The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Language

PALS welcomes a post from Matthew Teutsch, who is director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. In this post, Teutsch writes about language in Huck Finn and investigates moments where it, for examples, includes or excludes some characters from recognizing other character’s humanity.

While I was in Norway, I taught Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) for the first time as part of the ENG 122 survey course at the University of Bergen. While I still do not necessarily enjoy the novel (it’s kind of like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for me), I discovered some important conversations surrounding the novel that help us address Twain’s use of language and how language functions within society. I have written about this topic countless times, so I will not rehash those discussions. Rather, I will take the time to look at some of the key moments in Huckleberry Finn where Twain foregrounds language within the novel.

Stephen Railton’s “Jim and Mark Twain: What Do Dey Stan’ For” provides a good foundation for the discussion that will follow. Railton argues, and I would agree for the most part, that Twain, in his use of language, specifically “N,” shows his concern for “an individual’s psychological enslavement to cultural preconceptions, epistemological prejudices.” Twain’s focus on language becomes evident when in the middle of the novel Joanna Wilks has Huck swear on a book to prove he isn’t lying. Rather than having Huck swear on the Bible, Joanna has him swear on a dictionary. Huck obliges and tells the reader, “I see it warn’t nothing but a dictionary, so I laid my hand on it and said it.”

As Railton notes, the Wilkes would have had a Bible, yet Joanna has Huck swear on a dictionary. This act relates, as well, to Tom Sawyer’s continued insistence on doing everything in life, particularly his adventures, exactly as they occur in the books that he reads. The stories he relies on, such as Don Quixote or even something like Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, serve a twofold purpose. On one hand, they work as Railton points out, as a “linguistic emancipation” from Europe, something that countless thinkers in the nineteenth century were concerned with. On the other hand, Tom’s reliance on the tropes contained within the novels that he reads reinforces the importance of critically thinking about the knowledge that one gains in order to counter “cultural preconceptions, epistemological prejudices.” Because of his reliance on these tropes, Tom cannot escape his “psychological enslavement,” treating Jim as nothing more than a character in his fabricated adventure story.

Along with Huck swearing on the dictionary, another important scene foregrounds not just the linguistic enslavement of individuals but also the transmission of racist thought that carries on from generation to generation. While not focusing on race like Solomon Northup’s discussions of Epps’ son, Mistress Epps, and William Ford in his narrative, Twain presents the same idea in the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.

Huck describes Colonel Grangerford in chapter XVIII as “a gentleman all over, and so was his family.” Grangerford, like Miss Watson and the Phelpses, represents a system that systematically suppresses others by race and class. Each of the Grangerfords have enslaved servants that wait upon them, and the Grangerford house served as the hub for those in the surrounding areas, hosting balls and parties.

One day, Huck and Buck Grangerford see Harney Shepherdson riding in the woods, and Buck takes a shot at Harney. When they return home, Huck asks Buck what Harney did to him. Buck responds, and they carry on the exchange below.

“Him? He never done nothing to me.”
“Well then, what did you want to kill him for?”
Why nothing–only it’s on account of the feud.”
“What’s a feud?”
“Why, where was you raised? Don’t you know what a feud is?”

Buck does not know who, where, when, why, or how the feud began. In the same manner, Huck does not know, until near the end of the book, why he views Jim as inferior to himself. Huck never comes out and says these things, either privately or publicly, but we see him working through the thoughts at various points in the text, most notably when he tears up the letter he wrote to Miss Watson and says, “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” for helping Jim escape.

Railton points out, and I think it is worth noting, that during Huck’s wrestling with his conscience in Chapter XXXI, we see the way that language works to grant Jim humanity in Huck’s eyes and ultimately the reader’s eyes. Railton notes that during the six paragraphs where Huck contemplates what to do we see “Twain’s perfectly controlled depiction of Huck’s thoughts we can hear—we can feel—the full difference between a racist label and a human being.” Twain achieves this by having Huck move from describing Jim as Miss Watson’s property (“a poor old woman’s nigger” and “that nigger’s owner”) to Jim. Huck brings Jim’s humanity to the forefront. After he writes the letter to Miss Watson telling her that Mr. Phelps has Jim and will “give him up for the reward if you send,” Huck states:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I have ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And got to thinking over our trip down the river, and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.

Huck sees Jim as a friend, companion, and most importantly a human. However, even though Huck comes to the realization, he remains stuck within the “psychological enslavement” caused by language and racist thought. Even though Huck tears up the letter and says he’ll go to hell, he still maintains the baggage of the language and the culture that raised him.

In Chapter XXXVI, as Tom and Huck work on their plan to free an already emancipated Jim, the two talk about language, specifically “picks” and case-knives.” Huck eventually says:

Picks is the thing, moral or no moral; and as for me, I don’t care shucks for the morality of it, nohow.  When I start in to steal a nigger, or a watermelon, or a Sunday-school book, I ain’t no ways particular how it’s done so it’s done.  What I want is my nigger; or what I want is my watermelon; or what I want is my Sunday-school book; and if a pick’s the handiest thing, that’s the thing I’m a-going to dig that nigger or that watermelon or that Sunday-school book out with; and I don’t give a dead rat what the authorities thinks about it nuther.

This scene occurs five chapters after the one previously discussed. While the use of “steal” is important here, the fact that Huck acts possessively towards Jim is worth noting. Huck does not specify Jim, but he does specify, “What I want is my nigger.” Huck’s comment here reminds me of Candy Marshall in Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men when she refers to Mathu and the other men in the quarters as “my people.”

Huck’s acknowledgement of Jim’s humanity in Chapter XXXI does not immediately release him from the psychological entanglements of preconceived perceptions that he has learned since birth. We do not ever know if Huck overcomes these entanglements, but I, for one, do not hold out much hope. I perceive Huck as being proud of himself for realizing that society is wrong, but I do not necessarily see Huck doing anything more after the close of the novel. That, however, is a discussion for another day.

One of the key linguistic distinctions in the novel occurs with “borrow” and “steal,” the latter of which Huck uses in the quote above. Both of these terms are similar, but “borrow” has the connotation that the individual intends to return an item once he or she is done with it. On the other hand, “steal” connotes that an individual will take something from another person, without permission, and with no intention of paying the person back. Throughout the novel, Huck uses “borrow” to relate to items such as chickens, watermelons, or other items that he would take and consume. As for “steal,” Huck uses it when referring to helping Jim escape slavery. This is a difference that needs to be teased out some more.

In Chapter XII, Huck ponders the term “borrow”:

Mornings before daylight I slipped into cornfields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn, or things of that kind.  Pap always said it warn’t no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn’t anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it.  Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn’t borrow them any more—then he reckoned it wouldn’t be no harm to borrow the others.  So we talked it over all one night, drifting along down the river, trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what.

Here, Huck parses out what he means by the word “borrow.” For Huck, he initially follows Pap’s definition of “borrow,” essentially, if he planned to “pay them back sometime,” it was alright to “borrow” something. However, the widow claims that “borrow” is nothing more than stealing. Jim convinces Huck that the widow and Pap are both right, in their own way, and this leads the two to decide what they feel comfortable “borrowing.”

Juxtaposed against “borrow,” though, is “steal.” In Chapter XVI, Jim talks about what he will do once he is free. He plans to buy his wife’s freedom, and then the two of them plan to buy their children out of slavery. If that does not work, they will hire “an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.” Key here, of course, is the word “steal.” Jim’s use of “steal” causes Huck to freeze up and contemplate how he feels about Jim.

It most froze me to hear such talk.  He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before.  Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free.  It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking.  Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Unlike the “borrowing” of watermelons or other sundry items, Huck becomes disturbed by Jim’s assertion that he will “steal” his children. To Huck, while the children may biologically be Jim’s, they are the property of someone else. Here, he does not see Jim, Jim’s wife, or Jim’s children as human; instead, he only views them as capital and property for others. Hence, “stealing” becomes something illegal in Huck’s eyes.

Even when Huck realizes Jim’s humanity, he still frames his plan to free Jim as stealing. He thinks to himself, “And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.” Huck still sees Jim as Miss Watson’s property; thus, he equates his actions with stealing not liberating. This linguistic distinction is important. Huck’s “psychological enslavement” runs deep and cannot be overcome by a mere shift in how he views Jim. Huck still maintains the conceptions of power that exist within his world, and it will take time for him to realize that he is not stealing Jim but liberating him.

Another important linguistic moment occurs in Chapter XI when Huck speaks with Judith Loftus to learn about what is occurring in town. Judith tells Huck that some the townspeople think Jim murdered Huck because he ran off the same night that Huck’s father found the “remains” of Huck. She talks about the $300 reward for Jim and that her husband has gone off searching Jackson’s Island for any trace of Jim. Judith sees Jim as property, and since he ran way, she sees a chance to make some money by having her husband find Jim and return him to Miss Watson.

During the conversation, Judith lets Huck know that she realizes he is lying to her. She knows that he is not Sarah Williams and that he is a boy. Huck tries to maintain his charade, but Judith presses. She knows that Huck is running away, and she tells him, “You see, you’re a runaway ’prentice, that’s all.  It ain’t anything.  There ain’t no harm in it. You’ve been treated bad, and you made up your mind to cut.  Bless you, child, I wouldn’t tell on you.  Tell me all about it now, that’s a good boy.” Just like Jim, Huck has run away; however, instead of treating Huck like property, she treats him as a human, seeing his suffering, something she does not do for Jim.

Judith even tells Huck, “I’ll do what I can to get you out of it.”  She then tells Huck where to go and what to do to avoid coming across anyone else. Judith would not do this for Jim. If her or her husband discovered Jim, they would capture him and return him for the reward. By creating this juxtaposition, Twain shows the stark differences between Jim and Huck and the false constructions created to maintain the institution of slavery and the subjection of others solely based on constructed ideas of inferiority and superiority.  There are other instances in the novel where Twain sets up these same juxtapositions.

In Chapter XXXII, Aunt Sally asks if anyone was killed in the steamboat explosion that Huck tells her about. Huck replies, “No’m.  Killed a nigger.” Sally simply responds, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” before telling Huck about a white man who died in a steamboat explosion. Sally denies humanity to the Black man that Huck mentions while she recognizes the humanity of the White man. Like Judith’s dismissal of Jim’s plight and acceptance of Huck’s plight, Sally highlights how her “psychological enslavement” affects her views of others.

These are not the only instances that I could discuss in this post, but they are some of the most important. Looking at Huckleberry Finn in relation to the role that language plays within the novel helps us to work through the “psychological enslavement to cultural preconceptions, epistemological prejudices” that Railton discusses. When we help students see these moments, we help them understand the ways that language constructs the world we inhabit, creating hierarchies and systems. Even with all of its problems, Twain’s novel works to highlight the role that language plays in individuals’ lives and in their interactions with others.

Matthew Teutsch is director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He has written on authors such as Frank Yerby, Ernest J. Gaines, William Faulkner, Lyle Saxon, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Teutsch runs Interminable Rambling and tweets at @silaslapham.


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