A letter to students before reading Huckleberry Finn

by Mr. Sheehy

The following is a little note I wrote for my American literature students as we began to read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a letter I felt compelled to write because I know thoughts like these, felt widely enough to be published in the New York Times, exist and are heart-felt.

Dear Students:

As we begin reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I wanted to share a few thoughts concerning what are some difficult aspects of this particular novel. While I in no way presume to be an expert or scholar regarding the history and the sentiments surrounding this book, as a teacher I have wrestled with the question of whether to read this novel in class. Ultimately I have chosen to have us read the book together, but not without reservation.

Please allow me to share with you a few of my thoughts concerning Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

1. Its place in American literature is high.
Whether a person likes Huck Finn or not, it occupies a revered spot in American letters. It is perhaps the premier example of American humor writing, its use of a first-person narrator is unique and intriguing, and the book, to my mind, has become symbolic beyond what Twain might have had in mind (e.g. – the journey down river as the first American journey story, Huck as a kind of embodiment of the American independent spirit).

2. It’s use of the N word is constant and not easily explained.
Whereas Harper Lee and John Steinbeck clearly reserve the use of this derogatory term within their stories for low-lifes and scum, Twain lets everyone use it, most prominently his narrator, Huck. The term is uttered 214 times, which means in the Penguin edition of the text it appears on average on almost 7 of every 10 pages. There are times when Twain clearly uses the term to turn a joke on his contemporary readers, using their racist attitudes against them, but it is not the case in every instance. Additionally, and related to this concern, Jim’s characterization has been criticized for being stereotypical in the minstrel-show variety. I personally have not read enough about this particular stereotype’s history to comment upon the germaneness of that claim, but the existence of the accusation does itself give me pause.

3. Personally, my view of the novel and Twain’s handling of racial aspects falls into a middle-of-the-road perspective.
In an article I read Robert Fikes shares what I think are two level-headed ways of looking at Twain’s place and handling of race. The perspectives are those of Ralph Ellison and Nikki Giovanni, themselves prominent and revered writers in American literature:

Ellison, who kept a photo of Twain on his desk, admired Huck and Jim’s “compelling image of black and white fraternity” and lauded what he felt was Twain’s salutary influence on black writers, but ultimately found the presentation of Jim “a white man’s inadequate portrait of a slave.”

 Giovanni, when asked if the poet was “excited” about the characterization of Jim, answered:

 “No. I like Twain and think he is one of America’s greatest writers because he chronicled a certain period. Yet he like all writers must be judged from the perspective of his time, which is a very difficult thing to do. Viewing him from a modern standpoint spotlights flaws that in themselves are unacceptable. There are many things that he did not and could not have known in his period.”

Thus, I too believe we should not attempt to give Twain any undo criticism or attempt to shower undo praise on him for his racial views. We  should recall his place in history and read the book for what it is.

4. It is only a book, and it is a concern to me that my African American neighbors or students might find its being taught to be a frustration.
I thought this paragraph from that article I read by Robert Fikes was telling as I believe it describes real and thoughtful perspectives, not just politicized rhetoric:

It was blacks’ overwhelmingly unfortunate experiences with [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn], typically as youthful readers, that has prompted elementary and high schools to quietly delete the book from the curriculum. . . . It still has a number of loyal, well- versed black defenders . . . But so long as a large segment of the nation’s black population feels isolated, vulnerable, and wrongly deprived of their proper status in society, unflattering representations of them, be it in a revered novel or elsewhere, particularly when it appears to mock, belittle, or jest using the most hateful and provocative epithet in the English language, they will persist in confronting the source of their pain. They will not quit challenging [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] until they are somehow convinced it no longer diminishes their humanity.

Taking these things into perspective, then, I press onward with our teaching of the book, but I admit that I do so with a bit of trepidation and concern for our study. I hope you will be aware of the dangers of accepting or perpetuating any idea or characterization that might belittle black Americans, especially since such caricatures can arise from novels like this one. Mark Twain was a great and important writer in American literature, and it is for those reasons we will study him, but he was no perfect man, and I encourage us to be aware of his and our own moral vulnerabilities so that we can be people who uphold rather than diminish the humanity of black Americans.

Sincerely,

Mr. Sheehy

  • Fikes, Robert. “The Black Love-Hate Affair with the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Western Journal of Black Studies 35.4 (2011): 240-5. ProQuest Discovery; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.
  • Reid, Don. “Huck Finn.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 04 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/donreid/6313141075/>.
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