Mark Twain’s correct solution to the race problem

More than just a colorful tale, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn paints a picture of slavery before the Civil War as filtered through the troubled conscience of an unlettered but perceptive youth.

Rendering of author Mark Twain (Cstovall/Pixabay.com)

Here is today’s quiz: What 19th-century novel points the way to a lasting solution to the racial tensions afflicting America today?

If you said Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you’re wrong. As President Lincoln remarked, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s picture of slavery helped bring on the Civil War, but that’s about all. The correct answer is Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Sometimes called the first Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn is cast as a dialect narrative by a free-spirited boy escaping a vicious father and a repressive society in company with an escaped Black slave named Jim. The book recounts their picturesque and sometimes frightening adventures as they raft down the Mississippi in pursuit of what each hopes will be freedom.

More than just a colorful tale, the book paints a picture of slavery before the Civil War as filtered through the troubled conscience of an unlettered but perceptive youth who finds himself obliged to weigh lived experience against the self-righteous code of a society that approves ownership of some human beings by others.

Rather than preaching, Twain takes us inside Huck’s mind as he wrestles with his ethical dilemma. In the book’s central passage, Jim has been apprehended and is being held in custody pending location of his owner. Huck knows who that is–an elderly woman back home who has been kind to him. Taught to consider assisting a runaway slave gravely sinful, he composes a letter telling the old lady where she can claim her property.

“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time in my life,” Huck recalls, “and I knowed I could pray now.” But then he starts to think. He remembers the jolly times he and Jim have had laughing and singing together on the river, and the times Jim has stood watch for him so he could sleep longer. He recalls other instances of Jim’s goodness and kindness, as well as the time the Black man told him ‘I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world.’”

Then his eye strays to his letter betraying Jim.

“I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“’All right, then, I’ll go to hell’–and tore it up.”

Twain wrote most of Huckleberry Finn soon after its predecessor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, appeared in 1876. Unsure how to end the story, however, he waited several more years before finishing the book in 1884. At a loss for a conclusion, Twain finally turned to Tom Sawyer (imported from the earlier novel) who concocts a harebrained scheme for freeing Jim that nearly costs Jim, Huck, and Tom their lives. After that comes a rushed and unpersuasive happy ending that sends the reader away feeling somehow cheated.

But to his everlasting credit, Twain got the solution to the race problem exactly right. In the end, he makes clear, the only lasting answer lies in recognizing and celebrating our common humanity.

And now? Now some activists indulge in symbolic gestures like toppling the statues of dead generals that provoke without persuading while others busy themselves promoting white guilt and reparations. If there is a moral here, it’s that Mark Twain’s fiction, in contrast to the contemporary churning of ceaseless societal unrest, marks out the authentic pathway to social equity and peace.


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About Russell Shaw 243 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

33 Comments

  1. Samuel Clemens chose the name Mark Twain [mark twain means mark 12 fathoms deep, safe water, the call of the sounder measuring depth for a riverboat, Clemens had piloted a riverboat for some years prior]. After a brief few weeks as a Confederate soldier having resigned, travelled to stay in Nevada Territory where his brother was appointed territorial secretary. It was there that Samuel Clemens began writing and chose his nom de plume.
    There seems thena connection with safety in Nevada from a bloody conflict. Missouri is noted for the Missouri Compromise that permitted this Union State to be a slave state Maine a free state. During the Civil War the Confederacy claimed Missouri, the state violently torn by mostly Confederate, some Union elements. Also, in his writings a search for righteousness and justice was influenced by this largely moral as well as states rights conflict. Russell Shaw highlights the War and its moral repercussions over slavery provided the artistic colors for his Huckleberry Finn literary masterpiece.
    When I first read Mark Twain I was immediately drawn into his his moral themes of righteousness, his dry humor, and wonderful descriptions of life on the Mississippi and life in general. He lived during his latter years down the road in Elmira New York where there’s a performing arts center named the Clemens Center. Twain died there April 24 1910 and is buried next to his wife of 40 years at Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
    “Just before the hour of the funeral there arrived a large floral design with the following card attached: From five hundred boys of Louisville [Ky.] Male High School. In remembrance of Samuel L. Clemens, who has brightened their lives with innocent laughter and taught them squareness and grit and compassion” (New York Times April 25 1910).

  2. No, no, no, no, no. Sorry, I taught the novel for nearly a quarter of a century in college university classes, and no, sorry. Twain was deeply racist. He was also a moral coward. He basically ran away from the whole issue of the Civil War by decamping to the Territories (outside the US, in effect) for the whole Civil War period. On his return to the US, he went to the north and passed himself off as a Yankee liberal as well as he could. It was politically incorrect in New England to be racist against blacks, and Twain consistently paints his African-American characters in the best possible light, except when he slips and describes them as foolish and superstitious (the slave who brings Jim his food while he’s in captivity, believing in ghosts and tying up his hair in thread to keep them away is based on an elderly slave-woman described in Twain’s autobiography: he believed slaves were foolish, stupid and easily led to superstition). Twain bent over backward – like so many white liberals today – to prove that they were not racist TOWARD BLACKS, but Twain’s racist animus came out full-throttle any time he depicted a Native American. All his ‘Indian’ characters are pure evil with no redeeming characteristics, because it was not politically incorrect to be anti-Indian in his lifetime. Read Roughing It and his descriptions of ‘natives’ that he writes there. He describes them as sub-human, descended from Norway rats, and being colored like black people (interestingly). Then having utterly vilified them and stripped them of anything like human dignity, he writes that the previous description was accurate, but needlessly cruel to the poor creatures. But Twain wrote his novels by hand. He could easily have cut that paragraph. He didn’t cut it. Not in the draft, not in the proofs, not in the final edition.

    As for the ending of Huckleberry Finn, it is deeply flawed because it accurately shows Twain’s own deep ambivalence about race. It is impossible – if one reads his autobiography and other writings – to paint Twain as one who thought that blacks or other persons of color were equal to whites. Impossible. Twain had to live in a society that demanded that he prove his northern liberal sensibilities all the time, hence his bending over backward to create purely ‘good’black characters. But deep down, he COULD NOT commit to fighting for the equality of blacks and whites. He left the country and ran away to Nevada Territory to avoid the whole Civil War and needing to take a side on the slavery issue. And then at the end of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s alter-ego, Huck, does essentially the same thing: he abandons Jim in the Deep South, among people who are openly hostile to Jim for causing all the trouble connected with Tom Sawyer’s absurd escape attempt (itself an attack on absurdity of the Civil War and the bloodshed and injury to whites involved in fighting over slavery). In the early stages of the novel, Huck’s father points out that a free black man can only remain in slave territory for six months before he can be enslaved (thus the terms of the novel, if not the law of the land). Jim’s aim was to go north, work and free his family from slavery. Jim has submitted first to Huck taking him south, and then to the King and Duke pushing him ever deeper into the dreaded Deep South. At the end of the novel, Tom Sawyer suggests going to the territories for more adventures, and taking Jim with them (without consulting Jim about his aim to go north and live in the free states working as a free man and taking care of his family). Huck says he can’t do it, because he lacks the financial resources to supply himself for the adventure. Tom tells Huck that all of his money is waiting for him back in their hometown. The logical end of the story would be for Huck to escort Jim north (nobody else would escort a slave worth 800 dollars to freedom at his own expense), prove that Jim is free, use some of his money to buy Jim’s family out of slavery or at least help Jim get to the free states to fulfill his determination to set his family free by his own hard work. Instead, completely against the logic of the novel, Huck decides to ‘light out for the territory ahead of the rest.’ With no money to supply himself, as he said only a few paragraphs previously as his reason for NOT going to the territories. And without consulting Jim. He abandons Jim. Tom Sawyer has no sympathy for Jim; Jim was just a means for him having an adventure. Tom’s relatives only recently let Jim out of heavy imprisonment on bread and water; they have no sympathy for him or sense of needing to see him safely escorted north. In the end, Huck, Twain’s alter-ego, does what Twain did: bails out of having to make the hard moral choice really to DO SOMETHING within his power to end Jim’s slavery, and leaves him in a dramatically worse situation than when Jim first hooked up with Huck.

    • You are quite harsh in your judgment of Mark Twain– but I can’t deny there is truth in what you say.
      I re-read “Huckleberry Finn” a year or so ago (I first read it as a boy). And while I then hesitated to call Twain a racist, I was very uncomfortable with the repeated use of the work “nig***”. (I won’t complete that now-forbidden word, it might derail the entire discussion.) But, I now appreciate how hurtful it is! And why is it repeated, on almost every page it seems? So, certainly Mark TWain was, to say the very least, very conflicted about white & black, about America’s unending race problem.
      There’s another book by Twain which is a great step in the right direction: “Pudd’nhead Wilson”. This one features a light-skinned black baby and a white baby, who are interchanged at birth– and the son of the slave woman (who is raised as ‘white’) becomes an unpleasant racist ‘white’ adult, while the son of the free woman, who is raised in bondage, grows to be a decent human being!
      A perfect answer to racism. That was Twain at his best.

  3. Anyone who doubts that Mark Twain was deeply conflicted and a moral coward needs to read his autobiography. He even admits that he didn’t have the courage to tell his wife about his own at least partial responsibility for the mortal illness of their only son. All his life Twain felt that he was bad, wished for death (Huckleberry Finn is FULL of dead bodies – some 13 – and Huck’s wish for death. Twain said it was not a book for children. The name ‘Huck’ itself is a nickname for Henry, Twain’s younger brother whose death Twain foresaw in a dream. Twain was never able to forgive himself for the choices he made that led to him not being there when his brother was mortally injured in a steamboat accident, and always when someone in his life died, Twain envied them and wished he could die, too). Twain’s ‘righteousness’ was the ‘righteousness’ of a man eaten up by a sense of overwhelming guilt (justified or not; his extreme Puritan religious background had a lot to do with him believing he was one of the damned). He projected his own self-hatred onto various public figures or institutions. But it was self-hatred, not moral fiber or real character that he was expressing. Attack THEM, and you can deflect, for awhile, your own self-hatred and wish for annihilation. Read the Autobiography, and the novels through that. It all becomes very clear. Twain’s process for composing a story was that the characters just started talking and acting in his head, and he had to write it out. Pay attention to what happens when Twain could no longer face what was happening in Huck Finn and had to put the novel away – he seems actually to have killed Huck in a steamboat accident! His own alter-ego seems to be dead and since Huck is the first-person narrator, he could not go on. Also, it was just too close to what happened to his brother Henry, and was psychologically overwhelming. Then after several years of the novel resting in a pigeon-hole in his desk, Twain took a sentimental journey down the Mississippi, and for the first time confronted the Reconstruction South. Naively, he seems to have assumed that the slaves were ‘free’ and all was well. (He’d like to have believed that, since then it would not have mattered that he ran away and did not fight to set them free or fight – and risk his own skin – on the side of his friends and relatives in the Confederate Army, which he joined for a few weeks.) Then he wrote three chapters of blistering attack on the South. Colonel Sherburn (sure to burn) is Twain expressing his real thoughts about ‘humanity’ – meaning himself, projected onto others. He has lived in the north and the south and it has proven to him that all men are cowards and utterly base and worthless. Sherburn is a cold-blooded murderer who gets away with it – and he is Twain revealing what he really feels about himself.
    Really, reading Huckleberry Finn like it’s some adventure story for boys and has a happy ‘let’s all get along and be equals’ theme is very naive and simply wrong, not what Twain himself said he was doing and not what he accomplished.

    • Nel, this reads like Critical Race Theory at it’s finest. He seems like a complex, self tortured person [and there are many] that your account indicates. I had sensed some of that reading further accounts. Although, even the conflicted Nel can have a good side.

    • It sounds like you’re the one who is projecting. It might be helpful for you to step back and honestly ask yourself how much of what you’re saying is actually true of you. My sense is that you are the very type of person you are accusing others of being. You are doing the very things you are accusing others of doing. You just don’t see it.

      Put your own moral, spiritual, and intellectual houses in order before you point fingers at everyone else.

    • Well darling, I think trying to pretend you know why a man who has been dead for 100 years has written something, is quite revelatory about your own ego. Racism, guilt, cowardice; REALLY?? Your position says more about you than Clemens. Much like what the fictitious, off-kilter and creepily racist 1619 Project, which has been debunked by dozens of noted historians, says about it’s author. Yet it sells because guilt and racism, sadly, sells in this country. Authors write for many reasons, not the least of which is MONEY. Twain was constantly digging out of bad business deals and money was an ongoing concern. People write for MANY reasons. Not every American had an interest in fighting in the Civil War. Men were able to provide a paid substitute for themselves if drafted into the Union Army. Many did so. Clemens, being neither black himself nor a slave owner, might have felt he had no personal stake, but still felt the injustice of the situation. Hence his writing an unusually sympathetic portrait of Jim, in an era when some Americans did not view slaves as fully human, and would certainly NOT have featured one as a major character in a book. No small accomplishment. That he would join the Confederate Army ( for 3 months?) more likely is a reflection of the pressure of family and friends. The fact he didnt remain in their army is likely more telling. I get weary of those self righteous types on the left who want to judge the men of a vastly different era by modern standards. Its just flat out stupid. Far from being “American’s Original Sin” as leftists repetitively and self righteously assert, slavery was a well-worn, well-established instrument of human behavior, across all continents and ALL races, for thousands of years by the time it reached our shores. Are we trying to cancel Twain now? Like Dr. Seuss? The weak of mind might buy into that but the rest of us will not. Nice try. If anything, a Catholic should know that NOBODY is perfect, not even ourselves, if we were truthful about it. Hence confession. ” All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Its past time to cut our heroes from the past a little slack.

  4. Slavery is gone but the social and moral problems remain and seem to be growing. Black crime is prevalent, especially in cities run buy Democrats. They have created racial animosity as a political tool.

  5. One of the most striking features of Huckleberry Finn the novel is its main character’s moral, spiritual transformation. Twain, who had little use for organized religion, nevertheless, gives us a character who, out of what is truly sacrificial love, sets about to do the right thing by Jim at the risk of his immortal soul. Huck has accepted his society’s (or a portion of it) assumption that freeing a slave is both crime and sin. He actually believes he will go to hell by helping Jim to freedom.

    Law is essential to any society, but unjust law destroys true community, and charity will trump it every time (if allowed). Twain knew, as many of his fellow citizens, among them practicing Christians, did not that the Scriptural defense of slavery was wide the mark. It was, I would suggest, an interpretation driven by the need to defend the institution than by the light of love.

    In Catholic terms–not Twain’s–Huck recognizes that both he and Jim are members of the Body of Christ. In that community, the only valid bondage is the one that joins us to Christ himself and through him to each other.

  6. I loved the stories of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer which my primary school teacher used to read to us children in primary school.
    I was brought up in the USA but originally from England where I now live. The America that I was a child in had a huge problem with the race issue,which made it very difficult for us as my best friend George Hedges was a black boy. He was a wonderful kid and I loved him.

  7. Like Twain’s character, Huck, I can recall moments of decision and actions supported by my faith in Jesus, and not necessarily in line with the social or political norms touted by those of influence. May Jesus always be our light in the darkness. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  8. Wow. Perhaps Twain was a moral coward as Nel makes him to be, but I’m skeptical. I raise the following for consideration:

    1) Twain’s non-fictional Joan of Arc suggests an artist’s ‘daemonic’ quest to confront authentic truth and goodness.
    2) Many dead bodies do people Huck, but we ought not overlook Twain’s historical perspective. The aftermath of the devastation wrought by the Civil War of brother killing brother surely alarmed the entire nation. Discounting the death count due to war, natural death rates accrued at a higher rate compared to ours today because of advances in knowledge, methods of modern medicine, and pharmaceutical treatments.

    3) Keeping hidden a sense of responsibility for the death of a child may not represent anything more heinous than a wish to protect the spouse and mother from more burdensome sentiments. Without being privy to Twain’s conscience, how can we suggest that he had a role or bore unrepentant guilt?

    4) Twain is an artist. His adventure story contains a lot of moral ‘reckoning’ by a child. The innocence of Huck’s point of view, his coming to terms with adult ‘sivil’ hypocrisy is worth the price of any negative review.

    5) Twain admits to internal conflict about the ending of his tale, and for that he has been criticized, relentlessly. In the end, Huck does what most all of us do: We accept the compromise. Huck returned ‘home’ to the only home he ever knew, to the fallen and imperfect society of sinners, hypocrits, rapscallions, drunkards, and church-attending slave-owners.

    Why be so hard on the guy? Are we more perfect than he? The tale was a best-seller until the race theory folks learned to read well enough to discover the ‘N’ word within it. This word represents the heart of Huck’s understanding of hypocrisy – Huck is NOT a racist. His story represents a sympathetic, compassionate hope for a future beyond which our present has failed to progress.

    • this comment was going well until it subtly implied that black people don’t know how to read.

      This site knows how to bring about the best in its readers!

      • My post neither alludes nor casts any aspersion on the reading skills of any race, but your post reveals a very poor comprehension of the written word. My post refers expressly to ‘race theory folks’. Is it really your presumption and prejudice that the black race alone equates to ‘race theory folks’???

      • The alleged remark that blacks dont know how to read supposedly made by Meiron must be subtle indeed. I have a Masters Degree and failed to see any attacks on Blacks at all after several readings. By my observation, most Race Theory folks are in fact self-loathing whites with a poor grasp of history and reality.

    • Nel might as well have stopped there, that is, with “Twain was deeply racist.” It tells us everything we need to know about what she will say without her having to go on at such tedious length to say it.

      And enough already with the ersatz, amateur psychologizing of Twain.

      In fine, there was hardly a single person in 19th century America, in the North, the South, the West who was not “racist” by 21st century standards. But for God’s sake, for the truth’s sake, let us give brother Twain a little credit. It is due and then some.

      He, she, they who are without sin . . .

  9. Thank you, Mr. Shaw, for pointing this out about Twain and how not racist Huck Finn is, despite the language we properly find upsetting now. I’m sure he was a conflicted man and less than heroic at points; aren’t we all? I’ve always thought the moral center of the book is in chapter 15, when the white Huck apologizes to Jim for treating him so badly. “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n—; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.” Huck suddenly sees that Jim is a human being, worthy of respect. And Twain is making his readers see the same thing. Not bad for 1884.

  10. Whether Twain got the race issue right or not, he certainly was ahead of his time on the issue of partial birth abortions. With the universality of natural law, even Mark Twain’s Jim understood what was self-evident—and beyond the grasp of today’s elite—in the dispute set before Solomon:

    “De’ spute warn’t ’bout a half a chile, de ’spute was ’bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ’spute bout a whole chile wid a half a chile, doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884 ).

    Even with the “n” word deleted throughout, one wonders if Twain’s masterpiece would ever be restored to school bookshelves, given its violation here of today’s political correctness and facile rationalizations.

  11. In no wise does the athor of the above comment imply that blacks don’t know how to read. It merely implies that the marxists who invented the critical theory didn’t know how to read, and now can one disagree with that statement? The Frankfurt school that gave us the critical theory (all white folks, by the way) truly don’t know how to read, except between the lines. If it was not for such instigators, the world would be a much more peaceful and tolerant place. Get your fact straight, Joe K.

  12. Technically there is only one human race, with an identical language faculty and cult faculty worldwide. Biolinguistics has established that this is due to a genetic mutation, which gave rise to the human in Adam. With butterflies, there was a first with red wings… It is the way God’s Creation functions. Variations within humanity are very much at the margins. Take the gifts of language (music, maths, dance are dependant) and cult as your definition of mankind and there is NO VARIATION. “Homo Scribens” is an educational stage in development. If writing occurs in the environment, then at age 6 a change in brain atchitecture occurs. Otherwise not. Real Deal Catholics who know latin mass could be celebrated and sung anywhere in the world IDENTICALLY know this.

  13. I have thought for some time that one reason why no good film has been made of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN is that filmmakers don’t see the bond between Huck and Jim. They have both been physically abused. Ralph Ellison speculated a homoerotic attraction based on the use of the word “hon” to address Huck. Any southerner knows that this is a gender neutral word used by waitresses and relatives and others when speaking to children in particular but also customers, acquaintances et al. Perhaps paradoxically to some, the bond of violence makes the humor and good times more so for Jim and Huck. When I talk with Black southerners of a certain age (I will be 70 in February of this year) we sometimes laugh at knowing the consequences of being told by dad to “go outside and cut a switch.” I would never discipline a child that way and neither would my interlocutors but it was the way then. What Huck and Jim endured was something much beyond this but similar. Recall if you’ve seen the film GLORY, the scene where Denzel Washington is whipped. His portrayal is the most moving and shocking I’ve seen outside of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I’ve always loved that moment when Huck accepts the possibility of Hell for doing the right thing! It’s funny, but something else as well. I think Mr. Russell makes an arguable point. I think Huck and Jim’s bond as portrayed in the novel is significant.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Mark Twain’s correct solution to the race problem – Via Nova Media
  2. A SOLUÇÃO CORRETA DE MARK TWAIN PARA O PROBLEMA RACIAL – Russell Shaw | Opus Matris Dei

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