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Should Huck Finn be taught in American Literature Classes?

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Should Huck Finn be taught in American Literature Classes?
Since its publication in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, has been surrounded by controversy. By some it is known as “one of the best books ever written” and to others it is “trash and suitable only for the slums”, it has been required reading for American literature classes, and it has been put on the list of banned books and removed from the list of required reading, for being slanderous. Critics argue that the novel has racist undertones and that the entire novel is slanderous and derogatory towards African Americans. Proponents push the fact that Huck Finn is one of the great works of American literature and that Mark Twain is simply using the context of the time period to get points across and show how African Americans were being treated in post Civil War America, and that Huck Finn is a novel from which all other literature is based on, Douglas L. Howard asserts in an article “Silencing Huck Finn,” that sometimes it seemed like banning the book was to protect our youth, and at others the banning made no sense at all (Howard C.1). Huckleberry Finn should be required reading in American literature classes because it was a very important work of literature, simply using one derogatory word does not make the novel not worth reading, and Huck Finn is about freedom and the pursuit of happiness rather than oppression.
Paula Leider states that the word “nigger” is used over 236 different times in Huck Finn (Leider 49). The word “nigger” is defined as a person of any race or origin regarded as shameful, substandard, or ignorant, the word “nigger” comes from the word ignorant. The word “nigger” is viewed by many people as a demeaning term that has become taboo in modern society, however, in the time period that Twain wrote Huck Finn the term “nigger” was very common, and when Twain sat down to write in his native tongue it would have detracted from the novel if he were not to use the terminology of the day, such as when Huck is talking about “Miss Watson’s nigger” (Twain 13), Twain trying to be accurate in his portrayal of Huck, makes Huck’s speech realistic as if Huck were a real boy telling us this story. Twain, the king of satire, enjoys implying hidden meanings in his work, a second definition for “nigger” is, a victim of prejudice like that suffered by African-Americans; a person who is economically, politically, or socially powerless, and as a satirist I believe that Twain was aware of this use of the term and was using it in his book and the repetitiveness of the word, used 236 times, was a way for him to express how much prejudice there was towards African Americans at the time. Leider expresses concern when she said, “[I felt] the apprehension of discussing Twain’s arguably excessive use of this term in a classroom of twenty-for white students and one black student” (Leider 49). Leider expresses a genuine concern; it must feel awkward to be that one black student in a class of white students who are all using a term that has been used as a derogatory word since the time of the Revolutionary war. The students must understand that the word “nigger” is not being used as a derogatory comment towards them, or other blacks, it is simply a part of the dialect of the time in which the novel was written, Ann Lew, in her article “Teaching Huck Finn in a Multiethnic Classroom” that “this serves [Twain] well because he uses the socially acceptable label on Jim” (Lew 20). As critics we must focus not on the fact that Twain has used a word that is taboo in society, rather that his work of literature has been used as a stepping stone by many other authors and has shaped modern American literature.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great piece of American literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Huck Finn was the first novel to look objectively at the way that African-Americans were treated, in the United States (Fitzgerald). Mark Twain was the first author in America to see that if we did not cross the race border that had grown in the United States, that we would never be able to reach our full potential as a free nation, as a result Twain used Huck Finn as an outlet to express these feelings and show us that blacks and whites can work together in order to achieve a common goal and make America a better place. Hemingway was very appreciative of what Mark Twain did for American literature: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn’… it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since” (Hemingway). From a writer as good as Hemingway, saying that Huck Finn is the greatest book ever written is very powerful, he is saying that no one before him and no one after has written anything that could compare to Twains work. Obviously the fact that such great writers are praising this novel is a good reason that it should be taught in American Literature classes, The fact that there are such differing opinions about this work make it that much more interesting to read and will help students learn how to draw their own opinions about whether or not something is worthwhile.
Huck Finn is a novel in which Mark Twain exposes us to a true tale of freedom. Many critics say that Huck Finn is full of oppressive and racist tones, they however are missing the point that this book is about freedom and the pursuit of happiness. In Huck Finn one of the main characters, Jim, is an escaped slave who is running to freedom from his slave owner, Miss Watson, when he meets up with Huck, who is also running away so that he can be free of his father, Pap. Jim and Huck are both pursuing the same thing, happiness, Jim’s idea of happiness is being free from slavery and working as hard as possible so that he can buy his wife and children out of slavery to be with him, Huck tells us that he heard Jim saying that he, “would go to saving money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife” (Twain 66). Jim then goes on to say that after his wife is free, they will save money to buy their two children out of slavery, this is a major event in the novel, because this is when Huck first starts to notice that, despite all that he has been taught, Jim is a human being with feelings, and that he deserves to be treated as such. Huck’s idea of freedom is one as far away from Pap as possible. While thinking about what he would do, Huck declares that, “I wouldn’t stay in one place, but just tramp right across the country” (Twain 19). All that Jim and Huck want is to be free and the point that Twain is trying to make is that all anyone wants to do is be free and find happiness in life, and that with the current feeling towards slaves that many people will never be able to fulfill that dream.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great piece of true American literature, which should be taught in American literature classes, because it was a stepping stone in American literature, the fact that one derogatory term is used in it does not make it a bad novel, and it is about freedom and the pursuit of happiness. American novelist Toni Morrison says that Huck Finn is “classic literature [that] cannot be…dismissed” (Howard C.1). However, high school students must be capable of making the decision on whether or not they want to read Huck Finn in their own classroom. Students should learn first about Mark Twain, and the writing style that he uses in Huck Finn and be informed about the language that occurs in it, then once the students feel that they have been adequately informed about the novel, they should take a vote, on whether or not they as a class would like to read Huck Finn, if the students do vote to read Huck Finn then they should take another vote to decide whether or not they are comfortable saying the word “nigger” in class. This method would allow the class to have some freedom and feel like they have a say in the way the class is run, which would help to motivate students, because if they did read the book, it would be because they decided to, not because they were forced to.



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JustTaz said...
Jan. 24, 2011 at 2:55 pm
Very good article, but at the end you don't have to use certain words in order to read the book. I'm currently reading it in my Literature calss and I know my teacher would pretty much kill somene if they did use that word. Students could simply say slave or even black person in place of it...
 
Ms. Hobbs said...
Jan. 13, 2011 at 8:46 am
Will's article intelligently explores the controversy currently brewing about bowdlerizing Huck Finn.  I am delighted his article is published!
 
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