Edited by Barry Honold
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (set in the 1840s) was published in 1885, after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It was the beginning of the Jim Crow era and open racial resentment, especially in the South. The routine use of the denigrating word “n****r” was part of this prejudice. Its use at the time was not reviled the way it is today. Twain’s use of it in the novel was an accurate reflection of the “time, place, and people about which he was writing,” according to a Syracuse Stage article. Roger Miller and William Hauptman decided to keep the use of the word for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The article also notes that “the use of Twain’s original language, however truthful to the time, requires a degree of discussion and context not entirely provided by the production alone.” The book has long been a source of controversy. It was decried as too vulgar, too vernacular, and most recently (and seriously) racist. Here are some excerpts from various scholars and teachers who have written about Twain and race.
From Lucille Fultz’s review of Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn:
The editors…have compiled some of the most conflicting and controversial critical perspectives on Huckleberry Finn in a highly charged volume that leaves its readers with no stable or comfortable position on Twain’s novel….With the benefit of more than a century of critical studies of Twain’s novel and the responses of several generations of readers, the critics assembled here, within an Afrocentric matrix…historicize and contextualize the issues raised by Huckleberry Finn.
In the first essay, “The Case Against Huck Finn, John H. Wallace…characterizes the novel as “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written…whether the author intended it to be or not.” [He] defends his position on the grounds that no teacher is able to counter the racism and pain engendered in black readers when they hear [that word] and observe the dehumanization of Jim.
Toni Morrison’s reading…grants the use of [that word] as racial and offers a radical counterpoint to Wallace’s assessment of Twain’s novel….She holds that the word…is “inextricable from Huck’s deliberations about who and what he himself is – or more precisely, is not.” Morrison insists that Huck’s moral maturation as a human being is contingent of Jim and that “freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement…the signed, marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave.”
From “Old Dog/New Tricks: Reteaching Huck Finn and Pop Culture” (Elisabeth Haley, National Council of Teachers of English):
Everyone knows the problem with teaching Huck Finn. Mr. Twain, himself, would greatly appreciate the irony in the fact that the novel he wrote to condemn racism is one century later condemned as racist trash. The novel is a stick of dynamite that could explode even before being ignited. No teacher in her right mind wants to teach it. But wait a minute…the truth is the novel is as timely today as it was in 1875. Who denies the fact that we live in a world of gang wars, con artists, parents with drug-abuse problems, neglected youth, and racial conflict?
….there is one character who, in the midst of all the confusion and negative messages in his society, in spite of his lack of parental direction or support, looks deeply into his soul and uncovers a strong moral conscience and a working understanding of his own convictions. Most importantly, the book is a tale of an interracial friendship that is one of the enduring bonds of loyalty in all literature. So the problem remains: how to preserve the character and messages in the novel while avoiding the offensive text?
From “Teaching Huck Finn in a Multiethnic Classroom” (Ann Lew, NCTE):
….I took a class called “Race and Literature…” where Huck Finn was a required text. I told the professor of my recent experience with teaching this novel; he encouraged me to investigate any question that would help me teach it again….I reread the novel and examined each episode that involves Jim.
Contrary to the charges of negative stereotyping, Jim is consistently shown to be smart, assertive, and compassionate. In his quiet, gentle way, he boldly violates the behavior code of the slave as prescribed by the white system. He emerges as a superior character who not only teaches Huck morality but who himself rises above the brutalizing effects of slavery.
Is Huck Finn a valuable piece of literature, and is Jim an appropriate role model for teenagers in the 1990s? If the novel is taught in the context of history and if the students are provided adequate guidance in their reading and interpretation, I would give an enthusiastic “yes” to both questions. Considerations of time and place are crucial to understanding behavior; students must be made aware of what the struggle for justice entailed in the nineteenth century. However, without guidance, students may not get beyond the language to understand the substance of Twain’s message. Worse yet, they might totally misread him, as so many people continue to do.
From “Huck Finn: Born to Trouble” (Katherine Schulten, NCTE):
In 1995, a group of African American students…eleventh graders who had previously been A students – suddenly began failing tests and quizzes in their English class. As long as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being taught…they would no longer do the work. Before assigning it, the teacher had not mentioned that the book was controversial, nor had she mentioned the 200-plus instances of the word…in the novel. As a result…no one was prepared for the power of the word in class. White students would nervously “snicker” or “turn around and stare” at the few African American students when the word was read aloud. [Those] students…felt too self-conscious to speak up or ask their teacher for help. Instead, they went home and told their parents. Long frustrated with the lack of multicultural content in the district’s curricula in general, their parents decided it was time to act….It took nearly a year, but in the end [everybody] found a way to teach Huck Finn that addressed each group’s concerns.
[Curriculum co-developer Sandy Forchion’s] position was unique: “I was a black English teacher who was against censorship but who had despised the way Huck Finn was taught to me when I was in school.” [Matthew] Carr says that his desire to get involved hinged on learning early on that this challenge to Huck Finn was “not just some current ‘PC’ thing but an issue that had been raised continuously over the last forty years. “I realized this was long-term and had caused deep-rooted anger and pain,” he says.
“We looked for demeaning areas, places where students might find the portrayal of blacks laughable,” [Forchion noted]. Then they countered these passages with documents from the period that give additional background. They believe students will be less likely to dismiss Jim’s superstition as simple-minded…if they understand them in the context of slave life and religion. Ending the unit with a slave narrative, such as…Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, helps students look at forms of resistance and opens a discussion about whether “wearing a mask,” as Jim does, is as valid a form of resistance as any other.
What do you and your students think?