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  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Reconstruction
  • Brook Thomas

Nations are measured not only by rights and wrongs but also by how they address the wrongs they inevitably commit. Wrongs, however, are much easier to identify than remedies, which is why, according to C. Vann Woodward, Reconstruction lies at the “moral core of national history.”1 Slavery, long abolished, is almost universally recognized as one of the United States’ most egregious wrongs. Reconstruction is a nagging reminder that the nation has not measured up very well. Unfortunately, neither has the scholarly community when it comes to describing Huckleberry Finn’s relation to Reconstruction. Using Twain’s novel too often to score points in ongoing debates about race, critics are prone to repeat myths that perpetuate a partial view of Reconstruction rather than use Huckleberry Finn to explore its complexity and vice versa.

One reason I am on a mission to demystify myths about Reconstruction is that I once shared some—and perhaps still do. Whenever I read the simplified summary of the period in my textbook on Plessy v. Ferguson, I cringe, knowing that it continues to mislead students. When, as I must, I cite similar examples from Twain scholars, my intention is not to single them out. The fact that some of Twain’s best critics are under the sway of these myths indicates how misunderstood this crucial period in U.S. history remains. Because Huckleberry Finn has itself taken on mythical status, a willingness to reassess its relation to Reconstruction might help undo some of that misunderstanding. Indeed, a community of Twain scholars willing to reassess what it got right and wrong about that relationship might serve as a model for a nation still needing to reassess what went right and wrong in its “unfinished Revolution.”2 [End Page 1]

So let me start by praising this generation of Twain scholars for giving Reconstruction increased attention. It has shifted emphasis from the book’s moment of representation during the era of slavery to its composition and publication from 1876 to 1885. Nonetheless, no consensus has emerged. Some fault Twain for evading the controversial racial issues of his day by displacing the action into the past. For instance, noting that hardly anyone at the time the book appeared supported slavery, Evan Carton concludes that when Huck vows to go to Hell rather than return Jim to slavery his “moment of greatest moral risk” is, “for Twain and his readers, a moment of moral comfort, even complacency.”3 Such readings are supported by a comparison between Twain and George Washington Cable during their reading tour in 1884–85 to promote their new books. Unlike Cable, who made a case for African Americans’ civil and political equality by publishing “The Freedman’s Case in Equity” (1885), Twain risked neither controversy nor reputation. Other critics defend Twain and insist that his novel needs to be read allegorically. For instance, Shelley Fisher Fishkin cites numerous examples to conclude that there is “an increasingly solid case that the last portion of the novel may be read as a commentary on American race relations in the post-Reconstruction era.” For Fishkin, Tom and Huck’s treatment of Jim during the evasion episode speaks to the nation’s treatment of blacks while Twain was writing his book. She acknowledges that Twain did not match Cable’s “full frontal attacks against racism in the 1880s,” but concludes that Twain’s subtle attacks were “more lasting.”4

In “Huckleberry Finn” as Idol and Target, Jonathan Arac takes Fishkin to task by turning to Louis Budd. Fishkin approvingly cites Budd, who, ahead of his times, in 1959 highlighted subtle allusions to post-emancipation racial issues and concluded that “To readers in a country in which there were now no slaves, the novel took on fresh meaning as a judgment of the South’s conduct after the withdrawal of federal troops had paroled it to its own conscience.”5 Arac, however, notes that by 1983 Budd acknowledged that in fact we know little about Twain’s intentions. Furthermore, there is little indication that people read Huckleberry Finn as intervening into the period’s racial controversies.6

As different as Arac’s...


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