Instead of avoiding the most controversial aspects of canonical texts, Greenhaven Press’ Social Issues in Literature series makes those critical readings the centerpiece of a tightly organized volume exploring a single aspect of society through the prism of literature.
Race in Mark Twain’s Adventure of Huckleberry Finn does not pause to either admire the quaintly bygone nature of Twain-infused middle American Mississippi River life or bristle over the antiquated colloquialisms which tend to be the flashpoint in so much media debate around the Twain novel. Instead, the Greenhaven book attempts to focus on understandings of race contemporary with the writing and publication of Huckleberry Finn to get at Twain’s overt intention as well as more subtle suggestions as to meaning and interpretation of the text. The first three chapters explore phenomena from the novel contained in Mark Twain’s biography, including his evolving views on race, knowledge of river culture, and childhood encounter with a runaway slave. The book’s centerpiece is an anthology of readable critical essays, ranging from four to eight pages, discussing the role of race can play in understanding the novel. One article explores Twain’s process of incorporating authentic voices, including his systematic documentation of his conversation with a young black boy who can be "heard" in Jim’s dialect.
Also explored is the role that religious teachings might have played in informing Huck’s views of Jim; Huck is described as being "converted" to wickedness over the course of the narrative. Other essays deal with the rhetoric of ownership, property and race as it plays out over the course of the trip downriver; black and white as symbol in the text; civilization versus freedom; and Jim’s prophetic dream of interracial brotherhood. Another essay goes on to deconstruct Jim’s behavior as stemming from an imperative for survival. The binary nature of much of the criticism will lend itself to young students of American literature looking for support for their own fledgling literary analysis. The essays are presented with some contextual information and with deliberate chunking of the text with leading subheadings to maximize its intelligibility.
The volume’s well-credentialed essayists include Nobel laureates Toni Morrison (on African American readings of Huck Finn) and Barack Obama (on race). The final four chapters deal with the persistence of racism and even slavery in the twenty-first century under an African American president, allowing for expedient updating of the social issues conversations begun within the textual analysis. Recommended for school and public libraries where curriculum includes Twain’s novel.