The Huck Finn Controversy
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876-1883)
Ernest Hemingway declared that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." T. S. Eliot called it a "masterpiece." Now an accepted part of the American literary canon, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is required reading in over 70 percent of American high schools and is among the most taught works of American literature.
Yet Huck Finn has been in trouble almost continuously since the day it was first published in America in 1885. The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts (in the hometown of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott) immediately banned it as "the veriest trash, suitable only for the slums." A newspaper account described the library's objections to the novel:
The Brooklyn Public Library followed suit in 1905, removing it from the children's room because Huck was a liar who "not only itched, but scratched," was dirty, used terrible grammar, and "said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" By 1907 libraries in Denver, Omaha, and Worcester (Massachusetts) had removed the book because Huck and Tom were "bad" role models. During the 1930s many libraries purchased expurgated or "junior" versions of the novel, which omitted sections and simplified the language.
Over the years the novel has been declared "unfit for children" on a number of counts, but the indictment that has proven most persistent began in 1957, when the NAACP charged that Huck Finn contained "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." Since then, the book has been called "racist trash" for both the pervasive use of the word "nigger" and a portrayal of blacks that some people consider stereotypical and demeaning. It has been removed from reading lists in schools ranging from Texas to Pennsylvania (including, ironically, the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Virginia). Public libraries also continue to deal with requests that the book be removed, although the focus of the controversy has shifted to the classroom.
According to the People for the American Way, the most frequently challenged books in 1995-1996 were the following (listed here in alphabetical order by title). Many of these titles, including Huck Finn, also appear on the list for 1982-1992.
One of the most outspoken opponents of Huck Finn in the 1980s was John Wallace, then a school administrator, who went so far as to rewrite the novel without the word "nigger." He spoke for many of the book's critics when he wrote, in a 1982 Washington Post editorial,
Margo Allen, in an article titled "Huck Finn: Two Generations of Pain" (Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 15, 1984), described her negative experiences with the book:
Champions of the novel reply that it is a satire, a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and prejudice of a society that pretends to honor virtue while condoning slavery. Although state NAACP organizations have supported various protests against the book, the NAACP national headquarters' current position paper states:
Not only is it not racist, says scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, it is
Through the story of a friendship between a white boy and a runaway slave who search for freedom together on a raft down the Mississippi River, Twain explores friendship, loyalty, morality, freedom, race, and America itself. With a "sound heart" triumphing over a "deformed conscience," Huck decides he'll "go to hell" rather than give his friend Jim up to slavery. As writer David Bradley says,