- 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].