Dear Superintendent and School Board:
Amid the current controversy that we are wading through, please allow me to submit an argument in favor of the book in question, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by the clever author Mark Twain. I understand the general concerns of parents and public officials such as yourselves, having read the book myself and examined it thoroughly. Your salient concerns arise from the prevalent use of a demeaning racial slur, i.e. “nigger”, the immoral characterizations, and the coarse vulgarity of the text. However, I assure you that Twain carefully crafted each line of his masterpiece (It took him seven years and a trip down the Mississippi for him to complete it), and utilized these seemingly inappropriate elements in order to create a story with a poignant message.
Twain utilized satire to ridicule the failure of Reconstruction in the South, rampant racism arising from the institution of slavery, and the absurdly dramatic behavior fostered by Romanticism in literature. Thus, for his satire to be effective, the use of “nigger” and immoral characterization were compulsory; Twain’s coarse grammar and diction are a product of his regionalist and realist writing styles, which contribute to the evocation of life on the Mississippi. Twain’s exploration and criticism of slavery and society during The Gilded Age are weighty and complex. Consequently, many have failed to understand the book and have used this as a pretense for banning the book from high school classrooms.
Afi-Odelia Scruggs suggests, in his articles for The Plain Dealer in regards to Brush High School’s banning of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum, that high school students are too immature intellectually and ethically to struggle with the concepts that Twain explores. But having personally read and studied the book, I find nothing racially or ethically offensive, and its concepts are readily ingested without mental dyspepsia. Twain’s book is an endearing tale of a friendship between a boy, who chooses to disregard the prejudices of his society, and a runaway slave named Jim, who is the father figure that Huck never truly had.
Twain includes numerous humorous yet harrowing anecdotes, which reverse the stereotypical paradigms of racism in order to highlight its evil and folly. Moreover, Twain paints racist whites in the lowest and ugliest of lights; consequently elevating the moral conceptions of black, which explains the use of immoral characterizations. For example, Huck’s father is characterized as an abusive, greedy drunk who steals from his own son, so that when Pap Finn uses the word “nigger” the audience recognizes that only those on the lowest rungs of society use the term.
“Nigger” is an emotive word that strikes at the heart of blacks and is feared by many others. However, words have the capacity to adapt to the text and ideas surrounding them, which is the case with Twain’s use of “nigger.” “The Meanings of a Word” by Gloria Naylor centers on her first experience with the derogatory use of “nigger” in third grade. Before the acrimonious child hurled his belittling epithet at young Naylor, she had hardly notice the word “nigger,” despite living in a house where it was used periodically.
Furthermore, Naylor saw “nigger” as a term that had many different meanings often benign or favorable in nature: a term of endearment, a term of respect, a term of manhood. Naylor posits that the meaning of a word is based on a consensus, reached when the word is considered in a specific context. Twain’s use of “nigger” is not casual but intended to be thought provoking. Twain did not intend to offend blacks with its use but rather the opposite. Moreover, he uses “nigger” because it’s integral to the regional depiction of the South, and it’s essential to his satire. For example, the moral fiber of those who call Jim a “nigger” fails in comparison to Jim’s moral fiber.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is undeniably a revolutionary piece of American literature. Ernest Hemmingway asserted that “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.” The enormity of Huckleberry Finn is realized in its departure from English styles; Twain adventures into Southern dialects and his prose is vividly redolent of the Mississippi region. The deviation from the rigid and intellectual diction and his emphasis on the setting created a style that would influence writers of future generations. Twain truly embraced the unique characteristics of America, i.e. space and diversity. By exploring these two concepts he created a masterpiece of realism, which has ostensibly stood the test of time.
Huckleberry Finn is only challenged by those who misunderstand the book’s true message and, ironically, the same groups of people that Twain would satirically ridicule. The significance of Huckleberry Finn will not depreciate as those who criticize and ban the book would hope; it is the watershed of American literature. Thus, quixotic attempts at banning would be futile and ignorant. Please heed my plea to the Board and let Huckleberry Finn‘s literary and cultural value continue to be imparted to students.
A Concerned Student
- Naylor, Gloria. “Mommy, What does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” New Worlds of Literature. Eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1994, 344-47. The Short Synthesis Project. Sebastian Mahfood’s Webpage, 5 January 2004
- Scruggs, Afi-Odelia E. “‘Huck Finn’ Poses Serious Questions.” The Plain Dealer 10 Mar. 1997.
- Tinsley, Jesse. “Schools Study Ban on Book.” The Plain Dealer 7 Mar. 1997.
- Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Topeka: Tom Doherty Associates, 1884.
This article was originally published at suite101.com.