Political propaganda: huckleberry finn and the abolitionist movement

“ I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices or caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.”-MARK TWAIN, Concerning the JewsHuckleberry Finn is the great American Classic, a delight for childish imagination and paradox for questioning adults. For most the novel is a masterpiece, a book that has been placed at the top of the “ reader’s choice list,” but for some, namely the inquiring minds within the literary circle, the novel has become a never-ending topic of debate, the playing board in a game of intellectual dominance. Unable to heed Twain’s warning at the beginning of the novel, and perhaps enticed by it, hoards of writers have turned the pages of Huckleberry Finn inside out, and, in some cases, added extra, in search of an underlying moral. In this essay, I will join the ranks of other writers, and spill on to the pages my moral interpretation of the disputed classic. By unearthing what critic James Phelan would call a “ covert text,” I will prove that Huckleberry Finn is a historical metaphor, representing the hypocrisy, naiveness, and duplicity of the emancipation movement and its aftermath. Since I am seeking to uncover a “ covert text” in the novel, it is imperative to understand exactly what the phrase means. In his critical essay, On the Nature and Status of Covert Texts: A Reply to Brenner’s “ Letter to De Ole True Huck,” James Phelan describes the writer’s desire to uncover “ covert texts,” or the hidden message, point, or moral code in a narrative. For Phelan, this reader-response mechanism, or attempt to uncover hidden meaning, can be interpreted in two ways: the “ subversive” or the “ inventive.” The “ subversive” path to interpretation is one of resistance, where the critic questions the “ authorially shaped meaning;” whereas, in the “ inventive” path, the critic creates additions to the text, which, in turn, alters its original meaning. In my case, I have chosen the “ subversive” path. Since its publication in 1885, many critics have taken up arms against Huckleberry Finn, questioning the novel’s credibility because of its racial implications. Kafka once wrote that if a book is the “ axe for the frozen sea within us, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not the axe; it is the frozen sea, immoral in its major premises, one of which demeans blacks and insults history” (342). While I must admit that the book certainly seems demeaning to blacks, it most certainly does not insult history. For all its bluntness, Huckleberry Finn succeeded by bringing the horror of slavery to the surface; its meaning shrouded in the form of a fanciful children’s adventure. Anyone with knowledge of Mark Twain’s political and moral opinions would know that he stood firmly against slavery, and his distrust of imperialist governments and aristocracies, as well as the meek and week-minded “ poor whites,” lead him, in later years, to question the entire human race. Mark Twain said in one of his memoirs, “ It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the agitators got but small help or countenance form any one. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universe stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society–the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion–the silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.” Mark Twain broke the silence by disguising literature written for the “ humane and intelligent people” in the form of children’s literature and fanciful fiction. Not surprisingly, the book got everyone’s attention. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain created an elaborate metaphor of the historical emancipation period: a satire of the naive abolitionists, deceiving American congress, and the imperialistic and hypocritical British. In the novel, Huck embodies the northern abolitionist movement. Like the movement in its beginning, Huck was a child, driven by ideologies and a desire for freedom. Although many will argue that Huck was, in fact, seeking freedom from civilization, Huck was seeking freedom from the tyrannical grip of his abusive father, and the ideologies that were being imposed on him. Throughout the novel, Huck questions the lessons he has learned from Christianity, School, and the fanciful imagination of his friend Tom Sawyer. The fact that he is questioning the established moral code of the time, reflects the radical thoughts of the abolitionist movement. Huck is a constant disbeliever, and is not easily fooled by those who provide information that cannot be proven. For example, at the beginning of the book, Huck is neither fooled by the assumption that his father was found floating dead in the river, or Tom’s elaborate “ robbers game,” which he said, “ Had all the marks of a Sunday School”(43). After Huck frees himself from civilization and all of its constricting ideals, Huck heads down the river on his own adventure, along with him, is the perhaps the only moral character in the novel, the slave Jim. Jim and Huck’s run for freedom down the Mississippi, into the heart of the South represents the abolitionist’s movement into the south. On their journey, Huck and Jim become separated many times; however, the incident in the fog around Cairo is the most vital. In this scene, Twain is showing the hazy areas that crept along the division of the Northern free states and the Southern Slave States. The fog is a metaphor for the shadowy ideology that occurred in the Border States where many could not decide whether they were for or against slavery. Other obstacles stood in path of Huck and Jim’s quest for freedom, the two most important of these being the Duke and the King, and the reemergence of Tom Sawyer at the end of the novel. In many of his other works and personal memoirs, including Following the Equator, Twain turns a cold shoulder to aristocracy and British Imperialism. In his biography, Twain said, “ There never was a throne which did not represent a crime.” It is not surprising then, that the two most despicable characters in the novel, the con men, hilariously called themselves Duke and King. Twain uses these characters to represent the British government. Historically, Britain was firmly against American slavery; yet, as Twain points out in Following the Equator, their actions against the natives residing in their African territories are parallel to the horrors of American slavery. Twain, speaking of British slavery, says, “ This is slavery, and is several times worse than was the American slavery which used to pain England so much.” In the novel, the Duke and King, complete phonies and hypocrites, lead Huck and Jim to believe that they are allies to their cause and even help disguise Jim as an Arab. However, only days later, the Duke turns Jim in for the reward money. Twain introduced the Duke and the King to represent the artificial loyalty of the British to the abolitionist movement. The last point I will make, and perhaps the most important, lies within the concluding chapters of the novel. It is in these chapters that Twain’s genius emerges and his points are most clearly stated. It is first vital to look at the personality of Tom, Huck’s best friend and playmate. Tom is a scammer. He is cunning, smart, and, in some ways, wicked, a boy who provides only ideology and no reality. For Twain’s historical metaphor, Tom represents congress: “…the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes” (Twain, Letter Fragment, 1981). Most would agree, by the end of the novel, that Tom encompasses these qualities. Since Tom represents congress, it is easier to believe that Huck, the abolitionist, would have to abide by the horrific rules and elaborate schemes concocted by Tom/congress. For the American government it was all a game, a personal and political scheme to amuse themselves and appease the minds of the abolitionists, who were forced to play along. In the novel, Huck presents a logical, immediate plan to rescue Jim, to which Tom replies, “ Work? Why certainly it would work, like rats a fighting. But it’s too blame simple; there ain’t nothing to it. What’s the good of a plan that ain’t no more trouble than that?” Tom’s plan, which would take weeks of pointless ritual and grandeur, is a perfect example of Twain’s idea of congress. He sums it up in a quote from his Biography, ” Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.” The ending, with the elaborate pranks and drawn out “ games” on Jim, for most critics and readers alike, was a complete let down and has become the topic of un-endless debate. The readers, who were enthralled by the bonds of friendship and equality between Jim and Huck and the prospect of Jim receiving his freedom, were appalled by the ending, where to put it bluntly, all morals and humanity were flushed down the toilet. But what is Humanity? If we were to ask how a person or movement could come so far, and seem so glorious, and so promising, and then turn around full-circle to the starting point of degradation, humility, and racism, Twain would reply, “ Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat” (Twain, Christian Science). Twain’s ending of the novel completes his historical metaphor. The emancipation movement started with voices, naive in their belief that they could change the ideologies of the time, and, for a while, humored by the British, by congress, and by Northern society. However, what Twain is so blatantly showing in the end of Huckleberry Finn is the failure of the movement and a projected look at the future of race relations in the United States. Even after the slaves were emancipated, it would be another hundred years before they would ever get any real rights. Twain was not a racist, and he certainly did not distort history. Huckleberry Finn was written as a metaphor of the failure of the American government, the naiveness of the abolitionists, and his lost faith in humanity.