A Century of Conflict
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Mark Twain, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
When THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN was first published in 1885, it was met with mixed reviews from critics. Many seized upon the opening notice of the book quoted above, such as the SAN FRANCISCO DAILY EXAMINER: "As to the work itself, it is well described by the author, as being without a motive, a moral, or a plot." (March 9, 1885)
Negative attitude toward the book was not limited to poor reviews - The Public Library of Concord, Massachusetts banned the novel on the grounds that it was "rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent respectable people." Twain's response was to declare, "Those idiots in Concord are not a court of last resort and I am not disturbed by their moral gymnastics."
The exclusion of the book from the Concord library was widely covered by the press, as supporters loudly praised the humor of the novel, the truthfulness of the narrative, and the beauty of Huck's character and actions.
The book's unique status "hypercanonization" has been defined as somewhat of a "cultural idol." Yet while students across the nation read HUCK FINN as part of their English curriculum, the novel still stirs up some of the most intense debate in American literary history.
As described by the PBS Culture Shock site: "To many, ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN is one of the world's greatest novels - and a national icon. Twain's satirical attack on slavery, hypocrisy, and prejudice in antebellum America compels readers to look not only at slavery and racism, but also at the whole tradition of American democracy." Yet "no American novel has been attacked by the public as long and as continuously as HUCK FINN."
In 1957, the controversy flared up again as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. The NAACP charged that HUCK FINN contained "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." The objection this time? Twain's negative characterization of Jim and extensive use of the word "nigger" throughout the text. Many people felt his characterization, along with the "most powerful racial epithet in the English language" were insensitive to African American heritage. For this reason, the book continues to be contested in school systems across America.
In HUCK FINN's defense, some argue that Twain's casual use of the racial epithet is meant ironically, to underscore the truth of the times. African American writer Ralph Ellison noted, "Writing at a time when the blackfaced minstrel was still popular, and shortly after a war which left even the abolitionists weary of those problems associated with the Negro, Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition, and it is from behind this stereotype mask that we see Jim's dignity and human capacity-and Twain's complexity-emerge."
Another argument in the book's favor is made by Twain scholar Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who explains her reading of the novel: "Part of Twain's genius in this book is letting the reader see things that Huck doesn't see, making Huck an endearing and engaging but ultimately unreliable narrator… The fact that Huck has a more limited view of Jim should not lead us to mistake that view for the author's."
Because of his long association with the work of Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook has experienced the backlash of some of the HUCK FINN controversy, as he explains in his interview with Bill Moyers. It was not without trepidation that CBS aired Holbrook's MARK TWAIN TONIGHT in 1967, but Holbrook refused to make cuts based on network executives' fears about the offensive language and other sensitive material. But even in recent years, Twain's frankness is frightening to some television programmers and school administrators alike. Read former PBS vice president Alan Foster's account of a 1998 controversy over Holbrook's program.
Learn more about censorship of children's literature.
Sources: Peter Salwen, "Is 'Huck Finn' a Racist Book?"; Ferran Romeu, "The Reception of Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN in 1885: A Controversial Process"; Culture Shock; National Coalition Against Censorship; Online NewsHour; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "In Praise of 'Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn' by Ralph Wiley"