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.
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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