Getting Past Black and White

It took a writer as deft and daring as Twain to teach Americans some useful lessons about race

Library of Congress

Twain with John Lewis, who may have partly inspired the character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain has been called the inventor of the American novel. It might even be fair to call him the inventor of the American short story. And he surely deserves an additional encomium: the man who popularized the sophisticated literary attack on racism.

I say sophisticated because antislavery fiction--some of it by former slaves--had been a staple of the years before the Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is only the most famous example. These early stories dealt directly with slavery. With minor exceptions, Twain melded his attacks on slavery and prejudice into tales that were on the surface...

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