I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Finally, I have read something substantial by Mark Twain. It has taken a very long time—Mr. Twain’s works have never been assigned reading for me in any high school or university courses that I have taken. Here in Canada, we are much more likely to be assigned the classic of Stephen Leacock’s, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (I may have read that, although it does not stand out in my memory).
I borrowed a 1918 printing of Huck Finn from our university library, so I got a politically incorrect edition, complete with copious use of the N word. It is jarring to the modern reader, but it provides a look back into the heads of people in the past that is intriguing. Scholars will probably continue to debate whether the work is a critique of racism or not,
but to my way of thinking, Twain humanized those who were considered to be “other.”
Common wisdom would have it that a writer should avoid using dialect, but Twain does this masterfully in Huckleberry Finn. The book is very readable and comprehensible, especially considering that it was the dialect of the 1880’s southern states and I am a Canadian reading it in the 21st century. I’ve certainly encountered science fiction books with more difficult language (the slang in Clockwork Orange for example, or pretty much all of Riddley Walker).
What struck me hardest, I think, was the persistence of social problems—Huck’s drunken & abusive father, the judgments of society on poor people, and the difficulty of making a living when you are on the fringes of society. In some ways, Huck was lucky because he could hunt and fish to provide for himself—many of our modern folk living on the edge are in cities and don’t have those avenues available to them.
As many have pointed out, few people would criticize Huck for escaping from his abusive father, so his flight would likely be considered legal, despite his status as a minor. Jim is doing exactly the same thing, but his skin colour makes his escape illegal. The reader must wrestle with this dichotomy and make their own determination of the rightness or wrongness of the situation. This may be the crux of why people object to the book—Twain doesn’t get preachy on the subject. He doesn’t come right out and tell us what to think. The story is what it is, and he considers his readers intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions.