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Teaching Huckleberry Finn in Historical Context

Historians/History




Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

On January 16, 2011, author Lorrie Moore published an opinion piece in the New York Times suggesting that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be excluded from the high school curriculum as adolescents lack the knowledge and experience to place this controversial text within proper context.  Moore’ piece, along with the decision of NewSouth Books to publish an edition of the Twain classic with slave replacing the word “nigger” in the text (leading to a quip on the Daily Show that black Americans had received an upgrade), has forced me to re-examine why I teach Huckleberry Finn in my eleventh grade American history class—an act of introspection which is always worthwhile for teachers.  After discussing this issue with colleagues as well as current and former students, I am convinced that Huckleberry Finn is an appropriate text for a high school history curriculum which places the novel within the historical context of slavery and race relations in nineteenth-century America.

Before making a case for keeping Twain and Huck in the curriculum, I should describe my teaching situation.  I teach in an independent school in the Southwest where all the students are college bound.  We have few African American students, although a significant population of Hispanics and Native Americans.  Nevertheless, the majority of students are white.  At the beginning of the school year, all students are informed that the institution of slavery and its legacy for racial relations in America will be a key component of our American history curriculum, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be an important text for our deliberations.  We take care to create a classroom environment in which all students will feel comfortable to express their ideas on race relations in America.

In the first semester of American history, we examine the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the origins of slavery in the British North American colonies, the failure of the American Revolution and Constitution to end slavery, the invention of the cotton gin and geographical expansion of slavery leading to the Missouri Compromise, the reopening of the political slave question with the Mexican War and Wilmot Proviso, the abolitionist movement, the coercive aspects of slavery including the breaking up of families, the formation of an African American culture in response to slavery, and the resistance to slavery in daily life as well as running away and revolts (and, of course, we also examine the Haitian Revolution).  For texts, we investigate the readings of Frederick Douglass, David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, Henry Highland Garnet, and Abraham Lincoln.  We also read historian Stephen Oates’s The Fires of Jubilee (1975), focusing upon Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.  And we conclude the first semester with an examination of slavery as the most important cause of the Civil War.

We begin the second semester by considering the premature end of Reconstruction and the restoration of white rule in the South culminating in the implementation of the Jim Crow laws.  It is within this historical context that we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was written in 1884 by Twain in response to the emergence of Jim Crow.  Thus, we seek to provide the historical context which Lorrie Moore argues is missing in the reading of Huckleberry Finn at the secondary level.

But the troubling use of the word “nigger” remains.  Of course, the word is hardly strange to the students who encounter the power of this language in popular music, comedy routines, and even African American literature such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which is included in the curriculum.  But the key for Huckleberry Finn is that the word is employed in a satirical vein which seeks to expose the hypocrisy of Southern racism.  In one passage, for example, a person on shore observes an explosion aboard a riverboat and inquires as to whether anyone was killed.  The reply is that no one was serious injured, “just a nigger.”  Here, Twain is critiquing a Southern society that would deny African Americans their common humanity—and the word slave does not really have the same bite.

And Jim is treated as a man although it takes Huck awhile to understand this.  The novel is told from the perspective of Huck, who, as the product of a deformed society, has much to learn from Jim.  Huck discovers that Jim has escaped in order to avoid being separated from his family.  And Jim plans to use this freedom to reclaim his wife and children.  Huck concludes that that Jim loves his family just as much as any white man.  While Jim has no formal education, he displays considerable common sense.  For example, when Jim discusses King Solomon, he observes that the monarch enjoyed a harem and countless children.  Accordingly, he could suggest dividing a baby in two; a luxury which common people did not have.  The argument for the development of Jim as a fully realized character is well made by a number of academic witnesses in the Ken Burns’s PBS series on Twain in the segment dealing with Huckleberry Finn, which is screened for the students.  Jim’s logic and courage offer a positive contrast with Twain’s depiction of Southern society.

As literary historian Henry Nash Smith notes, Huck and Jim enjoy a degree of equality while on the raft and the river, but when they go ashore or the raft is invaded by the King and Duke, Huck and Jim encounter violence, corruption, greed, avarice, ignorance, and brutality.  And at the core of this depraved society is the institution of slavery.  In fact, as we examine Twain’s savage satire of Southern society, some students claim that Twain is unfair to the region.

However, this is the society which indoctrinated the young Samuel Clemens and Huckleberry Finn in racist ideology.  For Huck to accept Jim as a man, he must confront and reject the values of his society.  While Pap and the Widow Watson represent different social classes, they agree that slaves are property, not people.  While Pap is an illiterate alcoholic who abuses his son, he rants and raves about a black professor who is able to vote.   But Huck chooses to reject the values of Pap and the Sunday School teachings of Miss Watson.  As Twain suggests, Huckleberry Finn is a book where the heart collides with a deformed conscience, and the conscience suffers defeat.  Thus, Huck must reject the values of his society to help Jim, even if it means going to hell.  Huck becomes a rebel in contrast with the conformist Tom Sawyer whose rebellion is really only a game.  After all, Tom is willing to help Jim because he knows that Jim has been set free in Miss Watson’s will.  He is the Southern good ole boy who is not a threat to the fundamental values of his society.  Huck, on the other hand, is the real deal.  He is willing to break the law and cannot accept Jim as property.  Huck is willing to follow Henry David Thoreau’s higher law, and the transformative nature of an interracial relationship for nineteenth-century America is suggested, although whether Huck will be able to completely escape the clutches of civilization is somewhat ambivalent in the text.

Thus, placing Huckleberry Finn in historical and cultural context within the history curriculum should address some of the concerns expressed by Lorrie Moore.  Admittedly, despite the arguments made by Randall Kennedy, “nigger” remains a troubling word in the mouth of a white boy such as Huck Finn.  But if the book is taught as satire, concentrating upon Twain’s critique of the Jim Crow South, this broader perspective may remove some of the word’s sting.  In addition, the attention of adolescents should be drawn to Huck’s courage and intelligence (terms not often associated with Huck Finn) in questioning the conventional wisdom of his elders.  In fact, Huck’s challenging of his elders was one of the reasons for the book’s initial banning by groups such as the Concord Library Committee in 1885.  Huck exemplifies the type of critical thinking which educators want to see their students demonstrate in the classroom and life.  There are certainly issues with placing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn within the secondary school classroom, but establishing this text within historical context should make the book and Twain’s satire more accessible to students of all races.


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Elliott Aron Green - 1/24/2011

I agree with Ron Briley's interpretation of the novel. It is far more than a boy's adventure story. When I read it, it was much more interesting to me than Dickens' books, which were also on the school curricula in my day. I would question, however, Briley's assumption that American educators today want to see "critical thinking" in their students.

Be that as it may and more importantly, though, I think that Huckleberry Finn ought to be read by every kid who can understand it. The coming generations ought to know how Americans spoke and thought at various times in the past. The word "nigger" for Black people was commonly used through the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, not just in Mark Twain's times. Reading Twain's book is not important for literature alone but for understanding American history.