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Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was called vulgar in the 19th century and racist in the 20th. Read excerpts?

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Samuel Clemens, whose pen name is Mark Twain, publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885 in America. He has been at work for eight years on the story of an outcast white boy, Huck, and his adult friend Jim, a runaway slave, who together flee Missouri on a raft down the Mississippi River in the 1840s. The book's free-spirited and not always truthful hero as well as its lack of respect for religion or adult authority draw immediate fire from newspaper critics. The ungrammatical vernacular voice in which Huck narrates the book is also attacked as coarse and inappropriate. Some readers find the colorful stories Huck tells immoral, sacrilegious, and innapropriate for children. The Concord, MA, library bans Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a month after its publication, calling it "trash and suitable only for the slums." Other libraries follow suit.

In the decades after Twain's death in 1910, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gains the status of a masterpiece. Novelist Ernest Hemingway remarks that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," and other writers as diverse as American poet T.S. Eliot and African American novelist Ralph Ellison add their acclaim. It is increasingly studied at both the high school and college level, where its literary merit and the insights it offers into American society are praised. In particular, some consider Twain's satire to be a powerful attack on racism.

Others see Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not as an attack on racism, but as inherently racist itself. African Americans and others, led by the NAACP, begin to challenge the book in the 1950s, appalled by the novel's portrayal of the slave Jim and its repeated use of the word "nigger." The book is removed from some schools in the New York City school system, and its place on required reading lists is threatened in other cities.

Debates about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continue to the present day. The crux of the controversy remains race, although some, notably Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, also assert that the book's reputation as a literary classic is exaggerated. In 1998, Kathy Monteiro, parent of a student in a Tempe, AZ, high school, sues the school district, claiming that an already tense racial environment was exacerbated by the assignment of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as required reading. Although the judges decline to ban the book, they do state that a school district has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to eliminate a racially hostile environment and can be held liable for damages if they fail to make this effort. While Monteiro and her supporters hail this as a victory, the questions of whether Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contributes to a racially hostile environment and whether it should be assigned in high school remain unresolved.

For more about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and teaching controversial topics, see Huck Finn in Context, a guide for teachers on this Web site. Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the first film in the Culture Shock series.


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