The Case for Huck

The Nooning, by Winslow Homer; c.1872

As a child, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on three separate occasions with increasing amounts of delight and discomfort — delight at the narrative’s splendid combination of adventure, humor, and pathos, and discomfort at the 219 uses of the word nigger and other racial characterizations that, to my naive and well-meaning mind, did not sound “right”. But my reading skills also increased with each new encounter with the text, and with my cumulative understanding of the novel I eventually broke free of my discomfort and embraced it as an affirmation of humanity’s potential for empathy and kindness. And yet, my experience seems to be exceptional: more than one hundred and twenty-five years after its first American publication, Huckleberry Finn continues to incite outrage and hurt feelings.  The ALA reports that from 2000-2009, the novel was the 14th most challenged book in America, ranking above even Holden Caulfield’s cuss-ridden, prostitute-featuring novel. There are even some educational pundits who go so far as to claim that the book causes “our children embarrassment about their heritage” (Wallace 266). I do not deny that there exist certain educators who handle their curricula clumsily and who could therefore ostensibly allow for “embarrassment” among the students, but this fault lies entirely with the teacher, not the book. A clear-thinking deep reader will easily identify Huck’s transition over the course of the narrative from a naive boy who does not think to question the institution of slavery to a compassionate young man who is ready to risk eternal damnation in order to keep his friend out of bonds. But it is unfortunately not always the case that every educator is a clear-thinking deep reader, and thus offense is given and feelings are hurt. This wonderful spiritual transition is tossed aside, and the novel, taught carelessly and out of context, is labeled as racist.

Huck deserves better. The bounds of his consciousness reach almost to the limits of Hamlet’s, which is to say that he is a model thinker for us all. Huck is overtly aware of his surroundings, and he changes as he realizes his reactions to what occurs around him. To label him as unfit for adolescent Americans because he says words which out of context hurt feelings is quite literally to judge a book by its cover, which even in our obsessively politically correct pop culture is a widely acknowledged sin. In the end, after all that Huck experiences and learns over the course of his book, his story speaks louder than his words. I am hard-pressed to find anywhere in American literature before or since Huckleberry Finn a statement more powerful than Huck’s declaration, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 223) — soliloquized by Huck at his crisis of conscience as he decides it is better to help steal Jim away from his owners than to do the “right” thing in the eyes of his society and turn over his friend to the authorities. It boggles my mind that such rapturous poignance is tossed aside simply because certain educators are too inept as readers to grasp the resonating importance of this declaration. A clear-thinking, deep-reading teacher will provide his or her students with the skills necessary to reach these conclusions on their own, and then — most importantly — facilitate discussions so these conclusions can process through the students’ adolescent minds so that ultimately, with any luck, the students will be able to glimpse what unabashed humanity looks like. It is all there in the novel. Citizenship is a concept commonly pushed in contemporary American schools; how is Huck’s resignation to eternal damnation in order to ensure the safety of his friend not exemplary of this?

One of the strongest voices to support the continued study of Huckleberry Finn comes from Toni Morrison, also one of the strongest voices among living African-American writers. In her introduction to the 1996 Oxford University Press edition of the novel, she says of its banning due to the prolific use of the n-word,

It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution. A serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher certainly would have benefited my eighth-grade class and would have spared all of us (a few blacks, many whites — mostly second-generation immigrant children) some grief. (Morrison 386)

Thus, an “intelligent teacher” would have spared the eighth-grade Morrison the “profoundly distasteful complicity” she elsewhere in the essay remarks accompanied her pleasure upon reading the novel in her class. I argue that this “amazing, troubling book” — as Morrison calls it — is a natural fit in every eighth grade English curriculum. The protagonist is the same age as the average eighth grade student, he speaks in the vernacular common to young people of his time and place, he struggles with the values of his society — just as each eighth grade student at some point, in some way, struggles with the values of his or her society — and, most importantly, he reaches profound revelations about the truth and nature of compassion and humanity, which every caring, student-centered educator perennially wishes upon the young people in his or her classroom. Thus, let us eschew the “purist yet elementary kind of censorship” and instead provide our eighth graders with clear-thinking, deep-reading teachers capable of leading them to epiphanies of self and society.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. “Modern Views.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By Mark Twain. Ed. Thomas Cooley. 3rd ed.New York: Norton, 1999. 337-392. Print. Norton Critical Editions.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. 3rd ed.New York: Norton, 1999. Print. Norton Critical Editions.

Wallace, John H. “The Case against Huck Finn.” Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Stephen K George. 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman, 2005. 265-272. Print.

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