A week ago I posted an article about the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then provided my own response. Today I read a rebuttal to the original article. I’d love to hear your reactions.
I’ve been thinking about the rueful resignation on the part of the high school English teacher who wrote recently that he could no longer teach “Huckleberry Finn” and several other classic novels because they contained words offensive to minority populations (“Time to update schools’ reading lists,” Jan. 6).
He was sad that the N-word got in the way, but he was sensitive to his students’ feelings and also believed there were equally good contemporary books that were less inflammatory. I taught the novel for almost 25 years in schools in the South, at first in segregated classes and then in schools that were made up of white and black high school juniors. I agree, it’s not a comfortable novel to teach.
In response, one of the P-I readers wrote that when her children brought the novel home from school, she wondered, “Are they still teaching that?” — implying that because it is old, the book is no longer relevant.
Be assured, I’m not one of those old English teachers lined up outside high schools in rocking chairs to protect our youth from contemporary thought. There are many wonderful novels, by men and women, that high school English classes should read together and enjoy.
But there are also several classics they shouldn’t miss. The reason a work of art is labeled classic, after all, is because it speaks to all ages. And sometimes the truths it speaks are harsh and uncomfortable.
“Huckleberry Finn,” the novel Hemingway described as the progenitor of all American fiction, traces the moral development of an adolescent boy on an archetypal journey toward adulthood. That Huck doesn’t actually complete his journey, but at the end “lights out for the territories” away from corrupting civilization is wonderful fodder for classroom discussion.
And that Twain has the immature Huck, as well as the book’s most unenlightened and/or vile characters, use the N- word along the way emphasizes the moral journey that Huck is on. The nature of those who use the word is its greatest indictment.
I personally can’t think of a better book to read with adolescents who are struggling with the concepts of “Otherness,” in a wide context in their lives. The use of the N-word offers the careful teacher a perfect chance to open the discussion.
“Huckleberry Finn” is a tough, rewarding, rollickingly funny, poignant book. It is educational in the classic sense: it deals with immutable truths. I would hate it if my grandchildren were denied the opportunity to read it and discuss it and argue it and challenge it and savor it in a class with other adolescents who are themselves making Huck’s journey.Nancy K. Wiesner lives in Seattle.