Where should I start? Adventure story. Coming of age story. Hilarious satire. Cruel slapstick. Failed exploration of the South’s racist culture. Successful representation of Southern dialects. Great American novel. Insult to descendants of enslaved Africans.
Really, you can say almost anything about Twain’s novel, and most people have. Banned within a year of its publication (by the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library), it’s been on many lists of challenged, censored, or banned books since then, mostly due to Twain’s use of “coarse language” (i.e., racial epithets). Twenty years ago, Jane Smiley pitted Twain’s novel against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Twain lost (see her article here). Smiley’s argument focuses on Twain’s treatment of Jim, an escaped slave traveling downriver with Huck.
Huck, a child of the south, wrestles through much of his journey with the issue of stealing someone else’s property — in this case, Jim. Huck needs time with Jim to begin to see the man as a man, as someone who gets hungry and frightened, who shows courage, loyalty, and kindness, and who misses his wife and children just like a white man. Eventually, and to the reader’s relief, Huck decides his friendship with Jim is more important than following any property laws, and he decides to help Jim escape, even if it means going to hell.
This much Smiley supports. What she objects to is what happens to Jim in the latter part of the novel, when Tom Sawyer shows up and takes over the rescue of Jim, being held until his owners can claim him. And I have to admit to feeling exasperated with Tom’s shenanigans at the end of the novel, which not only prolong Jim’s captivity, but add discomfort and even danger to his situation. Most readers, in fact, feel that the Tom Sawyer section diminishes the book’s impact.
What’s valuable in it, beyond the humor, is Huck and Jim’s idyll on the Mississippi: days and nights of floating quietly along, with time to appreciate sky and land and water, almost as though they were the sole audience of a glorious spectacle. And all this time, Huck is learning something that surprises him when he wakes up to it: that Jim’s freedom and happiness are invaluable.