Mark Twain wrote most of the first 16 chapters of Huckleberry Finn during the summer of 1876. Then he put the novel down. When he picked it up again, in 1883, he was a changed man, living in a changed country. When Twain began writing his novel, there were still anti-slavery Republican governments in place in a number of Southern states, and the federal government had a large number of officers in place in the South, primarily to protect the interest of recently freed blacks. Those interests could, for the first time in American history, be protected, through the use of laws recently passed in the Civil Rights Act. When Twain wrote the first half of his novel, the political and social framework allowing (and, indeed, necessitating) racial integration in society was still in place.
But the world in which the first half of the novel was written was rapidly changing. Among the more important factors in the failure of Reconstruction and Civil Rights in post-bellum America were the numerous Supreme Court decisions that limited and ultimately virtually abrogated the Civil Rights Amendments. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be read with this backdrop in mind. The story up to Chapter 17, which was written in the summer of 1876, before the end of political Reconstruction and when the Civil Rights Act was still considered good law, is full of both latent and actualized hopefulness. The rest of the novel was written in the summer and fall of 1883 – just around the time the Civil Rights Cases was being decided. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court severely limited the post-Civil War Amendments giving newly freed blacks rights and, perhaps more importantly, decided that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. The second half of Huckleberry Finn, written and revised after this decision, is in many ways an elegy of despair to the failures of Reconstruction in the political and social spheres and the limitations on Reconstruction put in place by the Supreme Court.
— Bezalel Stern is a lawyer and writer. His case study on the Supreme Court’s influence on Huckleberry Finn, “Huck Finn and the Civil Rights Cases,” was published in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts. Stern’s essays and reviews have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is currently a fellow at the Center for Fiction.