"Racism is man's gravest threat to man "“ the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason." - Abraham J. Herschel
Overview of the Novels
Acclaimed critically by literature experts, writers and the readers of all ages, Samuel Langhorne Clemens' (Mark Twain) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn owns one of the top-ranked slots in the broad list of the best of very rich American literature. When the hastened urge to promote for school desegregation in the 1940's, 1950's and early 1960's, many parents and concerned teachers strongly disagreed to the teaching of this book in multiracial classrooms and schools, in general.
These refusals and disagreements is because of Twain's unpleasant character description of Jim and his very frequent use of the N-word or "nigger" all throughout the text. Many people thought that that matter in the story would cause confusion and degradation among colored students in racially-mixed classrooms.
On the other hand, Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America" explored an era of alternate history with the wartime President was Charles Lindbergh and not Franklin Roosevelt. In contrast to the issue of racism that was stirred in Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the anti-racism in this novel was very rampant and apparent, without the exclusion of ignorance towards the racial slurs hurled at the American Jews. And moreover, as aforementioned, the difference between the two novels is that in the work of Mark Twain, the protagonist was a Negro, wherein in Philip Roth's novel, it was the Jews.
Comparison of the Issues of Racism in the Novels
Going back to the novel of Philip Roth, the main character is seven-year-old Philip himself, seeing the world in his own perspective. Seeing a world where the Jews are regarded as the scum of the society, and majority of the Americans being tremendously influenced by the anti-Semitism stance of wartime Germany. In the novel, the most upstanding aspect where racism was tackled was when there were rumors that the President of the United States of America, Charles Lindbergh, was an isolationist, a Nazi sympathizer, and a fascist. The mere fact that the President was a Jew hater and an "American Nazi" inflicted horrifying trauma and terror on young Philip's mind and heart, greatly affecting what he is today.
The year was 1940, and Nazi Germany was at the peak of its power, the aviator and American hero Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. President Lindbergh had the clean image of a hero, a dedicated adventurer, a brave, handsome young man, a patriot, and a consummate American leader. When it was revealed by very reliable sources that President Lindbergh was against the Jews, that he despises the Jews, the world of the Roth family seemed like it is going to crumble down.
With their future looking very desolate, little Philip started pondering what life has in store for him, for he did not take too seriously the events that were wholeheartedly and terrifyingly confronted by his parents and the Jewish community in general. When they learnt of the victory of Lindbergh, their worlds were rocked because of the recurring rumors. All over the country, Jews were alarmed, and they have reasons to be alarmed, frantically alarmed.
The President was taking steps towards another edition of the Nazi German anti-Jewish pogroms that were the first steps taken by Hitler towards the eventual annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe. What gave the novel a humanistic rather than poignant perspective was that the story was narrated and seen through the eyes of the youngest in the Roth family, Philip.
Philip Roth keenly discussed in the novel what could have been, what should have been and what would have been had the event of Lindbergh assuming the Presidency were true. We can never know, but Mr. Roth gave us a sneak preview of an alternate life that might have been lived by him had his predictions came true.
The Holocaust, perhaps inspired Philip Roth to create a masterpiece which settled on the issue of the hate of people towards their Jewish compatriots and fellow men. The almost total eradication of the Jews by Hitler in the 1940s were perhaps to be taken lightly by a child, but a child will surely grow into a conscious adult. He just made known his past fears as a child, fears of a man, a great man, and the alleged qualities of him. True or otherwise, we can never know.
The Negroes came to America as slaves, brought by the European colonizers. They were treated like trash, like animals for centuries until the time came when they, and the concerned white men thought the maltreatment was too much, that the Negroes too have rights to equal treatment. Until now, they are yet to experience that utmost equality, the pure access to the status of being accepted in society. Tom and Huck befriend Jim's character in the novel, for they see what was beyond his dark skin, slave language and ugly appearance.
Mark Twain's allegedly inhuman description of Jim's character emanates from traditions of his era: "Writing at a time when the black-faced minstrel was still popular, and shortly after a war which left even the abolitionists weary of those problems associated with the Negro." Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition. Mark Twain described Jim as "illiterate, childlike, not bright and very superstitious and religious."
White folks dehumanized the Negroes from the very first time they stepped on American soil. In the novel, Jim was always overlooked and he feels always stomped upon by his slavemaster and the people around him. In the persons of Huck and Tom, he found friends. Friends who will not judge him by the color of his skin.
Huck Finn's readers are definitely and dramatically given another glimpse of the slave Jim's "human" self when Jim shows that he is feeling lonely for his unfortunate family. In one instance, Huck catches Jim "sitting there with his head down between his knees, moaning and mourning to himself." Huck admits: "I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it so."
Jim's human side and sensitive self is never more apparent in the story than in the part where he sacrifices his freedom for Tom Sawyer's life. The two pals help him escape from Phelps Farm, and while in midst of doing that, Tom is wounded. "It soon is very clear to Jim and Huck that his injuries are serious." Jim opts to stay with the wounded Tom while Huck summons a nearby doctor, even at the back of his mind he knows that he will most likely be captured and returned to "nigger slavery." Strongly adhering to the belief that Tom would do the same for him given their situations were reversed. Jim proceeds, "Nigger Jim is also human."
Analysis of the Comparison
Mark Twain is no racist, his book is a wonderful work of literature. It may be frank, and initially racially offensive, but if we take a look closer at what he had done to the character of Jim, he exposed the very wrong perception that black people are dumb, stupid and deserving to be slaves. He just exposed one of the harshest realities of American history, and that is racism. In America, that is the wrong way of thinking that superiority and inferiority are based on the color of one's skin. What Mr. Twain has written was about anti-slavery. Hats off to Mark Twain.
Philip Roth is a Jew. He was lucky to have been born in the United States. Were he born in Europe, he could have been one of the six million Jews that were exterminated during the holocaust. But no, he was lucky enough top have been an American. To get directly to the point, Philip Roth is an opponent of racism. In his novel, he exposed the prospective events that could have happened had the political atmosphere of America changed. Had the President replaced by a hero he despised, a hero he perceived as a pretender. And at that, experiencing all these rapturous moments as a seven-year-old youngster. Philip Roth further exposed the evils of racism, the loss of innocence and the deception brought about by power. Hats off to Mr. Roth
These two great creative thinkers, Twain and Roth, tackled the issue of one of the most evil forms of sin towards another man, racism. Twain took on the issue in a smaller-scale basis, in a small town where the hatred towards the Negroes was not to the extent that the haters are going to try and eradicate them like a bunch of animals. He advocated anti-racism. Both men did. They described in their works a world that is very far from being perfect, a world where hatred is rampant, and the evils of it are not foreseen. Through their masterpieces, they have moved a world that is turning a blind eye on all the forms of hate eating it.
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Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. United Kingdom, Chatto & Windus, 1884.