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Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target

The Functions of Criticism in Our Time

Jonathan Arac

Publication Year: 1997

If racially offensive epithets are banned on CNN air time and in the pages of USA Today, Jonathan Arac asks, shouldn’t a fair hearing be given to those who protest their use in an eighth-grade classroom? Placing Mark Twain’s comic masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, in the context of long-standing American debates about race and culture, Jonathan Arac has written a work of scholarship in the service of citizenship.
     Huckleberry Finn, Arac points out, is America’s most beloved book, assigned in schools more than any other work because it is considered both the “quintessential American novel” and “an important weapon against racism.” But when some parents, students, and teachers have condemned the book’s repeated use of the word “nigger,” their protests have been vehemently and often snidely countered by cultural authorities, whether in the universities or in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The paradoxical result, Arac contends, is to reinforce racist structures in our society and to make a sacred text of an important book that deserves thoughtful reading and criticism. Arac does not want to ban Huckleberry Finn, but to provide a context for fairer, fuller, and better-informed debates.
     Arac shows how, as the Cold War began and the Civil Rights movement took hold, the American critics Lionel Trilling, Henry Nash Smith, and Leo Marx transformed the public image of Twain’s novel from a popular “boy’s book” to a central document of American culture. Huck’s feelings of brotherhood with the slave Jim, it was implied, represented all that was right and good in American culture and democracy. Drawing on writings by novelists, literary scholars, journalists, and historians, Arac revisits the era of the novel’s setting in the 1840s, the period in the 1880s when Twain wrote and published the book, and the post–World War II era, to refute many deeply entrenched assumptions about Huckleberry Finn and its place in cultural history, both nationally and globally. Encompassing discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Archie Bunker, James Baldwin, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Mark Fuhrman, Arac’s book is trenchant, lucid, and timely.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

This book joins my concerns as a citizen and as a scholar. As a scholar, I am concerned by bad arguments about an excellent and important book, Huckleberry Finn, and as a citizen I am concerned because these arguments inform discussion in the public press on important matters-how we think about questions of race and how we understand the,,,

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pp. 3-15

In 1959, to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Huckleberry Finn, the New York Times Sunday book review section published a feature by the brilliant young critic Norman Podhoretz, in which he proclaimed, "Sooner or later, it seems, all discussions of 'Huckleberry Finn' tum into discussions of...

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1. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target

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pp. 16-36

Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book that has been loaded with so much value in our culture that it has become an idol. It is invoked by the upper-middlebrow establishment in endlessly various circumstances to shed its power and elevate the subject under discussion, as I illustrate with a range of instances from the New York Times. This idolatry would be a ...

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2. All Right, Then, I'll Go to Hell: Historical Contexts for Chapter 31

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pp. 37-62

After irony, the second major category of claims on behalf of Huckleberry Finn I call realism. Justin Kaplan's pamphlet attributes to Twain a "truth-telling" that is "realism." Kaplan's notion virtually self-destructs, however, because this realistic world which Kaplan calls a "faithful," "historical portrait of a...

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3. Forty Years of Controversy, 1957-1996

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pp. 63-89

This chapter further excavates the history, up to the present, of Huckleberry Finn in the national press, especially the New York Times and Washington Post. When I began this book in the later 1980s, the record seemed monolithic. In the last few years, however, while I have been completing my work, things have changed a bit. This history, then, falls...

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4. Uncle Tom's Cabin vs. Huckleberry Finn: The Historians and the Critics

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pp. 90-107

In setting Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn as opposites, Jane Smiley repeated a well-established gesture of what she called the "Propaganda Era," except that by preferring Uncle Tom's Cabin she reversed the established evaluation. In its broadest terms, the distinction between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn is the...

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5. Lionel Trilling: The Key Text in Context

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pp. 108-132

In 1948 the number of veterans in college on GI Bill benefits equaled the total number of all American college students in 1940. The year 1948-when Lionel Trilling's introduction to the Rinehart College Edition launched Huckleberry Finn into academic hypercanonization, and thereby changed a book, once felt as a nationally...

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6. Nationalism and Hypercanonization

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pp. 133-153

I am not an Americanist by professional formation, and as in the 1980s I came to focus my teaching and reading in American literature, I was struck by what seemed to me, compared with other national literatures I knew or had studied, a state of hypercanonization. By hypercanonization I mean that a very few...

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7. Vernacular and Nationality: Comparative Contexts for Chapter 19

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pp. 154-182

This chapter is somewhat intricate. I begin by laying out and considering Leo Marx's argument for Twain's hypercanonization as a founder of American "vernacular." Marx argued that the vernacular revolted against the "genteel tradition," in which Americans adapted old British and European models of high culture...

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8. Nation, Race, and Beyond

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pp. 183-211

In the four decades since Leo Marx's essays on vernacular, no discussion of Twain's language has had more impact, reaching beyond the academy as far as People magazine, than Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (1993). I share her goal of respect for African American voices in public discussions of Huckleberry Finn, but I...

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Coda: The Memories of Huckleberry Finn

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pp. 212-218

We remember Huckleberry Finn, even as the book itself seems an act of memory. Huckleberry Finn is the "most remembered" work of American fiction. Among the few hypercanonized texts, it is at the top; and the book's subject matter arises from Mark Twain's memories of the small-town and river life Samuel Clemens knew in the 1840s and 1850s. These two memories are connected...

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pp. 221-223

As a work of scholarship that has much to say about classroom issues, this book owes much to the stimulation and challenge I enjoyed in several introductory courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, especially from 1979 to 1981. Actual work on this project began only in the late 1980s, and I thank the graduate students at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh...

Works Cited

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pp. 225-239


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pp. 241-252

E-ISBN-13: 9780299155339
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299155346

Publication Year: 1997