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HucK FinN Essay, Research Paper

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Guide to Online ResourcesBy Jim ZwickAdventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of Mark Twain’s most loved, most influential, and most controversial books. It was banned from the Concord Public Library in 1885, the year of its publication, and Huckleberry Finn ranks number five in the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s. But in 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Not surprisingly, Huckleberry Finn is one of Twain’s books that is most thoroughly represented on the Web. It, along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective — three other books in which Huck Finn appears — were among the first of Twain’s books added to the Project Gutenberg etext library in 1993. A search for “Huckleberry Finn” on the Web will list thousands of pages, making it very difficult to find the information you need. This guide is intended to provide a more focused directory of online resources related to the novel. They range from information about childhood and Mississippi River experiences that Twain drew upon in his writing to the latest controversies about teaching the book in America’s schools. Perhaps because it is an especially difficult book to teach, there are more resources online about teaching Huckleberry Finn than about any of Mark Twain’s other books. Also included within the guide are links to resources on the historical contexts of both the pre-Civil War South in which the novel takes place and the post-Reconstruction era in which Twain was writing. Along with the comparatively solid biographical and critical information about the book available online, these historical resources should prove to be especially useful for teachers, parents, and students seeking to understand Twain’s portrayal of slavery and interracial friendship in the pre-Civil War South. Jim Zwick

Banned Books and American Culture

By Jim ZwickIf Mark Twain was alive today, he would probably be appearing at libraries and in online chat rooms during Banned Books Week to discuss the fate of his own books. He certainly deserves recognition for the number of times his books have been challenged or banned in the past 112 years — ever since Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885 and immediately banned by the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library.

Most Challenged Books

In some ways, not much has changed since 1885. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain are included in the American Library Association’s lists of the ten most frequently challenged books and authors of 1996. Tracing the history a little further back, Attacks on the Freedom to Learn, ‘96, a report by People for the American Way, lists them among the ten most frequently challenged books and authors of 1982 to 1996.

Twain’s novels continue to be challenged and banned, but new reasons for opposing them have emerged through the years. Looking back over the debates about Twain’s books during the past 112 years provides an interesting perspective on how American culture has changed, how Twain helped to change it, and why his books continue to raise difficult questions today.

Rejecting “Sivilized” Literature

When Huckleberry Finn was banned in 1885, officials at the Concord Public Library thought it was “rough, coarse and inelegant,… the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Written in the voice of its young narrator — who rejects becoming “sivilized” on its first page — and full of various dialects throughout, the book offended the literary sensibilities of the time. Twain redoubled the insult to the literary establishment by insisting that his books be sold door to door by subscription instead of through book stores. He appealed to the masses both in his language and by having his books brought directly to their homes. “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine,” Twain once wrote. “Everybody drinks water.”

Tom Sawyer’s Band of Robbers.

From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twenty years later, when Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were removed from the public library in Brooklyn, New York, their literary style was no longer in dispute. By 1905 Twain was already considered a monumental literary force and he was at the height of his international celebrity. But the boys’ actions raised problems. Library officials explained that they provided bad examples to the youth of the day.

Is Huck Finn a Racist Book?

Controversial in death as he was in life, Mark Twain has been seriously accused by some of being a “racist writer,” whose writing is offensive to black readers, perpetuates cheap slave-era stereotypes, and deserves no place on today’s bookshelves.

To those of us who have drunk gratefully of Twain’s wisdom and humanity, such accusations are ludicrous. But for some people they clearly touch a raw nerve, and for that reason they deserve a serious answer. Let’s look at the book that is most commonly singled out for this criticism, the novel that Ernest Hemingway identified as the source of all American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

For Twain’s critics, the novel is racist on the face of it, and for the most obvious reason: many characters use the word “nigger” throughout. But since the action of the book takes place in the south twenty years before the Civil War, it would be amazing if they didn’t use that word.

A closer reading also reveals Twain’s serious satiric intent. In one scene, for instance, Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion.

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?” she asks.

“No’m,” comes the answer. “Killed a nigger.”

But anyone who imagines that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to underscore the chilling truth about the old south, that it was a society where perfectly “nice” people didn’t consider the death of a black person worth their notice. To drive the point home, Twain has the lady continue:

“Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”

That’s a small case in point. But what is the book really about? It’s about nothing less than freedom and the quest for freedom. It’s about a slave who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family, and a white boy who becomes his friend and helps him escape.

Because of his upbringing, the boy starts out believing that slavery is part of the natural order; but as the story unfolds he wrestles with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend. And Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom — risks his life — for the sake of his friend Huck.

Note, too, that it is not just white critics who make this point. Booker T. Washington noted how Twain “succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for ‘Jim,’” and pointed out that Twain, in creating Jim’s character, had “exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people.”

The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim’s “dignity and human capacity” to emerge in the novel.

“Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain [Ellison wrote], that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town” — in other words, of the abomination of slavery itself.

In fact, you can search through all of Twain’s writings, not just the thirty-plus volumes of novels, stories, essays, and letters, but also his private correspondence, his posthumous autobiography and his intimate journals, and you’ll be hard put to find a derogatory remark about the black race — and this at a time when crude racial stereotypes were the basic coin of popular fiction, stage comedy, and popular songs.

What you find in Twain is the opposite: a lively affection and admiration for black Americans that began when he was still a boy and grew steadily through the years. In a widely praised post-Civil War sketch titled “A True Story,” for example, he wrenchingly evoked the pain of an ex-slave as she recalls being separated from her young son on the auction block, and her joy at discovering him in a black regiment at war’s end.

And on those occasions when Twain does venture to compare blacks and whites, the comparison is not conspicuously flattering to the whites. Things like:

?”One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be.”

?”Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare.”

?”There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man’s notion that he is less savage than all the other savages.”

Mark Twain a “racist”! Isn’t it about time we put this ridiculous notion to rest?

nPeter Salwen

Posted by Edwin Sillence on September 20, 19100 at 07:39:24:

Im perhaps interceding in the wrong area of the

discussion, but I’m studying Huck Finn at high school

(Australia) and I don’t believe that Huck Finn

should be banned for its racist content.

I can see that it contains racist language,

and perhaps creates caricatures of black people.

However, since when did simply eradicating the

language of hate destroy the essence of hate

itself? (Words can be destroyed by overuse or

alternative use.. eg. Nigger is used as naming

term that posits cultural identity rather than

negative qualities, when used in things like

‘gangsta rap’…. OR if you say a swear word

a thousand times so that it becomes common, it

loses its edge).

Far more useful, I would have said, to

teach people why hate and racism are wrong.

… After all, what is the effect on a reader

studying a racist book if the reader knows that

racism is wrong?… the first response is simply

abhorrence but with this, complete intolerance…

this is an unfortunate approach because if there

was something of worth in text (in Huck Finn’s

Case there definately is)then this worth is

automatically dismissed … good with bad.

… the second response could be to acknowledge

the racism, but to attempt to delve deeper…

.. once you do this I think you’d find that the

novel is more complex than a simple caricature of

its black inhabitants and a display of racist

lingo… it criticises the society that allows

slavery and the concept that Jim should be a slave

when he has such an abundance of good qualities.

Banning books is no substitute for varied and

responsible teaching.. children have to grow up

some day… dont isolate us… teach us.


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