It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain's consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what's wrong with his society and what's right about his own transgressive behavior. Twain, on the other hand, knows the score. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying. In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that "one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes -- partially -- of a young white boy." Are you saying, I asked Ellison, "that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author? That they're saying that Twain saw him that way rather than that Huck did?" "Yes," was Ellison's answer.
Clemens as a child accepted without question, as Huck did, the idea that slaves were property; neither wanted to be called a "low-down Abolitionist" if he could possibly help it. Between the time of that Hannibal childhood and adolescence, however, and the years in which Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Twain's consciousness changed. By 1885, when the book was published, Samuel Clemens held views that were very different from those he ascribed to Huck. It might be helpful at this point to chart for your students the growth of the author's developing moral awareness on the subject of race and racism -- starting with some of his writings on the persecution of the Chinese in San Francisco (such as Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy), then moving through his marriage into an abolitionist family, the 1869 anti-lynching editorial that he published in The Buffalo Express entitled Only a Nigger, and his exposure to figures like Frederick Douglass and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.
By the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens had come to believe not only that slavery was a horrendous wrong, but that white Americans owed black Americans some form of "reparations" for it. One graphic way to demonstrate this fact to your students is to share with them the letter Twain wrote to the Dean of the Yale Law School in 1885, in which he explained why he wanted to pay the expenses of Warner McGuinn, one of the first black law students at Yale. "We have ground the manhood out of them," Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, "and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it."
Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him? "All right, then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery. Samuel Clemens might be convinced that slavery itself and its legacy are filled with shame, but Huck is convinced that his reward for defying the moral norms of his society will be eternal damnation.
Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck's voice, combined with Twain's satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was. Expose your students to the work of some of Twain's African-American contemporaries, such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Those voices can greatly enrich students' understanding of both the issues Huckleberry Finn raises and the vernacular style in which it raises them.
If W.E.B. Du Bois was right that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line, one would never know it from the average secondary-school syllabus, which often avoids issues of race almost completely. Like a Trojan horse, however, Huck Finn can slip into the American literature classroom as a "classic," only to engulf students in heated debates about prejudice and racism, conformity, autonomy, authority, slavery and freedom. It is a book that puts on the table the very questions the culture so often tries to bury, a book that opens out into the complex history that shaped it -- the history of the ante-bellum era in which the story is set, and the history of the post-war period in which the book was written -- and it requires us to address that history as well. Much of that history is painful. Indeed, it is to avoid confronting the raw pain of that history that black parents sometimes mobilize to ban the novel. Brushing history aside, however, is no solution to the larger challenge of dealing with its legacy. Neither is placing the task of dealing with it on one book.
We continue to live, as a nation, in the shadow of racism while being simultaneously committed, on paper, to principles of equality. As Ralph Ellison observed in our interview, it is this irony at the core of the American experience that Mark Twain forces us to confront head-on.
History as it is taught in the history classroom is often denatured and dry. You can keep your distance from it if you choose. Slaveholding was evil. Injustice was the law of the land. History books teach that. But they don't require you to look the perpetrators of that evil in the eye and find yourself looking at a kind, gentle, good-hearted Aunt Sally. They don't make you understand that it was not the villains who made the system work, but the ordinary folks, the good folks, the folks, who did nothing more than fail to question the set of circumstances that surrounded them, who failed to judge that evil as evil and who deluded themselves into thinking they were doing good, earning safe passage for themselves into heaven.
When accomplished fiction writers expose the all-too-human betrayals that well-meaning human beings perpetrate in the name of business-as-usual, they disrupt the ordered rationalizations that insulate the heart from pain. Novelists, like surgeons, cut straight to the heart. But unlike surgeons, they don't sew up the wound. They leave it open to heal or fester, depending on the septic level of the reader's own environment.
Irony, history, and racism all painfully intertwine in our past and present, and they all come together in Huck Finn. Because racism is endemic to our society, a book like Huck Finn, which brings the problem to the surface, can explode like a hand grenade in a literature classroom accustomed to the likes of Macbeth or Great Expectations -- works which exist at a safe remove from the lunchroom or the playground. If we lived in a world in which racism had been eliminated generations before, teaching Huck Finn would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. The difficulties we have teaching this book reflect the difficulties we continue to confront in our classrooms and our nation. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students to decode irony, to understand history, and to be repulsed by racism and bigotry wherever they find it. But this is the task of a lifetime. It's unfair to force one novel to bear the burden -- alone -- of addressing these issues and solving these problems. But Huck Finn -- and you -- can make a difference.
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Huckleberry Finn in High Schools
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Huckleberry Finn in High Schools
High Schools in the United States should not ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This book is one of the most important components of American literature in our libraries today, it throws the reader into a time when slavery was lawful and accepted, and gives the reader a new perspective on slavery in general. Until civil rights groups can come up with a better argument than the word “nigger” creating a “hostile work environment”(Zwick) it should not be taken off the required reading list of any High School in the country.
Every one hundred years dialects change and what is considered “politically correct”, or socially acceptable, changes. “David Bradley argues that ‘if we'd eradicated the problem of racism in our society, Huckleberry Finn would be the easiest book in the world to teach’” (Zwick, Jim. “Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?”). If we, as a nation, make it a point to rule out all books that could possibly offend students, then every hundred years or so our library of American Literature will be completely different. Even today, modern day authors use vulgar language, lurid sexual content, and racial slurs to get their point across. If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is taken off of required reading lists across the country, then that could create a never-ending cycle of books being taken off of school shelves every time words and ideas become unacceptable. If this is the way that American society is turning then something must be done, and the Superintendents, Deans, and Principals of every High School around the country must take it upon themselves to do it because the students will not.
The people who are trying to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are only trying to block out a part of American history that they would just as soon be forgotten, but every part of American history needs to be dealt with and accepted by everyone at a young age. Trying to shield students from any important part of history is a crime within itself. Hannibal, Missouri is a prime example of this type of crime. Every year they have a citywide celebration of Mark Twain, but they do not celebrate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson nor do they teach it in their schools. Best stated by Shelly Fisher Fishkin, the theater company in Hannibal “was upholding a long American tradition of making slavery and its legacy and blacks themselves invisible”(Zwick, Jim.
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“Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?”). This just shows how foolish many parts of America can be; they embrace him and call him a genius in one aspect, but they conveniently don’t seem to notice his genius in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because they are too distracted by the language and actions of Huckleberry Finn himself.
Just because a book has some offensive content is not enough of a reason to ban a book, the general value of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn greatly overshadows any offensive language it may contain. It shows how the American public thought back then, their morals, and their way of life. It was simply they way they were brought up. In Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in a steamboat accident, Huck replies, "No'm. Killed a nigger”(Twain 167). The subject is then closed because no “people” were harmed, and in their minds, nobody was. That is something that cannot be expressed in a textbook or a teacher with the same degree of authenticity. The book immerses the student in a time where slavery was accepted. Teachers taught it, pastors preached it, mayors practiced it, and children saw absolutely nothing wrong with it because that is how they had been brought up. Huckleberry, however, was not raised “proper” and so had an almost completely clean head about the subject “The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time” (Twain 1). He saw Jim as a person and was even willing to go to hell to protect him. Just his use of the word “nigger” did not make him a bad person; it was exactly the way people talked back in that period of time. The book tries to show that black people were just as human as white people and was probably the most blatant anti-slavery book of the time, “many scholars consider it a staunchly antiracist novel”(Zwick, Jim. “Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?”). If only that idea was appreciated today, the book would come across as a classic instead of a source of debate.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an avid anti-slavery novel, and despite flawed criticism from close-minded individuals, is one of the finest windows into a dark period of history that we all must deal with. One will not completely understand the way of life when slavery was accepted until they have read an entirely unbiased and uncensored book written during that time and dealing with the topic of slavery.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994.
Zwick, Jim. “Banned Books and American Culture”. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Banned Book. 2 February 2001. .
Zwick, Jim. “Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?”. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Banned Book. 2 February 2001.