From the diary: “Thursday December Fifth 1985
“Finally reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I like it. … And read a bunch of poetry. Gosh. There isn’t a lot of happy poetry being written I guess. Just when I’m about to give up on poetry as being incomprehensible I run across a few that are really wonderful. But why is that only about 10%?”
A couple days later I wrote, “Finished Finn. Didn’t live up to expectations and I do understand why some consider it racist.”
The “nigger” of “Nigger Jim” grated, but what do I know, right?, maybe “nigger” wasn’t really considered an insult at the time Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. Maybe? But it was hard to have any respect for Nigger Jim, anyway. Twain had him childlike and loyal, certain that the boy Finn always knew what was best. Nigger Jim, as I recall, never had an independent thought and it was up to Finn to prevent Jim from just giving up and turning himself in.
I like Mark Twain. But he was racist. Big surprise! The racism of his time was so casual, so taken for granted that questioning it was like saying water doesn’t run downhill. In his account of travel to Lake Tahoe in California Twain has nothing good to say about the people native to the area. He calls them “diggers” and speaks with contempt of their dirtiness and poverty. Twain can be quite funny and is often ready to lampoon the arrogant and scoff at unexamined attitudes but it doesn’t mean that he was always ready to poke himself.