[Access article in PDF]
Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-imagining the American Dream By Elaine Mensh and Harry Mensh. The University of Alabama Press, 2000 167 pp. Cloth $29.95, paper $19.95
Despite Twain's warning—"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot"—a war of words rages over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Widely taught as a Great Book, its motive, moral, and plot are painful sources of contention among black and white readers, resulting in not just a war of words but also a war about words: Can anyone rightly call a book great if it uses, virtually without irony, an offensive racial epithet 213 times? If Huck's final evaluation of Jim is, "I knowed he was white inside"? If its model of black-white friendship consists of the doting and sacrifice of the one—"you's de bes' fren' Jim's ever had"—in response to the pranks, dishonesty, and "good fun" of the other?
Huck Finn stabs at the heart of a contemporary cultural crisis pivoting on the issue of race. Its status as a Great Book belies common sense. And an indifferent, credulous response to the fanciful image of America it contains is no longer morally tenable or appropriate. So argue Elaine Mensh and Harry Mensh in Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn. Addressing readers already familiar with the contours of racial politics in Huck Finn, as well as those who may need clear reasons why African Americans would criticize it, the authors explore the novel itself and the widely divergent scholarship on the race issue to answer an overarching question: Does the novel "subvert 'customary beliefs' regarding race"? This is their primary conclusion: "If children are taught that Huck casts off his racism, the lesson, or tale, should begin 'Once upon a time, there was a boy [End Page 90] named Huck....' Hard as it may be to acknowledge enduring racism in a legendary character ... arguing otherwise is to maintain that it was possible to overcome racist beliefs while continuing to accept slavery." Thus the Menshes call for a thorough reassessment of the novel's representation of antebellum times and its depiction of slavery in America, and in taking Huck Finn to task they use records of masters, slaves, free blacks, and non-slaveholding whites.
The Menshes have several important points to make. The first is that Huck Finn is not an objective narrator, especially in matters regarding race. Though he sees much hypocrisy in his world, he is blind to that involving slavery, suggesting "how ordinary, how natural, slavery may have appeared to whites" in the slaveholding South. And as comic episodes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the opening of Huck Finn show, Huck accepts his whiteness and feels it confirmed by racial stereotypes. As he and Jim journey southward, his identity and sense of racial superiority remain intact and impede any assertion of Jim's equality, for too often in those instances "when he thinks Jim gets the better of him, his sensibilities are roiled." Jim—"an amalgam of antagonist traditions," minstrelsy, and slave narrative—is also problematic. His minstrelsy roots lead readers into accepting behaviors patently uncharacteristic of runaway slaves. So pervasive were the stereotypes of the minstrelsy tradition that, in proposing a southward journey, "Twain must have felt confident that his readers would find the reversal believable." As the novel progresses, Jim's human identity, so tenderly introduced in opening passages, disappears into minstrel abstraction and irrationality. He moves from being a father seeking freedom to being a compliant and docile slave, from "bad" to "good," from resisting to accepting white superiority.
The Menshes also correct certain persistent misreadings of Huck Finn. For example, critics have missed the extent to which Twain's portrayal of whites mirrors the real Missouri of 1835. Pap, a poor white of Irish ancestry, espouses the same racial views as "respectable...