Once again Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned by a school. This time it is the Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania where students had complained that the book made them uncomfortable.
You can’t blame folks for wanting to be comfortable. When he’s living with the Widow Douglas, wearing starchy clothes and sitting up straight, Huck longs for his old rags and the barrel he used to sleep in. And freedom. Certainly students sitting in hard plastic desks in fluorescent-lit classrooms can identify with Huck on at least that point. But the freedom Huck knows is a hard freedom, only available to those who are on the outside looking in.
Early on Huck runs away from the Widow, and she sends Tom Sawyer to find him. Tom “hunt[s]” him up and bribes Huck with the promise that he can join Tom’s gang of robbers if he will “come back and be respectable.” Huck spends the rest of the novel becoming acquainted with respectable robbers, the most respectable of whom are the “kings” of the South, the slaveholders. To understand that Twain invites us to think in terms of respectable robbers requires some metaphorical and ironical thinking on our part, and stretching our brains like that can be a little uncomfortable. But extending the idea, as Twain would all his life, to see clearly that those most respectable in a society are often its most guilty is a very uncomfortable idea. It can turn our ideas about “society” upside down and even make us feel like we are suddenly on the outside looking in. That’s a lonely and uncomfortable place to be.
Important literature not only confronts the uncomfortable, it makes us uncomfortable, and love it or hate it Huck Finn is important. I do not mean important literature is any writing that offends or disgusts. Rather, that the books most worth reading are the ones that show us the lies that we take for truths and the truths that we would rather not think about. A book published in the North in the 1880’s that attacks slavery would hardly be provocative in its own time, let alone ours. But Huck Finn did offend in its own time, not on racial but on religious grounds. After all, Huck–after wrestling with his law-abiding, pro-slavery conscience–vows that rather than turn in Jim he will voluntarily go to hell for helping him escape slavery. The book was also offensive on linguistic grounds, its uneducated dialect belonging not only to characters but to the narrative voice itself. It was a revolutionary move on Twain’s part, and it made people uncomfortable. But we all know what makes the book uncomfortable for today’s students, parents and school administrators.
The N-word. A word so potent that we must not speak it but only refer to it, the way believers in some religions may not speak the name of god. That word is all over Huckleberry Finn. It makes us uncomfortable. But why does it make us uncomfortable? Isn’t it just part of the social furniture of the nineteenth century, like steamboats and church picnics? It makes us uncomfortable because it shows one of the core beliefs of contemporary American society to be a lie: the belief that race relations have gotten better. The comfortable narrative, the one the students and administrators want to live with at the Friends’ school, is that, while things still aren’t perfect, they are a whole lot better than they were when Mark Twain wrote his book. Such people may pretend that the N-word is hurtful because it dredges up a hurtful past. Isn’t it pretty to think so? The truth is that the N-word is alive and well because the United States is still a fundamentally racist country with divisions and contradictions that it still cannot understand. Or stand to look at. If we did want to take a serious look at the social psychology of racism, one good place to start would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Friends’ school has replaced Huck with Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical Narrative of the Life. It is another fine book with important food for thought. It considers the terms and implications of slavery for example, such as the imperative of keeping slaves illiterate. One thing Douglass’ book is not very interested in, however, is racism. You see, as a writer Douglass held back. He was writing for a white audience, and he desperately needed something from that audience. Ultimately that meant he had to flatter his audience, or at the very least keep them comfortable. Further, both as a character and as a man, Douglass is a hero, and it is heroes that school administrators want and students think they want. But as Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo remarks, “Unhappy the country that needs a hero.”
Huck is no hero. He’s a kid. He does a heroically brave thing in vowing to help Jim, but in the last third of the book (Twain’s scathing critique of Reconstruction) he reluctantly helps Tom turn Jim into a plaything for his own fiction-saturated fantasies. To Tom, the consummate insider, the slave Jim is a prop, while to Huck he is a person, a friend. But even Huck is too young, or too dim, to extend Jim’s startling humanity to all slaves. At the end of the novel, Jim relinquishes his very freedom—and his last chance of being united with his wife and children—in order to help the odious Tom, who has been hit in the leg with a bullet. Huck is so moved by Jim’s sacrifice that he utters the highest praise he can think of, which is also the bitterest line in Twain’s novel: “Well then I knowed he was white inside.” Huck has learned nothing. He has not become an abolitionist, and he is still as racist as he was when the story began. He just loves his friend.
By all means ban such a book. Because if you teach Huck Finn, really teach it, you will run the risk of making students think uncomfortable thoughts. You will make some of them angry, and make their parents angry. You will even make some of them unfit to remain obedient insiders, efficient participants in the smooth functioning of things as they are. And as the best teachers will tell you in moments of honesty, that is a lot to have on your conscience.