Sunday, April 18, 2010

No. 5: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Once upon a time, people thought it was OK to own other people. They seemed to justify it by rationalizing that someone with skin a different color from theirs wasn't really a person at all, but some sub-human category akin to cattle. Some of these people who thought this way lived in the American South. They owned slaves.

Then one day, there was a big giant war and the people who owned slaves were forced to set them free. (Thank God!) A couple years later, a man who had lived through it, both in the North and in the South, wrote a book about it. His name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens but he was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. The book he wrote was called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even though it was first published in 1885, it still irritates people enough to make them ban it today.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of a misfit teenager (Huck) and a black slave (Jim) who are both looking for freedom, one from slavery, and the other from a alcoholic abusive father. As they share a raft together on the Mississippi River, Huck comes to know Jim as a man, and not just as a N-word.

Dah Dah Dun!

There it is. Yeah, I said it - the dreaded N-Word, which Huck uses over 100 times in the book. Twain's critics say this is racism, pure and simple. The book's defenders have countered that Jim is the most noble character in it and Huck's language is typical of his time. Critics counter the counter argument stating that refering to a person of color as the N-word is unacceptable, historically accurate or not.

I was surprised to learn in my research that Huckleberry Finn's language offended readers in its day as well. Completely unlike modern readers (who frighten bloggers so much that they use the "N-Word" rather than typing the actual word in their posts), the original readers of the book had no problem at all with the N-word. They had problems with Huck's use of colloquial slang. Louisa May Alcott hated Huckleberry Finn and served on the very first library committee to ever ban it. She criticized Twain saying among other things that "Huck should not sweat. He should perspire." Oh Louisa, you kill me, girl!

Twain himself thought the banning would be a great boon to book sales.

As for the charge of racism, I invite you all to read Huckleberry Finn and judge for yourself. Honestly, it's worth reading just for the insight into 19th Century life and the hilarious Shakespeare mangling "To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin." That's the other thing that people seem to forget - this book is funny! is also suspenseful, thought provoking, and heartbreaking.

As early as 1891 it was being call "a masterpiece". Ernest Hemingway called it the great American novel, saying "all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn". Hemingway didn't like the end though and urged readers to stop reading where Jim is taken from Huck, saying everything that comes after that point is "a cheat". You'll just have to read it and decide for yourself.


  1. Hi kim, I donèt know for sure if you will read this but I was wondering if you are still going to write more about banned books. I read all of your posts yesterday and today and I found them hilarious. If you are not, that is okay but youère really good at reveiwing, writing and making me laugh.

  2. Hi Meghan,
    Thanks for the note! I really want to get back to my crusade to fight book banning in all its ridiculous forms but... I started grad school and have been consumed by it. I'll make it a goal to write another review this weekend, just for you. Have a great evening!