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THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: A PORTRAIT OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA
by John Femia
At the surface, Mark Twain’s famed novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a thrilling narrative told by a 13-year-old boy who embarks on a perilous journey down the formidable Mississippi River aboard a tiny wooden raft. The story’s sensationalism sometimes makes Huck’s journey seem unbelievable. Underneath, however, lies an authentic portrait of the institution of slavery in America during the 1850s.
Although born and raised in Missouri, Twain vehemently opposed slavery. He witnessed the inhumane treatment of blacks and openly criticized the barbaric institution of slavery. In an 1885 letter sent to Francis Wayland, dean of Yale University Law School, which was publicized in the New York Times, Twain sought reparations for former slaves: “We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.” Twain was an early pioneer in this movement as the debate over compensating former slaves continues to rage into the 21st Century.
Much of Twain’s writing identifies him as a humorist. However, he reveals his pessimistic side as a satirist in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published 20 years after the Civil War. Through the innocence of Huck’s narrative, Twain attacks slavery, racism, hypocrisy, and injustice during one of the most shameful and embarrassing periods in American history.
Several main characters throughout the novel epitomize typical slave owners and their attitudes toward the bondage of another human being. They are racists who portray the worst of what society has to offer. Twain frequently satires these characters and their treatment of slaves through the use of irony and ridiculing their paradoxical behavior and ostentatious lifestyles.
Slaves had no control over their own destiny and were often sold several times throughout their life. This severe...
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...ll Jim to the Phelps for $40 when their money runs out. Afterward, the Phelps comply with the law and search for Jim’s rightful owner.
The novel ends on a happy note when Miss Watson sets Jim free in her will after she dies. However, it is conceivable that Jim’s freedom was short-lived. In 1857, the Dred Scott Decision upheld the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Born into slavery in Virginia, Dred Scott lived in the North as a free man for 11 years and later returned to slavery upon re-entering the South. The United States Supreme Court determined that slaves were personal property and could never be free. It is conceivable that Jim suffered the same fate as Dred Scott and returned to slavery despite Miss Watson’s will.
Mcpherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. Ballantine Books, 1988.
Catton, Bruce, The Civil War: The Epic Struggle of the Blue and the Gray. American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1960.
Zwick, Jim, “Mark Twain’s Reparations for Slavery.” www.boondocksnet.com, 1995.
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