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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadtenned'etudes americames Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, pp.13-48 RaceandReading: The Burdenof HuckleberryFinn Frances W. Kaye For the great mass of admiring readers, because Huck and Jim are friends, and because Jim is finally emancipated, the novel's ambiguities are simply dissolved in an overflow of relief and warm fellow-feeling .... Huckleberry Finn continues to be our favorite story about slavery and race because it gives us no more of this reality than we can bear. (Robinson 1986, l 19) 1J Race and slavery, as almost all readers now acknowledge, are central to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the great American novel. Twain's episodic, beautiful, ambivalent, cruel, and liberating tale of the Mississippi Valley in 1840 has become the universal story of bondage and freedom and the most widely taught novel in the United States. Yet if we read the novel carefully, against the context of the time Twain was writing in as well as in the context of our own time, we must recognize, with Forrest Robinson, that "it gives us no more of this reality than we can bear," that 14 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadtenne d'etudes amencaines it enables its American readers to approach the most profoundly troubling issue in their history without risk of being overcome with the fear and guilt that attach to the subject. We return to the novel not because of what it resolves, but because it seduces us with a comedic image of resolution that we cannot quite accept, but that we permit, by a lie of silent assertion, to stand in place of much darker revelations. (Robinson 1986, 217) Twain's ambiguity and ambivalence, as well as the complexity and heartbreaking tenacity of racism at the core of America make Huckleberry Finn the classroom text of choice for talking about race, as Jonathan Arac has discussed at length in Huckleberry Finn As Idol and Target (1997). Shelley Fisher Fishkin believes that "because racism remains endemic to our society, a book like Huck Finn can explode like a hand grenade in a literature classroom accustomed to the likes of Macbeth or Great Expectations" (1997, 123). Fishkin and "the great mass of admiring readers" expect this one novel to carry a burden too heavy for its pages, to embody the whole conflict over race in America. To some extent, Huck Finn pushes black voices from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and from Charles W. Chesnutt to Toni Morrison out of the classroom (as if there were only room for one black voice), though they, too, can explode. Focus on Huck Finn as the antislavery, antiracist novel also renders us blind to those aspects of America to which Twain himself was blind and tends to focus only through Twain's remarkable but limited gaze. The very universality that adds to the book's appeal also limits its use for understanding particular circumstances. In this essay, I have tried to identify some of the unconscious racismdespite Twain's conscious and committed anti racism-that carries over into his writing. I have then compared Twain briefly to Albion Tourgee, as another white writer who did address the specifics of race in America in the 1870s and 1880s. Finally I have looked briefly at why Twain fails to innoculate his readers against the insidious racism of such writers as Thomas Dixon, Jr., whose writings and the movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915), based on his novel The Clansman (1905), have set the tone for Americans' understanding of the periods of Reconstruction and Redemption following FrancesW'.Kave I 15 the Civil War, the immediate background for Twain's composition of Huckleberry Finn. In 1958, Philip S. Foner published Mark Ti-uain:SocialCritic,in which he methodically comments on Twain's views on race, his conversion from lm unquestioning acceptance of slavery to a bitter repudiation of it, and his later explicit condemnation of imperialism, which he accurately links to racism and the acceptance of slavery. As Foner points out, Twain did present the stock characters and scenes of the South, yet he also included wonderful scenes in which the evils of slavery are laid bare...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 13-48
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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