The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885. It was the first “American” novel: it was the first novel to be written using American regional dialect and vernacular. It is set in the South and is meant to take place in the period before the Civil War, around the 1840s. The book is a satire of the culture of the South and the attitudes of the citizens, particularly in regards to race.
The book tells the adventures of a boy named Huck Finn who escapes from the house of the women who have been caring for him, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, when he overhears that she intends to “sivilize” him, and moves back in with his wayward father. Life with his father is equally unpleasant, so Huck fakes his own death and escapes on a raft down the Mississippi River, where he runs into Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, who has run away after overhearing that Miss Watson planned to sell him downriver, where conditions for slaves were even harsher, because he would bring a price of $800. The two travel along the river together; Jim is trying to make his way up the river into Ohio where he can be free, and Huck has several epiphanies regarding slavery, people, and life in general. The culmination of his change of opinion comes towards the end of the novel, when the two encounter a duo of grifters who attempt to sell Jim as their own and Huck helps Jim escape to freedom, declaring that if it is as wrong as everyone says it is, then he will do what he thinks is right and accept the consequences: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”
The book has come back into public attention lately due to the fervor surrounding a publisher’s wish to remove all of the racially charged language, specifically by changing the word “nigger” to “slave”.
This makes me angry. I don’t like the idea of anyone changing literature without the approval of the author, and Mark Twain has been dead for a century. The publishers who want to change the words are saying that they only have the interest of the children at heart — because The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book that is studied in high schools across the country, it is irresponsible to be teaching them “that word.”
Guess what, publisher — high school kids already know “that word.” It is in rap songs and movies, not to mention about 85% of the conversations that I’ve overheard my students have with one another. “That word” is part of the history of our country. Is it a proud moment in our national conscience? No. Will the hundreds of years that African Americans were regarded as property and treated as less than human suddenly be forgotten if we close our eyes and pretend that it didn’t happen? No.
Is it important that students read a book about a boy their age who has the opportunity to get to know someone and form his own opinions about what is inside a person and determine what he believes is right even though everyone else thinks something else? Is it important for students, in our post-9/11 society, with adults who talk about the fear of a mosque being constructed too near Ground Zero in NYC and talk about the Muslims trying to influence our children and take over the country, to read about a time in our history when a young person decided that discrimination is wrong because we are all the same inside?
Yes. And that is why this book is important.