Black, White, and "Huckleberry Finn": Re-imagining the American Dream. (Book Reviews).
"Is Huck Finn a racist? If he is, is it right that his story is read as required reading in the classroom?" The debate about this question has persisted among scholars and educators for decades. While early scholars of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn focused on a defiant boy, Huck, and its message of freedom, the critics of the second half of twentieth century turned their concerns to the novel's status of required reading in many classrooms, especially in relation to its treatment of race. Elaine and Harry Mensh join in this debate in their Black, White, and "Huckleberry Finn": Re-imagining the American Dream.
As the Menshes indicate, critics and teachers claimed required reading of the novel in the nation's classrooms in the 1950s; they thought of Huck Finn as America's boy, Jim as a kindly, loyal, and noble character, and the relation of Huck and Jim as the ideal reconciliation between black and white. However, these efforts to canonize the novel, the authors point out, were made during segregation when African-American's opinions were not solicited. Integrated classrooms in the late twentieth century brought about different views of the novel. African-American students and their parents condemned the novel for its "racial slurs," including its frequent use of "nigger" and African-American scholars strongly contended against Twain's and Huck's persistent racism and racist language. These responses from long-silenced black critics affected other Twain scholars in late twentieth century, such as James S. Leonard, Louis J. Budd, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, and Toni Morrison in the 1990s. They ex plore Jim's characterization, the novel's ending, and the controversy about Twain's racial attitude. After examining this history of scholarly debate on racial matters in the novel, the Menshes ask the question: "Does the novel conflict with or conform to the black, and the white, images in white minds?" (15)
What the Menshes ask throughout the book is whether Huckleberry Finn subverts or upholds "customary beliefs" regarding race. To address this question, they explore the novel's treatment of African-American's, whites, and interracial relations by revisiting significant episodes. The Menshes, particularly, focus on Jim's controversial characterization in relation to two antithetical traditions that were popular in the nineteenth century: fugitive slave narrative and minstrelsy. Slave narratives revealed the horror of slavery and demonstrated the disparity between the slaves and the stereotypes of them. On the contrary, the other dominating tradition in the nineteenth century, the blackface minstrelsy, codified the public image of blacks as "the prototypal fool" (38). In the minstrelsy rooted in whites' perspectives of the black, the slave loves the master, dreads freedom because he is incapable of self-possession, and always repents his running away. According to the Menshes, Twain's characterization of Jim is rooted in both traditions. Jim longs for freedom and never repents being a runaway like those in the slave narratives; at the same time, he reflects the minstrel-like "endman," a black comic stereotype whom the audience can laugh at and feel superior to.
However, the Menshes argue that Twain, in exposing Jim's foolishness, does not keep balance between the two traditions. Minstrelsy is found even in the raft and river scenes, which have often been identified as legendary African- American--white amity and unbounded freedom. The Menshes note that the raft is not headed toward freedom, but in the opposite direction: deeper into the slaveholding south. Jim does not even recognize that Huck controls Jim's destiny by turning the raft in the opposite direction to Jim's initial desire. Jim represents pervasively and stereotypically a silly slave for whom "most whites were preconditioned to believe no behavior too illogical" (48).
The characterization of Huck is as controversial as Jim's. The Menshes deny the notion that Huck is developed enough to overcome his racism. He is still caught by racial bias even in the end of the novel. Huck identifies Jim with such items as a watermelon, a Sunday school book, items that Jim wants. However, the authors insist that readers should not blame Huck for failing to live up to our expectations, but remember instead that he is an "America's child," a character who has the possibility to change.
Reporting the historical debate about Huckleberry Finn's place in the class, the authors reveal that the little boy Huck seems much more mature than the black adult Jim, and they examine how differently African-Americans and whites react to the recuperated racial epithet, "nigger." Those issues, the authors note, arose when integrated students began to study together in one class. Whites do not fully understand the pain of African-American students who must read the description of a silly slave and a superior white boy and hear "nigger" repeated 213 times in the novel. The Menshes conclude that, though the novel should not be required reading in class, it should not be banned from either library or school.
The Menshes argue that the controversy of African-American-white relations in this novel results from socially different understandings of the American dream. Immigrants came with a preconceived American Dream of freedom that ironically oppressed African-American's freedom who had then to re-imagine their dream of freedom in America. According to the Menshes, Twain recognizes that African-Americans had their own dreams. Jim expresses his dream, but his dream is soon subordinated to Huck's and then lost when Huck re-directs the raft deeper south. As Jim's dream is frustrated where Huck's begins, one may see in Huck and Jim the exemplar of interracial friendship while another sees a codified image of racism. The Menshes emphasize that the "intensity and longevity of these clashes are a compelling reminder that the Huckleberry Finn controversy is not only over fictional black-white relations, but also--or, rather, primarily--over real ones." (118). The Menshes's close reading and exhaustive analysis provides new understanding of Huckleberry Finn in historical context to students, teachers, and scholars.