The case against teaching Huckleberry Finn

I wouldn’t recommend teaching Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in high school, especially a majority-black high school in a poor neighborhood.

The book is peppered with the word “nigger” – much more so than Tom Sawyer, for instance – and this is not a trivial concern.  The word causes extreme resentment and hurt among black people; this is a fact a teacher has to deal with.

So why ram Huckleberry Finn down their throats?  Is the point to make the students bow down and show proper respect to the American literary canon?  Or is it to teach them something of value, and, if so, what?

The turning point of Huckleberry Finn is Huck’s decision not to turn in his friend Jim, an escaping slave, even though he has been taught and still believes that it is his duty to turn in a fleeing slave.  My guess is that if I were a black teenager, I would not be greatly impressed with the moral dilemma of a white boy trying to decide whether people like me are fully human.

Nor would I be impressed with Jim, who allows himself to be led by Huck and later Tom Sawyer, young white boys greatly his inferior in age, experience and wisdom.  The question is not whether Mark Twain’s Jim is a realistic depiction of a black slave in the 1850s.  The question is just what it is of value that black high school students are supposed to learn.

The other problem with Huckleberry Finn is its heavy reliance on dialect.  Mark Twain prided himself on being able to reproduce the accents and speech patterns of the different sub-cultures of the Mississippi Valley, with their bad grammar and with mispronunciations reproduced by phonetic spelling.

It is important for black students from poor neighborhoods to learn standard English.  They’ll be handicapped for life if they aren’t.  There are many great classics that are examples of good English.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel fully as great as Huckleberry Finn and it uses excellent English; there are other examples.  If you insist on Mark Twain and a novel with a young central character, how about The Prince and the Pauper? I think poor children in the big city could relate to that encounter of privilege and poverty.

Click on Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Finn’ Eliminates the ‘N’ Word for an article about a new combined edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave.”  I think the intention is good, but the two words don’t mean the same.

Click on The Unspeakable, in Its Jammies for novelist Michael Chabon’s recollections of how he dealt with the language problem while reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to his children at bedtime.

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