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Name:Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

Is Huck Finn a racist Book?
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Mark Twain is the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorn Clemens (born 1835, died 1910), a famous and popular humorist and author of a series of fictional books involving Tom Sawyer. His classics Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are widely read in schools across the U.S., as well as in many other western countries. Twain began as a writer of light humorous verse; he ended as a grim, almost profane chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and killing of men. At mid-career, with Huckleberry Finn, he combined rich humor, sturdy narrative and social criticism in a way almost unrivaled in world literature. Twain was a master at rendering colloquial speech, and helped to create and popularize a distinctive American literature, built on American themes and language. The name "Mark Twain" is a pun reference to a riverboat depth measurement. He also used the pseudonym "Sieur Louis de Conte" for his fictional autobiography of Joan of Arc. In recent years, there have been attempts to ban the book from various libraries, because Twain's use of local color offends some people. His family suppressed an especially irreverent work, Letters from the Earth until recently.

Detailed Biography

MARK TWAIN was the nom de plume of SAMUEL LANG-HORNE CLEMENS (1835-1910), American author, who was born on the 30th of November 1835, at Florida, Missouri. His father was a country merchant from Tennessee, who moved soon after his son's birth to Hannibal, Missouri, a little town on the Mississippi. When the boy was only twelve his father died, and thereafter he had to get his education as best he could. Of actual schooling he had little. He learned how to set type, and as a journeyman printer he wandered widely, going even as far east as New York. At seventeen he went back to the Mississippi, determined to become a pilot on a river-steamboat. In his Life on the Mississippi he has recorded graphically his experiences while "learning the river." But in 1861 the war broke out, and the pilot's occupation was gone. After a brief period of uncertainty the young man started West with his brother, who had been appointed lieutenant-governor of Nevada. He went to the mines for a season, and there he began to write in the local newspapers, adopting the pen name of "Mark Twain," from a call used in taking soundings on the Mississippi steamboats. He drifted in time to San Francisco, and it was a newspaper of that city which in 1867 supplied the mcney for him to join a party going on a chartered steamboat to the Mediterranean ports. The letters which he wrote during this voyage were gathered in 1869 into a volume, The Innocents Abroad, and the book immediately won a wide and enduring popularity. This popularity was of service to him when he appeared on the platform with a lecture - or rather with an apparently informal talk, rich in admirably delivered anecdote. He edited a daily newspaper in-Buffalo for a few months, and in 1870 he married Miss Olivia L. Langdon (d. 1904), removing a year later to Hartford, where he established his home. Roughing It was published in 1872, and in 1874 he collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age, from which he made a play, acted many hundred times with John T. Raymond as Colonel Sellers. In 1875 he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the sequel to which, Huckleberry Finn, did not appear until 1884. The result of a second visit to Europe was humorously recorded in A Tramp Abroad (1880), followed in 1882 by a more or less historical romance, The Prince and the Pauper; and a year later came Life on the Mississippi. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the next, of his books, was published (in 1884) by a New York firm in which the author was chief partner. This firm prospered for a while, and issued in 1889 Mark Twain's own comic romance, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, and in 1892 a less successful novel, The American Claimant. But after a severe struggle the publishing house failed, leaving the author charged with its very heavy debts. After this disaster he issued a third Mississippi Valley novel, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, in 1894, and in 1896 another historical romance, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, wherein the maid is treated with the utmost sympathy and reverence. He went on a tour round the world, partly to make money by lecturing and partly to get material for another book of travels, published in 1897, and called in America Following the Equator, and in England More Tramps Abroad. From time to time he had collected into volumes his scattered sketches; of these the first, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, appeared in 1867, and the latest, The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, in 1900. To be recorded also is a volume of essays and literary criticisms, How to Tell a Story (1897). A complete edition of his works was published in twenty-two volumes in 1899-1900 by the American Publishing Company of Hartford. And in this last year, having paid off all the debts of his old firm, he returned to America. By the time he died his books had brought him a considerable fortune. In later years he published a few minor volumes of fiction, and a series of severe and also amusing criticisms of Christian Science (published as a book in 1907), and in 1906 he began an autobiography in the North American Review. He had a great reception in England in 1907, when he went over to receive from Oxford the degree of Doctor of Literature. He died at Redding, Connecticut, on the 21st of April 1910. Of his four daughters only one, who married the Russian pianist Gabrilowitch, survived him. Mark Twain was an outstanding figure for many years as a popular American personality in the world of letters. He is commonly considered as a humorist, and no doubt he is a humorist of a remarkable comic force and of a refreshing fertility. But the books in which his humour is broadly displayed, the travels and the sketches, are not really so significant of his power as the three novels of the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, wherein we have preserved a vanished civilization, peopled with typical figures, and presented with inexorable veracity. There is no lack of humour in them, and there is never a hint of affectation in the writing; indeed, the author, doing spontaneously the work nearest to his hand, was very likely unconscious that he was making a contribution to history. But such Huckleberry Finn is, beyond all question; it is a story of very varied interest, now comic, now almost tragic, frequently poetic, unfailingly truthful, although not always sustained at its highest level. And in these three works of fiction there are not only humour and pathos, character and truth, there is also the largeness of outlook on life such as we find only in the works of the masters. Beneath his fun-making we can discern a man who is fundamentally serious, and whose ethical standards are ever lofty. Like Cervantes at times, Mark Twain reveals a depth of melancholy beneath his playful humour, and like Moliere always, he has a deep scorn and a burning detestation of all sorts of sham and pretence, a scorching hatred of humbug and hypocrisy. Like Cervantes and like Moliere, he is always sincere and direct. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Mark Twain. and Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).]

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Is Huck Finn a racist Book?

Russell McNeil, PhD
[Malaspina Great Books]

Is Huck Finn a racist book? I was intrigued by a comment a colleague made in the hall the other day about Huck -- as a novel -- and the view expressed in some academic circles now that the book is politically incorrect. Peter Salwen offers this poignant example to illustrate the charge:

Case in point [1]:

Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion.

Good gracious! anybody hurt? she asks.

No'm, comes the answer. Killed a nigger.

It should be obvious to any reader, Salwen says, that Twain can not mean this literally. There is expressed here, and in a thousand other instances in Huck Finn, an ironic truth about the old south: that it was a society where perfectly nice people didn't consider the death of a black person worth their notice. To drive the point home, Twain has the lady continue:

Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.

Because of his Huck's upbringing, his pap is hardly a paragon of virtue, he starts out believing that slavery is part of the natural order; but as the story unfolds he wrestles with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend Jim.

And Jim, as Twain presents him, is far more than a stereotype. Rather, he is, as Salwen [1] asserts, "the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom -- risks his life -- for the sake of his friend Huck".

Jim is not a learned man -- he is in fact illiterate -- that's a fact of life for slaves in the old south. But Twain in his other writings indicated that literacy hardly equates to superiority:

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.

That wonderful rendition of Hamlet's soliloquy: To be or not to be, that is the bare bodkin... and on it goes, illustrates the point clearly.

Jim is the moral centre of this novel; a man with multiple dimensions, a strong sense of dignity, and a human yearning for freedom--but not freedom at any cost. His instincts are right. He tried once to acquire financial freedom -- investing his 14 dollar fortune on a cow -- the cow died.

He asserts his dignity early on after Huck fools Jim into thinking that he had been dreaming.

What do dey stan' for? I'se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin' for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no' mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun', de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo' foot, I's so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is TRASH; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed.

Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed HIS foot to get him to take it back.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; 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.

As Salwen [1] reminds us: "The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim's dignity and human capacity to emerge in the novel. Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain [Ellison wrote], that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town -- in other words, of the abomination of slavery itself."

Jim's humanity is the focal point in this novel in so many ways. Jim protects the young Huck from learning the identity of his dead father; Jim experiences the anguish of separation from his family. He laughs, cries, loves, feels shame, joy, and compassion. And at the moment of freedom, he sacrifices that which he most desires to remain with Tom.

Is this a racist novel?

As Salwen [1] reminds us: "You can search through all of Twain's writings, not just the thirty-plus volumes of novels, stories, essays, and letters, but also his private correspondence, his posthumous autobiography and his intimate journals, and you'll be hard put to find a derogatory remark about the black race -- and this at a time when crude racial stereotypes were the basic coin of popular fiction, stage comedy, and popular songs.

What you find in Twain is the opposite: a lively affection and admiration for black Americans that began when he was still a boy and grew steadily through the years. In a widely praised post-Civil War sketch titled A True Story, for example, he wrenchingly evoked the pain of an ex-slave as she recalls being separated from her young son on the auction block, and her joy at discovering him in a black regiment at war's end." Salwen [1] offers these explicit examples from Twain's own writings:

Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts.

One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be.

On those occasions when Twain does venture to compare blacks and whites, the comparison is not conspicuously flattering to the whites. Things like:

There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages.

What we do notice about Twain is his generally savage disrespect for human nature.

I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse.

Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.

Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.

What is Twain asserting about the nature of man? I'll let you decide. Twain once wrote a dialogue in Platonic fashion and called it What is man? [2] The interlocutors are a Young man, and an Old Man.

[The Old Man had asserted that the human being is merely a machine, and nothing more. The Young Man objected, and asked him to go into particulars and furnish his reasons for his position.]

O.M. What are the materials of which a steam-engine is made?

Y.M. Iron, steel, brass, white-metal, and so on.

O.M. Where are these found?

Y.M. In the rocks.

O.M. In a pure state?

Y.M. No--in ores.

O.M. Are the metals suddenly deposited in the ores?

Y.M. No--it is the patient work of countless ages.

O.M. You could make the engine out of the rocks themselves?

Y.M. Yes, a brittle one and not valuable.

O.M. You would not require much, of such an engine as that?

Y.M. No--substantially nothing.

O.M. To make a fine and capable engine, how would you proceed?

Y.M. Drive tunnels and shafts into the hills; blast out the iron ore; crush it, smelt it, reduce it to pig-iron; put some of it through the Bessemer process and make steel of it. Mine and treat and combine several metals of which brass is made.

O.M. Then?

Y.M. Out of the perfected result, build the fine engine.

O.M. You would require much of this one?

Y.M. Oh, indeed yes.

O.M. It could drive lathes, drills, planers, punches, polishers, in a word all the cunning machines of a great factory?

Y.M. It could.

O.M. What could the stone engine do?

Y.M. Drive a sewing-machine, possibly--nothing more, perhaps.

O.M. Men would admire the other engine and rapturously praise it?

Y.M. Yes.

O.M. But not the stone one?

Y.M. No.

O.M. The merits of the metal machine would be far above those of the stone one?

Y.M. Of course.

O.M. Personal merits?

Y.M. PERSONAL merits? How do you mean?

O.M. It would be personally entitled to the credit of its own performance?

Y.M. The engine? Certainly not.

O.M. Why not?

Y.M. Because its performance is not personal. It is the result of the law of construction. It is not a MERIT that it does the things which it is set to do--it can't HELP doing them.

O.M. And it is not a personal demerit in the stone machine that it does so little?

Y.M. Certainly not. It does no more and no less than the law of its make permits and compels it to do. There is nothing PERSONAL about it; it cannot choose. In this process of working up to the matter is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?

O.M. Yes--but do not be offended; I am meaning no offense. What makes the grand difference between the stone engine and the steel one? Shall we call it training, education? Shall we call the stone engine a savage and the steel one a civilized man? The original rock contained the stuff of which the steel one was built--but along with a lot of sulphur and stone and other obstructing inborn heredities, brought down from the old geologic ages--prejudices, let us call them. Prejudices which nothing within the rock itself had either POWER to remove or any DESIRE to remove. Will you take note of that phrase?

Y.M. Yes. I have written it down; Prejudices which nothing within the rock itself had either power to remove or any desire to remove. Go on.

O.M. Prejudices must be removed by OUTSIDE INFLUENCES or not at all. Put that down.

Y.M. Very well; Must be removed by outside influences or not at all. Go on.

O.M. The iron's prejudice against ridding itself of the cumbering rock. To make it more exact, the iron's absolute INDIFFERENCE as to whether the rock be removed or not. Then comes the OUTSIDE INFLUENCE and grinds the rock to powder and sets the ore free. The IRON in the ore is still captive. An OUTSIDE INFLUENCE smelts it free of the clogging ore. The iron is emancipated iron, now, but indifferent to further progress. An OUTSIDE INFLUENCE beguiles it into the Bessemer furnace and refines it into steel of the first quality. It is educated, now --its training is complete. And it has reached its limit. By no possible process can it be educated into GOLD. Will you set that down?

Y.M. Yes. Everything has its limit--iron ore cannot be educated into gold.

O.M. There are gold men, and tin men, and copper men, and leaden men, and steel men, and so on--and each has the limitations of his nature, his heredities, his training, and his environment. You can build engines out of each of these metals, and they will all perform, but you must not require the weak ones to do equal work with the strong ones. In each case, to get the best results, you must free the metal from its obstructing prejudicial ones by education--smelting, refining, and so forth.

Y.M. You have arrived at man, now?

O.M. Yes. Man the machine--man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his MAKE, and to the INFLUENCES brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by EXTERIOR influences--SOLELY. He ORIGINATES nothing, not even a thought.


Does Twain believe all this? Well? Listen up. Here's a bit further on called:

The Thinking-Process. [4]

O.M. Men perceive, and their brain-machines automatically combine the things perceived. That is all.

Y.M. The steam-engine?

O.M. It takes fifty men a hundred years to invent it. One meaning of invent is discover. I use the word in that sense. Little by little they discover and apply the multitude of details that go to make the perfect engine. Watt noticed that confined steam was strong enough to lift the lid of the teapot. He didn't create the idea, he merely discovered the fact; the cat had noticed it a hundred times. From the teapot he evolved the cylinder--from the displaced lid he evolved the piston-rod. To attach something to the piston-rod to be moved by it, was a simple matter--crank and wheel. And so there was a working engine. [1] One by one, improvements were discovered by men who used their eyes, not their creating powers--for they hadn't any--and now, after a hundred years the patient contributions of fifty or a hundred observers stand compacted in the wonderful machine which drives the ocean liner.

Y.M. A Shakespearean play?

O.M. The process is the same. The first actor was a savage. He reproduced in his theatrical war-dances, scalp- dances, and so on, incidents which he had seen in real life. A more advanced civilization produced more incidents, more episodes; the actor and the story-teller borrowed them. And so the drama grew, little by little, stage by stage. It is made up of the facts of life, not creations. It took centuries to develop the Greek drama. It borrowed from preceding ages; it lent to the ages that came after. Men observe and combine, that is all. So does a rat.

Y.M. How?

O.M. He observes a smell, he infers a cheese, he seeks and finds. The astronomer observes this and that; adds his this and that to the this-and-thats of a hundred predecessors, infers an invisible planet, seeks it and finds it. The rat gets into a trap; gets out with trouble; infers that cheese in traps lacks value, and meddles with that trap no more. The astronomer is very proud of his achievement, the rat is proud of his. Yet both are machines; they have done machine work, they have originated nothing, they have no right to be vain; the whole credit belongs to their Maker. They are entitled to no honors, no praises, no monuments when they die, no remembrance. One is a complex and elaborate machine, the other a simple and limited machine, but they are alike in principle, function, and process, and neither of them works otherwise than automatically, and neither of them may righteously claim a PERSONAL superiority or a personal dignity above the other.

Y.M. In earned personal dignity, then, and in personal merit for what he does, it follows of necessity that he is on the same level as a rat?

O.M. His brother the rat; yes, that is how it seems to me. Neither of them being entitled to any personal merit for what he does, it follows of necessity that neither of them has a right to arrogate to himself (personally created) superiorities over his brother.

Y.M. Are you determined to go on believing in these insanities? Would you go on believing in them in the face of able arguments backed by collated facts and instances?

O.M. I have been a humble, earnest, and sincere Truth-Seeker.

Y.M. Very well?

O.M. The humble, earnest, and sincere Truth-Seeker is always convertible by such means.

Y.M. I am thankful to God to hear you say this, for now I know that your conversion--

O.M. Wait. You misunderstand. I said I have BEEN a Truth-Seeker.

Y.M. Well?

Now -- as an aside -- and after all this seriousness -- we see Twain's irony -- and purpose -- a reminder that with this essay as with Huck Finn, Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

O.M. I am not that now. Have your forgotten? I told you that there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further, but gives the rest of his days to hunting junk to patch it and caulk it and prop it with, and make it weather-proof and keep it from caving in on him. Hence the Presbyterian remains a Presbyterian, the Mohammedan a Mohammedan, the Spiritualist a Spiritualist, the Democrat a Democrat, the Republican a Republican, the Monarchist a Monarchist; and if a humble, earnest, and sincere Seeker after Truth should find it in the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese nothing could ever budge him from that position; for he is nothing but an automatic machine, and must obey the laws of his construction.

Y.M. After so--

O.M. Having found the Truth; perceiving that beyond question man has but one moving impulse--the contenting of his own spirit-- and is merely a machine and entitled to no personal merit for anything he does, it is not humanly possible for me to seek further.The rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or a damaging fact approaches.


1. Peter Salwin's Mark Twain Page
2. What is Man? and Other Essays of Mark Twain
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
4. The Thinking Process

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