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Racial Relations Discourse in Mark Twain’s Novels Essay Sample

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Racial Relations Discourse in Mark Twain’s Novels Essay Sample

For a few centuries the issues of race and racism have been highly debatable in the United States. Racial outlooks, racial realities, interracial relations and racial images have been and still remain to be among public concerns (Boeckmann 11). Recently the notion of ‘political correctness’ is in everyday use by journalists, politicians and many other public persons who form public opinion. Affirmative action has been widely implemented all over the nation, and its results are taken by various observers not unambiguously – some appreciate it and another call it the representation of double standard although it is aimed to eliminate hypocrisy (Smith 151).

This evidently shows that the issue of race and racism elimination are still of top priority for people notwithstanding the fact that antiracist government efforts and media campaigns have several centuries’ history behind.  So it comes as no surprise that racial representations in literary heritage of an American idol Mark Twain are one of the most controversial issues in criticism of his works (Smith 154). Although the readers adore him for his light-hearted laughter, for brilliance of his sarcasm, for his absolute freedom from all prejudices and any dogmas, as well as for his ability to be always new and diverse, when it comes to discussing manifestations of racism in some Twain’s works the audience’s views split up.

Thus, a novel ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ first published in 1885 is still a highly controversial piece of literature (Leonard & Tenney 2). Among other works embodying racial issues are ‘The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’. While most adult and child readers express a positive attitude to Twain’s depiction of racial relations in his novels, many critics accuse his works of pervasive use of the word ‘nigger’, rude humour and representation of black characters as superstitious, childish and ignorant (Leonard & Tenney 1).

Throughout all his conscious life in many of his works Mark Twain had been exploring his nation cultural categories and merits and tried to find an answer to what is social equality and justice, especially when it comes to racial relations. It is difficult to ascertain he had been doing that with some system approach or intentionally or that he was always successful in resolving moral dilemmas embodied in these categories, but most scholars admit Twain managed to go beyond conventional accusation of any race in troubles of another one and to remain diverse and far-sighted even being the product of upbringing in slave-holding environment and not exempted from racial prejudices (Fishkin ‘Challenge of Teaching’ 192).

The purpose of this study is to inquire into a question whether Mark Twain’s novels are undermining or upholding traditional racist attitudes of his time. Toward this end we will scrutinize his novels embodying racial issues, consider portrayals of black and white personages in them, analyse arguments pro and contra provided by Twain’s literature critics, and make a conclusion.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Undoubtedly it is ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ that gained most attention among Twain’s novels with regard to racial topic (Camfield 4). Although it addresses many moral issues such as ‘good taste, proper decorum, literary merit, societal values, and
philosophical soundness’ (Fishkin ‘Challenge of Teaching’ 186), recently there are racial representations in this novel that became the most controversial topic in scholarly discussions on it.

Attitudes to this novel had been rather ambiguous. Ernest Hemingway told that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’” (cited in Rampersad 216). When it was published in the US for the first time in 1885 it was banned from a lot of public libraries, especially in the Southern states. Their government executives considered it could not be in free access for audience as they were afraid of vast criticism on the dissimulation of slavery (Fishkin ‘Was Huck Black” 2).

Controversy regarding racial representations in this novel still persists at present. Contemporary critics consider it to be racist pointing out that it contains numerous usages of the word ‘nigger’, besides they warn that reading depictions of African American slavery in would be the hurting experience for black children of our days  (Wallace 17). Although considering application of the word ‘nigger’ one should take into account that in time when Mark Twain wrote this novel this word did not hold such substantial xenophobic implication as it has nowadays (Fishkin ‘Challenge of Teaching’ 185).

It was painful post-war time and it has to be addressed while analysing ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Undeniably Twain was a child of his own time which was hard period for black Americans who experienced racial abuse and intolerance, and the burden of that time weighed on him like on other whites (Leonard & Tenney 1). At the same time realistic style and down-to-earth language which is characteristic for all his works seem to be good evidence Twain in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ was merely extrapolating a hard-nosed depiction of Southern social order (Rampersad 219).

As scholars emphasize Twain’s critics miss the fact that black characters are seen through the eyes of a young white boy who is too naive and unaware to understand deeply wrongs and rights in his environment (Fishkin ‘Was Huck Black” 7). Thus, opponents mix the narrator’s view with the same of the author. Although obviously in his childhood Twain slavery recognized slavery as self-evident social order, he wrote this novel being an adult whose consciousness and outlook changed. So actually the author’s view was different from the same of the narrator (Camfield 12). The well-known fact that Twain covered all the expenses for study of one of the first black law students at Yale University (Fishkin ‘Was Huck Black” 3) is a convincing argument for that.

Irony, racial relations and history oversensitively have been interweaving earlier and continue to interweave nowadays, and they all appear jointly in Twain’s novel (Rampersad 218). As racial discrimination and xenophobia are widespread in our civilization, significance of a novel like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ raising the trouble to the surface is that through irony it attacks racism and dissects social wounds to be healed. More than a century after edition of the book those wounds still hurt, so it has not lost its topicality yet.

Among other accusations gained by ‘Huckleberry Finn’ was depiction of one of the main characters – Jim, runaway black slave of Miss Watson – as ignorant, dull-witted and superstitious person. But an attentive reader easily recognizes progress in Huck’s attitude to Jim in the course of the novel. While during their first meetings Huck treats him like any other African American in his environment finally the boy admits Jim’s human power and dignity: ‘I knowed he was white inside’ (Twain ‘Huckleberry Finn’ 366).

Despite of obvious positiveness of this passage also it testifies Huck’s bigotry to racial stereotype that only white people are worthy of respect which prove again Twain’s antiracist consciousness in depicting reality. Here Twain illuminates internal struggle of Huck who despite of own intentions feel increasing esteem for Jim’s compassion, astuteness, and decency usually ascribed to whites only. An episode when Huck resolved
that tough ethical and emotional struggle with the shocking expression: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ (Twain ‘Huckleberry Finn’ 285) that means he considers his noble deed deserving damnation but despite of that supports Jim’s striving for freedom. Huck’s appreciation of Jim and feeling of fidelity to him appear to be abnormal to Huck demonstrating that Twain managed to show that although racial stereotypes are alive in Huck he is able to recognize the natural virtues are inherent in any race (Leonard & Tenney 3).

White characters in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ are used by Twain to depict vicious treatment of African American in the society as well. Pap Finn, drunk and muddy man, is outraged with possibility for black professor from Ohio to vote:

They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. […] They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote, myself, if I warn’t too drunk to get there, but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I say I’ll never vote again. (Twain ‘Huckleberry Finn’ 37)

This passage demonstrates that Twain just clearly and with chill irony describes immoral social order around him. This enables a reader to reflect on injustice and inequality widespread in the society where a full-fledged alcoholic regards himself to be a human of higher sort than intelligent and erudite person who could be refused to exercise his suffrage only because of color of his skin. Pap Finn with its ugly appearance and defective state of mind is clear example of how brilliant is Twain in depicting viciousness of dissolute thinking and how racial stereotypes can induce in whites aggression to blacks whose achievements are much greater than their own ones  (Leonard & Tenney 7).

The whites consider it possible to lock Jim up even after having recognized his behavior in case of giving up his freedom to help Tom Sawyer who was wounded to be worthy of  reward (Twain ‘Huckleberry Finn’ 379). Such behaviour is characteristic for the society having double standards for whites and blacks, and it is obvious that if Twain would be racist he would rather conceal such reality than emphasize it. The author knew that even such great sacrifice as own freedom – the only treasure black people have – could make whites to change their treatment of blacks.

Taking into account that freedom was declared as a corner stone of American democracy in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Twain emphasizes the highest irony of our nation persisting to refute freedom for millions of its citizens. Thus his tough satire and humour is aimed at inducing the society to revise social order they live under and to try to alter it (Camfield 16). He made people to laugh at their own narrow-mindedness, rudeness, egotism or ignorance in the sphere of racial relations, and such laughing is fairly considered to be the very first step to a person’s outlook alteration. That seems to be the most powerful argument against Twain’s opponents accusing them in promoting racism in ‘Huckleberry Finn’. 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

While ‘Huckleberry Finn’ has been accused with numerous usage of the word ‘nigger’ and black characters’ depiction, in ‘Tom Sawyer’ this word was applied just a few times: twice in conversations of Tom and Huckleberry (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’ 259) and once by Injun Joe who said he was regarded ‘like a nigger’ (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’ 268) when being punished with horsewhips. Here Twain as narrator himself applies the word ‘negro’ (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’ 21) or ‘colored’ (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’18) instead of ‘nigger’. Although Tom’s native town St Petersburg was a slave-owning one, racial representations serve only as a background in the plot.

This book was published first time in 1876 (Sloane 63). It depicts how Tom and his friend Huck Finn are seeking romantic adventures and freedom beyond the limits imposed by a bourgeois provincial town, boring religious Sunday schools and tedious admonitions of school teachers. Here Twain with characteristic for him keenness of observation and lambent humour depicts morals and manners of American province (Camfield 88). Although all local kids were banned to communicate with Huck as he ‘was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society’, ‘[…] [Tom] played with him every time he got a chance’ (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’72).

Both boys are depicted by Twain very positively, but they are not exempted from racial stereotypes of their environment and accepted it as self-evident state of things treating people of other race as inferior to them. When this book had been writing slavery in the US have been already abolished, but oppression of African Americans and racial inequality were in full flavor. Thus in ‘Tom Sawyer’ which is considered to be a predecessor to ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Twain considers the issue of racial relations as well.

In ‘Tom Sawyer’ the reader sees racial discrimination with regard to Injun Joe. He is being abused and maltreated like African Americans in ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Twain here describes the same whites’ attitude to racial minorities as in case with black characters. Joe is drunken too much and ignorant like Jim in ‘Huckleberry Finn’, he is regarded with whites as a devious, deceitful savage experiencing difficulty in assimilating to white community which considers him to be a threat to their security (Twain ‘Tom Sawyer’ 258). Thus in this novel Twain discloses ambiguity of bourgeois white society which treat people with other color of skin as people of the second sort incapable to be respected. Twain understood that oppressed ‘colored’ people had not been given any chance to change attitude to them in white society as they were not allowed to get proper schooling in childhood, were disgraced and violated in adulthood, and had no right to participate in social life of community (Fishkin ‘Was Huck Black’ 13). Depicting that in his novels with irony and in a tough satiric manner Twain hardly can be considered racist as he does not justifies slavery, but reveals its false nature.

Above discussed clearly demonstrates that despite of numerous accusations by critics in racism Twain’s novels ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in fact undermines racial stereotypes and reveal all vicious nature of racial discrimination, its bigotry and promotes inadmissibility of such social order for the country which declared freedom and equality as its main values.

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

One more Twain’s novel ‘The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson’ published for the first time in 1894 thematically stands aside of two above mentioned works. The difference is that ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ goes further than traditional racial contraposition; it explores the issue of importance of nature versus nurture for development of human personality (Smith 152). This novel gained more attention only in mid fiftieths of last century when the issue of racial representation became widely discussed in literary criticism (Elliott 107).

Like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ this novel has gained a diverse reaction from both wider public and scholars. Although it was appreciated by African American scholars (Sloane 145), its critics argue that Twain express racist views as here he depicts that even if a person born as African American is placed under circumstances which are favorable for development of rich personality and getting good education black genes do not allow to apply those circumstances for his welfare (Boeckmann 10). Twain’s personage Tom Driscoll had grown up a poor-spirited, wretched and mediocre man although he got upbringing as a white. Twain’s opponents use that to argue that here the author implement an idea that whatever conditions can be created for blacks they would stay ignorant and miserable anyway (Sloane 151).

Unquestionably slavery topic is one of the main underlying themes in ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’, but significance of this novel is also in exploring the issues of choice as well as nature versus nurture. Scholars emphasize it combines several genres in one: ‘plantation romance’, ‘tragic octoroon novel’ and ‘detective fiction’ (Boeckmann 7) which enable the author to realize his idea of depicting interrelation between body and mentality of a person.

Detective plot of the novel narrates the story of Roxana who ‘was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro’ (Twain ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ 34). She switched newly born babies in the cradles to save her son Tom Driscoll from slavery. Eventually this affair which was morally very difficult to execute for Roxy being a religious woman proved to be a failure as after detection Tom’s black origin he had been without any delay put up for sale for debts (Twain ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ 303). Depicting Roxana the author expresses much sympathy to her – she is beautiful, well-mannered and kind-hearted woman (Twain ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ 33). In this personage Twain brings up the issue of self-identity of a person who has mixed-racial origin – being white if judging by appearance Roxana is a slave due to minor part of black blood in her (Elliott 111).

Ambiguity of this issue has been remained unresolved in ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’, but this novel implies tough critics of slavery which deprive people of right to self-determination. Although slave-holding world is described here not in all its ugliness like in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Twain shows that even subdued forms of slavery are inhuman and disfigure moral norms of any civilized society (Elliott 108). Thus, importance of this novel lies in exposing racial prejudices to audience’s consideration and inducing it to reflecting on imperfection of human social order and human nature.

Conclusion

As this study evidently demonstrates Mark Twain with characteristic to him irony and lambent humour depicts reality in such a way that audience through laugh has to think over the deepest moral issues of equality and justice of our society. For more than a century so far his famous novels ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson’ were widely discussed and interpreted, especially with regard to highly controversial issues of racial representations and racial relations embodied in them.

Scholars crossed their pens on the subject whether these works were supporting or undermining and accusing racism. Twain’s opponents blamed him for multiple use of the word ‘nigger’ in his works, for depicting black characters as stupid, dull-witted and ignorant persons which would be incapable of developing into well-manned and worthy of respect person even being given chances to do so. Those critics miss wider historical context of Twain works and the fact of prevailing irony in his entire literature heritage. Undoubtedly Twain was a child of his time and environment so he was subjected to racial stereotyping like majority of his American contemporaries, but adult Mark Twain managed to illuminate through the eyes of young boys his own mature disposition to slave-owning world surrounding him. Racial representations discussed above testify his consciousness was rather anti-racist. The fact that his novels were appreciated by numerous African American scholars proves this.

Besides, like in the past at present Twain’s novels continue to serve all over the world as brilliant pieces of classic literature revealing malignance of slavery and inducing people to make efforts to diminish racial discrimination still existing in our society. Proving that Hemingway’s words about ‘Huckleberry Finn’ cited early in this study are true Twain have been exerting a major impact on fiction writers in all corners of the world. It is hardly to believe that so many people and literature peers could glorify a racist novelist. While being subject to the toughest accusations of racism ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is still the most read and the most taught masterpiece in American literature. Tom Sawyer is among the most favourite personages in world children’s literature.

Obviously Twain used his humorous characters to deliver to the readers a deep malignancy and brutality of slavery. Besides, significance of his novels is in clear illustration that racial discrimination cannot be eliminated only by means of granting freedoms and rights for abused races as racial identity or self-determination is the problem nesting in consciousness which cannot be altered with appropriate legislation. Thus going so deep in depicting ugliness and ambiguity of racial discrimination Twain can unlikely been considered as racist writer. This study proves his novels not only undermine racist views but also inspire people to struggle against this shameful phenomenon still alive in our society.

Works Cited

Boeckmann, Cathy. A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Camfield, Gregg. Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Elliott, Edward. “Race and Money in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Nor Shall Diamond Die: Essays in Honor of Javier Coy. Eds. Carmen Manuel and Paul Scott Derrik. Valencia: University of Valencia, 2003. 105-118.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “The Challenge of Teaching Huckleberry Finn.” Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom. Ed. James S. Leonard.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 182-199.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Leonard, James S., and Thomas A. Tenney. “Introduction: The Controversy over Huckleberry Finn.” Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Eds. James S. Leonard, Thomas Tenney and Thadious M. Davis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992. 1-15.

Rampersad, Arnold. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Afro-American Literature.”  Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Eds. James S. Leonard, Thomas Tenney and Thadious M. Davis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992. 216-227.

Sloane, David E. E. Student Companion to Mark Twain. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Smith, David L. “Humor, Sentimentality, and Mark Twain’s Black Characters.” Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Eds. Laura E. Skandera Trombley and Michael J. Kiskis. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 151-168.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Foreword and notes by John C. Gerber.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

Twain, Mark. “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson”. 2008. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. October 22, 2008 <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Twa2Pud.html>.

Wallace, John H. “The Case Against Huck Finn.” Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Eds. James S. Leonard, Thomas Tenney and Thadious M. Davis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992. 16-24.

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