My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Much is made, from a critical perspective, of the improbability of a young white boy from 1840s Missouri learning to respect a black man as his surrogate father. Instead of contributing to the idea that Huck’s development of conscience is unbelievable, I prefer to interpret the story in this way: Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at just the right time, the only time which it could have been written.
No doubt, it would have been difficult for a boy in Huck’s position to see humanity in his black neighbors in pre-Civil War Missouri. Huck’s father, known only as Pap, lives just as marginalized a lifestyle as Huck. He lives off the land; coming into contact with civilization on a regular basis only to buy alcohol. His alcohol dependency and traumatic past (alluded to through his night terrors), keep Pap in a state of self-hatred, one he projects onto the slaves he encounters and the black race as a whole. In this way, Pap shares his society’s norms which support slavery and white supremacy.
But Huck is not growing up to inherit his father’s views. Because there is a difference between what Huck’s conscience tells him about Jim’s humanity and Pap’s views of slavery (and black people generally), we see that marginalized class status does not determine one’s views on slavery or racial supremacy. However, Twain makes it clear through Huck’s internal struggles (those quiet moments of precocious thinking on the raft) that Huck could not have come to recognize Jim’s humanity if he had been raised “civilized.” Rather it is Huck’s marginal status in Missouri — his outsider status — that creates the space in which Huck can develop his own conscience, his own thoughts on the morality of how to relate to Jim. Huck is aware that he is reaching anti-social conclusions, but he also consistently chooses to act according to his conscience, which is developed through personal experience, not through theory or teachings (or beatings, for that matter). His morality is more phenomenological, we might say.
The reason Twain has to create this marginal space for Huck is that Huck’s struggles with conscience represent the fumbling along that social institutions (from the church to government to businesses and society circles) had to endure in the post-abolition, post-war rebirth of the country.
Writing about pre-Civil War slavery from a post-Civil War, post-abolition point of view, Mark Twain is witnessing the white US population come to terms with the humanity of people of color. The period of shame, guilt, and growth — not to mention generational confusion — that the white population of the United States is going through immediately after the abolition of slavery is not unlike a child’s adolescence. Huck coming to terms with Jim’s humanity is a narrative that the late 19th century white population of the United States can identify with because they are going through the same moral (re)development.
Twain couldn’t have set his novel in the post-abolition present because the author needs the readers to be able to reflect, to look back on a time radically removed politically even if not yet very far removed temporally. At the same time, Twain could not have written it before slavery’s abolition because there would be no societal goal of achieving a post-slavery point of view.
Precisely because Huck does not change his mind about slavery wholesale (or, put another way, because he does not become an abolitionist), Huck’s quarrel with civilization is believable. Over the course of the novel, Huck changes his view of Jim (and his own responsibility to treat him as an equal) rather than about slavery, people of color, or even black men. He notes “human beings can be awful cruel to one another” only when he sees the Duke and the King, two white characters, being tarred, feathered, and driven out of town tied to a rail. Each time Huck decides to help Jim (by not letting him be caught by the two white men chasing escaped slaves and who approach the raft until Huck lets on that the person in the wigwam is infected with a contagious disease; by setting out to “steal Jim out of slavery again,” and even by sharing his earnings and possessions with him equally [$20 gold coins apiece]), he does so only after reflecting on Jim. He considers how kind Jim is, how Jim calls Huck a friend, how Jim works more than his share of time guiding the raft so that Huck can rest. Huck does not decide to help Jim out after reflecting on the cruelty of institutional slavery. His motivation is always personal.
And this, too, is part of Twain’s insight into the collective psychology of racism and a nation trying to heal itself after the Civil War, a war fought over slavery. If Huck’s struggles between his conscience and his perceptions of his society’s norms represent the struggles of white America after the Civil War to recognize black humanity, then Twain’s observation is that it is impossible for white America to change its mind quickly about racism. Instead, Huck (white America) changes his mind about a man.