Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?
About Mark Twain
About Hannibal, Missouri
Safe Water Ahead… Hopefully
Links to Other Dispatches
Let's step back a century and a half in time. Our nation is growing increasingly divided over slavery. Half of the United States sees African Americans as human beings; the other half thinks they are property. Neither half can understand the other. For thousands of white Americans, it is perfectly normal to purchase Africans through the "Want Ads" of newspapers and force them to work to the point of exhaustion. As Missouri native Samuel Langhorne Clemens puts it, "I was not aware that there was anything wrong about [slavery]. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing about it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind."
What separates Samuel Clemens from most of his fellow Southerners is that he comes to realize slaves are people too. What's more, he decides to rally to their cause - only with a pen instead of a pistol. Using the pen name of Mark Twain, he writes a book about a young boy who learns to see beyond the color of a person's skin.
It's been the subject of controversy ever since.
For those of you who haven't yet read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," here's the Cliff's Notes version. It starts off in the small village of St. Petersburg, Missouri, in the early 19th century. The two heroes - a rascally boy called Huckleberry Finn and a gentle slave named Jim - are planning to run away. Huck is fleeing from two things: his father (who is an abusive drunk) and society (which wants to "civilize" him with clean clothes, church and school). Jim is escaping from his "owner," who plans to sell him. When their paths first cross, Huck is tempted to turn Jim in, but decides he could use the company instead. So the two hop on a raft and journey across the Mississippi River toward freedom. Along the way, Huck realizes that African Americans are capable of love and pain - just like him. Although it runs counter to everything he's been taught in life, Huck opens himself to the idea of friendship with Jim. By the end of the story, Jim has obtained his freedom and returns home to St. Petersburg. Huck, however, heads off to Indian territory in search of even more adventures.
It sounds like the Great American Novel, doesn't it? So what's the problem? Well, it seems there are too many to count. "Huckleberry Finn" was a watershed in American literature and its waves have been crashing ever since. Just one month after its grand debut, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, called it "trash… suitable only for the slums" and banned it. Over the past 115 years, libraries and schools across the nation have followed suit, but for different reasons. In the late 1800s, critics denounced Huck's disrespect for religion and authority as "immoral." In the 1950s, the NAACP derided its repeated use of the word "nigger." And in the 1990s, parents blamed it for inciting racial tension in schools. In fact, one parent in Tempe, Arizona, actually sued the school district two years ago for using the book, claiming that it had worsened racial tensions in the classroom.
All this from a book about a little boy and a runaway slave? Daphne and I were so fascinated by the controversy, that we decided to visit the childhood home of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. Twain once told a reporter in India: "All that goes to make the me in me is a small Missouri village on the other side of the globe." Perhaps we could get to the bottom of things there. As aspiring writers, we were also eager to commune with the spirit of America's most famous author, speaker and thinker. This was, after all, the man who once said, "If we tell the truth, we don't have to remember anything."
The first thing we noticed about Twain's boyhood home was its proximity to the Mississippi River, which was an endless source of inspiration for him. In fact, Twain loved the river so much, he adopted a navigational term as a pen name. For safety purposes, riverboats needed to be in at least "mark twain" -- 12 feet of water. Samuel Clemen's pen name thus meant "Safe water ahead."
We also saw that Mark Twain wrote about the world that immediately surrounded him. Here was the fence that the hero of another one of his masterpieces -- "Tom Sawyer" -- conned his neighborhood pals into painting one sunny afternoon so that he could go out and play. There was the house where Tom's sweetheart, Becky Thatcher, lived. Actually, most of Twain's characters were Hannibal residents. Sid and Mary were his brothers and sisters, Aunt Polly was his mother, Huck was his best friend and Tom Sawyer was the author himself.
The racism he portrays in his books, however, has no alias. As we learned in one of the museums, Mark Twain had a great deal of contact with slaves growing up. "We were comrades and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered complete fusion impossible," he once said. This fine line became the backbone of "Huckleberry Finn." Twain describes racism through the eyes of an uneducated child - and that is what makes it so powerful. Huck never outright condemns racism in the book. In fact, he is as guilty of using the "n" word as the other characters. Rather, it is up to the reader to decide that slavery and inequality are wrong. And that has been a problem over the past 115 years.
Daphne and I discussed this with a number of Hannibal residents, and most seemed to echo the thoughts of Kay Ellis, who worked at Mark Twain's Boyhood Home. "We can't change the past, whether we like it or not. The important thing is that if we teach this book in the classroom, we must make it relevant to the time."
Fortunately, some schools are starting to do this, including one in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In 1995, several African American students told their parents that reading "Huck Finn" aloud in class made them uncomfortable. Apparently, their teacher had not warned the students that the word "nigger" appeared more than 200 times in the text. The African Americans were so upset, they stopped going to class. The following year, a group of parents presented a "Citizen's Request for the Reconsideration of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to the Board of Education. The initial tension could have been cut with a knife, but the parents, teachers and administrators gradually worked through it. In the end, they resolved that teachers would be required to attend a one-day workshop to learn how to properly present the book in its cultural and historical context.
Midwest Hospitality: Have we mentioned that we live on $15 a day?
And this, I believe, is the lesson that can be gleaned from "Huckleberry Finn." Censoring our past will not make it go away. Rather, we must address it. We cannot change history, but we sure can learn from it.
Please email me at:
Neda - Visiting the houses that cotton - and slave labor - built
Rebecca - Pass the gumbo and another sweet potato biscuit please
Making A Difference - Let's add some cyanide in this cigarette
Teddy - The amazing Booker T. Washington, former slave turned college founder