Full disclosure: I’m a white guy who grew up in the Bible Belt, Jim Crow South.
Born and reared in Kentucky, I lived on a farm with dairy cattle, corn and hay. Each summer the boy cousins raised a crop of tobacco, nurturing it from plant-bed seedlings in April through harvesting in August. My school gave citizenship awards on the basis of church attendance, and every school day began with class recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I attended all-white schools until racial integration in my junior year of high school in 1964. Before I became friends with Jimmy, the one new black student in my class, the only other black person I regularly came across was Jitney, the shoeshine man in the barber shop where I went with my grandfather. The shop catered to a community of older men, farmers and VFW members — most with chaws of Warren County Twist or Mammoth Cave Twist chewing tobacco in their mouths. They talked, joked, and spit while their hair was cut and their shoes shined, Jitney dodging and weaving between the chairs and the spittoons as he made the shoeshine cloth snap and slide.
I watched. I listened. I absorbed. I understood very few of their jokes and remember only one which was never explained to me at the time: Why doesn’t Santa Claus have children? Because he’s got popcorn balls. Funeral-home calendars with illustrations of beatific guardian angels hung side by side with tractor-supply calendars highlighting the latest John Deere. When I went to the restroom at the back of the shop, I glimpsed other calendars, these featuring women like I had never seen before at church.
After the haircut, I’d walk with my grandfather to Woolworth’s for roasted peanuts and more postage stamps and comic books for my collections, then we’d go to the Fountain Square park in the middle of town. While he whittled, spit and talked with more friends, I read my comics and studied my stamps. No blacks in Woolworth’s. No blacks in the park. No blacks in my comics. No blacks on the stamps. I never saw any signs about water fountains or restrooms or swimming pools, or if I did, it would have been so ordinary, I never thought to question it. The only time I did question, but didn’t pursue it, was when a day laborer came to the farm to help with haying. My grandmother always provided a hot and huge mid-day meal for the workers, and as the men gathered in the kitchen to eat, Sam sat alone on the back porch step. When I asked why, the only explanation given was that colored people prefer it that way.
In high school senior English, we read Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a convoluted novel about babies switched at birth. One boy is born into slavery with just a fraction of black ancestry, so could pass for white, the other born to be master of the house. When switched, each one grows into the other’s social role. It’s essentially a crime novel involving blackmail and murder and the developing technology of fingerprinting. But more than that, it’s a sharp social satire wherein Twain pulverizes small town politics, religious beliefs and systemic racism. Only in retrospect do I now realize that in assigning us this particular book, my English teacher was in her own way subverting the present state of affairs at my school where religion decided status, race determined destiny.
As a boy, I had read both Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, likely some dumbed-down, abbreviated, classic-comic version of both and was mildly amused. But in college I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, this time in my freshman comp class with a focus on literary analysis and historical perspective. Of course, I was predisposed to respond positively to the book because I had such a crush on the professor and later signed up for two more literature classes with her. I was persuaded that when she assigned Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night for the class to read, she was sending me some code. And when she later assigned O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, I was convinced the feelings were reciprocal. There’s no fool like a young fool.
Back to Huck. The book was a revelation in college, and it remains a revelation now. In fact, when anyone asks me what one book every high schooler should read before college, my immediate reply is Huckleberry Finn.
And I will say that it’s a book every American should read too because Huck Finn’s story matters more today than ever before. But I know not everyone feels this way. I get the criticism. I understand the impulse to restrict. I too am nonplussed by the indifferent flinging about of the n-word. I can hardly breathe while characters jostle at the auction to buy and sell other humans with no more concern than if they were buying a bolt of cloth or another head of cattle. It breaks my heart to see the twists Huck goes through to rationalize his intolerance, accepting without question the status quo of his racial superiority.
But then he also twists himself into a clarity of vision and purity of spirit. Floating down the Mississippi River, believing that freeing a slave is an unpardonable sin, yet spending days and weeks with Jim, Huck takes his journey of recognition and redemption that is the journey many of us have traveled.
Leslie Fiedler, prominent American literary critic, once famously wrote an essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" that posits an unspoken homoerotic bond between Huck and Jim. This is perhaps one of the first analyses of American literature through the lens of race, gender and sexuality as he surveyed pairs of men abandoning their women and heading to the uncivilized wilderness.
First published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn was first banned in 1885. It didn't take long for readers to be up in arms.
And this masterpiece continues to this day to appear on the American Library Association’s list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books.
There’s no doubt Twain’s language is difficult to swallow. He was a master of biting, vituperative satire as he delighted in puncturing the posture and pretense of the master race. He spells out this vicious inhumanity by having Pap, Huck’s degenerate father, spew out his dissatisfaction with the “govment” trying to take away his son. Heads up, this is not an easy passage to read:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio — a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane — the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote ag’in…I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?”
But it’s Twain who puts these words into the mouth of one of the most ignorant and despicable characters in all the book — Huck Finn’s father, no less — and careful reading of the text clearly delineates the side of the moral equation that Twain believes we must choose. Just as Huck learns the humanity and moral equivalency between himself and the escaped slave Jim, anyone reading this text comes to the conclusion that all lives matter for sure, but in the time and place of this novel, Twain underscores particularly that it's black lives that matter.
It’s one thing to discuss, to argue, to respectfully disagree about the value of this novel. But to remove this text from school curriculum or from libraries is to remove the opportunity for students of all races and backgrounds to explore this complex book. Such censorship contributes to a system just as reactionary as the one that Twain is forcefully decrying.
Of course, Twain also wrote that famous Notice preceding Chapter One: ”Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot." This novel has all three — motive, moral, plot — and no reader should be denied the pain and pleasure of discovering them all.
I agree with Ernest Hemingway who once commented, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
Read it for the first time, or read it again — just read it.