Celebrated and censored, revered and reviled, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has fueled heated debate since it was first published in 1885, yet it remains one of America's most enduring literary classics. Mark Twain's novel is the focus of Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, premiering on PBS Wednesday, January 26, 2000 at 9pm (check local listings). This ninety-minute film opens the landmark four-part documentary series, Culture Shock.
More than a history lesson, Born to Trouble is storytelling at its best, probing important questions about race, class, censorship, and culture: Why does this universally admired book offend so many? How do we distinguish between a critique of a social problem and the perpetuation of the problem? Does the required reading of prior generations have relevance for today's students?
Born to Trouble utilizes a dramatic retelling of the novel's plot, compelling interviews, and historical artifacts to examine Twain's literary genius, the 100-year-old conflicts surrounding the book, and the American social and political climate from which the novel emerged. Featured interviewees include writer David Bradley and literary scholars Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and James Miller. In addition to looking at the past history of the book, the film interweaves both the recent crusade of a Tempe, Arizona mother and her daughter to remove Huck Finn from their high school's required reading list, and looks at present-day race relations in Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, which was once a slave-holding town.
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. It is the story of a white outcast boy, Huck, and his adult friend Jim, a runaway slave, who flee from Missouri together in search of freedom on a raft down the Mississippi River in the 1840s. Most critics agree that Huck's moral awakening to the injustice of slavery is among the most powerful statements against racism in American literature. As writer and Twain expert David Bradley sees it, "You can't arbitrarily say this book is trouble, we're not going to teach it, because a book like Huckleberry Finn is part of American literature. You can't get around it."
In Hannibal, Missouri, Twain's hometown and the inspiration for Huck Finn, residents celebrate National Tom Sawyer Days around every Fourth of July honoring the author by reenacting some of Twain's local activities. Yet according to one Hannibal resident quoted in the film, very few of the African American residents choose to participate in the festivities because Huck Finn "degrades them." "Hannibal presents a selective version of what Mark Twain was about," says Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. "It ignores the fact that Hannibal was a slave-holding town. It ignores the role that slavery played in shaping Mark Twain's imagination and in shaping the work of Mark Twain."
While many praise the book, there are others who find it offensive. No American novel has been attacked by the public as long and as continuously as Huck Finn. Born to Trouble transports viewers back to the end of the Victorian era when Twain's then new novel was banned from the Concord, Massachusetts public library after members of the Library's committee called the book "trash." Other critics of the time followed suit, denouncing Twain for threatening public morality, childhood innocence, and the purity of the English language. The author's response was typically acerbic: "Those idiots in Concord are not a court of last resort and I am not disturbed by their moral gymnastics," wrote Twain.
Although writers and critics elevated the novel to the canon of classic literature in the 1930s, the controversy surrounding Huck Finn was far from over. In 1957, as the Civil Rights movement started to gain momentum, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) charged that Huck Finn contained "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." While they didn't advocate censorship, the book was nevertheless removed from the New York City school system.
Since then, the book has been called "racist" for both the use of the word "nigger" and a portrayal of blacks that some consider stereotypical and demeaning. It has been removed from reading lists in schools from Texas to Pennsylvania. Born to Trouble chronicles one such school system's battle: Kathy Monteiro, a Tempe, Arizona mother, recently launched a crusade to have the book removed from her teenage daughter's high school curriculum. "I'm wondering as a teacher and as a mother, how you can ask kids to go home and read the word 'nigger' 200-something times in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then expect kids to come back to school and not use the word," observes Monteiro in the film.
In 1985, the nation marked the centennial of the publication of Huck Finn and the 150th anniversary of Twain's birth with celebrations around the country. Born to Trouble follows the parties and the protests.
Although Twain could no longer respond to his critics -- he died in 1910 -- he had no shortage of supporters. President Ronald Reagan, seen in archival footage in the film, commends the author's legacy. "In the decades to come, may our schools give to our children the skills to navigate through life as gracefully as Huck navigated the Mississippi. And may they teach our students the same hatred of bigotry and love of their fellow men that Huck showed on every page, and especially in his love for his big friend Jim," praised Reagan.
Beloved or banned, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with nearly 700 foreign editions printed, is one of the best known American novels across the globe, which would undoubtedly please the author. "I have never tried to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it, either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game -- the masses," wrote Twain.
Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is produced and directed by Jill Janows, who also serves as the series' executive producer. The writers are Jill Janows and Leslie Lee. Courtney B. Vance narrates.
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