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Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Monday, May 17, 2010

Manic Monday

What are your thoughts on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? This is a troublesome book. It is a monument, an impediment, a boulder, an obstruction, a conundrum: I cannot come to terms with it. According to Hemingway (and others) the novel is the American novel. And there are passages of great beauty, there is humor, satire, poetry. But there is also that very troublesome word, a word that is like a knife in my heart. And that word appears not once but over two hundred times.

I've tried teaching it and not teaching it and almost teaching it and none of it feels right. One year instead of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn my students did a unit on censorship (which they loved). One of their activities was to interview folks in our school about censorship in general, and about book banning, and about their thoughts on that specific book. Still it was a way around and not through the book.

So here I am again, feeling deep discomfort on account of the students who love the book, the students who hate the book, and those who won't say, but whose eyes I think I can read.

Any thoughts? Is Huck Finn a lesson in morality, and if so, what's the lesson? Is it an unavoidable American classic, avoided at our own peril? Or is it in the end a racist novel?

13 comments:

mel u said...

I would say Huck Finn for the reasons you gave probably should not be taught in public schools as a general readers book-in a context where it can be treated as a cultural document of is time then it can be seen as a great American novel-a question is then can something be a great novel and also be racist?-do the two things exclude each other?

bibliophiliac said...

Mel, you ask a good question, and I don't have a ready answer. As you suggest, I do provide a context for the novel. We preceded Huck Finn with The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, and I have shared with my students my doubts, reservations, and discomforts with the book, most especially with the language.

Brooks1957 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brooks1957 said...

I often think of the passage in which Jim laments the fact that he has beaten his daughter Lisa for what he thinks is her refusal to shut the door. He then discovers the fact that his daughter is deaf and dumb, the result of Scarlet Fever. Of course the reader is aware that Huck has been beaten repeatedly by his abusive father who feels no remorse for his actions. On some level, Huck begins to experience the humanity of a race he has learned to see as inhuman. Moments like these in the novel make it worthwhile to teach to students of all ages and colors. Some of the most powerful teaching moments I have had in the past 23 years in the classroom
are a result of this remarkable novel.

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

I haven't read it in years but I always liked it. For me personally, I am offended by the word in real life but not in literature set in that time period. I understand how it could be a touchy book in school but with a capable teacher it would provide so much enrichment and healthy debate.

bibliophiliac said...

Brooks, your comment illustrates why there is still an argument for teaching this book, and I would guess that you make reading the book an invaluable experience for the student. Thanks for the comment.

Priya Parmar said...

ooh. i have always had trouble with this book. it is a moment of history/sociology/literature/americana all frozen in amber and it is tricky. it is so seminal that it leaves a gap when students proceed without it but i am never sure how to navigate it. i love the idea of studying censorship!

petekarnas said...

I agree with Lesa at Crazy Book Nook. In real life, 2010 a particularly nasty epitaph is horribly offensive. Yet, when teaching literature, part of the challenge is dealing with changing times and social mores. A novel certainly can be a product of its times (for good or for ill) and still be a worthwhile piece of literature. I'll admit that it's been years since I've read this and my memories of the book have dimmed since grade school. But, even at the young age I read it, I do remember being able to understand the differences in eras when it came to language and social attitudes.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I've just re-read THE YEARLING for an after-school book club and was troubled to find the same word lurking there.

Having never taught at the high school level, I don't know what I would have done personally (and have no memory of how my own teacher addressed it). Whatever she said, she kept it all in context for us.

I really love this book and have memories of it making me laugh out loud and keeping me company through a miserable sickness.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

The relationship between Huck and Jim also defies the times and is worth studying.

bibliophiliac said...

Priya, I agree with you about the trickiness of navigating the language and attitudes of the book; also the gap students face when they haven't read the book. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I appreciate the thoughtful quality of each response.

detweilermom said...

I know that I am a little late to this conversation but This is the way I have approached it with my children,(I homeschool and I have all three of my children read this) We talk about how that word is not appropriate in this day and age and we discussion other things that are not appropriate (I personally think of the tv show Mad Men when the one character was pregnant she smoked and drank and they didn't use seat belts out car seats) We then talk about how that language was used pretty commonly back when the book was written and then talk about the bigger picture of the whole book.

SocrMom78 said...

I have always loved this book, not so much for its social context but for the friendship that arises between Huck and Jim. It goes to show that all kinds of people can find common ground. Plus I just love Huck's personality. :)