By Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom.)
The novel, which follows a white tweenager and black man as they run away from abuse and oppression down the Mississippi River, is not only anti-slavery, but anti-racist as well, an uncommon position in the 1880s. Many modern Americans fail to realize that even most abolitionists held intensely racist beliefs. However, Mark Twain was not among them. After being asked about black students entering prestigious universities in 1885, Twain had this to say: "I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it." Twain went on to pay the full tuition and costs at Yale Law School for Warner T. McGuinn, one of the first black students at the school and later a lawyer praised by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others. The point here is that the novel is not a promotion of slavery or racism; instead, it is biting satire of all the worst parts of American culture (in Twain's eyes) -- racism, slavery, abusive parents, alcoholism, blind nationalism, religious revival movements, bawdy entertainment, con men, and stupid, ignorant, gullible, and mean people of all kinds. Unfortunately, people have always misunderstood the book. After its initial publication, it was criticized as "indecent" and "shameful" because of its humor, its use of a child narrator, its use of dialect, and even its anti-racist message. By the second half of the 20th century, people began to object to the book's inclusion of the dreaded "n-word." However, even that criticism was not always genuine or fair. Many people who objected to the book's message of racial equality and inclusion used the racial slur as an excuse to remove the novel from schools. More recently, people offer sincere objections to the book's racial slurs. One professor, Dr. Alan Gribben, recently revised and republished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through a company called NewSouth Publishing; in his text, he replaces every instance of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." Gribben claims to have made the change to reduce teachers' and students' discomfort with the text and class discussions; however, it renders the book colorblind. Gribben's edits put modern readers' focus on slavery, which had been illegal for nearly two decades when Twain published the novel, rather than race, which is the real core of the book. Consider that Twain writes and publishes this book in 1884 but sets it in the 1830s or 1840s. Why? Because a story with a race-related moral would be better understood by his audience if put in the context of slavery. When we replace racial terms with slavery terms, we confuse the issues. We forget that the vast majority of slaves in world history have not been black and that the vast majority of black people who have ever lived have not been slaves. Surely Twain opposed slavery, but the slavery issue was mostly settled at the time of publication. This is a book about (and against) racism. People's objections to Twain's use of the n-word are fine on the surface, except that the book is among the most anti-racist books of its era, perhaps any era; the language is more symptomatic of time period and realism than intent. That is not to say that readers' concerns, objections, and feelings aren't legitimate -- they are. Revered history professor Sterling Stuckey says, "In my judgment, 'Huck Finn' is one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written.'' As intelligent, culturally-literate Americans, we must deal with a tough question -- should we ever be asked to experience discomfort on our journey to enlightenment?
Enlightenment is at the heart of this great novel. In perhaps the plot's most important moment, young Huck grapples with society's ethics, his own morals, racism, slavery, and his loyalty to his friend Jim, a runaway slave. When faced with a decision between leaving Jim to be re-enslaved far from home, returning him to his 'rightful' owner and be re-enslaved, or defying all his school, church, and social learning by working to free Jim from his new captivity and continue to help him find freedom -- a decision between doing the 'right thing' according to society or the 'right thing' according to his heart -- Huck declares, "All right then, I'll go to hell." Huck may not have achieved true enlightenment just yet, but he makes a choice that he never regrets and that shapes his future acts -- he will always do what is right, regardless of what society says.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a leading candidate for the title of 'Great American Novel.' It incorporates important elements of our national ethos: rugged individualism, naturalism and realism, complicated history, racism, slavery, coming of age, and -- above all -- the ongoing struggle between personal morals and social ethics. Because of the book's language, fewer and fewer teachers use this book, often deciding that "it just isn't worth the trouble anymore," but growth is rarely easy, progress requires a struggle, and art thrives on challenges. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though not perfect, is special, is purposeful, is thoughtful, is moral, decent, and a must-read for any person desiring better understandings of morality, racism, or American culture.
This book deserves an A+ for its literary innovations, cultural significance, and educational offerings.
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ORDER INFO: The first book link above (McDougal Littell Literary Connections) is recommended because it the copy that Mr. Tibbens has and that the school offers. Class discussions and lectures will include book references and page numbers from that edition; it is available for purchase via the link AND for free borrowing from the school book room. The Bantam (2nd above) and Dover (3rd above) editions are of similar cost and quality, though the Bantam version has slightly larger margins for annotating. The Norton (4th above) is a nicer binding and includes analytical and informative support texts, but it does cost a bit more. The 5th book is a reprinting of the original text, including illustrations and other extras from early printings. Any original, unabridged edition of the book is acceptable for class use. Ebooks and audiobooks are widely available (often for free/cheap), but they make annotations extremely difficult, so they are not recommended unless paired with a traditional hard copy. Contact the teacher with questions.
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