Despite taking four years of high school English and majoring in English in college, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until recently. Having finally read this classic novel, I find myself categorizing it with several other “classics” I’ve read over the years: books whose significance I appreciate, but which I cannot say I actually enjoyed reading.

The novel is disjointed, and most of the subplots are just variations on the same basic storyline—Huck Finn gets involved in a sticky situation and manages to lie his way out of it, with varying degrees of difficulty. On the surface, the book felt more like an adventure story written for children than a serious novel worthy of the discussion and dissection it has received. I realize Mark Twain must have intended for the book to read somewhat haphazardly, but I found it tiresome after a very short time. I did not want reading this book to feel like a chore, but I was soon pushing myself to continue and finish it. While I liked the two central characters well enough, I found many aspects of the story irritating and dull, and I was relieved to be done with it.

However, while I cannot say that I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I appreciate its significance to American literature, and its importance to understanding the era of American history in which it was written. This novel was one of the first in American literature to be written in the vernacular of the region where the action takes place, with a variety of dialects of Missouri and the Mississippi River region. Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the area where the novel takes place, one that teems with local color. It was one of the first novels to be so distinctively of a  particular region, and literary regionalism would become much more common in the decades after its publication. There is little doubt of the exact setting of Huckleberry Finn, and it is a story that could not take place anywhere else.

The main plot of the novel, which is much greater than the sum of its parts, revolves around runaway Huck Finn’s journey with a runaway slave named Jim and Huck’s efforts to help Jim keep his freedom.  As such, Huckleberry Finn has been thoroughly analyzed over the years for its treatment of race, racism, and slavery—and over one hundred years after its publication, there is still debate about what Twain intended to say about race, and whether the novel is prejudiced or not.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s, twenty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, Twain sets the novel in a time when slavery still existed. By the 1880s, it was clear that the end of slavery had not done enough to improve blacks’ lot in life; especially in areas where slavery had once been the norm, they were still subject to an extremely low standard of living and terrible treatment at the hands of whites. I believe in this book, Twain wanted to draw parallels between life for blacks in the antebellum South and their lives after the Civil War. Through the character of Jim, who wants to be freed from slavery and to be reunited with his family, Twain challenged his white readers to realize that blacks deserved the same freedom whites had, and that the abolition of slavery hadn’t been enough to give them that equality. Jim is a man with hopes, fears, and dreams, not a nonentity who is meant to live enslaved on someone else’s land. Slavery here represents black life after abolition, and the harsh reality that little had changed by the 1880s.

However, while many readers believe that Huckleberry Finn is a condemnation of slavery and racism, others find the depiction of Jim to be racist. Jim is portrayed as extremely superstitious and rather unintelligent. I believe it is entirely legitimate to raise questions about Twain’s purpose in characterizing Jim the way he did. The novel is heavy on satire, so was he satirizing the stereotypes of blacks that were so prevalent in 19th century America, exaggerating them to make readers realize how foolish such perceptions were? Or did Twain not consider blacks equal to whites, but still believed they deserved better lives? It is always essential to remember that many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, did not necessarily believe blacks and whites were equal. It would not be surprising if similar attitudes were still common in the 1880s; some whites would believe blacks should be treated better, but still subscribe to common prejudices. While I will not pretend to have any insights into the mind of Mark Twain, I do believe that satire was likely the purpose of this depiction, especially considering the strong presence of satire in Twain’s body of work. However, a sound understanding of American history has to leave open the possibility that there may still be at some traces of racism in Twain’s work, even if they weren’t necessarily conscious ones.

Disheartening as it may be to think that such an important and innovative American writer may not have been progressive enough to move beyond racism completely, it is important to remember that considering the racial situation in the United States in this era, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was still a forward thinking book for its time. Slavery had been illegal for less than a quarter of a century, and Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks were still considered perfectly acceptable. For a writer like Twain to question the justice of such racial inequality was still a bold move. While negative stereotypes are a significant part of Jim’s character, he is also shown to be a loving, good-hearted individual who takes better care of Huck Finn than Huck’s own father does. While Huck constantly questions the legality and morality of helping Jim escape to freedom throughout the novel, Twain clearly regards the moment Huck decides that he would rather “go to hell” than return Jim to slavery as one of important and admirable growth in Huck’s character. While it is certainly understandable to question some aspects of Twain’s approach to race in this novel, I do think that, ultimately, it is a decidedly anti-racist work.

There is much more that could be said about Huckleberry Finn, but since my interest in the novel focuses primarily on its discussion of race issues and understanding the book in the context of American history, I would like to conclude this review with a discussion of one of the most controversial aspects of the novel: the frequent use of the N-word. The presence of that infamous word has lead to many difficulties in teaching the book in literature classes, especially, I would guess, at the high school level. There has even been talk of eliminating it from at least some editions of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand the offensiveness of that word, I oppose removing it from any unabridged edition that is not adapted for children. I do not believe in sanitizing history, and I think that in order for the book to have its full impact, readers need to understand how commonly the N-word was once used. It was a word that, back in the 1880s and for decades afterwards, even “nice” people used in everyday conversation without giving it any thought. To eliminate the term from this book, or any other from the era, is to deny how commonplace—and often how casual—racism was for a huge part of American history.

So, while I did not find The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enjoyable, and do not consider it the Great American Novel (I do not believe in that concept anyway—more on that some other time), I believe it is indeed one of the more important works in American literature. Anyone interested in literature, or in U.S. history, should read it, whether in school or independently. It may feel a bit like taking your medicine, but even if you do not particularly like the book, you will probably still benefit from reading it.