Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info

Mark Twain's Bad Boy

On its 125th Anniversary, Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the Great American Novels. But like its protagonist, the book has often been in trouble.

By Suzanne Bilyeu

In March 1885, the Library Committee in Concord, Massachusetts, reached a decision: Mark Twain's new book—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—would be banned from the town's public library. The committee was appalled by the author's use of bad grammar and rough language. One member said that "the whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums than it is for respectable people, and it is trash of the veriest sort."

The library's ban made headlines, but Twain was pleased by the uproar. After all, it was free advertising. In a letter to his business partner, the 49-year-old author said that the Concord library had given his latest novel "a rattling tip-top puff that will go into every paper in the country. . . . That will sell us 25,000 copies for sure."

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of Huckleberry Finn in the U.S., and the book is still selling—more than 20 million copies worldwide to date—and still generating controversy. Many scholars consider it a classic of American literature. But it's also been one of the most banned books in the U.S., with some critics calling its depiction of Jim, the Missouri slave who befriends Huck, racist.

Twain himself might have foreseen some of the controversy. In the novel's final paragraph, Huck Finn says, "If I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it." And Twain included a sly warning in the preface to the book: "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 in it will be shot."

"Mark Twain" was actually the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was born in the town of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. As a boy, Twain often visited the slave cabins on his family's farm. He was fascinated by stories told by a slave named Dan, who is thought to be the model for the fictional Jim. (Dan was freed by Twain's father in 1855.)

In 1839, seeking new business opportunities, Twain's father moved the family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port city on the Mississippi River, where Twain spent most of his childhood. The Mississippi, with its steam-powered riverboats, is featured in many of Twain's best-known works, including Huckleberry Finn. And the author's pen name comes from riverboat slang: Workers would call out "mark twain"* to indicate that the water was deep enough for the boat to navigate safely.

Celebrity Endorser

By the time Twain began writing Huckleberry Finn in 1876, he had been a printer, a journalist, and a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. His books, plays, and lectures had made him wildly popular in America and in Europe. In a time before radio, movies, or television, he had become a pop-culture hero and was among America's first celebrity endorsers, lending his name to products like cigars and fountain pens.

During the years that Twain was writing and lecturing, American literature was in transition. It had long been influenced by British writers, and novels were supposed to uplift and inspire the reader. American authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville recounted adventures in which characters set out on heroic quests.

Twain was part of a new generation of "realist" writers. Most of his characters lived in small towns; they talked the way real people did—with regional accents and using slang—and their behavior reflected human shortcomings like bigotry and greed.

But what really sets Huckleberry Finn apart from earlier American literature is that "Twain lets Huck tell the story himself," says Stephen F. Railton, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. "Most previous American fiction uses a narrative voice that is heavily derived from British literature, but since Huck doesn't know those books, his language is in immediate contact with the American environment he describes."

Twain intended Huckleberry Finn to be a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a tale for young boys published in 1876. But he had trouble getting started on Huck's story and put it aside for a while. He wrote a friend that "I like it only tolerably well, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the [manuscript] when it is done."

By the time Twain finished it eight years later, Huckleberry Finn had become something much more complex than a boys' adventure story. Set in the Mississippi River Valley, where Twain grew up, it is told in regional dialect by Huck, a boy in his early teens. (Huck, who first appeared in Tom Sawyer, was based on Tom Blankenship, a boyhood friend of Twain's.)

After Huck escapes his abusive alcoholic father, he meets Jim, a runaway slave. Despite Huck's mixed feelings about helping a slave escape, he joins Jim on a raft trip down the Mississippi River. Huckleberry Finn is very much a coming-of-age story: Through Jim, Huck learns about the dignity of human life.

'Coarseness and Bad Taste'

Huckleberry Finn made its debut in Canada and Great Britain two months earlier than in the United States. (The American edition was held up when printers discovered that a prankster had defaced an illustration with an obscene drawing.)

The book was published in the U.S. in February 1885. The reviews that did come out generally disapproved of what one critic called "coarseness and bad taste." Others thought that Huck Finn, who cursed and skipped school, set a bad example for young readers. But the book sold well, despite (or perhaps because of) the negative reviews.

It took some time before the literary value of Huckleberry Finn was fully appreciated. But by the mid-20th century, many prominent scholars agreed that it was a groundbreaking masterpiece. In 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote that "all modern American literature" comes from Huckleberry Finn. The novel has now been read by millions of people worldwide and translated into more than 60 languages. But the controversy has never gone away.

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, many blacks began to voice their disapproval of Huckleberry Finn, especially when it came to teaching it in public schools. In 1957, objecting to Twain's use of racial epithets and to the portrayal of Jim, who it said was a negative stereotype, the N.A.A.C.P. condemned the book as racist.

Since then, the novel has been banned from many classrooms and libraries across the U.S. As recently as 2007, Huckleberry Finn ranked fifth on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books.

John Wallace, a black educator, called the book "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written." In 1982, he pushed to have Huckleberry Finn removed from, ironically, Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Wallace also campaigned to have the book banned in other schools and published a version with the racial epithets omitted.

But Huck Finn's supporters maintain that it is profoundly anti-racist—that Jim is the most noble figure in the book. Nat Hentoff, a syndicated columnist and free-speech activist, has defended Huckleberry Finn, not only in his writing but also in public debates with Wallace. Hentoff maintains that keeping the book out of classrooms shortchanges students.

"Look at that Huck Finn," he wrote in The Village Voice in 1982. "Reared in racism, like all the white kids in his town. And then, on the river, on the raft with Jim, shucking off that blind ignorance because this runaway slave is the most honest, perceptive, fair-minded man this white boy has ever known. What a book for the children—all the children."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)