More than 25 years have passed since I last taught Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn" to high school students, and yet today, this masterpiece of literature is again embroiled in controversy.
Historically, arguments for banning the book have ranged from objections to Huck’s language to his "sin" of aiding a black man, a slave. In today’s sensitive racial environment, the main objection is Twain’s repeated use of the word "nigger." A Twain scholar has now suggested that the word "slave" be substituted. This "Twain scholar" seems not to know his subject. Twain had once ordered that someone who had the temerity to correct his work be shot.
Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuck, whose columns appear weekly in the editorial pages of the Star-Advertiser, discussed this controversy on Jan. 10 ("Should ‘N-word’ be removed from ‘Huckleberry Finn’?"). Both strongly agreed that no piece of literature should be tampered with. They parted company, however, on the solution. Mathis suggested that the novel be taught only to more mature college students. Boychuk said "’Huckleberry Finn’ should be taught early and often." I agree.
For a brief period in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a movement to include in school curricula classes to teach "character" and "morality." My response has been that if literature were taught properly, you wouldn’t need such classes. And the question is, of course, how should literature be taught?
The first step is the choice of material. Why teach "Huckleberry Finn" to young people? Why not Twain’s equally famous "Tom Sawyer"? Both books, as enjoyable adventure stories of young scamps, have great appeal for young people. But "Tom Sawyer" does not require careful analysis and study. "Tom Sawyer" has no moral content, no lesson to be learned and no larger human issues to be confronted. "Tom Sawyer" is not great literature.
Great literature teaches as well as entertains It presents a moral or ethical issue that forms the basis for the plot. The protagonist is confronted with a moral dilemma and he or she struggles with it.
Great literature has authenticity. It presents an accurate picture of the book’s time and place. It challenges the reader; it forces the reader to think.
"Huckleberry Finn" does all of these things. Huck is essentially an orphan (his father is the town drunkard) who has seldom lived in "civilized society." The kind ladies of his town attempt to educate him, but it doesn’t take.
Most important, Huck doesn’t understand why his black friend, Jim, is being hunted down. As the two travel on a raft down the Mississippi, we see two human beings with feelings for one another. Huck has to decide what the right thing to do is. According to his society, the right thing would be for him to take Jim back to his owner. But Huck’s natural instincts won’t allow him to do that. Meanwhile, he visits the small towns along the river and sees examples of good people doing bad things; he sees the hypocrisy and the chicanery and the gullibility. In effect, Huck gets a real education.
Students should be told the context of the book, its background about what society was like, what was acceptable and what was not. In Huck’s time the word "nigger" was routinely used and slavery was a reality. Wouldn’t confronting that reality help young people today understand that in that world bigotry was rampant, and to appreciate the progress we’ve made?
Great literature deals with themes that provide insight into the human condition; it moves readers to understand and empathize with others and, in the process, understand themselves.
So let’s not tamper with a great work. Let’s let Twain and Huck be themselves. And "Huckleberry Finn" to be taught in every high school.