Why Reading Huck Finn is Important Today

I have read recently that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been removed from the list of required reading for high school students in many districts around the country. The use of the n-word and accusations of racism appear to be the main reasons, along with material that made students “uncomfortable.” Below is a piece I wrote a while back that discusses what I learned from helping a student with an essay on Huck Finn. As part of that process, we researched what inspired Mark Twain to write the books he did. Here is some of what I’ve learned:

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) started Huck Finn in order to tell the humorous anecdotes he’d experienced or seen when working on a Mississippi riverboat. But since he wrote this book in first person versus Tom Sawyer in third, he had the opportunity to dig deeper into Huck’s personality. The result is that the reader watches as this outcast from society wrestles with whether or not to turn in his friend (and fellow outcast), Jim, who is a run-away slave at the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, which states that those who aid and abet run-aways can also be prosecuted. The irony is that Huck hates all things about society and is literally running away, too, but racism is so instilled into his psyche that he has to work through a mental process of how good and kind Jim has been to him before he makes up his mind that he’ll accept going to hell for breaking this law if that’s what it takes. This is the spot that shifts Huck Finn from a chronicle to a classic: that moral shift and the assumption of personal responsibility. Before Huck was reacting; now he’s making decisions based on conscience and love.

Mark Twain wrote later in his life that he had no real awareness of the horrors of slavery when he was a boy. Slavery was the status quo and no one: the newspaper, the preacher, the teachers, or the law, was standing up against it. It simply was. He recounts an incident when he was a child that only later did he remember with profound shame. A little slave boy was crying and raising a fuss in the yard of the Clemens’s home, a boy who usually was so exuberantly happy he irritated young Samuel on any day. Sam – probably ten at the time – turned to his mother and said, “Can’t you shut him up?” His mother said, “Let him be. He has the right to be sad. We sold his mother today.” (These are not exact words, just for the record, but the gist of that mother/son conversation.) Samuel Clemens later in his life wrote a lot about his guilt related to his complicity in the slave-owning society of the time.

You might say that Huck is a better version of young Samuel Clemens because Huck becomes clear while still a boy that the system is morally wrong and if he has to, he’ll take the consequences of going to hell rather than turn in his friend. Mark Twain gets a second chance with Huck, to go from self-absorbed to self-aware. A chance he gives to all readers as well.

Now does that sounds like a book that needs to be banned? I would say no. It teaches the reader to think critically and to also have the courage to stand up for what he/she believes is morally right even if it means bucking an unfair system. It also focuses on the value of friendship, honors loyalty, and recognizes the importance of redemption. Using the vernacular of the 1830s – 40s pre-Civil War South to convey a sense of authenticity in the book is appropriate. It should never be the reason that a book with such depth and wisdom should be removed from the shelves and banned from high school reading lists.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Judy Alter says:

    Thanks, Len. Well put. I am so weary of hearing that classic titles might make children uncomfortable–that in a way is what education is all about. Your argument also applies to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is banned in many school districts (I was horrified when my oldest grand, then in high school, pronounced it boring–told her to go back and read it in twent years).

  2. Thanks, Judy. Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time is also on that list with Huck Finn. Good grief! What is happening to us that we would let “discomfort” get in the way of learning? Discomfort is what forces us to gain new perspectives.

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