Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

At 100, `Huck Finn' is still causing trouble

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be persecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished. . . . -- Mark Twain If ``nuffin else,'' as Twain's character Jim would say, the tale set off a peck of trouble when it hit the street 100 years ago.

Twain's admonition to the contrary, famous folks from Louisa May Alcott to Ernest Hemingway stepped forward to trumpet Huck's literary virtues and moral failings.

About these ads

Twain, to his credit, predicted ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' would be a ``handsome success'' because of the ruckus. Readers, it seemed, ``laid low to see what wuz gwyne to come of it.''

``All modern American literature comes from onebook by Mark Twain, called `Huckleberry Finn,' '' wrote Hemingway. ``If Mr. [Samuel] Clemens [Mark Twain] cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he'd best stop writing for them,'' wrote Alcott.

Well, what has come of Huckleberry Finn -- ``one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction,'' according to T. S. Eliot -- is continued controversy. Since its initial United States publication in February 1885, this acknowledged masterpiece by one of America's best writers and humorists has become an American classic as well as a literary lightning rod for moral critics. While initial objections cited the novel's violence and ethical laxity -- ``veriest trash,'' wrote the Concord (Mass.) Public Library when it banned the book shortly after publication -- modern critics have called the book racist, particularly Twain's repetitive use of the appellative ``nigger.''

Now in the centennial year of the novel's publication -- as well as the sesquicentennial celebration of Twain's birth in 1835 and the 75th anniversary of his passing -- the debate continues. It is a literary argument suddenly revived by the recent disclosure of a letter written by Twain offering financial assistance to one of the first black students at Yale University. Written in the same year that ``Huck Finn'' was published, the authenticated letter provides some of the first real evidence that Twain vigorously opposed racism.

``I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask benevolence of a stranger,'' wrote Twain to the dean of the law school, regarding black student Warner T. McGuinn, ``but I do not feel so bad about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.''

The Yale scholar who authenticated the letter, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, says: ``Twain's brutally succinct comment on racism in the letter is a rare nonironic statement of the personal anguish Twain felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery.''

But other observers are not so sanguine. ``The letter is simply an attempt by Yale University and Twain to soothe their racist consciences,'' says John Wallace, a member of the Chicago Board of Education and one of the most outspoken critics of ``Huck Finn.'' ``When compared to the amount of damage done by the novel to black children, it's a drop in the bucket.''

About these ads

Already this latest disclosure is becoming a flash point in the longstanding debate begun by some educators and civil rights leaders during the 1960s that despite Twain's use of irony, ``Huckleberry Finn'' is objectionably racist and should be removed from mandatory reading lists and school libraries. While few libraries actually ban the book today, several school boards consider it offensive to blacks and object to its use in classrooms.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), at least a dozen incidents of censorship involving ``Huckleberry Finn'' have been reported within the past five years alone. The two most recent attempts occurred in Chicago. In one instance, a local alderman and parents attempted to remove the novel from a public school's reading list. In the other, some civil rights leaders and educators threatened to picket a recent stage adaptation of the novel at the Goodman Theatre.

``The book is 100 years old, and it still has the power to raise emotions,'' says Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which monitors book censorship around the country.

Hailed as the first American novel written in natural speech -- Twain's mastery of several Midwestern dialects including ``Missouri Negro dialect'' is legendary -- ``Huckleberry Finn'' facilely reads as a picaresque tale of a Missouri teen-ager and a runaway slave who escape all attempts at ``sivilizing'' and raft down the Mississippi River. But unlike Twain's earlier children's story, ``The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,'' ``Huckleberry Finn'' is largely considered to be a sophisticated satirical censure of a nation's racial policies. Scholars point to Twain's unique literary device -- portraying a racist society through the eyes of a boy too innocent to challenge the system.

``Huck and Jim really stand as a reproach to a dominant society,'' says Justin Kaplan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Twain. ``They are two very truthful people that may offend people even today.'' Other observers, however, insist that Twain's use of irony is too subtle and that his characterization of Jim, the runaway slave, is a distorted portrait of American blacks.

``Huck Finn is one of the most grotesque examples of racism ever written,'' says Mr. Wallace. ``It is not funny and not ironic, if a majority of the population believes it.''

Calling the book ``adult entertainment,'' Wallace has lobbied to remove it from use in several public schools. ``By injecting the word `nigger' into the classroom, you induce a catastrophic reaction in children,'' he says. As an alternative, Wallace, a former elementary school administrator, has published his own version of the work, ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Adapted,'' in which ``objectionable'' terms have been deleted or reworded.

But other observers, including many blacks, insist that the novel is not racist, that Twain's language is historically accurate, and that Jim is not only the most noble character of the book but also the first black hero in American fiction. Reviewing the Goodman Theatre production in the Chicago Defender (the oldest and largest black publication in Chicago), one critic wrote: ``I think that it is time that as African-Americans, we must mature.'' Meshach Taylor, the black actor who played Jim in the Goodman production, called the novel ``the best indictment against racism in the US that I had ever read.''

``The novel is an attack on racism, not a racist tract,'' says Stewart Gordon, director and adapter of the Goodman production. ``Everything is from the perspective of a teen-age kid. The battle is between [Huck's] good heart and a deformed society.'' Mr. Gordon says the book has traditionally received a ``bad rap'' because of misguided efforts to rework it as a children's story.

``Twain started `Huckleberry Finn' as another boys' book,'' says Twain biographer Kaplan. ``But he soon realized the darker side of his story. The book is actually a real education of conscience'' -- for the author as well his protagonist.

Twain's early brushes with prejudice and censorship are well known -- early in his career Twain was unable to get published some newspaper articles about anti-Chinese racism in San Francisco. But Kaplan maintains that one cannot ``make Twain out as a crusader against racism.'' Using William Dean Howells's description of Twain as a ``desouthern-ized'' Southerner, Kaplan says that ``in many ways, Twain's own education parallels that of Huck Finn's. Both learn that everything is not as it seems.''

While Twain overcame many of his own racial prejudices acquired in his Southern boyhood, Kaplan says he remained a ``deeply conflicted man'' who used his writing to vent personal frustrations concerning such issues as racism and the Industrial Revolution.

Kaplan cautions against any ``cultural lollypopping'' of Twain during this centennial year. Celebratory events planned around the country include a summer-long festival in Twain's home town of Hannibal, Mo., a five-month exhibit at the National Geographic Society, a three-day conference at the University of Missouri, and the issuing of two commemorative editions of ``Huck Finn'' by the University of California Press.

``For a long time we took Twain at his word that he was simply a funny man, a genial humorist,'' says Kaplan. ``But really his greatness and his durability came from his clear vision of things, even his anger.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.