Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1992)
Reviewed by James Tysse
As the title implies, Satire or Evasion? is a collection of essays written by black scholars, primarily on Huckleberry Finn, but many of the essays also bring in biographical details and details from Twain’s other works. The authors collected fifteen essays for the project, with a little more than half of them coming from work published in a special issue of the Mark Twain Journal and the rest written especially for this collection. The collection begins with an excellent introduction, and is divided into four sections, dealing with different aspects of the racial scholarship of the work. The first section, “Huck Finn and the Authorities,” deals primarily with the debate over banning the book; “Jim and Huck in the Nineteenth Century” emphasizes the book from the perspective of the year it was published and the year in which it was set; “Blackface and White Inside” contains essays relating to the debate over Twain’s “minstrel show” characterization of Jim; and “Huck Finn in the Twentieth Century” contains essays discussing the novel from a contemporary standpoint. The editors preface each section with a short essay summarizing the area's scholarship, and the salient points of each essay contained therein.
I’ll be able to describe the book a little bit better by relating my motives for choosing it in the first place. I’ve read Huckleberry Finn before in a racial context, and so am somewhat familiar with many of Twain’s racial ambiguities and ambivalences, and how they have caused many people to repeatedly attempt to have the book banned in libraries and at nearly every grade level. However, in addition to being very opposed in principle to banning books, I really love Huckleberry Finn and so therefore wanted to see whether a viable case could be made against the book. I understand that racially questionable portrayals and terms in the novel cause offense, but by reading ironically and from the perspective of the time it was written, I am usually able to allay most of my racial concerns. I was interested in the African-American perspective in particular, because I would assume that most Twain scholarship I have heard thus far comes from white perspectives, and I wanted to see if African-American scholars would view Huckleberry Finn differently.
The book was not a one-sided condemnation of Huckleberry Finn by any means. The editors chose eloquent and persuasive essays on both sides, running the spectrum from complete vilifications to complete vindications, and every shade in between. In the context of wanting to explore reasons for banning the book, I felt the book was a great success. Several extremely persuasive pieces discuss why the book could be considered harmful and should not be taught at certain grade levels. The book even surprised me by convincing me that Huckleberry Finn should, in many cases, be removed from required reading lists of elementary and middle schools, although I still believe it should be available in all libraries and taught in most high schools, assuming a relative teacher competency.
An essay by John H. Wallace, “The Case Against Huck Finn,” opens the collection, and while it was not particularly eloquent, it was very interesting from my perspective. It begins, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written.” The inclusion is important because it is often used to justify Huckleberry Finn’s banning, as Wallace staged a personal crusade to get the book removed from required reading lists. His main contentions include that he doesn’t feel that many of the passages are ironic, passages which are usually considered ironic when used in defense of the novel (I, however, find it deliciously ironic that Wallace was a former administrator at Mark Twain Intermediate School). Also, he has serious problems with the use of the word “nigger,” which he claims through research causes irreparable damage to young black children and separates them from their classmates. This was a particularly interesting point, and noted in several of the essays, and it is why I chose this collection in the first place. I always realized that the word was deeply offensive, but I thought that most students could separate its educational usage from its emotionally damaging effects; I didn’t quite realize the extent of how horribly offensive it can be, especially to young black children, even when discussed in the context of the time it was written.
On the other hand, Charles H. Nilon’s essay, “The Ending of Huckleberry Finn: ‘Freeing the Free Negro,’ is an excellent defense of the book as a whole, but especially the ultra-controversial closing twelve chapters. Until reading Nilon’s essay, I agreed with a great deal of Huckleberry Finn scholarship which roundly condemned the closing of the book as an anticlimactic failure on Twain’s part, because of the way he seems to go against many of the morals and themes contained in the book up to that point by allowing Tom and Huck to make a mockery of his freedom. However, Nilon argues quite convincingly that the last few chapters are an ironic triumph for Twain, by using it as a metaphor for the way blacks were treated by whites during the time in which the book was published. The failures of reconstruction and the patronizing and often brutal treatment to which whites subjected blacks in the postbellum South allow him, through the prison chapters, to metaphorically comment on the sorry state of contemporary race relations.
One essay by Julius Lester called “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was particularly powerful, although there were a few factual errors and I didn’t really agree with some of what the author said. However, I enjoyed it because it was an interesting perspective and unique. Lester’s main contention is that literature cannot be separated from morality, and that although he doesn’t agree with banning books, he doesn’t want his children to read it until they are old because he does not consider it a moral novel. Although he is not a Twain scholar, and admits that he is not extremely familiar with Huckleberry Finn, the intelligent aspect of his essay is the way he brings in personal experience, as a black man who visited Hannibal, which adds a powerful resonance to his piece. His perspective is unique and therefore interesting, even if ultimately I was not convinced of his point. I was given pause, however, and have some food for thought.
One of my biggest complaints about the book was the fact that it seemed (although I might be exaggerating) that half to two-thirds of the essayists mentioned a very famous Ralph Ellison essay from the 1950s, in which he writes about Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn and their relation to, among other things, minstrelsy. For some reason, this essay was not included in the collection. It seems to me that it would have been a really wonderful addition to the collection, especially considering that so many of the authors seemed conversant with it, but I guess they were trying to focus on more recent scholarship.
The only other real problem I had with the book is a problem that is pretty inherent in collections of this type, which was that by necessity many of the essays repeat major ideas from other essays. There are, of course, only a limited number of passages and biographical details that can be cited in reference to the issue of race in Huckleberry Finn and Twain’s life. However, the authors did do an admirable job of mixing perspectives, both pro and con. Ultimately, one walks away from the collection probably more confused about Twain’s ambivalence on race, both in literature and in life, but with a greater appreciation for the complexities associated with Twain scholarship and American race relations in general.
RETURN TO BIBLIOGRAPHY