The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: One of Our Favorite Challenged Books

E.W. Kemble's frontispiece to the original 1884 edition
E.W. Kemble’s frontispiece to the original illustrated edition

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, undoubtedly one of the Great American Novels, ranks a healthy #5 on the ALA’s list the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Young Huck’s casual colloquial use of the word “nigger” and the cruel hijinks Huck and Tom play on Jim at the novel’s end are two reasons that many have sought to suppress Twain’s masterpiece, including educator and critic John Wallace, who famously called it “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever given our children to read.” Wallace went so far as to suggest that “Any teacher caught trying to use that piece of trash with our children should be fired on the spot, for he or she is either racist, insensitive, naive, incompetent or all of the above.”

I guess I should’ve been fired on the spot, as I’ve used Huck Finn in my classroom a number of times, almost always in conjunction with excerpts from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, some Philis Wheatley poems, and a UN report on modern human trafficking. Context is everything.

While I can concede readily that Huck, the voice of the novel, says some pretty degrading things about Jim, often meant (on Twain’s part) to create humor for the reader, to expect Twain’s treatment of race to be what we in the 21st century want it to be is to not treat the material with any justice. And while Huck Finn may be insensitive at times, it handles the issues of race, slavery, class, and escape from the dominant social order with the complexity and thought that such weighty issues deserve. Ultimately, the novel performs a critique on the hypocrisy of a “Christian,” “democratic” society that thought it was okay to buy and sell people. This critique shows up right in the second page. Consider these lines (boldface mine):

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them,—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Huck’s dream is of a delicious mix, a swapping of juices — integration. Additionally, his disregard for the dead Bible heroes reveals that the white Christian society’s obsession with the ancient past comes at the expense of contemporary value. Huck, an orphan, and Jim, separated from his family, will symbolically echo Moses in the bulrushes as they use the great Mississippi as a conduit for escape, for freedom. Huck (or Twain, really) here points out that it’s not enough to look at dead words on a page, on old dead lawgivers–we have to pay attention to the evils and wrongs and hypocrisies that live today.

Twain even tells us how to read his book from the outset:

Now, it’s impossible to read a book–a good book–without finding its plot, searching for its moral, or caring about its characters, and Twain knows this. His “Notice” is tantamount to saying “don’t think about an elephant”–he uses irony to tell us we must find motive, moral, and plot here, and that we must do so through this lens of irony.

But of course, you have to read closely for all these things. I suppose it’s technically easier to call something trash, throw it in the garbage, and not have to devote time and energy to thinking about it. Who knows? You might learn something–and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this piece in September of 2008].

6 thoughts on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: One of Our Favorite Challenged Books”

  1. What do you think about this new edited version that removes the word “nigger”? I heard the editor (also an English professor and Mark Twain scholar) on Talk of the Nation yesterday. He seemed to understand the importance of keeping a text uncensored, but also the need for teachers to be able to teach the book in an environment which might be more likely to ban it. Apparently he edited this version for that specific need.

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    1. Hi, Jenny — I reposted the piece b/c of the controversy (I originally wrote this in 08). I get why the guy is doing it, and I’m not reactionary enough to think that this is going to be “the” version of Huck Finn . . . but I think that his editorial choice is poor — words are ideas, and “slave” is also an offensive idea.
      I think his “solution” to the problem of the book getting banned feeds into the problem, rather than solving it. I taught high school English for seven years at a high school with a predominantly black population (about 94% the last year I taught) and never had any issue with any text. I think this was because I was always open and honest and frank in the way I taught the texts.
      I understand that the word “nigger” can be deeply hurtful, but one of literature’s primary jobs is to open up wounds, to, to crib from Kafka “be the ice axe that breaks the frozen lakes of our souls.” We find the word “nigger” in Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Conrad — and I offer this list without any forethought. We find racial slurs in Shakespeare, where we also find mutilation, gang rape, pre-marital sex, adultery, cuckolding, dick jokes, regicide, fratricide, infanticide, witchcraft, etc. etc. etc.
      The job of those who use literature in their classrooms (not just English teachers) is to navigate the complexities of what is taboo in literature without glossing over how the lit touches on the taboo. To put it another way: if the kids in your class are not mature enough to handle this Twain text, don’t use it. If you are not a competent enough (or daring enough) teacher to take on the text as it is, don’t teach it. Removing the word “nigger” is a severe, significant edit to the book; it’s a glossing over. The editor might as well rewrite the final chapters (as Bowdler did with Shakespeare) of the book, which are deeply cruel in their treatment of Jim.

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  2. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this new edited version, especially since I’ve never been a teacher, so I’m glad I asked you. Thank you.

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  3. I am afraid that the issue will not end there and there will be more interferances in our classic novels. They should realize that the offensive words used to be part of our history and nothing can change this. A much better approach would be to explain to children that the usage of the word is inappropriate today.

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    1. Lorne, I’m afraid that you’re right. Some folks have claimed that too many people are getting too upset about this edit, but I think it represents a slippery slope — what will get edited next, and why? I think that it’s also part of the infantilization of our culture, of our culture’s relentless project to make babies out of its citizens.

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  4. This comment has little to do with Twain dropping N-bombs, but more to do with how we view books as artifacts. I fear that the use of Kindles, and the transformation of the book into nothing more than a digital file increases the risk that publishers might tinker with objectionable portions of notable and not-so-notable works, sending these ideas that people can’t handle down Orwell’s memory hole, never to be recovered. People are outraged only because someone is going back and changing a well-regarded classic. Will large groups give a hump or even notice if other texts are changed? What about books in translation?

    The dangers are mitigated somewhat in this case because there are so many paper copies of Huck Finn in circulation. This certainly isn’t the case with large numbers of books published in recent years.

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