Stephen Railton, professor of American literature, recently published a new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Why publish a new edition?
There are already quite a few editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In most the text is the same, and in several, like mine, the original 1885 illustrations are included. But along with the text and illustrations this edition includes 80 pages of appendices full of ancillary materials that allow 21st-century readers to appreciate the larger contexts—biographical, literary and cultural—in which Mark Twain wrote and published the novel. These include other works by Twain himself, reviews of the book and of his live performances of it on tour, and a generous sampling of the way “slavery” and “race” were depicted in contemporary American culture.
Whether Huck Finn is racist or anti-racist has been a hotly debated question for the last quarter century. And the result is that it is one of the most frequently banned, as well as one of the most frequently taught, American texts. My specific goal in the whole edition was to provide teachers, students and readers with ways to take a fresh look at both sides of this argument, and to appreciate what the novel said in its time, and can still say to us, about the very vexed legacies of racism and slavery.
Could you suggest two books that reveal the dueling points of view about race in 19th-century America?
Charles Chesnutt was the best African-American writer of Twain’s times. His The Conjure Woman is fairly well known, but his most powerful exploration of racial issues is The Marrow of Tradition, his 1901 novel about the 1898 Wilmington, N.C., race riot, in which a group of white supremacists violently overthrew the city’s elected officials, terrorizing the black population and killing an unknown number of people. It’s actually a very thoughtful effort to get white readers to consider the consequences of segregation and discrimination, but it was a popular failure.
On the other hand, Thomas F. Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots was a national best-seller when it appeared in 1902. Dixon was a well-known Baptist preacher when he decided to write the novel as a protest against the popularity of dramatic versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became the first volume in his “Clan Trilogy,” the story of how the Ku Klux Klan saved America from the threat of freed blacks. The second volume in this series became the basis for film director D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I think reading these two books side by side, and considering which was a failure with the American reading public and which was a huge success, will give you a good, if disheartening, perspective on those competing points of view.
How do novels written more than a hundred years ago inform conversations about race today?
As President Obama quoted Faulkner as saying when he gave his 2008 campaign speech about race, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even as we move forward, we continue to be shaped by the world that our national past constructed, and studying the literature of earlier times can help us see that larger story, and thus ourselves, in new ways. Huck Finn, for example, is about a white boy and a black man journeying down that big river looking for freedom. We like to think we live in a “post-racial” America, but one of the things Twain’s novel has taught me is that it’s possible to travel a long way and still not be that far from where you started. The journey Huck and Jim are on is not finished yet.