The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | Context


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn focuses on Huck and Jim's journey down the Mississippi River. The story is set in pre-Civil War days, though it was written two decades after the war ended. The novel offers a portrait of typical attitudes toward slavery and demonstrates how the latent racism that existed in pre-Civil War times did not change with the war.

Reconstruction and Jim Crow

At the end of the Civil War, Confederates gained control of Southern legislatures and instituted the Black Codes. These codes forced African Americans to accept poor work conditions, limited their movement within communities, and denied them basic rights. However, Reconstruction (the period of rebuilding following the Civil War) began in 1868, and black men gained full citizenship and equal protection under the law with the passing of the 14th Amendment. African Americans saw greater opportunity in the South, with some even being voted into elected offices.

Many Southern whites believed the new social organization was a corruption of their race. When Reconstruction was halted in 1877—by a deal struck between Republicans and Democrats following the disputed presidential election of 1876—these same forces implemented the "Jim Crow" laws. Named after a derogatory term for African Americans, these laws were fueled by Southern white fears that blacks were taking away employment opportunities; this movement effectively undermined all the gains made by African Americans with the 14th Amendment. Equality seemed further away than ever. In 1890 the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law preventing African American and white people from sharing the space on a train, overturning fundamental aspects of the Civil Rights Act. The doctrine of "separate but equal" became law in 1896 with the passing of Plessy v. Ferguson in which the Supreme Court ruled against a challenge to the 1890 decision. Subsequently Southern State legislatures passed laws requiring the separation of whites from persons of color.

Jim Crow laws impacted nearly every aspect of life. African Americans' opportunities for education and employment were severely limited. Protesting or complaining about the conditions often led to violence and threats. The Ku Klux Klan, first formed in the 1860s, became the arm of racist violence throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reports that from 1889 to 1918 more than 2,500 African Americans were lynched—that is, kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by mobs. African Americans were expected to act in a deferential way toward whites and doing otherwise could lead to severe repercussions.

At the time Twain was writing the book, African Americans had seemingly made little progress despite the Civil War, as racism and violence were rampant. One example in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that stands out especially for modern readers is the frequent use of the word nigger, which was an accepted part of the vernacular at the time being depicted (1840s). The word, which has etymological roots in the Latin niger, the French nègre, and Spanish negro, was not initially used as a racial slur but had already acquired its offensive connotation of racial inferiority by Twain's day. The frequent usage of the term throughout the book has led some contemporary audiences to brand the work as racist and to insist on banning it.

Parallels Between Fact and Fiction

Every work of fiction is influenced by the author's background and life. Even so, the overlaps between Twain's life and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are many and noticeable.

The book opens in St. Petersburg, which doubles for the town Twain grew up in, Hannibal, Missouri. The town of Hannibal was situated along the Mississippi River. Children spent their days swimming and fishing, among other activities. Glasscock's Island is nearby and boys could swim or take a canoe to this spot. This island is known as Jackson's Island in the text. Hannibal changed with the arrival of a river steamboat. It became an active place with all kinds of people passing through.

The Phelps's farm, which Huck visits in order to find and free Jim, doubles for the Florida, Missouri, farmhouse owned by Twain's uncle, John Quarles. Though Twain moved away from his birthplace at a very young age, he spent many summers there, and it functions in the novel as an ideal childhood environment.

The protagonist of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is modeled in part after a childhood friend of Twain, Tom Blankenship. Twain described this childhood friend as impoverished, ignorant, and unwashed, but with as good a heart as any boy could have. Blankenship, like Huck, had a father who was a poor drunkard. Like Huck, Blankenship's older brother, Bence, was secretly assisting a runaway slave. The character of Jim is partially drawn from Uncle Dan'l who was a slave on Twain's uncle's farm. Twain spent a number of summers on the farm and enjoyed listening to stories told by Uncle Dan'l.

The parallels between Huck's and Twain's views on slavery are more striking. Missouri was a slave state when Twain grew up, and he had been brought up to believe that it was an institution approved of by God. By the time the Civil War began, Twain was less certain about slavery. He did, however, join a volunteer Confederate unit. The unit disbanded after two weeks, and Twain was done with being a soldier. Mirroring Huck Finn's decision to leave for the West Coast, Twain also headed west.

Twain's story continues beyond that of Huck's. When he first conceived and began writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain and his family lived with his in-laws. His father-in-law was an abolitionist and served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. By this time Twain's view on African Americans had changed dramatically. Similarly Huck decides it's worth going to "hell" to help Jim escape slavery.

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