A Reasonable Basis for the Institution of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as Required Reading in High School

May 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

Mark Twain’s masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has over time, created controversy proportionate to its tremendous literary worth. The story of an “uncivilized” Southern boy and a runaway slave traveling up the Mississippi River towards freedom, Huckleberry Finn has been called offensive and ignoble since its first publication. At the same time, supporters such as Ernest Hemingway have hailed it as the book that “all modern American literature comes from” (quoted in Strauss). Objectors have historically protested the novel for its racist content and have successfully banned it in many instances. Others feel that the book is an essential part of the American literary canon and should be taught to all students. The controversy presented in this essay will not be resolved in the foreseeable future – both sides have legitimate, defensible cases. For this reason alone, I believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be required reading in an 11th grade American literature class. At first glance, objectors of Samuel Clemens’ novel appear to engage in a simplistic level of discourse. Parents, teachers, and likeminded individuals have historically protested the novel over the racism inherent to the material presented. Those concerned with matters of race find reason to ban the book over the word “nigger,” which appears in the text over 200 times. Such detractors claim that because of the overt racism presented, the novel enhances racial tension, makes black students uncomfortable, and can corrupt impressionable minds. Further, some have found the book to simply be a coarse story. Crusaders involved in one of the earliest bans on Huck Finn, undertaken by the Concord [Massachusetts] Public Library committee, labeled the book “rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating,” and “the veriest trash” (“Concord”). Such basic criticism of Huck Finn typically draws from a one-dimensional reading of the work. The character of Jim is most immediately portrayed as a stereotypically unintelligent, grotesque figure, and the novel itself ends with his capture and reenslavement. Huck, a naïve boy with no morality other than the flawed, inculcated Southern mores he takes for granted, narrates the story from an unwaveringly simple perspective. When judged at face value alone, this novel does indeed appear to be nothing but a bleak commentary about race relations in the 1800s with overwhelmingly racist overtones. Even the most obdurate or obtuse of Twain’s critics, however, are able to grasp the basic elements of satire, sarcasm, and irony apparent in Huck Finn. Twain was an ardent abolitionist and humanitarian in spite of the deeply rooted Southern culture around him. He had no intention of dehumanizing blacks by portraying a sardonic reality any more than Jonathan Swift intended to advocate infanticide. Indeed, the true controversy surrounding Twain’s novel does not lie simply within an objection lodged over such a basic and cynical view of the work. There exists a much stronger intellectual concern that finds itself at the heart of a modern controversy over how people should read and understand works of literature. In addition, the debate extends to what is to be considered part of the distinguished canon of “great literature,” a distinction most modern detractors would deign to concede to Huck Finn. On one side of this conflict are traditionalists, or formalists, who maintain that the point of literature “is to rise above such local and transitory problems by transmuting them into universal structures of language and image” (Graff). These individuals reject subjective criticism of a work of literature based on its ethical message. Instead, they believe that a work’s value and literary merit is based on an objective analysis of the work’s value as “art,” which relates to a work’s ability to describe, consider, or enlighten the human condition and a work’s compositional worth. By that standard, a work of literature cannot be appraised for the limitations of the time period from which it derives any more than “King Kong” could be considered an inferior film for its lack of computer-generated special effects or “Casablanca” for its lack of color. Traditionalists reject deliberation on literature’s ethics and are especially opposed to censorship on ethical grounds.. To them, it would be unfair to judge the Iliad for its reliance on myth, Lolita for its overt sexual situations, or the “Communist Manifesto” for its espousal of a radical doctrine. These works, traditionalists argue, have merit wholly independent of what incorrect, anachronous, or “unacceptable” beliefs or themes the works seem to advocate. Instead, their worth is contingent upon their capacity to transcend such temporal constraints, a capacity that happens to be extremely debatable for any work of poetry or prose. The traditionalists, for the most part, believe in a distinction between literature and its physical effects. Since words have a value apart from their impact on the reader and from their effect on the world, a demarcation between words and their “real” consequences must exist. Opponents to the traditional view focus on specific thematic and ethical messages within works of literature in their analyses. Among their ranks are Marxist critics, who appraise a work based on the class statuses and socioeconomic motives of various characters; feminist critics, who heavily analyze gender roles and conditions in literature; and racial critics, who generally look at a work’s treatment of racial boundaries. These individuals actively examine the ethical messages of novels and consider how works of literature affect readers by this message. The traditionalist and anti-traditionalist debate is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Huckleberry Finn. If all readers saw this book as traditionalists do, no objections to it would exist. Jim’s debasement is irrelevant to the literary merit of the novel. Reading the novel for its ethical message, however, puts it on the same shelf as Mein Kampf for a reader sensitive to racial issues. Jim’s character and plight recall outdated, stereotypical roles of blacks. His position serves only to help cultivate the morality and civility of his white friend, Huck. Various writings bolster this appraisal of Jim as a character. Ralph Ellison likens Jim to a minstrel in blackface, albeit a strongly moral one. Toni Morrison attests to the necessity of Jim’s role as the inferior: “[This] representation… can be read as the yearning of whites for forgiveness and love, but the yearning is made possible only when it is understood that Jim has recognized his inferiority (not as slave, but as black) and despises it ” (56). Ultimately, Morrison argues, “It is not what Jim seems that warrants inquiry, but what Mark Twain [and] Huck… need from him that should solicit our attention” (57). Others have articulated their rage about the novel in similar terms: “It’s not the word “nigger” I’m objecting to, it’s the whole range of assumptions about slavery and its consequences, and about how whites should deal with liberated slaves, and how liberated slaves should behave or will behave towards whites, good ones and bad ones. That book is just bad education, and the fact that it’s so cleverly written makes it even more troublesome to me” (Paul Moses paraphrased in Booth, 3). The debate about Huck Finn provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the engaging, vocal debate about literary interpretation. The controversy between traditionalists and non-traditionalists rages in academic halls around the world, and all literature students will encounter it eventually. These views are both solid mainstays of modern literary criticism, and students would do well to begin considering them as early as high school. Ironically, the controversy over whether or not a novel should be taught is itself the reason it must be taught. Why must we teach Huck Finn in particular to exemplify this debate? First, as shown above, it is at the epicenter of the traditionalist controversy and therefore as fine an example as we will find of how this debate plays out.. Second, and more importantly, the novel is one of the bravest, most deliberate, most powerfully-written novels dealing with race. A highly esteemed author himself, Ralph Ellison acknowledges that “Surely for literature there is some rare richness here” (422). Its success is due in part to Twain’s intent, at the outset, to create a work of brilliant satire, infusing his story with irony and a thickly accented narrative. For its frank, carefully constructed, and all too relevant treatment of race relations, American history, and Southern culture, Huck Finn is an indispensable part of the high school curriculum. Works CitedBarr, Kevin J. “The Teaching of ‘Huckleberry Finn.'” Washington Post 25 March 1995: A17. Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.Britt, Donna. “On Race.” Washington Post: B1, B7. “The Concord Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book.” Boston Transcript 17 March, 1885.Ellison, Ralph. “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 421-422.Graff, Gerald. “Debate the Canon in Class.” New Literary History: Autumn 1990.Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Rich, Frank. “Dropping the N-Bomb.” New York Times 16 March 1995: 5.Trilling, Lionel. “The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn.” Introduction. Huckleberry Finn. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1948. 323-324. Yardley, Jonathan. “Huck Finn and the Ebb and Flow of Controversy.” Washington Post 13 March 1995.

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