Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18: Still Newsworthy, Huck Finn Turns 125

by Pam Ripling

Raise your hand if you’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain [pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens](1835-1910). If so, did you read it on your own, or was it assigned reading? What did you think about it at the time you read it? Has your opinion changed now that (if) you are older?

I ask these questions because while on the surface, this “classic” appears to be about a boy’s adventures on a river raft with an escaped slave, there are some very deep concepts between the pages of Twain’s sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And while the escapades are wildly different than those of today’s youth, the protagonist’s underlying goals are the same: freedom and adventure.

Can you imagine being kidnapped by your own drunken father, whose intention is to steal money from you? No wonder Huck fakes his own death, steals a canoe and shoves off down the Mississippi River, content to go where the water takes him. When he comes across Jim, a runaway slave, they become natural traveling companions, each seeking a personal freedom as they traverse the river together.

The book was and still is considered nothing if not controversial. Many libraries banned the book, citing young Huck as sacrilegious, immoral, and his stories inappropriate for children. While some consider the story to be a satirical, powerful attack on racism, others claim its intent was inherently racist. Twain’s liberal use of the “n” word still shocks readers who may not realize the moniker was common language in the 1840’s, and the work would likely be deemed unrealistic without its use.

It might surprise you to learn that as recent as 1998, an Arizona high school parent sued a school district for mandating the reading of Huck Finn, asserting that the book exacerbated existing racial tensions between students.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884, in England, and in 1885 in the U.S. One-hundred twenty-five years later, the debate, and the book’s reputation as a “classic”, still stirs controversy. One might well wonder if Twain really intended to evoke emotion with a strong statement about the human condition, or if he was just writing an adventure story about a boy, his friend and their travels down the Mississip. What do you think?

Pam Ripling is the author of middle-grade mystery, LOCKER SHOCK! Buy it at Quake, Fictionwise or Amazon today! E-book version now available for your Kindle! Visit Pam at


Regan Black said...

Ooo! Ooo! Raising hand here! This was one of the mandatory titles I did enjoy in school. As an adult, I could analyze the deep meanings and motives but I don't think that takes away from the original adventure.

I think a timeless story meets the reader's needs and makes the reader think depending on the life experience of that reader. And Twain, in my opinion, was a master at provoking thought within the guise of spinning a good yarn.


Diana Black said...

When it comes to Mark Twain, or maybe anyone for that matter, it's hard to know his exact intentions. My belief is his muse set a course and the author let if flow. And, typical of his quirky and rather wreckless nature, he more than likely welcomed yet another opportunity to be controversial.

Twain a racist? Not in my book...Which I'm looking at on a shelf next to another often banned read, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."


Mary Cunningham said...

I agree with Regan. I believe Twain was far from a racist. His stories might provote cries of political uncorrectness today, but we have to consider how life was in the late 1800s.

As far as I'm concerned, he was a master.

Anonymous said...

I am going to speak my mind here and consequences be danged. I think those people who find fault with materials like Huck Finn are people who refuse to open their minds and consider the value of history. Especially in terms of language. Look at the use of certain words and how people with open minds have come to an understanding that words can hurt. It is ENTERTAINMENT that educates.

There is no sense in banning anything that is written. And to ban something that is so beautifully written is just WRONG.

I think banning and censoring are products of fear and to let fear rule your life is a form of failure. Life is meant to be lived and embraced.

©DGreer said...

I think Mark Twain was ahead of his time when it came to racial dynamics - but, like Thomas Jefferson, he was also a product of his time. You can't get entirely away from the social structures you're living in. I think most of us are prejudiced in one way or another, including about race. For example, we may hire people of a certain color, but not marry them. That's a level of racism, isn't it? It's not just race either - language and style may be the factors that raise our ire. Is that young girl with the plunging neckline a sleaze in your mind? What are you prejudiced about and is it a fair presumption? Maybe as important, what kind of group attitudes impact your own thinking?


Pam Ripling said...

I think Dani has hit upon something here. Consider this: Twain wrote this book a mere 40 years after it was to have taken place; it was still "recent history" for him, and his beliefs and politics were formed during a very volatile time. Indeed--slavery had only been abolished for 20 years. How would this same book be received now, had it been written (exactly the same way) in 1985?

So I think you have to take the era into consideration when talking about what Twain was thinking. He lived with slavery; today's reader has lived through the civil rights movements and so much more.


A. Montgomery said...

I've read Huck Finn! It was a great book!

Bob Sanchez said...

Good timing on this post, since I just finished re-reading Huckleberry Finn a couple of weeks ago. The first time I was probably in my 30s; I am 65 now, and I had forgotten just how liberally Twain uses that n-word.

It's impossible to know Twain's motivations just from reading the book, but I suspect his main intent was to spin a good yarn, which he surely did. Was he racist? To an extent he may have been, but the question has to be to what degree? The entire country was racist, and I sense that Twain may have been ahead of his time in terms of treating all people with fairness and dignity.

I think Huckleberry Finn can be assigned in school if the teacher uses it to prompt intelligent thought and discussion about race in the context of America's past.

Bob Sanchez

Norm Cowie said...

Dern, spilled my drink raising my hand (note to self: raise other hand or drink with other hand).

Samuel Clemens ROCKED! His acerbic wit was advanced as anything it spawned.

As a fellow humorist, I can only bow to his genius.


Pam Ripling said...

Thanks for all the great comments. Let me leave off with one from Huck himself that we can all relate to! "...there ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if
I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more."