What We Can Learn From Huck Finn?

A classroom on a hot early summer day. Twenty-five sophomores who would rather be outside than listening to me trying to convince them that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is worth reading. I decided to be upfront with my passion:

“This is one of my favorite books. It is incredible. I know it is hard to get through the old-fashioned dialogue, but it is really worth it. This book can change your life.”

They were not very far into the novel—just far enough to be skeptical. One student raised her hand. I was elated that my bold display of personal investment had instantly produced a result. Clearly, I was a good teacher: I knew that opening up as a person would help me connect with my students, all of whom were not only significantly younger than me (of course), but from completely different cultural backgrounds.

“This is honestly one of your favorite books?”, she said.

“Yes”, I replied, “I really love it.”

“Have you read any others?” Convulsions of laughter fit for the Royal Nonesuch gripped the room. I decided it was time for quiet reading. Twain would have to convince them on his own.

I truly love Mark Twain. He is, and has been since I was a teenager, one of my favorite authors. I do still tell this to my students—I am unabashed in trying to convince them that, despite language they may find awkward, insulting, or confusing, his novels are some of the most compelling and powerful works they will encounter. Working with high school sophomores on why Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an indictment of racism, not an example of it, is a wonderful experience. But they sometimes need to be convinced that the book is worth reading…it isn’t easy to hack through the vernacular dialogue and narration, it can be hurtful or confusing to encounter the N-word so frequently, and the subtlety of a work that says so much about freedom, identity, and growth with such a simple story can be lost on students not accustomed to looking for metaphor.

Of course, the skepticism does not merely end with the students forced to read this book. Uncertainty over the value of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn extends to their teachers and administrators. The novel’s incessant use of racist language often finds it being taken out of school curricula. The debates over the necessity of the N-word to the novel are well covered elsewhere. (For a particularly good exploration, click here) I’ll just note my conviction that the book sustains its criticism of a  hypocritical and morally derelict society the whole way through, and needs to accurately show what racism looks like to do so. So the word is painfully necessary.

Beyond this debate over language, however, plenty of educators doubt the value of old, possibly musty canonical works when there are fresher ones for students to read. Why do we need Twain’s 130 year-old invective against racism when we have more recent examples?

And on the whole other side of this spectrum are the people who think of this novel as a simple boy’s adventure story: a rip-roaring good time of river hijinks. The moral core of the book is lost on them, or was perhaps never presented in the first place. A German museum educator last year recommended I read Wolfgang Herndorf’s 2010 novel Tschick, translated into English as Why We Took the Car, as an example of Twain’s legacy in Germany, where he remains beloved. In this novel, two young teenagers steal a car and go on an epic, and illicit, road trip. It captures Twain’s love of adventure, but lacked the social criticism at the heart of Huckleberry Finn. Similarly, I recently heard a high school principal defend Huckleberry Finn as a tool of social justice, not because the novel itself argues against racism, but because the novel is so offensive that reading it and engaging with it is an exercise in being comfortable with working around other people’s offensive views. Naturally, I was not impressed.

Let’s go back to the earliest source to address the issue. We first meet Huck not in his namesake novel, but in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The original subtitle of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is actually “Tom Sawyer’s Companion”, and we are told in the very opening line how important Tom Sawyer is to understanding Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” In this first novel, Huck is free because he is neglected, homeless, and ignored. He is a “juvenile pariah,” scorned and shunned by the respectable parents of the town, and loved by their children, who envy his lack of constraint.

When I first introduced the Tom Sawyer version of Huck, simultaneously free and abandoned, one student in the same class as my determined early skeptic described Huck perfectly: “He has everything he wants and nothing he needs.”

In both novels, Huck is a riposte to our complacency. Our attitude to a neglected child, torn between his sound instinct to help an enslaved man escape to freedom and the society that tells him he will go to hell for doing so tells us a lot about ourselves. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first banned, directly upon its publication, because Huck was a bad example to young people. Click here for more information. Now it is banned to protect them from being offended, or confused.

Even if his language is hard for contemporary teenagers to penetrate, they get Huck. They understand keeping secrets. They understand that your friends expect you to protect them even if it gets you in trouble. They understand that their moral instincts are not always shared by society. They understand that the worlds they create, either modern subcultures or a raft on the Mississippi, are more real and intelligible to themselves than the hypocrisy and corruption of adult society. They know that they will need to light out to the territories themselves someday.

And so our 1840s teenage Huck is a picaro, the low-class and unlearned young man rising in the world through adventure, and yet also the holy fool, whose naiveté illuminates the problems in society. I wish we could do a better job of celebrating him, and not banning him—and by celebrating him we can celebrate all the teenage Hucks in our world. Perhaps if we keep reading his story, we will.

By James Golden

Director of Education

The Mark Twain House & Museum