Racism and the Enduring Controversy of Huckleberry Finn

Published: 13th September 2007
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When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884, it was declared an instant literary classic by respected critics such as Edmund Clarence Stedman and Brander Matthews. However, Mark Twain's greatest book was not without its detractors. The Concord, Massachusetts public library banned Huckleberry Finn shortly after its publication because of its "tawdry subject matter" and "the coarse, ignorant language in which it was narrated." On March 17, 1885, the Boston Evening Transcript published a story on the library's decision, writing: "The Concord Mass., Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums that to intelligent, respectable people."

The following day, on March 18, 1885, Mark Twain wrote to his friend and publisher Charles Webster that "The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

Although Twain was exactly right in his predictions of robust sales, the controversy continued. In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the statement that "Huck not only itched but he scratched," and that he said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration." Although the Southern society it satirized was already beginning to fade into the past by the time of publication, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn struck a nerve in the American psyche. It has remained controversial even to this day. The American Library Association ranked Huckleberry Finn the fifth most frequently challenged (in the sense of attempting to ban) book in the United States during the 1990s. As recently as 1999, the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP had instructed its branches to file grievances with state agencies demanding that the book be removed from mandatory reading lists.

The primary issue behind such attempts at censorship is Twain's use of slang to describe people of color. But Huckleberry Finn is anything but racist. In a particularly controversial passage, as Huck rafts down the river with Jim, a runaway slave, he is tormented by the thought--bred into him by Southern society--that he must go to hell if he doesn't report Jim to his owner. He even goes so far as to right a note doing just that. But, in the end, Huck's character triumphs and he rejects society's immoral bidding, destroying the note and declaring, "All right, then, I'll go to hell!"

American historian and columnist Nat Hentoff once spoke to a young student after one of the many attempts to suppress Twain's book. The eighth-grader in a Brooklyn public school had been reading Huckleberry Finn in class as part of a study unit in which students learned about the history of racism in towns such as Hannibal, Missouri where Twain had grown up. The young man wisely told Hentoff, "Do you think we're so dumb that we don't know the difference between a racist book and an anti-racist book? Sure, the book is full of the word 'Nigger.' That's how those bigots talked back then."

In 1982, Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times that "The people Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is 'Niggger Jim,' as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt."

In 1998, Judge Stephen Reinhardt rejected yet another lawsuit, this time attempting to have Huckleberry Finn removed from mandatory reading lists in Phoenix, Arizona public schools. In his ruling, Reinhardt made the important point that "Words can hurt, particularly racist epithets, but a necessary component of any education is learning to think critically about offensive ideas. Without that ability, one can do little to respond to them."

Although the morality of Twain's book is clear, the attacks will probably continue. It is perhaps easier to erase the uncomfortable feelings caused by one particular book than to squarely face what that book exposes--an embarrassing blot on our national history that even today has lingering effects on racial interactions. But this book will not go away. As Albert Bigelow Paine writes in Mark Twain: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Longhorne Clemens, "Huck is ... a boy as Mark Twain had known and in some degree had been. One may pettily pick a flaw here and there in the tale's construction if so minded, but the moral character of Huck himself is not open to criticism. And indeed any criticism of this the greatest of Mark Twain's tales of modern life would be as the mere scratching of the granite of an imperishable structure. Huck Finn is a monument that no puny pecking will destroy. It is built of indestructible blocks of human nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not always agree, we need not fear. Time will blur the incongruities and moss over the mistakes. The edifice will grow more beautiful with the years."

Baudelaire Jones is a dramatist and freelance journalist. For further reading on this subject, he suggests Racism Quotes and Huckleberry Finn Quotes.

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