In the world just ahead of the Civil War, slavery had become an even more horrible thing than was depicted in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Some of the worst things done to slaves were even too horrible to be mentioned in this book. One reason that it was widely believed that this book exaggerated the plight of the slaves was that slave owners went to great lengths to discredit the autobiographies of freed and escaped slaves in order to project themselves as kindly protectors of the poor negro. Slavery had become an economic necessity for the plantation systems of the south, since the invention (by negro Ely Whitney) of the cotton gin. Another reason for the expressed doubt of the validity of Twain’s depiction of slavery was the book itself. While Twain’s depiction of slavery was fairly close to accurate, his depiction of the typical slave, in Jim, was not. Twain’s depiction of Jim and his relationship with Huck was somewhat flawed in order to obey the needs of the story, and also by Twains’ interest in slave autobiographies and also in blackface minstrelsy. So, while Twain’s depiction of slavery in Huckleberry Finn is closer than many other stories, it is also somewhat flawed.
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Just before the Civil War, there was a rising protest against slavery, so there was a concerted effort on the part of plantation owners and others who defended slavery, for whatever reason, to discredit first-hand reports of the horrors of slavery and the huge gap between the depiction of the truth and the stereotypical depiction of slaves.
“The narrators wanted (and their African American readers expected them) to correct, complete, or challenge… stereotypes and the half-truths,” points out Frances Smith Foster. 4 A particularly significant gauge of the narratives’ impact is the ferocity of the counterattack from the slaveowners and their sympathizers, who denounced the narratives as inauthentic. 5 By the end of Reconstruction, the counteroffensive had virtually destroyed the slaves’ antebellum testimony. “The stilling of the black ‘voice’ assumed myriad forms, not the least distressing of which was the effective destruction of black arts and letters existing before 1865,” state Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates. Many decades were to pass before scholars could even begin to restore “the fragments of the lost records of the Afro-American mind.” 6 (Mensh, and Mensh 35)
The plight of the American slaves was actually much worse than we see in Huckleberry Finn, as Twain left out the more offensive practices, such as slave owners’ treatment of female slaves. Families were, of course, separated whenever economically desirable. Healthy and strong male slaves could command high prices, yet breeding females were also valuable. One thing which was not realistic was the idea that runaway slaves might be killed. They might if they were no longer valuable workers, but economics generally required that runaways would only be beaten.
It is likely that Mark Twain was actually inspired by the first-person narrative of slaves. He left evidence of having owned a few dozen himself. He knew from boyhood how things operated for slaves. The world of antebellum Missouri was just as Twain painted it: brutally practical. “The account with which Huck Finn has the broadest connections is the Narrative of William Wells Brown ( 1847), which was also a bestseller. “The river, the boats, the hiding by day and sneaking by night… Brown’s narrative is a definitive prototype for Mark Twain’s treatment of these issues,” (Mensh, and Mensh 37)
Before the freeing of the slaves, many had a strong economic interest in prolonging, and even expanding, slavery. After the war, this continued in an effort to save face. Mark Twain had a keen interest in these first-person narratives and had many in his library. They informed what he knew from his own experience and from information gathered from other sources. What complicated matters were that Twain also had an interest in blackface minstrelsy. Both of these showed up in his depiction of Jim. This accounts for the inconsistencies within the novel for Jim’s character.
While the slave narratives stirred white consciences, the blackface minstrels anesthetized them. “Minstrelsy not only conveyed explicit pro-slavery and anti-Abolitionist propaganda; it was, in and of itself, a defense of slavery because its main content stemmed from the myth of the benign plantation,” states Alexander Saxton. According to the myth, “Slaves loved the master. They dreaded freedom because, presumably, they were incapable of self-possession. When forced to leave the plantation they longed only to return.” 19 Minstrelsy also included fugitive slaves among those who yearned for plantation life: they ended up as “repentant runaways,” points out Robert C. Toll. 20 (Mensh, and Mensh 38)
That Mark Twain studied both authentic first-person narratives and blackface minstrelsy had a strong effect on the character of Jim within Huckleberry Finn. His inconsistent behavior can be easily attributed to these two opposing influences. One example is when Huck finds Jim on the island, and Jim reacts in the stereotypical “stupid and superstitious nigger” fashion, including the black dialog and accent. “he did not hesitate to use some of the possibly offensive material from Huckleberry Finn (material that portrayed Jim in accordance with the “darky” stereotype) in his public readings. ” (Leonard, Tenney, and Davis 3)
We can almost see Jim with huge eyes and a most comical state of fear. This comes from the minstrel characters. However, in planning his getaway, Jim is rational, even clever, in planning how it would work.
Another inconsistency is that Jim learns to trust Huck, while he distrusts fellow slaves just before he leaves. In reality, slaves only trusted other slaves, except for those who pandered to the master. Jim’s behavior moves between the two extremes of intelligence, though not schooled (it was illegal to teach a slave to read or cipher.) rational behavior to stupid “blackface minstrel” dependency. Twain just never quite got it right with Jim. Part of the time he is the slave stereotype made popular in early silent movies and the “talkies” which followed, and the other part he is clever and honorable, though pushed by self-preservation. In truth, Twain never develops Jim past two-dimensional almost stereotypes.
One impacting factor on all of this is the character of the novel itself. It is an allegory, and, as such, uses mostly two-dimensional characters as foils against which the main character, Huckleberry Finn, undergoes a rite of passage, changing from boy to man. Jim is also two-dimensional. We never see him as a fully rounded character. The only character who has three-dimensional depth is Huckleberry Finn. We see all of him as if peering inside his memory. We hear his inner monologue as he tries to sort out the values of the world and his own personal values,
Huckleberry Finn offends some because it is not militant enough. It is a complex, yet simple story of a ten-year-old boy in a slave country learning how the world works and also how he will be able to cope with his own value system. How can he reconcile slavery, something which he increasingly believes is wrong with his duty to the elders and the clergy? We hear Huck talk to himself, actually looking carefully at what he was taught and what he sees. Because Huck Finn is the important main character, few of the rest are fleshed out at all. After all, it is Huck’s story, not Jim’s.
Mark Twain was offensive with this story, but he was not offending blacks. Rather he was fooling the locals who believed in slavery. He pushed right up to the edge of reality and then used Huck Finn to push them some more. Mark Twain’s first consideration was to entertain. His wit is everywhere present in Huckleberry Finn. However, his depiction of slavery was actually mild. He always had an ax to grind and he did it with inoffensive stereotypes. Twain was simply too smart to have done these things by accident. He was poking fun at the clichés of anti-abolitionists. He used their own descriptions to show us how ridiculously shallow and self-serving these stereotypes of the faithful and dependent black who longed for the protection of his benevolent master.
Slavery was at the time of the writing of Huckleberry Finn every bit as horrid as depicted in the novel and worse. Mark Twain scaled-down the reality so as not to overpower the story. He was a moralist and his values were easy to find within his wit, but he was first a storyteller and a great one. What liberties he took, he did so for the sake of the story. He might have worked a little more on the character of Jim to resolve the inconsistencies, but he might not have seen them. More likely, he left these contradictions in order to make fun of the people who seriously tried to claim that any black might prefer slavery to freedom and forever miss the peace of plantation life. Life as a slave was harsh at that time, and Twain certainly pointed that out. Even though Huck’s learned attitudes have been criticized as being bigoted, they were true to life. Huck states the problems he has with his conscience very well and points to the inconsistencies himself as he has Huck argue with himself over right and wrong, sin and virtue.
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Leonard, James S., Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992. Questia. Web.
Lester, Julius. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism; Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 161. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Mensh, Harry, and Elaine Mensh. Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-Imagining the American Dream. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2000. Questia. Web.