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Cash! All person that have slaves to dispose of, ... 1853.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Controversy at the Heart of a Classic

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been on the list the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books for many years.  The book has also appeared on the AP Literature and Composition test fifteen times between 1980 and 2013. Despite the controversies, the novel has remained a staple in high school literature study because teachers seek to engage students with texts that provoke discussion and questions.  Primary sources from the Library of Congress can help deepen students’ thinking around the issues central to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other literary works.

$200 Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber, on the night of Thursday, the 30th of Sepember, five Negro slaves

Though the novel is named for Huck, his companion Jim, a fugitive from slavery, provokes the strongest reactions from readers.  Some say he is portrayed accurately for a person of his era and circumstances, while others see racial bias in his depiction, which is most often the reason for calls to remove the book from classes and libraries.  Interestingly, Huckleberry Finn was first removed from a library in 1885, just after it was released in the United States.  Read the article with students, focusing on the library’s rationale for removing the novel.  Ask students if they agree or disagree with this rationale.  They should support their reasoning with passages from the novel.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s use of racially charged language.  Start a conversation with students about language using this poster offering a reward for runaway slaves and this advertisement for slave purchase.  Continue the conversation with these two newspaper items from Missouri  and Illinois .  Compare these authentic items with the language Twain uses in reference to Jim and other slaves.  Ask students to consider: Was Twain being realistic?  Why did he use inflammatory language?  Did he have other options? What do you see in the text of the primary sources and the novel to support your ideas?  Discuss Twain’s purpose and audience, though we can only make guesses.

Additional Items and Ideas:

  • Compare this Letter from Frederick Douglass to the man who previously held him in slavery to Jim’s discussions with Huck about his daughter and his family and his hopes for his future in freedom.  Ask students if Twain accurately depicts the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved person.
  • Show students this stereograph of a slave pen to discuss the treatment of enslaved people.  Compare the stereograph to Jim’s view of slavery and this romanticized drawing of enslaved people at work.  With which depiction does Jim’s story most closely align?  Ask again if Mark Twain has accurately described slavery in the novel.
  • Read Frederick Douglass’s speech at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society,  exploring the need for universal suffrage.  Using Douglass’s description of enslaved and freed people as full humans and citizens, ask students to answer the question, was Mark Twain’s portrayal of Jim in line with Douglass’s assertions, or is the portrayal racist as opponents claim?

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Comments (9)

  1. This is one of the best unit resources I’ve seen. I have tried a number of times to teach Huck Finn, but never was satisfied with the unit. This is a great way to integrate LOC resources and Common Core methods with the book.

    I think I’ll try it again. Thanks.

  2. Great post! That Huck Finn has been both banned as racist and hailed as “a hymn to the solidarity of the human race” (William Styron) is part of what makes it such a fascinating and important work to study.
    Love the thought-provoking ways you’ve incorporated primary sources into discussion of the book and was especially excited to discover the Letter from Frederick Douglass. Many thanks!

  3. Huck Finn remains a staple of English classrooms mainly because Twain was a brilliant writer and a potent and keen social observer. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which has it’s own issues of patronizing tone and the like) made a huge mark in history, but as literature, as examination of the human spirit, it can’t hold a candle to Twain.

    In our teacher workshops, we often play an excerpt from a tape recorded slave narrative. (We chose one from Fountain Hughes: The Douglass narrative accomplishes much the same goal.

    We suggest that teachers use the Hughes recording to explore what slavery really meant prior to reading Huck Finn. It was (and remains) much more complicated and the effects more pernicious than those of us who have never experienced it can really imagine. Hughes says about Emancipation, “They turned us out like cattle.” He does not mean it as a metaphor. What an introduction to Twain’s biting satire?

    Twain’s presents slavery without euphemism. What is remarkable is the depth of insight he brings to the subject.

  4. James,
    I am glad you think the idea will be useful when teaching Huck Finn. I would love to hear about how it goes.

  5. I look forward to presenting this unit to teachers attending our upcoming after school continuing education session on TPS with literature connections.

  6. I would like to know more about TPS with literature connections.

  7. Marcella, we’ll keep that in mind as we plan future blog posts. Meanwhile, you might search for “poetry” in this blog for ideas about linking poetry and primary sources. Also, there are a number of lesson plans on the topic of poetry and literature
    Thanks for letting us know what you find useful, and what you’d like to learn more about!

  8. ok

  9. Contextualizing the book is essential, but my real issue with HF is that it is one of so many classics taught in schools that privilege the white male pt. of view. Huck’s view of slavery might mirror the moral quandary a dominant society feels towards its oppressed members-historically and currnetly, but it does not allow the oppressed to tell their own story and mirror a parallel response from the non-dominant society.

    Why not use HF as a supplement to Frederick Douglass than the other way around?

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