Published in 1884, seven years after the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy, Twain's novel relates the friendship of the adolescent white boy, Huckleberry Finn, and the runaway slave Jim before the Civil War. The two travel upon a raft down the Mississippi River, meeting a host of characters along the way.
For years, "Huckleberry Finn" was a staple of high school and college reading lists, until black objections over Twain's use of the "N-word" to describe Jim led to its removal. Some also viewed Jim as stereotypical, and his black speech as demeaning.
Written in several dialects of the American South and mid-South, "Huckleberry Finn" was the first novel written in the American vernacular, departing from the proper British English to which earlier American writers conformed.
Ernest Hemingway said that all American literature derived from Twain's book. It established American language, comparable to what Dante did for Italian with "The Divine Comedy" and Chaucer for English with "Canterbury Tales."
With scenes rich in comedy and fictional irony, "Huckleberry Finn" exposes the hypocrisy and mediocrity of the antebellum South, skewering the Lost Cause mythology's pretensions. As Jim Crow laws and racial violence spread, Twain stands for racial brotherhood.
Huck at first sees Jim as inferior, but comes to realize his humanity. A caricature at the beginning of the book, Jim grows more complex as the novel progresses.
Raised in mid-South Missouri, Huck during the book grows closer to Jim, rejecting the pro-slavery mores of his antebellum upbringing. When Jim is captured by two despicable con-men, Huck decides to free his friend, although he's been conditioned to believe this is morally wrong.
In one of the great moments of American literature, Huck follows his heart instead of his culturally formed conscience, declaring, "I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, Alright then, I'll go to hell."
London black writer Desiree Baptiste in the Aug. 21-28 Times Literary Supplement discusses re-reading "Huckleberry Finn" during the Covid-19 quarantine.
After the George Floyd slaying and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, Baptiste finds "Huckleberry Finn" relevant to today. "Is Huck Finn, I wondered, American fiction's first white ally?"
It's doubtful that many of Baptiste's contemporaries would give "Huckleberry Finn" such a sympathetic reading. Many blacks consider Twain's language as hurtful, negating his message of racial tolerance.
Baptiste shows why the still revolutionary novel lights a path to healing America's legacy of racism.