It may seem a cliché to state that Huckleberry’s adventure contributed to my understanding of the system of slavery in the United States before the Civil War, but it did, and in this essay I’d like to explain why I think a novel is better capable of doing so than a history book. In order to do so, I will make a distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’, for at certain moments in the book I truly felt I understood what this system was about, while I, obviously, knew about it all along. In doing so, I will answer how I think historical background and novel interact.
At several points in Mark Twain’s account on Huck Fin I, as reader, was genuinely struck by the fact how white people actually thought about there black fellow humans, and how this mindset defined society. Especially on page 41, when Jim tells Huck about the moment he ran off. When Jim mentions a ‘nigger trader roun’ de place considable’, I immediately thought about the so-called head hunters in World War II, people who went after Jews for money. At that moment, I felt I truly understood a little bit how a person like Jim must have felt, and what ‘the racist structure of society’ means, as Emory Elliot, Professor of English at the University of California, writes in the introduction of the book. I realized I never thought about how a slave market must have looked like at that time; or even the concept itself, the fear that must have taken possession of all the Jim’s back then while all Miss Watson’s were concerned about the ‘big stack o’ money’ they could make by selling ‘a nigger’.
Examples like these help (me) to grasp the way many people in (prewar) America thought, and what others, more understandably, despised. How it could divide society. But why is it that a sentence in a novel has more power than perhaps a whole chapter in a history book about the subject? Let’s look at another example from the novel to answer this question.
At page 92 Huck and Jim are separated and the former meets the Grangerford’s. Huck tells us how everybody listened to his story and ‘smoked cob pipes’, ‘except’, and this is important, ‘for the nigger woman’. My first reaction was: of course, logical, she wasn’t considered a real member of the family. Isn’t it plain obvious she isn’t around? Why tell me so explicitly? I felt Twain pushed it too much, was too eager to tell me about the inequality in society. And I was actually a bit disappointed: I couldn’t believe Huck anymore.
At this point in the book, I felt the novel suffered from the fact that I had a ‘I get it-reaction’. The story Huck told me was, just for a moment, no longer credible. The fact that I did believe the example mentioned earlier, or as a matter of fact the whole book, is the power of a novel: facts (slavery) become more than just facts, like separate notes make up a melody (the story). Most of it is made up, yes, but when told convincingly the novel is likely to have more impact (understanding) than ‘dry facts’ in a history book (knowing).
A good novel, consequently, can only illustrate history if the reader will believe the story that is told in the book. Without it, as I have tried to illustrate, true understanding of life, in both past and present, is not possible. How to achieve that, well… that’s what makes a good writer a true artist indeed.