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Critical Controversy Race and the Ending of  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Critical Standpoints. Leo Marx, Justin Kaplan, David L. Smith, and Shelly Fisher Fishkin support Huckleberry Finn as an anti-racist text.

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critical standpoints
Critical Standpoints
  • Leo Marx, Justin Kaplan, David L. Smith, and Shelly Fisher Fishkin support Huckleberry Finn as an anti-racist text.
  • Julius Lester and Jane Smiley argue that the conclusion of the novel is evidence of Twain’s racism.
  • Toni Morrison reframes the debate entirely.
leo marx
Leo Marx
  • Marx argues that the novel is about Jim’s freedom, not Tom and Huck’s games: “Yet along with the idyllic and the epical and the funny in Huckleberry Finn . . . [this] is not a boy’s lark but a quest for freedom.”
  • Nevertheless, Marx deems the conclusion a farce that “jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel.”
shelly fisher fishkin
Shelly Fisher Fishkin
  • Fisher Fishkin agrees with Marx that the novel has a strong anti-racist sentiment but disagrees that the conclusion detracts from the novel’s ultimate goals.
  • She argues that the pranks Tom plays on Jim at the end of the novel are an allegory for Jim Crow laws: “Is what America did to the ex-slaves any less insane than what Tom Sawyer put Jim through in the novel?”
justin kaplan
Justin Kaplan
  • Twenty years after Huckleberry Finn was published, Twain himself gave this summary of the book: “A sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”
  • Kaplan contends that “Huck’s ‘deformed conscience’ is the internalized voice . . . of a conventional wisdom that found nothing wrong in the institution of slavery,” and that Huck’s rejection of this “deformed conscience” is what makes him a hero with a “sound heart.”
david l smith
David L. Smith
  • Smith argues that “‘Race’ is a strategy for relegating a segment of the population to a permanent inferior status. It functions by insisting that each ‘race’ has specific, definitive, inherent behavioral tendencies and capacities which distinguish it from other races.”
  • Contrary to what would be expected from such a social construction of race, Twain “portrays Jim as a compassionate, shrewd, thoughtful, self-sacrificing, and even wise man. . . . Jim, in short, exhibits all the qualities that ‘the Negro’ supposedly lacks.”
julius lester and jane smiley
Julius Lester and Jane Smiley
  • Lester: “It defies logic that Jim did not know Illinois was a free state. . . . A century of readers have accepted this as credible, a grim reminder of the abysmal feelings of superiority with which whites are burdened.”
  • Smiley: “Twain’s moral failure . . . is never even to account for their choice to go down the river rather than across it.”
julius lester and jane smiley8
Julius Lester and Jane Smiley
  • Smiley condemns Twain for having Jim prefer Huck’s companionship to real freedom: “Twain thinks that Huck’s affection is a good enough reward for Jim.”
  • Lester implicates not only Twain but generations of white readers for believing that Jim valued his relationship with Huck over his own freedom: “White people might want to believe such fairy tales . . . but blacks know better.”
toni morrison
Toni Morrison
  • Twain’s novel has the “ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it has excited. The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.”
  • “If the emotional environment into which Twain places his protagonist is dangerous, then the leading question the novel poses for me is, What does Huck need to live without terror, melancholy, and suicidal thoughts? The answer, of course, is Jim.”
toni morrison10
Toni Morrison
  • Twain leaves three issues unresolved in the novel:
    • “Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child
    • the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship
    • the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted.”
huck finn and uncle tom s cabin
Huck Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Kaplan: “Twain’s novel is probably more faithful as well as less stereotypical than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s beloved Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
  • Smiley: The “portrayal of an array of thoughtful, autonomous, and passionate black characters [in Uncle Tom’s Cabin] leaves Huck Finn far behind.”
  • Fisher Fishkin: “[T]he two books were written to achieve two different ends. One was written to mobilize sentiment against slavery. The other . . . to expose the dynamics of racism.”
slide12

“Huck Finn.” Lithograph of a detail of the mural in the Missouri State Capitol by Thomas Hart Benton, 1936. (The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, page xlvii)

jim and the ghost by edward winsor kemble the annotated huckleberry finn page 85
“Jim and the Ghost” by Edward Winsor Kemble (The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, page 85)
exploring the cave by edward winsor kemble norton critical edition of huck finn page 59
“Exploring the Cave” by Edward Winsor Kemble (Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn, page 59)
jim and the snake by edward winsor kemble norton critical edition of huck finn page 64
“Jim and the Snake” by Edward Winsor Kemble (Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn, page 64)