Lessons of Huckleberry Finn continue to resonate for American lit students

For many years now, controversy has surrounded the book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Twain wrote it during the late 1870s and published it in 1884. Huckleberry Finn is a story about the companionship between Jim, a runaway slave, and Huck, a 13-year-old kid choosing to runaway from his abusive, drunken father. Set in the 1840s in the slave states, the realism and satire Twain writes into the book is where the controversy comes in, with some students and adults suggesting that the book be banned in classes and others thinking otherwise due to the significant moral implications and lessons the story brings to American literature.  Senior Noah White read the book in American Literature to the 1930s class for the first time: “When I first read Huckleberry Finn, I definitely saw why there was controversy about the book, although I was kind of prepared for it. Mr. Slater, our English teacher, explained thoroughly about the realism that the book portrays. He also let us watch a documentary on why people thought the book should be banned and why people wanted the book to be in schools. After watching that, it gave me the opportunity to really think about both ends while reading the book.” When it comes to whether other students should read the book or not, White is highly supportive about the idea: “For me, I found this book important for students to read because of the realism and important literature it brings. The dialogue and words were even spelled differently to portray how people talked back then. The harsh realism of how black people were treated back then in the South was also added. On top of that, the storyline and characters’ plot keeps the readers pulled in with wanting to read more. If I have one thing to tell someone looking into reading the book for the first time, I would tell them that if they are sensitive to the topic of slavery and extreme racism that people of color received back then, do not read the book. Mark Twain, the author, worked over seven years on the book to truly show the realism on how society was back then. He didn’t want his book to be read through rose colored glasses.”

For English teachers, Huckleberry Finn holds key importance to American Literature as a whole today. English teacher, Troy Slater, who has taught at Cedar Falls High School for 22 years, said he takes into careful consideration the controversy surrounding the novel when it comes to presenting Huckleberry Finn to his American Literature to the 1930s students: “This novel must be taught with sensitivity and respect for all human beings, and I work to establish and foster this understanding with my students prior to reading Huck Finn.  All students take their own personal life experiences into any piece of literature. I do not ask for students to feel a certain way. I do ask the students to participate in the learning experience as we navigate the novel, and this includes a Socratic circle discussion about human relationships after completing the novel. Students are given the opportunity to share how they feel about the novel during this large group discussion.” 

Slater emphasized the importance of Huck Finn’s connection to American Literature: “Students, when reading Huck Finn, explore an element of the history of race relations in the United States. Huck Finn, like To Kill A Mockingbird, addresses the human condition and human experience, the positives and the negatives. Both Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird serve as benchmark novels in exploring, discussing, and analyzing one element of race relations in the United States of America during two different time periods. Satire is used by the author, Mark Twain, to expose dark truths about the human experience during the 19th Century. Through Twain’s use of satire, the reader acquires a better understanding of the moral lessons Twain is intending to teach and the realism woven throughout the novel.”  Slater believes Twain’s book has many lessons for students to discover: “My goal as a teacher who uses Huck Finn is for students to develop a greater understanding for the human condition by putting themselves in a specific time period in order to come to terms with how humans treated one another, both positively and negatively, during this time period and how we treat one another today.  Reflecting on America’s past while contemplating the present and looking to the future are at the heart of student growth and the cultivation of young adults as we work to improve the human experience for all.”

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