While it was clear that the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was controversial from the outset, Norman Mailer, writing in The New York Times in 1984, concluded that Twain's novel was not initially "too unpleasantly regarded." In fact, Mailer writes: "the critical climate could hardly anticipate T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway's encomiums 50 years later," reviews that would remain longstanding in the American consciousness.
Alberti suggests that the academic establishment responded to the book's challenges both dismissively and with confusion. During Twain's time, and today, defenders of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "lump all nonacademic critics of the book together as extremists and ‘censors' thus equating the complaints about the book's ‘coarseness' from the genteel bourgeois trustees of the Concord Public Library in the 1880s with more recent objections based on race and civil rights."
Upon issue of the American edition in 1885 several libraries banned it from their shelves. The early criticism focused on what was perceived as the book's crudeness. One incident was recounted in the newspaper, the Boston Transcript:
The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.
Twain later remarked to his editor, "Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums.' This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"
In 1905, New York's Brooklyn Public Library also banned the book due to "bad word choice" and Huck's having "not only itched but scratched" within the novel, which was considered obscene. When asked by a Brooklyn librarian about the situation, Twain replied:
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' & 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.
Many subsequent critics, Ernest Hemingway among them, have deprecated the final chapters, claiming the book "devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy" after Jim is detained. Although Hemingway declared, "All modern American literature comes from" Huck Finn, and hailed it as "the best book we've had", he cautioned, "If you must read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys sic. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating." Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers states in his Twain biography (Mark Twain: A Life) that "Huckleberry Finn endures as a consensus masterpiece despite these final chapters", in which Tom Sawyer leads Huck through elaborate machinations to rescue Jim.
The words "nigger" and "Jim" appear side-by-side once in the novel, in Chapter XXXI, in a letter Huck writes to Mrs. Watson, but they are not used as a name. The phrase "our old nigger Jim" also appears twice in Tom Sawyer, Detective. After "nigger Jim" appears in Albert Bigelow Paine's 1912 Clemens biography, it continued to be used by twentieth century critics, including Leslie Fiedler, Norman Mailer, and Russell Baker.
Writer Louisa May Alcott criticized the book's publication as well, saying that if Twain "[could not] think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them".