stunned. Not, by any means, by the artistry of the book but by the notion that this is the novel all American literature grows out of, that this is a great novel, that this is even a serious novel."
Few American novels have been studied as much as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's no surprise that a book so controversial and morally ambiguous would attract academic scrutiny. For years, scholars painstakingly compared Twain's original text with the final published version, doing their best to discern which passages were changed by an editor and which Twain himself wrote. But scholars only had the second half of his manuscript to work from. Speculation was that the first half had been destroyed by a printer more than a century earlier. Twain himself had said in a letter that he couldn't find the damned thing anywhere.
Then, in 1990, like a reanimated ghost from one of his stories, the missing manuscript suddenly turned up. As Twain himself might have put it, the report of its death was an exaggeration. And once the manuscript was found -- in the proverbial attic trunk, no less -- thus began the real "adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a saga in which lawyers, editors, UC Berkeley academics, and the manuscript's finder all struggled for ownership.
All of which no doubt would have caused Samuel Clemens to chuckle. After all, he once said: "Whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble."
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