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Teaching Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is for some a classic, for others material unfit for the classroom. Share your questions and views about how -- and whether -- to teach the novel. See also Huck Finn in Context: A Teaching Guide on this Web site.

The Modern Cloister
Paul Arnold - 10:11am Jan 27, 2000

The problem with the recent mania for removing all offensive speech and literature from our public schools (and I think Huckleberry Finn is a prime example of this) is that it results in a narrowing of options for the students. Education should not be a reductive process in which we attempt to censor out and ignore the things which make us feel uncomfortable (and their are going to be some things which bother all of us at one time or another); rather, education should be an inclusive process which brings to the student the full variety of human experiences and points of view. These thoughts can then be discussed, openly, and the student can come to a consensus regarding what he/she/they feel is important. In this way, intelligent, informed opinions will be created.

We all have our political and sociological axes to grind, myself included. But if I had not been allowed access to the materials which helped to form my opinions in the first place, I would not have any basis for those opinions. Is Huckleberry Finn offensive? The answer, obviously, is yes. We would not be discussing it if it were otherwise. But for that very reason, it should be required reading, especially for those who will be offended by it. If you are have never read it, you will not be able to form credible arguments about it's content.

It is only when we have access to all of the knowlege available about a subject that rational discussion can take place and consensus reached, even if it is only an agreement to disagree.

The teaching of Huck Finn
Anony Mouse - 10:12am Jan 27, 2000

Perhaps it would have been beneficial for the mother and daughter to have seen how 'Huck Finn' was taught in the other school that was shown in the documentary. The teacher there seemed to present it as a work neither wonderful nor terrible, but as a work, period. She told her students to make their own decisions about the book's merit.

Also, I think that the mother (& daughter) were upset by two different issues and since the one (the racism that the kids were subjected to by other students) made them feel powerless, they empowered themselves by using Mark Twain as a stand-in for the real bigots.

What's involved in teaching literature?
Jeff Potter - 11:08am Jan 27, 2000

I think that Nelson Algren said that literature is what happens when writing goes up against the legal establishment of the day. As a result, teachers who handle literature right will have to be heroes in areas where citizens and authorities won't accept that their establishments and druthers are limited and subordinate to the pursuit of truth and growth. There will also be trouble in areas without a general culture, which is inevitable where feelings rule supreme, and which is the other half of the problem.

Trouble with language
Jeff Potter - 12:12pm Jan 27, 2000

It seems like it's important to teach that it's not words themselves that are bad, but how they are used. All words are limited by where they come from. Everyone is a racist to an extent, since no one is perfect in any way. The test is in how they handle it. What would a poor little white kid talk like who was experiencing a transformation from less perfect to more perfect (but not squeaky clean)? Obviously, an author wouldn't relate everything such a kid might say willynilly, but he might still try to push some big buttons. Like Lenny Bruce with his racial slur comedy act. He was trying to put a spotlight on the crazy power that certain words had on the *liberals* of the 60's. To diffuse that power so we could see where worse problems were coming from. Of course we know what happened to him. Things are getting harder for truth since Twain's day, not easier. For the races to come together, it seems like we have to see how we share words, not draw sharper lines between them. But I bet this is a nearly impossible lesson to teach today without lawsuits resulting. Our culture is not tolerant of learning. But it is ripe for change.

Teaching of Huckleberry Finn
D.L. Alexander - 02:31pm Jan 28, 2000

I agree with the Black scholar that the book will only cause trouble if the trouble is already there in the race relations. I think ,unfortunately, at this time most classes have students who have unseen feelings about race and the teacher only finds out when something like Huck Finn is taught. I don't think that the average teacher has the time to explain the context of something like Huck Finn. I was the only Black student in my Honors English class. My middle-aged,white male instructor taught "Native Son". A few students didn't like the book's content and none of them said anything about the racism and violence in the book. They just didn't like it. I don't think it uses the n-word and would probably handle what happens when racism is practiced a bit better than Huck Finn. The book was written by a Black man. At this time, it would probably a more appropriate choice. If you want to focus on racism and slavery, I read a book of actual slave narratives which moved me to tears. One of them was the words of a man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

I fear that Huck Finn is best to left to college-level courses dealing with racism. I believe that the wealth of African -American literature ,slave narratives and other novels which have been written since it was written has diminshed its effectiveness as a piece of literature which deals with Blacks and slavery. For a long time, I think the book was taught because it was the only piece of literature that discussed Blacks at all that the average teacher knew about. I feel that the average teacher was looking for anything that discussed Blacks and did not consider the problems it might cause in the classroom and how much it would upset Black students. I wonder, if anyone has tried teaching "Roots" by Alex Haley in an English class.?

Message from Mary Ann Urry
Valerie Grabiel - 05:38pm Jan 28, 2000

The young mother in Tempe, Az seemed quite shocked by the racism in the USA in the 1870's as shown by Mark Twain. I felt she could have been of Mexican heritage which (thankfully) has not experienced this particular racism--but also of a culture that does not have the reverence for Mark Twain that this culture has. I also feel she was struggling herself with the problems of being the parent of a bi-racial child--and without a spouse to aid her. So she was quite vulnerable to the hate and cruelty depicted in the book. I felt so much like her when my daughter was young and would see--with me--movies that I felt were very misogynistic but which have so permeated our culture for the past 30 years--that we really don't even notice the skewed values depicted--I'm thinking particularly of the movie by Robert Altman called "Short Cuts". But back to the woman in Tempe--her daughter seemed really confused and bewildered too but probably not by the word "nigger" in the book--but by hearing the word cruelly from the lips of kids she knew. I think all kids in this culture need to be exposed to great literature--but if only we could work on the cruel racism in the minds of kids in school too.

Teaching Huckleberry Finn
Greg Yasko - 10:50am Jan 30, 2000

Mark Twain may well have been an enlightened anti-slavery son of former slaveholders, but his novel, "Huckleberry Finn" was written for white Americans. Black Americans are already aware of slavery, and needn't be reminded, and needn't be subjected to the word "nigger" in a novel taught in public schools.

There is a time an a place for everything, and the time for teaching "Huckleberry Finn" in public schools has passed. America's population makeup is changing and is becoming increasingly higher in the percentage of minorities. The people in power, which includes schoolboards, must be more sensitive toward's minorities experiences of our culture, which means that to a large extent the culture must change.

Why not teach Booker T. Washington or Nat Turner instead of "Huckleberry Finn"?

It's time to deal with the truth of Huck Finn
Dorianne Madigan - 12:31pm Feb 4, 2000

I find it still imperative to read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck, etc.

Yes it's painful. That's the point. Racism hurts. All abuse hurts, just ask any survivor. They too must bear the wounds that will take a life time to mend...if then. But the difference, for me at least, is made when I get to the source of the pain to release it. Let it fly back to the past where it belongs. Identifying the problem is half of of it. And by remembering it, prevents it's grip on the future.

It's the hypocracy of our society that allows the double standard of talking equality, then go on with our "white business as usual."

Until we inquire into all aspects of who we are, the dark and ugly truths will never be addressed. Fear will continue to load our childrens guns, fuel our adult judgmental justification for hiding behind a mask that none of us want, but wear because is provides the only acceptable "haven."

Disappointed in TV special on Huck
Marcia Roberts Gregorio - 01:17pm Feb 5, 2000

I was disappointed in the one-sided nature of the PBS special on Huck Finn. The four critics who were the focus of the academic discussion defended the use of Huck Finn, while the other side was presented only by one mother and daughter. Why did we not hear from the many, many critics who feel Huck is inappropriate in the classroom? Jonathan Arac and Wayne Booth, for starters, have written extensively on the subject. I appreciate that Black scholars were highlighted, but what of the Black scholar / critics like Fredrick Woodward, Donnarae Mac Cann, Richard Barksdale, Rhett Jones, Toni Morrison, Arnold Rampersad? It was odd that John Wallace and Julius Lester spoke for only seconds during the program. Since any of these published scholars would have supported Raquel Panton and Ms. Monteiro, why were they and the other parents left to appear as if they were the only people in the US who oppose the required reading of Huck. That was terribly unfair to parents all over the country who are trying to make a reasonable claim.

It amazes me that people can't see the difference between appreciating a piece of American literature - and requiring that piece of literature in public schools! The PBS special refused, like so many other articles and books on the controversy, to show that these are two entirely different issues. Shelly Fisher-Fishkin disturbed me immensely in this regard: How can she call herself a literary critic and claim that Twain's support of a young Black man by paying his tuition to Yale has anything at all to do with the use of Huck Finn in the classroom? Even my 11th grade students were able to see that one has no bearing on the other. That's like saying that since Hugh Heffner gives so much money to charity, we should display Playboy Magazine in school libraries.

I'm tired of hearing that kids have to face the pain of racism and slavery by having to read Huck Finn. Hogwash. Where's the pain that we feel we must inflict on our white students? Why does the pain always seem to fall unevenly on the shoulders of our Black students? Isn't there enough pain there already? Can't we use a book that uplifts and shows strong Black heroes that we don't have to qualify from scene to scene?

The argument that we can't forget history is also flawed: of course we must teach our students about slavery, but Huck Finn is not designed to do that. Would we ever consider teaching our children about the Holocaust by using a book that made fun of Jews, called them offensive epithets, exploited negative stereotypes about Jews, and - worst of all - was set in the framework of comedy and slapstick? Of course not! Jewish families would have every reason to be outraged. For some sad reason, we refuse to listen to our African-American families. Talk about history repeating itself! Why can't public school educators let go of their own agendas, pass Huck along to college professors to study as literature of controversy, and find other novels by Black authors instead?

Joe Knapp - 01:24pm Feb 8, 2000

I second the comments of Marcia Roberts Gregorio. The program was a one-sided set-up. The book, as Gregorio says, is the only thing that counts, not these straw man arguments along the lines of "some of his best friends were black." And the book itself is loaded with stereotypes such as superstitious and childlike and simpleminded African Americans, and these stereotypes are never contradicted, but clearly depicted as true. The only anti-racist messages are really aimed at slaveholder mentalities: those who believed that blacks were sub-human, or didn't have human feelings, or qualities like loyalty. This was perhaps a liberal view in the 1800s but today is a pitiful baseline of enlightenment to work from, especially when sold as "the greatest anti-racist novel of all time." Bizarre, and a shame that students, especially black students, have to be subjected to this kind of unreal analysis and spin. It truly is a book that any racist would enjoy, as it validates every stereotype, except for the most base--and they do enjoy it. That should be telling. But hey, let's "let on" that's its anti-racist, OK Huck?

huckleberry finn
gordon shumway - 04:34pm Feb 10, 2000

Huckleberry Finn is a vital part of American culture and not using it in the classroom would be depriving our children of great literature. Just because the book does contain a Slave as one of the main characters does not make it unfit for review. The same people who complain about this book are the very ones who are now trying to re write history to do away with references to religion. These people need a wake up call because no matter how hard they try to cover it up, this country was founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and standards. Huckleberry Finn is as much part of American culture as Baseball and Apple pie. Unfortunately, slavery is also a part of our american past. But that is just it, Slavery is in the past, get over it and move on with your lives. Anyone who is offended by this book is obviously ignorant of the true purpose of this book (which does not show slavery to be right, I might add) and perhaps should find out a little more about it than what OTHERS have told them.

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