My reaction when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time was similar to how Jane Smiley, in “Say It Ain’s So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece’,” and Toni Morrison, in “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” describes their reactions. Smiley said she was “stunned” (355) at Twain’s handling of literary elements and failure upon the topic of race, while Morrison felt “deeply disturb[ed]” and a “muffled rage, as though appreciation of the work required my complicity in and sanction of something shaming” (385). Both begin with the same reaction to the novel, but they conclude on completely different views.
More so a commentary of T.S. Eliot’s critique on Huckleberry Finn and its canonization, Smiley argues Twain’s so-called “masterpiece” is, in fact, not a masterpiece at all, because of its sardonic, downplaying and non-serious treatment of the issue of racism. A major point in her argument is that Huck, she assumes as the voice of Twain, as does Eliot, never takes Jim’s dignity as a human being and wish for freedom seriously enough, ultimately degrading Jim as only a sidekick character: “Jim is never autonomous, never has a vote always finds his purpose subordinate to Huck’s, and, like every good sidekick, he never minds” (357). She correctly complains that there are much richer and better literature that children should be reading if reading about racial equality and slavery in America, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that to consider Huck Finn as one of the greats in the American canon, and not Stowe’s work, tells something very deeply disturbing about American culture.
Morrison, however, would disagree with Smiley. Thought she begins with the same reaction as Smiley, Morrison argues that this story has much value in it, not necessarily in what it says, but in what it doesn’t say. Indeed, in many scenes, silence seems to fill the air around the action, and, in almost all the scenes, there seems to be unspoken words that create bonds between the characters. For example, Morrison points out that Huck never lets his true feeling known to anyone but the reader, and, when he “humbl[ed] himself” in apology to Jim after playing a (not that funny) joke, Huck was not only apologizing to a former slave who is looking after him, but a father-like figure whom Huck has grown to care for. To Morrison, the story is more an outcast child who comes to learn what it means to care for and be cared by someone else, through the love and humanity of Jim.
Though I agree with Smiley that Huck Finn is not “great” on the topic of racial equality and indictment of American slavery, there is still some worth to it. Morrison does well in reminding readers of the time during which Twain wrote this novel, when the South was in great moral dilemma and embarrassed about losing the war. With this in mind, Twain’s audience would have been southerners who would most likely scorn anything like Stowe’s novel, and the fact that a white child and black former slave grow to care about each other is almost revolutionary for a writer from the American south at that time. As with anything else in life, this novel has its ups and downs. But, as Twain warned us, “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot” (4).