Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Length: 1173 words (3.4 double-spaced pages)
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Is Huck Finn a masterpiece or an insult? That is the question asked by many parents, teachers, and scholars. When "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was first published, it seemed doomed from the start. With a hero who lies, steals, and uses rough language, parents thought "Huck Finn," as it is commonly called, would corrupt young children. Little did they know that it would be a book that would both revolutionize American literature and be at the center of literary debate (Napierkowski). Many people regard "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as one of the greatest novels in American literature; others think it celebrates racism and should be banned from our schools.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," written by Mark Twain and originally published in 1884, is the story of an interracial friendship between Huck and Jim. Huck, a young white male, was on the run, making his get away down the Mississippi River, away from the life he lived with an abusive father. Jim, an adult black male, was an escaped slave, making the same journey on his way to freedom. Together the pair formed a unique friendship as they experienced adventures on their travels along the Mississippi River. The story of their adventures was written in the language of the time, meaning, among other things that Jim is regularly referred to as "Nigger Jim." It is the use of such "language of the time," specifically the use of the word "nigger," that has caused "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to be one of the ten most banned books in America (Alward).
Ironically, however, it wasn't the language that first led to Huck Finn being banned in Concord, Massachusetts, only a year after the book was published. It was originally banned because the book was thought to be "more geared towards slums, rather than intelligent people" (Walsh).
Censorship is justified for many reasons, and has existed for as long as people have been writing books. "In ancient times, when hand-scribed books existed in only one or few copies, destroying them guaranteed that no one would ever read them" (Mullally). The invention of the printing press, however, complicated censorship efforts. Smashing a few stone tablets no longer brought a book's existence to an end. More formalized "book banning" had to come about; this took place mostly in libraries and public schools. In 1982, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico that "if a book is to be removed, an inquiry must be made as to the motivation and intention of the party calling for its removal. If the party's intention is to deny students access to ideas with which the party disagrees, it is a violation of the First Amendment" (Mullally). Censorship was no longer as easy as it once was.
Despite the passing of time, and the rulings of the court, the debate over Huck Finn still rages. Most of the book's attackers focus on the use of "the N-word." They ask, "How can you ask kids to go home and read the word nigger' 200-something times in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and then except kids to come back to school and not use the word?" (Walsh). They argue "There are a lot better ways to combat racism and all than to use every racially offensive word 6 thousand times in a novel" (Yee). Others suggest that the reason they want Huck Finn banned is because of what they perceive as the degrading depiction of the runaway slave Jim, who "is made to look, act, and sound stupid" (Walsh). It is even stated that "most parents, teachers, administrators would agree that censorship is necessary to maintain a good environment for learning," citing Nazi hate propaganda as an example and then making a correlation to Twain's "racist" language.
Supporters of Twain's work come with many weapons of their own to defend Huck Finn. They make the point that while reading the book, you must remember that Mark Twain was not a racist; he rarely spoke or wrote of race, but when he did it was generally more favorable to blacks than whites. "You must understand what Twain was trying to do with his story; trying to reveal the plight of the slave. And he was doing it with the vernacular of the time" (Kelly). Twain wrote Huck Finn in mindset of Americans during the 19th century, and it is important for readers to see how far we, as Americans, have come since then (Yee). "Huck Finn is a novel that, despite the N-word, portrays great values that should not be overlooked. If we ban Huck Finn, then we are ignoring our history, and racism was a part of our history, whether we like it or not, and reading the book helps us remember the mistakes of our American past" (Yee). It is also argued that banning books often robs students of great literature. "Do we remove Macbeth' because of the murders and witches?" (Kelly). And finally, it is argue that censorship of any kind is an attack on our freedom, freedom that our country was founded upon, freedom that Huck and Jim both sought and found in Twain's novel.
Many people regard "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as one of the greatest novels in American literature; others think it celebrates racism and should be banned from our schools. Regardless of any individual view, it is true that "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" remains a standard of American literature, for better or for worse. "As the book is brought into the limelight by attempts to have it censored, the more popular it will become. It is human nature to desire the forbidden" (Alward). Banned so quickly, only a year after it was published, because it was so controversial, Huck Finn transformed American literature, and the arguments over American literature, in many ways. "Huck Finn was and probably will remain, a lesson in the use of language, of epithets, of slurs and how they can or can't change over time" (Walsh). And the impact they have on us all.
Alward, Mary M. "Suite 101.com." BANNED BOOKS: Should Huckleberry Finn Be Banned?. 13 2001. Creative Marketeam Canada Ltd. 03 Sep. 2005 .
Kelly, Melissa. "Secondary School Educators." Censorship and Book Banning in America. 2005. About.com. 03 Sep. 2005 .
Mullally, Claire. "Libraries & First Amendment." Banned Books. 02 2005. First Amendment Center. 03 Sep. 2005 .
Napierkowski, Mary Rose. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Introduction." eNotes.com. 1998. Novels for Students. 03 Sep. 2005 .
Walsh, Bill. "Media Literacy Review." Huck Finn and the Power of Words. University of Oregon. 03 Sep. 2005 .
Yee, Tiffany. "Do you think "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" should be banned from schools?." Silver Chips Online 05 2005. 03 Sep 2005